19 August 1998
The many interpretations of my father’s legacy that follow do much to support his creed regarding perception process. That we each got something different from our experience with him is a testament to the scope of his being. What we each got in common was the essence of his spirit.
As I consider the life of my father, and his role in the family, I find myself pondering the true nature of “home”. Was it a place and a particular set of people, or was it simply a feeling of peace within ourselves? While certain others may have accompanied the feeling, did we not each create our own experience of “home?” Can “home” be as much on the way somewhere as it is a specific place – someplace you didn’t necessarily expect to enjoy, but where you happened to be when you experienced this peace within?. . . perhaps in the beautifully manicured garden, but just as likely in the dump you had to pass through on route to it.
In this respect, my father seemed to carry his “home” with him and perhaps this is why people readily felt “at home” in his presence. He did this so well that one could easily forget that he probably felt isolated much of the time. The man who could talk to anybody about anything – bringing bemused smiles and fresh insight – often opted for solitude. The man who showed much generosity and offered pivotal encouragement to others, could be quite ungenerous and critical with respect to himself.
His childhood probably required both that he depend heavily upon himself and that he be able to charm strangers. His experience growing up also made it difficult for him to admit to relying upon anyone. Given all this, however, he showed remarkable flexibility and willingness to evolve.
The Service gave some 35 people the opportunity to reflect, laugh and cry about their experience with Robert Steele. It was a hot and humid afternoon, but trees provided adequate shade. All of the requests that he had outlined in his “In case of death” file folder were honored: my mother and I both played our instruments and the two Richard Wilbur poems were read. My brother and Ellen Levy (one of my father’s absolute favorite students) offered cogent analysis before their readings. Some may remember it, in a way, as Mr. Steele’s Last Class. The one thing we did not provide that Dad would have liked is printed copies of the poems for listeners to study. This booklet remedies that lack – providing not only the poems, but pretty much every word spoken at the Service (and then some). It is offered not only to console those who loved Robert Steele, but to provide perspective for anyone wondering about the impact their lives have on others, or anyone questioning the eternity of their own spirit.
One other related note: While I met Richard Wilbur on two occasions, my father never did. I approached the poet, following a reading he gave in the summer of 1974 in Cummington (where I worked at a nearby camp), and told him of my father’s interest. Wilbur offered his phone number. When Dad next visited, I dialed the number and handed him the receiver, thinking that he would suggest a meeting over coffee with his favorite living poet. Instead my father, as ever, did not want to intrude – saying something to Wilbur about it being best that we not meet our idols. I was disappointed, thinking, “There he goes again, feeling unworthy.” Or was I anxious for the meeting to take place more for my sake than for Dad’s? Perhaps, in spite of self-worth issues, my father was making a valid point. The second time I approached Wilbur was exactly twenty years later after a concert in Charlemont (which I reviewed) of his works set to music. He said he remembered me from before – and I believe that he meant it.
– Jeffry Hamilton Steele, 19 August 1998
16 August 1998
This may be the first time I’ve ever written just to you. It used to be “Dear Mom & Dad” – when I was traveling in England – and most of the time since we’ve just talked on the phone. Since I don’t know where to mail this, I will read it aloud here – for I expect you’re hovering over us all right now, listening intently, not wanting to miss a gathering in your honor of family and dear friends.
I believe that since you’ve been gone you’ve tried leaving messages. Four days after you left the body, Carla and I witnessed an intense double rainbow over the sea from the Atlantic Path. We recalled how you had told Carla, a few months back, that she would be seeing “new colors”. Upon gazing at this spectacle in the sky, we could almost hear you gloat, “Not bad for someone who just got here, eh?” Then you visited my dreams. Like a child homesick the first days at sleep-away camp, perhaps you hadn’t yet made new friends or found those special places that would eventually distract you from thoughts of home.
There was another time – while you were still more or less with us – that you appeared in my dream and seemed to be asking for permission to go and for assurance that we would be OK if you did. As difficult as it was for me to say “yes”, you must have received an answer in the affirmative because you did depart soon after.
The more ill you became in the body, in recent years, the more vulnerable you became emotionally. At first your tears were hard to see: when you were recovering some years back from the knee operation and the final movement of Mahler’s Third played on the radio; when I played “Song of the Fisherman” on your catamaran (Julia was there also) in ChristChurch, England. This was also the last piece you ever requested from me, this past June from your bed.
play “Song of the Fisherman”
Music had a direct line to your feelings, making it impossible to conceal them. Watching your face when you became engaged with it, it was clear you experienced music as deeply as any man who’d ever lived.
As less of your intellect became available to you, soccer on TV became the favorite diversion. And tears came again sometimes when you could not find a game to watch. In moments such as these, I was torn between wanting to be completely present for this good man grappling with his feelings on the one hand, and wanting my dad to keep it together on the other. But by the time you were in the nursing facility, and you sobbed at the conclusion to my reading the “Clear Away” program notes, we had reached a new level: you realizing you had permission to cry without stopping yourself, and my realizing that crying along with you was indeed the only way for me to actually remain present.
On the last of these occasions, you seemed to be addressing people from the past – as though they stood just behind me. With one foot already in the Spirit World – where these apparitions perhaps resided – you repeated, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”
Ever since then, I have had no desire for even a sip of alcohol. Now you probably wouldn’t agree with this, but I was suddenly struck with the feeling that – even though you did not drink heavily (and never before 5 PM) – you had used alcohol to postpone making peace with the past.
