Wexford Carol Arranging

The Wexford Carol dates back to the 12th century from Wexford County, Ireland. I was first introduced to it on a little-known indie Christmas project called Blues for the Child. Originally I had planned on this being part of a larger medley of Renaissance carols, but it never really fit with the others I had picked. The major key and lilting 9/8 feel of this song didn’t mesh well.

I tend to do a lot of my best conceptual arranging when galavanting about the countryside for work performing inspections of signs, markings and other traffic control devices (for which I am responsible in my little corner of Virginia). While musing on the music one afternoon on a back road deep in Sussex County I realized that Wexford Carol would mesh quite nicely with The Holly and the Ivy, which dates from some 600 years later.

After a short piano intro the piece opens with a hammered dulcimer and recorder duet. I immediately mess with the time signature by lopping an 8th note off of the end of each measure, leaving a (3+3+2)/8 rather than 9/8 meter. The A section is restated with a low-register cello counter-melody and for the B section I trade the hammered dulcimer back for the piano.

Bodhran Drum

At the end of the first time through the song we change key and shift to a more lilting 6/8 feel, switching to a very Irish ensemble of pennywhistle, mandolin and bodhran. In the B section a string pad is added. Note that as the piece continues elements are constantly being added or removed at key points. This is an arranging technique that I have heard from numerous teachers and I find it very effective. However, it can’t be done without intention, and each element that is added or subtracted must be done for a musical reason.

Now that we have heard the Wexford Carol twice through, I switch the meter from 6/8 (1-2-3 1-2-3) to 3/4 (1 and 2 and 3 and) and bring the piano back, accompanying the hammered dulcimer on the melody. The cello joins half-way through the first verse.

The second verse doesn’t change instrumentation (aside from adding the string pad back in) but does change the harmonies significantly. The first time through is extremely simple, with the harmonies trading back and forth between two chords in an ostinato pattern throughout the verse. In the second verse the chords become much more complex, almost verging on a light jazz feel.

From here we transition into a section that came directly from my back road travels. The music trades between phrases from the two songs in a very ethereal setting. I wanted less “clean” instruments, too, to emphasize the nature of this segment. After much trial and error the Wexford Carol melody is played by a bansuri – a Japanese flute with a breathy sound. At first I thought I was stuck with my same old hammered dulcimer for the Holly and the Ivy part, but I recently downloaded a free sample pack of traditional Korean instruments that I learned about from an episode of the Samplecast.

Yanggeum Player

The Yanggeum, which is essentially a Korean hammered dulcimer, was exactly what I was looking for.

After this “mash-up” section I restate the lead in a soaring finale with pennywhistle (in it’s high register), piano, cello and strings, finally bringing it all down for a short restatement of the melody from the Holly and the Ivy with piano and dulcimer.

So far on this project as I’ve finished writing and arranging a piece I’ve been so enthused about another piece that I’ve moved immediately to writing and arranging the new one. This time I’ve decided that it’s time for me to start releasing some music, so I’m going to go ahead and move directly into recording Wexford Carol. Hopefully I will have it out before Christmas and will, of course, do a full write-up on it here. Until then, thank you for your patience.

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Recording Session: Choir

What a morning! So, I had the pleasure this past Saturday morning of finally recording one of my pieces for Moments of Comfort and Joy. Since my home studio has been shared with various children both natural and exchange for the last 14 months, I haven’t been able to have anyone in to record. I have also not recorded myself because I want to video it and haven’t had a neat enough space to do that in. This fall when my daughter goes back to college my plan is to do quite a bit of catch-up recording.

In several earlier posts I mentioned working with the Shedd family – first to record a recital and then to record, edit and mix a classical arrangement of Amazing Grace for use in a pageant. We had an arrangement where the Amazing Grace recording would be bartered for their help in putting together the choir for Midwinter Rose and provide the harpist in the person of their daughter (who is my daughter’s harp teacher and leaving in a week or two to start college as a harp performance major).


We met at what has become our favorite classical recording spot – their church. The harp arrived at 9:00 and I busied myself setting everything up. Once she was in tune I experimented with mic placement.

The last time we recorded she suggested mic’ing just from the back (and I had a limited mic count at that time). When I mixed that recording I decided that placing the mic there didn’t leave enough transient in the recording, and as a result the instrument had a hard time standing out in the mix. As a plucked instrument, not having enough attack is a problem. Mixing Amazing Grace I decided that when I recorded harp again (for I was already thinking of this event) I would use two mics – one in back like before and a second in front.

The picture above shows the mic placement in the back. The harpists father was acting as page turner and also helping her interpret the music (she had an absolutely crazy couple of weeks leading up to the recording, but we had to get it in before she left for school).

The second photo shows where I placed the front mic, up and slightly to the side. The rear mic is my Monoprice 600850, which has turned out to be a wonderful, clean, accurate mic. Considering I picked it up on clearance for $100 I consider it a real steal! Unfortunately it is so heavy that I have to be careful with setup. I also ran into a problem this time with the shock mount. The mic screws to the mount rather than slipping in, and when the screw bottoms out the mic is not facing forward! As such, I had to leave the mic slightly loose, which only added to the instability.

The front mic is my Avantone CK-1 small diaphragm condenser – perfect for capturing the attack of the notes and also a notably clean mic. In the past I’ve forgone noise reduction even for delicate classical recordings because this mic just hasn’t needed it.

For the choir I borrowed some Audix choir mics from my church. We don’t actually use them anymore because the platform is too loud and the omni mics pick up too much platform noise. Now when we have choir we just use some cardioid stage condensers similar to these (sorry that I don’t know the model) on stands.

I set up three for my seven choir members (2 each sopranos, altos and tenors and one bass). I arranged the singers until I had a good balance of tone and precisely one hour after I arrived at the church we began recording.


