Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts is a Shaker song from the mid-1800’s, with a lively melody. Set to new lyrics as Lord of the Dance it has been a popular song in Catholic and other liturgical congregations for the last 30 years or so. American composer Aaron Copland has also used the melody in several of his Americana-inspired orchestral works. Actually, his use of the melody in the score for the ballet Appalachian Spring was the first to popularize it outside of Shaker communities.

A quick note about the photo a the top of this post – it has nothing to do with this recording. Since I was going for a “tavern on the green” feel I searched for an image of an Irish band to head up the post. The funny thing is, this photo shows a very similar instrumentation to my arrangement. Click on the photo for its source.

Simple Gifts was one of the original hymns I wanted to include on this project. It is also one of the few tracks on the project that does not utilize a piano – although it does have another keyboard instrument.

The arrangement is relatively simple – the rhythm is established by the percussion instruments: a bohdran and djembe (and yes, I know the djembe is an African drum…). The remaining piece of the rhythm is an Appalachian dulcimer. Remember, my goal is feel and spirit, not compulsive authenticity. In fact, when I acquired the dulcimer, this is the song I had in mind.

The melody and harmony are supplied by recorder and fiddle, and accompanying chords from an accordion (I promised a keyboard instrument). As effects I added in some cymbal rolls at the transitions, hand claps along with the music and some background ambiance. Unlike the natural ambiances (thunderstorm, crickets) of the interludes, this one is completely man-made: the inside of a pub!

Probably the most unique part of this arrangement is the ending – which leaves the original song completely and takes off in a spirited jig. I got the idea the the Vineyard recording of Jesus is Coming Again from Winds of Worship 11. It incorporates an extensive instrumental section after the main song – longer than the song itself.

The recording started with a MIDI mock-up – using computer generated samples as stand-ins for the real instruments. It is not uncommon for composers to use mock-ups while writing new music in anticipation of recording it with “real” instruments. In one sense, my recording of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded is entirely a mock-up, although in this case the mock-up is intended to be the final project.

For this song, the mock-up was intended to serve as a stand-in against which to record the acoustic instruments. The bodhrán, djembe and accordion all remain as MIDI tracks, because it is simpler to attain an appropriate level of variation and subtlety in the playing for these instruments. The recorder, violin and dulcimer were replaced with acoustic instruments over the course of three recording sessions.

The screen shot shows the main tracking window for Simple Gifts. The top two tracks are the percussion (bodhrán MIDI track, djembe audio track), followed by the recorders, violin, dulcimer and accordion. The little dark blue bits are the cymbal rolls, with the handclaps, ambiance and cheers occupying the bottom three tracks.

Percussion

The percussion have no effects added to them. I gave the bodhrán a little boost to the low end to help carry the bass, and brought the treble down a bit because a high pitched tap sound used especially in the last part was cutting through the mix too strongly.

The djembe just has a low end cut to help it play nicely with the bodhrán.  Both instruments are sent to the reverb bus, and out to the mains.

Recorders

The soprano recorder provides the melody for the majority of the song. I wrote a post about recording both of my recorders here. They required far too much editing for my taste, but I unfortunately only have so much time to practice and so much time to record. The good news is that the final product has a good flow and blend and fits nicely in the track.

The soprano has some low-end roll-off and two compressors – the Audio Damage Rough Rider for some control and a little saturation/distortion (just enough to please) and the stock Sonitus compressor to pick up the rest of the dynamics. While a recorder is not supposed to be an instrument with a ton of dynamic range, it tends to peak at the start of notes in an unpleasant way (at least the way I play it). The two did a good tandem job of controlling it.

In the same session I recorded my Sopranino, or Descant recorder. The descant is pitched a 4th higher than the soprano for the same fingerings, so I can play higher on it without having to worry about overblowing to the second octave. (Overblowing is how you play higher notes on an instrument like the recorder, and is a difficult technique for the amateur player to control.)

I rolled off the low-end rumble and dipped the highs just a little to control the screechiness that this instrument can be prone to (again when played by the rank amateur). The compressor is Bootsie’s Thrillseeker LA with just a little drive and some of his patented “Stateful Saturation“.

Violin

I had a great time recording violin with my good friend Dena when she was up visiting this summer. You can read all about the recording session here.

Again the mixing is fairly simply done. I rolled off the lows with the channel EQ and then used Leftover Lasagna’s Pultec EQP-1 clone, Push-Tec 5+1A to sweeten the high end a bit.

So, why not just use the channel EQ for that? Good question. Many people would advise you to do just that, but again and again I hear old school mixers rave about the Pultec EQ. This version (according to their hype) is modeled on the schematic of the original unit, giving a fairly exact reproduction in the virtual world. I’ve decided to continue messing with it until I form an opinion one way or another. Either way, I’m satisfied with the results I’m getting here.

As for that little other dip in the channel EQ – good eyes! In the minor section of the song the violin plays a long, sustained note, and hits that note several other times during the passage. For some reason that particular note pops out in the recording. I’m guessing it’s a room or microphone resonance, because live in the room at all sounded fantastic! In short, the EQ dip and some volume automation combine to control that odd resonance.

Appalachian Dulcimer

Now we get to the meat of things. I obtained the dulcimer with exactly this song in mind. I spent a fair amount of time learning to play it a bit, although this song ended up being rather simple in comparison. In the future I hope to record it more, maybe as a solo instrument. Read about the recording session here.

The dulcimer received the most processing of any individual track, largely due to the nature of the recording and the fundamental position of the instrument in the mix.

I used the channel EQ for everything this time (what was I thinking?!?), rolling off the rumble, boosting the low-mids a little for body, and rolling off the highs a little bit to remove some of the harshness.

The first VST is the mid-side to stereo converter. With two controls, all I can change is the relative volume of the mid and side signals. Since this is the fundamental instrument, providing both harmonic and rhythmic content, I moved the image to the sides a little leaving a hole in the center, so as to not compete as much with the melody instruments.

The Spitfish de-esser is to tame the pick noise. I noticed right away that the pick noise on the dulcimer is pretty loud. I tried several different thicknesses of picks and used the one that sounded the best, but it was still a bit strong in the recording.

Finally, my go to “plucked string” compressor, WTComp.

Master Bus

I tend to keep my Master, or 2-Bus pretty clean. I’m still using Boostie’s Density MkIII as my master compressor. I’m running it in mid-side mode here. Unlike mid-side recording, where the left and right sides are identical to each other but flipped in phase, here the whole signal is essentially split into three parts – the left, the right and the middle. Then the left and right are processed together. I’ve been experimenting with M/S compression and think I like the the results.

All that’s left is the Boost11 limiter. Note that I’m only adding a single dB of gain, and have the limiter set to approximately -1 dBFS. I’m going to start using this setting on all songs that I intend to have professionally mastered – to make sure I give the mastering engineer enough headroom to work with. The limiter is really not doing a lot of work on this song, though – just catching a few of the strongest peaks.

So, for your listening pleasure, Simple Gifts:

Soundclick.com/Simple Gifts

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