Anyway, those moments, when there was nothing left for us but to cry together, were a great gift for a father a son – and I will always remember them. We both could think more clearly after a good cry. I can just imagine the combination of tears and uproarious laughter with which you would respond to everything said here today.
As Gordon Bok’s Saben made a pact between man and boat, so you seemed to make a pact between Spirit and body:
“If you will hold yourself together just a few days more, until we reach the land, I promise you that I’ll take you apart as well as I ever put you together, plank off plank and timber from timber, and you’ll never serve a man again.”
And so, during those final weeks – in spite of how difficult it was for you to focus for any length of time – you managed to remain engaged for the entire show on June 6. Just to enable that experience for you would, in and of itself, have justified all my preparation for “Clear Away”.
Then, as promised, you took the good boat apart.
Your passing brought with it a spiritual and emotional deepening of family bonds. We may have lost you, but gained a new level of connection with each other and with Spirit. Thank you for the conscious and unconscious ways you helped bring that about. An example of the former would be when you gazed out over those gathered for Nancy and Carol’s baby shower, last May, and declared, “There is so much love in this room!” Jonathan may have hinted at his spiritual side in the past – after all, he did sing in one of his songs, “There’s a reason why I’m here and why I bought this gear” – but I especially felt it coming through recently as he sat at your bedside.
Was this, perhaps, the true quest of your life: To be born into it surrounded by people’s pain and to leave it surrounded by people’s love? For those who reached out to help the young Bobby Steele, who saw his goodness and preciousness, your gratitude never lapsed. I hope that you finally figured out that you did not deserve to be neglected as a young person, and that you did deserve to be loved as you were by all of us gathered here today.
Now, while I have your attention, I’d appreciate some specific information. About two weeks before you went into the hospital (it’s strange to date back from an unplanned event) you read me a poem you had apparently only recently discovered, the one about flowers growing by the road. None of us can find this poem – which, judging from the tears you shed at the last line, clearly meant a lot to you – and we therefore cannot read it today. Now, of course, even if you were here you probably wouldn’t remember where you left it. It was not an author I recognized. Did you xerox it from the New Yorker? I wonder if we’ll ever know. Anyway, it described driving past some beautiful flowers having only the moment it takes to speed past in which to appreciate them – concluding that Heaven shares her greatest wonders with those who have the least time to take them in, that even in just driving by we may receive the flowers as deeply as anyone who may have come close enough to smell them, even as deeply as the gardener who may have planted and cared for them. Did you feel, on some level, that you had let life pass without taking the time to breathe it in fully? That there were flowers you wished you’d smelled? Places you would like to have visited? People you would like to have known more closely?
Once you cried to me, saying, “My only happy years were those at Cranbrook, not before, not since.” I pointed out some of the other good times you had spoken of, but I could see why it might be hard to look back favorably when you sense you haven’t much time ahead of you. What was it about Cranbrook anyway? It must be that you had a clear sense of purpose, appreciation from others for your many skills, a feeling of community. But there were a lot of headaches too, if we took time to recall all of it.
Not having seen Cranbrook since 1980, it seems like something out of a dream. But I can certainly recall many good times since. My 34th birthday stands out; we were in ChristChurch with Julia and feasted on a huge fish served whole in a fancy Chinese restaurant. Almost every time you and Carla were together there was a lot of laughter, even when you were bid-ridden. There were many probing and lively hours around the supper table, particularly when there were guests you resonated with. And each time the dementia, as you called it, closed off a part of your mind, another part of your heart would open in response.
You may wish to have completed some monumental work such as getting a book published or an invention marketed, to have more to “show for” your time here. But your legacy is not to be archived on a shelf or pictured in a catalog; it is in the gift you left to every person with whom you spent time. I may have envied my peers for their particular skills or material possessions, but they usually envied me for my parents and family. After a visit to Folly Cove, some friends have commented that in their own families so much energy was spent in the struggle to get along that little was left for the thoughtful exchange of ideas they experienced in my family. And speaking of your accomplishments: if the ability to get a large roomful of hushed people hanging on your every word when you have no idea what you’re going to say next isn’t a major accomplishment, I don’t know what is.
You were always determined to find the newer, better way. You were a pioneer as a parent, as a teacher and as an engineer. I got the strong message that I was not to do things in the same way anyone else had. And while this has been my knee-jerk reaction at times – rather than a carefully considered choice – I do appreciate that you modeled this non-conforming and questioning stance.
Thank you again for bringing us to Cape Ann. You must have had a gut feeling that the area would provide richness for us beyond sheer coastline beauty. But thank you also for balancing our experience here with that at Cranbrook, which provided a nurturing learning environment for all of us that we may not readily have found here at the time.
Thank you for teaching me to write well. I’m not sure how you did this. I must have been in the ninth or tenth grade, and I recall going from being totally frustrated to attaining a level of accomplishment in a matter of a few days, without being taught a single grammatical rule. I guess I was finally receptive and you must have figured out the particular information I needed. Only in studying Spanish did I realize that what I had mastered were things called “noun clause”, “adjective clause” and so forth.