Well, not actually. While we did have one rehearsal, that evening the harpist was still returning from her freshman orientation at school, so this was the first time we all were playing it together, and we did make some decisions regarding tempi and feel at that rehearsal. All those things had to be communicated to her and worked out and therefore we spent the first hour rehearsing. We worked through a section of the song at a time until everything had been covered.

For recording, my intention was to make several complete passes through the song, choose the best take and then overdub the choir one or two more times. Like many plans, this one had to be flexible. We really struggled getting all the way through the song with a solid take.

In the end, we just recorded until either there was an error or we hit the end of section. Working this way through also had the advantage of letting me comment on dynamics and feel issues as they came up, rather than having to remember them (me until the end of the take and them once we got to it again the next take). Given the recording environment and conditions, this worked out really effectively and I got well enough material to put together the entire song.

I hadn’t conducted since college back in the early 90’s (I won’t say how early). I had forgotten how much fun it can be, especially with attentive, responsive musicians, and especially when conducting one’s own music. What I didn’t expect was how sore my right shoulder would be after two hours straight with the baton in the air.

Final Thoughts

I’ve told myself over and over that I need to learn from each recording experience. My mic’ing skills have increased, as have my arranging, editing and mixing skills. The one problem that I seem to encounter over and over again (which, admittedly is only partly under my control) is being underrehearsed. That being said, in the end I think I have a solid, usable recording that I can edit together.


The screenshot above shows the final tracking window showing the 41+ minutes of material I tracked for this seven minute piece of music. I’ve listened back to at least some of the tracks, and the recording quality is some of the best work I’ve done to date. From what I’ve heard so far I may not use any noise reduction at all. We’ll see how the final fadeout sounds. It was also a real treat getting to know some new musicians in the area – some of whom go to my church and I haven’t had the opportunity to really meet yet.

One final note, I was recently turned on to a new old video editor that is now offering a (slightly) stripped down version of their professional software for free. It is called DaVinci Resolve and is a prime competitor to Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple’s Final Cut and Avid Media Composer. I don’t know how stripped down it is, but from what I’ve heard it offers pretty much everything I would need for the type of work I do. Heck, the full on pro version is only $300, which gets you less than 1 year subscription to the others, and this is a simple purchase.

Anyway, I’m planning on using it to make a video for this song, so I’ll let everyone know how it turns out. Next: Editing and Mixing Midwinter Rose.

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Recording and Mixing Amazing Grace

My ongoing relationship with the delightful Shedd family is continuing. After recording their recital, they approached me with this request. One of the daughters participates in pageants. Part of the pageant competition is a talent. The idea is that her talent would be to dance ballet to a song that she recorded, essentially being a double talent. Pretty cool idea, really. Read more »

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Recording Session: Classical Recital

I recently had the opportunity to record my daughter’s first harp recital with her new instructor. The instructor is a high school student from a very large family in which both parents and many of the kids teach private lessons. The recital included performances from many of their students including violin, viola, piano, and harp, as well as a large ensemble performance from the family itself. Read more »

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Midwinter Rose 1 – Writing

As promised, here is an update from the Christmas CD. I have completed writing the next piece, this time a medley of In the Bleak Midwinter, Lo How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming, In Dulci Jubilo and Gaudete – all of which are very old Christmas Hymns with In the Bleak Midwinter being the most recent at 1911. I have great memories of singing Lo How a Rose in high school madrigals.

The arrangement begins quietly, with the Bleak Midwinter and Lo How a Rose reflections on the Nativity intertwined, and then gets more joyful with In Dulci Jubilo and Gaudete. The flow worked out even better than I had hoped when I grouped these carols together for this arrangement. Read more »

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Bethlehem Suite 1. Handmaid Published

Anativity_9924cfter much blood, sweat, tears, consternation, anger, begging, and finally acceptance, I have published the first completed track for Moments of Comfort and Joy. As mentioned in an earlier post, this is the first movement in a three movement piece I’m calling the Bethlehem Suite. Each movement will reflect a different aspect of the Nativity: Mary, Joseph and the atmosphere of that night. Read more »

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HOFA Mix Contest Update: I Lost!

M0374I heard back from HOFA about the mix contest I entered after Christmas. To no surprise they informed me that I was not selected as the winner of the contest. What I didn’t expect, however, was a fairly comprehensive mix analysis from the contest hosts. It turns out one of the businesses HOFA is involved in is an audio school. Apparently they provided this mix analysis to every entrant. Read more »

Production Diary

HOFA Mix Contest

600XMASbandI have long advocated that the best, nay, only way to become a better music mixer is to practice. I have also privately lamented that I don’t myself take the time to practice more – see, I’m always too busy making my own music. A worthy endeavor, indeed, but I work so slowly that there’s just not that much music to mix. Enter HOFA. Read more »

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A New Direction

Angels Screenshot 1Last winter I began a series of posts concerning the writing of my new Christmas project, Moments of Comfort and Joy. It sat on the back burner for most of the year as I’ve concentrated on other interests including more work for Carol Anne (which is now on hiatus), a rather comprehensive progressive rock demo of a previously acoustic song for a good friend, and another personal project I’m not quite ready to divulge. Read more »


My Fortress Recording

KeysSo, several months of preproduction (we work slow) led to the big night – and, as promised, moments of sheer panic and we learn the truth about electric guitar.


It all started a couple of weeks before, not with arrangements or rehearsals (see last entry for all of that) but rather the collection of all the gear I would need to record this audacious group. When I recorded my own live CD 10 years ago I hired a dude who could record 24 separate tracks at once. He used a splitter to split all the inputs to the board and recorded everyone into a dedicated 24-track hard disk recorder. Read more »

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