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.