Thanks for giving me an appreciation of things nautical. Although it’s been about a decade since I’ve sailed a boat – last time must have been with you in England – I take pride in the fact that I know how. You preached on the beauty of engineering, whether marine or otherwise, such that I too become engaged with the study of how something has been made and enjoy talking to people about their work with anything mechanical.
Thanks particularly for being able to relax enough about the “Dad role” to be someone to hang out with. I appreciate all the places we visited: Georgian Bay, down to Honduras on the Talamanca, standing outside the Met (after Edna’s wake) until we could procure a pair of tickets to Turandot, and that spur-of-the-moment bus trip to Montreal from where I lived in Newburyport. Although it was somewhat arduous, I appreciated our last trip together, one year ago: the Liberty Ship cruise out of New London.
It was you I first heard require of a group (or class) that no one speaks twice until everyone has spoken once. Nowadays one might think of this technique as having been learned at a personal growth training, but it just came naturally to you. You simply wanted members of a group to get the most from each other, and you respected everyone’s thinking, regardless of age or experience. As much as you liked to tell stories or pontificate, you seemed to derive the most satisfaction from enabling meaningful group process. When you would rate the success of our annual Christmas party, it was always had to do with whether the group was engaged in something together – singing in particular.
Your spirit – as Carla often pointed out – is very strong and continues to be so. Even when you could barely speak, you still chose your words carefully and creatively – as if to say, “I may be in pain, but language can still be enjoyed.” One time when you were in an otherwise disoriented state at the nursing center, you had no trouble advising me on the proper use of “who” and “whom”. Whenever you spoke to one of us on the phone – both recently as well as in the past – you would offer an amusing anecdote, often improvised on nothing more that what you could see out the kitchen window. No physical suffering could keep you from extracting a listener’s smile; in fact, you couldn’t pass up the temptation. Right up until you became unconscious, there was a strong grip in your hand for greeting a visitor and a strong gaze to match. Watching you make transition, I gained a thorough understanding of how distinct the Spirit is from the body. I could feel your spirit departing in stages; but rather than disappear, it simply relocated. Once the corpse remained, it appeared as nothing more than the vehicle you’d rented for this particular 83-year visit to the planet – a vessel now ready for the scrapyard, no longer able to carry your spirit. And I’m counting on that spirit to stick by me. Just keep feeding me those dry one-liners and I’ll know you’re there.
During the period of your last illness, I had loaned you my boombox – and would often leave music on at the conclusion of a visit. Knowing that it would be over in an hour, I would start a CD playing and hope its effect would be healing. At some point during your last two or three days of physical life, a nurse pushed the repeat button – either intentionally or inadvertently – such that the opening plainchant to the Missa Pange Lingua repeated non-stop for 30 or 40 hours. Sung in Latin by the Tallis Scholars, the text spoke of the Christ, but may as aptly apply to you:
“. . . having dwelt in the world
and scattered the seed of the Word,
he concluded in a marvelous manner
his life on earth.”
And didn’t we have fun singing together during your final weeks? I had never seen you so totally engaged in folksongs, moving with the beat and piping in with whatever words you could remember. One was the Bill Staines song, “Down the Road”, where you would echo the chorus line with abandon. Given how much you loved being around people singing together, I hope we can all do a decent job of it for you at the close of this ceremony.
10 June 1998
Although I’d never met them, I had no trouble spotting Billy’s friends and family gathered on the bridge over the tidal stream at Good Harbor beach. As I joined the group, I noticed the metal box containing Billy’s ashes that one of them grimly held. Though she’d never seen me before, Billy’s mother picked me out. “You looked like a guitar player,” she said greeting me with a hug that revealed the source of Billy’s ability despite great struggles to love unconditionally.
I asked one man about his connection to Billy. “He was the only one there for me when everyone else had turned their backs,” he said with that unmasked vulnerability people “in recovery” often exhibit. We worked to hold back tears for the moment we looked each other in the eye.
One man I recognized. “Were you related to Billy?” I opened. “Not by blood, but otherwise yes.” I told about Billy having been in a counseling class I helped teach. “Oh yeah!” he lit up, “Billy raved about that. He used to call me up each time he had another break-through.”
Billy and I had seen little of each other after he’d returned from Georgia. Then one day I was out walking with a man from church who was hailed by another, “See you at Billy’s memorial?” I felt a jolt in my gut that told me which Billy.
This was not a group easily given to ceremony. Glancing downward, I realized that the man who had held the canister was now standing in the water and with hardly a word dumping the ashes from a plastic bag. Upon hitting the stream they became a long white eel, swimming quickly out to sea. I noticed a woman holding a framed poem with Billy’s name at the bottom. “Are you going to read that?” I asked. “You mean out loud?” she replied, looking surprised. “Yes, out loud,” I said.
The poem was about having the innocence of childhood taken away from us. While in our counseling class, Billy had shared that it wouldn’t be much longer before his liver gave out the price to be paid for his years of substance abuse. Although he always tried to put on the best face, I imagine he must have longed to start over again in a child’s body. Another of his poems was read.
With the group still focused, I pulled out my guitar. “I have a song for you and Billy would like you to sing along. He may not have known this song, but I can imagine him singing it when he got into his old car and headed for the job in Georgia. I picture the wind streaming through his hair as he thought of himself making a difference in lives of troubled boys down there. “
Billy’s mother and another woman, perhaps an aunt, did their best to sing looking me straight in the eye much the way my kindergartners used to straining to form new syllables with their mouths while, at the same time, offering the song an open pathway to their hearts. Hearty applause followed, though no one smiled. Billy’s mother led the “Our Father” to close.
From somewhere, I heard Billy’s voice, “Thanks, buddy,” and felt his firm grasp on my shoulder.
The Evolution of Guitara Illuminata
A 27 year chronicle (mostly on technical matters) of events leading up to the release of the CD on Centaur Records. Written for a Boston Classical Guitar Society workshop I gave in November 1997. See related article, written a year later, for their newsletter.
Fall 1970 (age 16)
Having just discovered Renaissance music, I find the New York Pro Musica recording of Missa Pange Lingua in my high school library. I then Xerox the score at the Detroit Public Library along with whatever else they have by Josquin. I later transcribe the final Agnus Dei for two guitars, but not in the most idiomatic key.
I discover the Narváez arrangements of Josquin pieces and transcribe the same Agnus Dei for solo guitar, vihuela tuning allowing me to transpose and finger the music in the style of Narváez. The crossing of voices makes certain places ineffective, however.
I transcribe the entire Pange Lingua Mass for two guitars, transposing it to C# phrygian (after trying other keys). I rehearse and perform it with a friend from Vermont (Richard Ullman).
I make some visits to the Tufts Music Library to listen to recordings and Xerox scores of Josquin, which inspires me to transcribe the motet Magnus es tu, Domine as well as the Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae. I record them -- along with Missa Pange Lingua -- on my cassette four-track with Les Paul electric and Hasselbacher classical guitars. I choose the former for its sustain and for timbrel contrast. I play to a variable click track created on the computer.
I come across the acoustic steel-string my brother built years ago and decide it would sound warmer than the electric. I try recording at an old friend's studio (on an ADAT) but decide the medium is too unwieldy and the time he can give me too limited. I purchase the Roland VS-880 Hard Disk Recorder (the first one the store receives) and record Pange Lingua on it. I also buy the Tascam DA-20 DAT Recorder for mastering. Based on previous multi-tracking experience, I program a complex tempo map, providing metronome clicks that change tempo, and correlate actual measure numbers with measures shown in the VS-880 display. [In retrospect, this wasn't worth the trouble]. Having also bought an AT4031 microphone, I use a blend of it and the bridge pick-up of each guitar (the latter going through a Baggs pre-amp), through a Rolls mixer and an Alesis compressor (the mic by itself sounding somewhat thin). I use chorusing on the steel-string guitar. I give the first "solo" live performance, using the VS-880 to play back the second guitar through a 2-speaker sound system, monitoring the clicks over a single earphone.
I set up an isolation booth in a closet and record the entire Guitara Illuminata album, which now includes another chanson and motet. The noise of the hard disk makes it necessary to cover the VS-880 with a sleeping bag while tracking. A defect in the Auto-punch feature messes up many takes (this is remedied when the music store can finally procure a replacement unit). I continue to use the Les Paul for one chanson, because of its sustain, but RFI interference requires me to play it lying on my back. Mixdown is automated using a Korg M1 sequencer, which is clumsy but dependable -- each song on the M1 being limited to 250 measures. (The Powerbook I bought to replace my stolen Atari refuses to work with a MIDI interface, which I take as a divine message that I am not meant to be using MIDI anymore). All tempo and mix data is written out on paper as a back-up. I send cassette copies to a producer in Los Angeles -- who calls to encourage me but offers no specific contacts -- and to many independent record companies. I receive another encouraging call from Jon Marks, though he does not put out guitar music.
Ken Selcer dubs cassettes and prints inserts for me so I can begin selling the tape at concerts. I meet Frank Wallace at the Boston Classical Guitar Society "Mini-Fest" who gives me the idea of Centaur Records and the president, Victor's, number. After receiving the tape, Victor calls to say he would put out Guitara Illuminata at a cost, to me, of $3000. I hear and read about Thomastik rope-core steel strings and get some for my Cone classical guitar. I find the sound more appealing, less twangy and more "Renaissance", than my brother's guitar. By now, I am performing the Mass without monitoring the click track.
I re-record all the steel string parts (including those of the Les Paul) with the new strings, and send this tape around to three more companies. Deciding two moody pieces need an upbeat number between them, I transcribe the Fanfare, using a mute between certain strings fashioned from a rubber strip (as the music was too complex for me to damp strings with my palm, as is usually done to achieve apogado/pizzicato). I make much use of the Track Move feature to correct synchronization errors between guitar tracks. In some instances, I succeed in re-tuning certain notes -- using Compress/Expand -- as the Thomastik strings are difficult to play in tune. I have Ken re-dub the remaining cassettes.
I have grown discontent again with the sound of the album. A magazine article convinces me that a cardioid mic is not the way to record guitars. They do recommend the AT4031, but only as a second mic used at a greater distance than I have been doing. They speak highly of Earthworks omni mics, so I get an OM1 drop-shipped by the NH company, via a retailer, without having even heard one. I experiment with mic placement more than before -- recording on separate tracks the OM1, the AT4031 and the bridge pick-up -- and conclude that the OM1 by itself yields the best sound. It is pointed at a spot on the soundboard just above the 15th fret, only five inches out. Now I can finally hear how much the AT4031 has colored the sound, with its boomy bass and harsh treble.
Having gotten the "VS-expanded" software, I find the "distance" parameter in the Mic Simulator yields a convincing stereo image out of a mono track (more natural than any of the delay or EQ methods for stereo simulation), and that the limiter from the same algorithm can yield a subtle sustain that only affects certain frequencies. The result is more natural and pleasing to my ears than recording in "true" stereo with the OM1 and the AT4031. Using the Aux send and bringing the return through another channel panned away from the source track causes sustained notes to "auto-pan" slightly. Interesting as this last effect is, I eventually shut off the limiter -- saving the idea for another project perhaps. To maintain the harmonic overtones from chorusing on the steel-string guitar without the artificiality, I put the Aux send feed from that channel (via the Aux A output) through a Korg AX30G with a slight pitch-shift and reverb, returning only the wet signal to another input. Thus, only the reverb of the steel-string guitar is detuned. A rich, though not muddy, environment is thereby created from two dry guitar tracks; this music being written originally for church choir, ambience is an important element.
I switch to recording in the Multi-Track 1 mode (instead of the default MT2 mode) because, even though my ears can detect no difference, my brother suggests that the added data compression could cause CD-mastering problems. The purchase of a Zip drive -- offering far more reliable and convenient storage than on a DAT -- allows me to erase whatever I don't need on the internal hard disk.
My booth is now the upstairs bathroom, which is larger than the closet. Its glass door between the shower/toilet and sink areas opens easily so I can position the HDR on the other side of it from the mic. Decibel level of street noise (measured by the peak margin meter of the DA-20) is comparable to the closet. Outside noise is minimized further by the proximity allowance of the Earthworks mic. Towels and other materials are used to absorb sound reflection.
I have dispensed with the variable metronome and simple sit down and play each guitar track until coming to a rest of four beats or more; then I switch to the other guitar, overlapping phrases in this manner until the end of each movement. Although this method introduces new challenges, timing is far more elastic and human than when using the metronome and, surprisingly, I make fewer synchronization errors because I am listening better to the recorded track. Having recorded and mixed the whole project twice previously, I can perceive timing and tuning inaccuracies more readily. The expanded software makes the VS-880 capable of its own auto-mix, so I don't have to deal with the external sequencer. This allows me to create the entire master within the VS-880. I increase the levels of Channels 2 (for the steel-string) or 7 (for the nylon string) during solo guitar passages to balance the image and increase stereo ("distance") simulation [see figure].
[While the above can be an interesting application for guitar duo, my approach to solo guitar recording has become slightly more orthodox, as you may see within my "Producing a Classical Guitar CD" article].
I send a DAT of the newest version to Centaur, and Victor calls to say it is very good but needs the level brought up and the guitars more centered in the stereo field. I ask about hiss; he says it's tolerable. The new Track Level parameter in the VS-880 allows me to increase levels relative to auto-mix settings. I order a $700 Earthworks pre-amp but, as it's no quieter, I return it. I realize now that the OM1's self-noise of 27 db is the culprit. I order an AT4050 mic -- and compare it in a store with many other large diaphragm condensers, all with self-noise of 16-17 db -- but the high end, relative to the OM1, sounds like plastic fingerpicks in every case. So back goes the AT4050. I also order (and actually keep) a dbx 286A mic pre-amp/processor; it cost only $220 and its expander/gate minimizes the OM1 noise. By now I have my own CD burner, but Victor still wants a DAT master because the CD factory has to be more accountable for the final product.
An engineer at Centaur finds a glitch on the DAT so I master another. After much back and forth about printing corrections, finally. . .
My initial order of CDs arrive. Centaur concurrently sends them to radio stations and record stores.
10 January 1998
Producing Your Own Classical Guitar CDs:
(An Ongoing Saga)
As much as I enjoy performing on classical guitar, my major focus in recent years has been on recording. This may seem a backward approach. Aren't we first supposed to make our name as concert artists and then hope major record labels will start calling us up offering contracts? I'm not waiting around. To quote a Phil Ochs song, "If I've got something to say, sir, I'm going to say it now!"
Apart from one CD which is on Centaur Records and distributed by them, I sell my CDs at concerts and on the Web. But at this time, rather than focus on how to get more people actually buying my recordings, I prefer to start the next recording project -- a process which has taught me more as a musician than any lessons I have taken.
To go at your own pace, on your own schedule and with a thorough knowledge of the equipment at hand, one needs a recording set-up at home. For Guitara Illuminata: The Music of Josquin des Préz, I knew I would need a multi-track unit (as I would be playing each of two guitar parts). I called a music store and the salesman told me I should check out the new Roland VS-880 8-track hard-disk recorder, which he had just seen at a trade show. He described it as "wicked stupid" which, in case you don't know, is a high compliment from someone born in the mid-1970s. Selling for $2000, it was one of the first such recorders to have adequate storage (or track minutes) for a whole guitar duet album. I bought the first one he could get in, which included the internal digital effects board (another $250). This earliest version of the operating system was still a little wet behind the ears. The newest version, the VS-880EX, now sells for $1750 and includes everything I had to subsequently pay extra for (which totaled $2750!). Upgrades for the VS-880 are issued on Zip disks. This caused me to buy a Zip drive which plugs into the VS-880's SCSI port at a computer store, giving me a reliable way to store audio data from off of the hard disk. (The alternative storage method, using a DAT recorder, took forever and was not reliable). In fact, you may record directly to a Zip disk (though its 100 MB capacity doesn't buy you much time).
At this time I also charged up a DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorder (the Tascam DA-20) for mastering. DAT recorders can work with different "sampling rates", but CDs only use one: 44.1 KHz. In addition to recording the master tape, this unit came in handy for combining tracks created in separate "songs" (the basic level of organization on the VS-880) into one continuous album, without leaving the digital domain.
The more I made use of the VS-880's digital editing capability, the more I depended on it. It allowed me to record much as Glenn Gould is said to have, seamlessly splicing together the best of sometimes many takes. Some may say this is cheating, but the process did much to shape my concept for each piece which enhanced my live performance in a way that hours of simply practicing could not. I also found myself taking more risks as a player, my performance not becoming too "careful" out of fear of making mistakes.
There are now many other stand-alone hard-disk units to choose from. I would not recommend the Mini-Disc recorders for CD-quality classical music. There are also many hard-disk systems based around your computer, that function in more or less the same way but often without the dedicated hardware interface. If you hope to release CDs of your live unedited performance, however, you may be able to get by with a simple stereo DAT recorder like the portable Tascam unit that has mic inputs and one or two good microphones. But be advised that even a note-perfect live performance will require digital editing for professional results.
Unless you're going to do extensive soundproofing, you need to record in a space without exterior walls. I use the upstairs bathroom, adding ambience digitally (via the above mentioned internal effects) .It's easier to make clean edits when the ambience is not recorded with the guitar so you're not editing out the reverb "tail" of any note that you are grafting onto another.
Another advantage to digital reverb is that you can put off deciding how much of it to use until final mixdown. The president of Stedman (whose mic is described below) complemented me on the natural ambience heard on my "Clear Away" CD; he was surprised to learn that most of it was digital reverb. Eric of Earthworks (another microphone company) scoffed at digital reverb as being nothing more than a series of echoes, unable to match the complexity of the real thing. But if you listen carefully to the sound of a space that you like, you can emulate many of its characteristics with the digital reverb's parameters. In particular, I found it effective to cut the low end of the reverb's "wet" signal quite a bit. My ambition is to someday fool even Eric. Some engineers have captured natural reverb by playing the final mix over speakers in a space of their choice (at, say, 6 AM, before traffic begins), recording the reflections along with the original track. Of course, if you're the kind of guitarist who can walk into that same space and play a note-perfect performance before a plane passes or the garbage trucks make their rounds all the better.
In addition to a quality pair of headphones, one needs a pair of near-field (you're meant to sit close to them) "reference monitor" speakers. I bought the Alesis Point Sevens, being the least expensive option; I also figured I didn't need the "low end" of larger speakers for mixing a guitar CD. In retrospect, I would say this is almost true as I do hear more of my recorded guitar since adding a powered subwoofer.
To get the signal from any quality microphone into the recorder one needs a mic pre-amp with phantom power. This is not a good place to scrimp, as the first one I ordered ended up being too noisy though it took my ears a few months to fully perceive it.
I started out with an Audio-Technica 4031 small-diaphragm condenser mic. Though "recommended" for guitar I would say in retrospect that purchasing this $300 mic for recording was a mistake. After a period of time I noticed it was boomy in the bass, harsh in the treble and put out too much of its own hiss. It has redeemed itself as a live mic, however. [When I need amplification in concert, by the way, I use a combination of a saddle pick-up and external mic. Internal mics don't cut it to my ears].
My next microphone was an Earthworks. Advertised as the only mic for under $1000 that doesn't "smear time", the Earthworks OM-1 uses a very small diaphragm that comes to rest for more quickly than many more expensive mics, making its reproduction far more accurate particularly noticeable to me in the upper range. It being omnidirectional (Hears in All Directions) means that it doesn't get boomy when placed close to the guitar (our ears are also omnidirectional, by the way). I got mine drop-shipped direct via a retailer in Wellesley for a total of $400. Although it meant re-recording the whole project, I've never regretted in the long run having to do this (even when I lost most of a subsequent project through a system error), as many improvements will suggest themselves.
While the Earthworks mic made a significant improvement in the sound, after a while I began to realize that its self-noise was just as bad as that of the AT4031. I sought advice from Centaur's president and concluded that the least I could spend on a quieter mic that sounded as true as the OM-1 would be $1200. My testing of a number of well-known studio mics (costing between $350 and $950) confirmed this assessment; they all (including the famous AKG-414) made my fingernails sound like plastic picks. Feeling I couldn't afford the $1200 (it's somewhat inconsistent the role that "feelings" play here), I tried other pre-amps that might minimize the OM-1's noise settling on the dbx 286A single-channel preamp/processor for $220. Its Expander/Gate feature cut the noise in gradations such that it became far less noticeable. I also found its built-in Compressor and De-esser useful the latter attenuating shift squeaks somewhat. It is easy as well, on the VS-880, to edit out any noise between pieces with precision. I used this set-up to record the Voice of Creation CD. To simulate stereo miking, I used the "distance" effect available on the VS-880, panning its "return" away from the original signal. [See diagram in "Evolution" article]. Another method for simulating stereo miking of guitar has been described by author/musician Craig Anderton, involving high and low cut EQ and two 5 ms (millisecond) delay lines.
I sent a copy of the CD (how it became a CD so quickly, I'll get to later) to Earthworks. They called to say they were impressed with the playing and asked if I would do some test recordings for them in return for one of their new mics, the QTC-1 "quiet omni". So I drove up to their southern NH factory to pick up the fancy equipment they wanted used in the recordings.
In the meantime I was contacted by a local recording engineer who wanted experience recording classical guitar; he was happy with a copy of each CD as payment for recording my next local performance. From his arsenal of high-end mics we settled on a pair of Neumann 130s. They sounded very good but I still couldn't see going into debt over them. At a subsequent session, however, he pulled out a pair of Stedman C-15s. My head told me they shouldn't have been good for guitar: large diaphragm (which are most commonly used for vocals) and cardioid (Hears in One Direction generally too boomy for close miking of guitar). But my ears told me otherwise; and I was floored to learn that these mics went for only $400 each. He loaned me the pair to compare with the pair of QTC-1s Earthworks had loaned me. While I would recommend either of these pairs of mics to a classical guitarist (the Earthworks particularly when you want to capture all the ambience of your recording space), I concluded that the Stedmans sounded warmer. The QTC-1 costing twice as much (as either the Stedman or Earthwork's earlier OM-1) made the C-15, which is also a bit quieter, a better value. I ordered a matched pair of the Stedmans from the same Wellesley retailer. (After all, I had a free QTC-1 coming anyway). My engineer friend has since informed me that a new mic by Shure (KSM32) sounds comparable to the Stedman (to his ears).
One problem with a sensitive large-diaphragm condenser mic is its vulnerability to moisture; and a spell of hot humid summer days soon caused one of the Stedmans to malfunction. The president of that company was very responsive. At first he replaced the electronics of the mic, which probably wasn't necessary. He explained to me that excessive humidity would cause problems not just for his microphones, but eventually for disk drives and potentiometers (the knobs and sliders on your stereo) as well. Large diaphragm condensers are just "the canary in the coal mine", as it were. A few weeks after I had brought down my humidity (alternating between a dehumidifier and an air conditioner) the mic returned to normal functioning. The lower humidity also enhanced my ability to concentrate.
Mic position (mono)
I decided the best position for the mic was pointing at the soundboard two inches north of the fifteenth fret, about six inches out. When you record up close with sensitive equipment, you often find out for the first time about extra-musical noises you make: squeaks from chair or footstool, breathing, subtle tongue/saliva swishes, even the cracking of joints.
At the same time, every nuance you give the music will also be rendered with detail; and you can count on better sustain of voices than when recording from a greater distance. Of course, this method is not about capturing the audience's perspective, which is quite a bit further from the instrument. But the further back you go, the more you must increase the gain, and your pianissimo will be competing with mic hiss and environment noise. Most classical recordings try to capture the feeling of Being There, but let's face it: they're not "there" and neither are you.
If you record with a lot of ambience (natural or digital), those listening in ambient spaces are hearing the effect compounded. I'm reminded of that whenever I see my music is being choreographed in the dance studio. Artur Rubinstein wrote, on the back of his album "The Brahms I Love", that he preferred hearing the pieces through a stereo at home -- a more intimate place in listeners' lives -- over attending a performance in a concert hall. You're trying to convey the depth of your art through someone's car stereo, clock radio, living room speakers or Walkman headphones. I feel it's our choice what works best to that end even though many well-qualified people would argue against close-miking.
You may need to re-finger certain passages to minimize squeaks on the wound strings. I discovered "back buzz" on one guitar, requiring the insertion of a thin plastic shim under the sixth string at the nut, and a third string buzz on another guitar requiring a similar solution.
One also must focus in on whether a cut in EQ is required at any frequency. After determining that the mic's position is not the problem (you're generally asking for trouble if you point a mic at the soundhole, for example), listen for any notes that may pop out and calculate their frequency in cycles-per-second (a.k.a. Hz). In standard tuning, the open strings have the following frequencies: 1 - 330 Hz, 2 - 248 Hz, 3 - 202 Hz, 4 - 146 Hz, 5 - 110 Hz, 6 - 83 Hz. The VS-880 has a pretty capable EQ section that can be applied either before or after recording a track. You also may want to record through a Compressor/Limiter, so you can keep the signal pretty hot without distorting on a big chord but some purists prefer to simply keep the overall level set lower.
Even for just a solo guitar recording, levels between pieces, and often within pieces, will need to be evened out. Hard as you might try, there will always be takes when you sat in a slightly different position relative to the mic(s) -- for which you will need to compensate. The VS-880 offers automated mixing, either within itself or via MIDI from a computer sequencer. I use the latter approach -- since I have the interface and the software -- as it allows me to basically replicate the VS-880 internal mixer on the computer screen and program fades, level changes or effects parameters. Should you record the audio itself onto a computer-based system, mixdown and editing are even easier -- as every parameter may be varied from one screen rather than from two units operating in synch. In the big leagues, specialized Mastering Engineers are utilized at this point to optimize the recording so that it sounds its best on the various playback devices it will be heard through.
"Burning" a CD
The next upgrade available for the VS-880 was the capability to physically manifest CDs, via new software and compatibly designed CD-R recorder. I remastered two earlier albums of mine (from DAT), thrilled to finally hear them reproduced through CD players with the clarity they had lost in their previous life as cassettes.
We call it "burning" a CD because -- unlike tape that has its magnetic particles temporarily aligned in accordance with the audio signal it records -- a CD is etched permanently with tiny indentations that are read by a laser beam on playback -- an irreversible process. Having the ability to burn CDs directly from the VS-880 obviates the need for a DAT recorder -- as most CD replicators prefer a CD master to a DAT and will charge you less when you can provide it. Digital Audio Tape is a somewhat fallible medium, one glitch in the tape and you’ve got to remaster on a fresh one.
The great thing about burning your own is how you can make changes -- after listening to the CD in a variety of settings or after getting feedback from others -- before shelling out for a package of 1000 from one of the many companies offering this service. The disadvantage is in the time it takes. For an hour CD, the VS-880 spends two hours writing an "image file" and then half an hour on each CD (so long as you’re present to keep feeding CD-R blanks into the CD recorder). Occasionally, you get a defective disc, or accidentally jostle the sensitive unit, which requires you to start the whole process again. Add to that the time its takes to print and cut the inserts and stick on the donut-shapes labels. Ironically, you don’t save any money doing it yourself when compared with the per-CD rate available when you commit to a factory run of 1000. But this also depends on the price you can get the CD-R blanks for.
Even without a professional sound card for your computer, you can take advantage of a computer-based system by importing tracks from a CD you’ve burned on the VS-880, mastering them there with digital audio software (saving them as WAV or AIF files), and burning the finished CD directly from the computer. This last process is much faster on a computer than with the VS-880 as you don’t have to wait for an image file to be created. You can also use audio editing software, once your sound files are in the computer, to even out levels, reorder tracks, etc. I use Peak LE, which I purchased for only $50.
Stereo Miking & A Bargain
Now, with the larger drive, I had plenty of track-minutes to record a true stereo guitar album. Needing at least two quiet pre-amps, I ended up purchasing a small Mackie mixer, which -- in addition to other important features -- offered four. In fact, now I had what would be needed to record a CD of Modern Dance drama "Clear Away: A Fisherman’s Farewell", which I had scored for 11 musicians.
In recent months I came across a microphone bargain that you should all know about: the Oktava 012 small-diaphragm condenser from Russia. I found them new for only $150 each (rubles, anyone?) and they sound indistinguishable from the Neumann 130s [$1200 each — referred to in Part 2]! Humidity doesn’t bother them in the least; and they are quiet.
In stereo miking, one runs the risk of phase cancellation -- making you sound brittle and sometimes even out of tune. My understanding is that so long as you keep the two mics panned hard right and left, you’re OK. But when you bring the image toward the center of the stereo field -- or make it monaural, as will happen on a mono unit such as a TV -- frequencies common to the left and right can cancel each other out. One can avoid phase cancellation by placing the diaphragms directly over one another, at an angle between 90° and 120°. Doing this with clunky large-diaphragm mics requires the top mic to be positioned upside-down. [See further discussion of stereo miking in the 8/98 issue of Recording]. Unlike the mono omni mic position I referred to in Part 2, I place my pair of cardioids at least a foot away from the instrument, making sure that neither points directly at the soundhole. Many professionals go further back, to pick up room ambience.
I hope you’ve found most of the above useful in some way. I intend to continue experimenting with many of the possibilities I have referred to -- including the note-perfect first take in an ambient space at 6 AM. May your own projects be blessed.
Most of us musicians can recall a moment, or series of moments, as a young person when we vowed to make music a large part of our lives. So moved were we with the power of a performance, or the encouragement of a teacher, that we committed ourselves to the purchase of an instrument, daily practice and perhaps weekly lessons. In essence we began a relationship which like a romantic relationship would have many stages to undergo before maturing (infatuation, conflict, compromise, growth of the individual). For some of us it may have been an arranged marriage, dragged to lessons as a child and developing our proficiency in the spirit of obedience.
A lot of us may have taken up the guitar, for example, because we fantasized becoming rock stars. We may have felt a lack of love in our environment and concluded subconsciously that the best way to get love was to get good on guitar. After all, we idolized our guitar-heroes; didn't it follow that we would in turn be idolized if we made it big? Though a misguided endeavor, it was our best thinking at the time. It got us going. Simultaneously, we were moved by the power of the music we heard on guitar, and so were also drawn to learn to play out of our God-given instinct to express ourselves.
But until we fully transform the ego-driven portion of our musical psyche into a selfless desire to give to the world, or until we heal whatever other hurts went into our decision to become musicians, it will be reflected in how we play.
The sign of a mature, self-actualized musician is effortless playing of great expression. Anything beyond that usually signals unresolved childhood hurts that somehow got attached to music making. Exaggerated gestures, unrequired tightening of muscles (in face as well as hands/arms) appear to result from a lingering need to "prove" oneself perhaps to a chronically dissatisfied parent. Similarly, messages received about somehow not "being enough" for just being you, manifest in musical performance through major alterations of a piece, special effects, etc. all for the sake of being distinctive.
Whether it be creating our own music or interpreting that of others, we need to constantly be listening. Is the inflection I'm giving here what the notes are truly asking for? Am I slowing the tempo here for the sake of the music or because I heard so-and-so do it like this?
These are my opening thoughts on the subject. WHAT DO YOU THINK IT MEANS TO BE HONEST AS A MUSICIAN?