Tell us about the live album!
It’s basically my own private bootleg, compiled from live tapes I made over the last few years. I’ve got new versions of older stuff- the record kind of spans my whole recording career- and some new stuff as well.
Q: Tell us about the songs on the album- are they much different from the versions you’ve already recorded?
A: Well, let’s see; the album starts with “Tennessee,” which is from my “Luna” album. This version is a little faster, a little grittier. I dig in a little more. There’s also a little intro- some of the other tunes on the record include short, improvisational intros as well. Then there’s “Malaika,” which is done on a slightly modified Breedlove 12 string. It sounds kind of weird- like a bouzouki on steroids or something. This version is very different from the one on “Counting the Ways,” both sonically and interpretationally.
Q: You’ve recorded that song twice on this album. Twice??.
A: (Laughs) Yeah, the second version, which we call “Tiny Malaika,” was kind of a fluke. The weekend before I recorded it I was at the NAMM show in LA, where I had just bought a “mandotar,” which is a solid bodied 12-string guitar that’s tuned up an entire octave. It’s tiny, and just cool as hell. I was playing up in Pistol River, OR and my wife suggested I play it in concert. I brought it to the gig, not really knowing what I was going to do with it. “Malaika” was the first thing to come out. The version I got was a little rough to say the least, but there’s so much, I don’t know, “charm” I guess; there’s a kind of humor and sweetness to it, at least to me, anyway, that I thought “What the hell, let’s just put it on.”
Q: You also used the modified 12 string on “Isa Lei.”
A: Again, very different from the one on “Counting the Ways.” A little slower, a little more regretful, I’d say. There are so many sides to great songs like these; I like both versions a lot, and every time I play it in concert it’s different still.
Q: You have two songs, “Shallow Brown” and “Homage,” played on a very deep sounding slide guitar.
A: Yeah, it’s an acoustic lap steel guitar, made in the style of the old Weissenborn guitars from the 1920s. The sound thatcomes from those things is just hypnotic. “Shallow Brown” is an old slavery song that I heard way back in elementary school. In the Sixties, we were all getting civil-rights savvy, and occasionally you’d get a hip teacher who would turn you on to stuff like this. I forgot about the tune until many years later, when I heard Martin Simpson’s version of this song on his “When I was on Horseback” album. I adapted that, plus what I recalled from my own past. “Homage” is one of my own pieces. It’s got this circular kind of melody – it sort of collapses into itself, then reemerges. I dedicate this one to Marcel Dadi and Michael Hedges.
Q: You’ve got new versions of two of your more popular tunes, “The Handing Down” and “The Water is Wide…”.
A: I had only two recorded versions of “The Handing Down” to choose from; I don’t really play that one in concert much any more. “The Water is Wide…” well, what can you say about that one? It is as perfect a song as I’ve ever heard. I recorded this one at my annual Christmas concert in Portsmouth, NH last year.
Q: You’re known as being an “audiophile” of sorts. How did you approach the recording of the album? (For a more detailed explanation of Ed’s recording gear and techniques, check out the “Technobabble” section at the end of this interview.)
A: I approached it in a very casual way. I’ve been asked regularly over the years, “Do you mind if I tape your concert tonight?” I usually agree, somewhat grudgingly, but I make them promise to send me a copy. I have never received a single tape! When I realized this, I decided I should just bootleg myself. I plugged my portable DAT recorder, or an ADAT right into the audio mixer I use on stage and captured everything that way. I didn’t worry too much about checking the audio, because I’m generally skewing everything toward making sure the concert sounds good for the audience. So the record is basically a “board tape,” but I’ll be damned if it didn’t turn out sounding great!
Q: So, you’re happy with the way it sounds.
A: Yeah, it’s way better than I expected or even intended! (laughs)
Q: How do you define your music? It doesn’t seem easy to categorize, with African, Hawaiian, Celtic and blues on the same album…
A: I just call it guitar music.
Q: So what’s the next project going to be like?
A: Well, I’ve got a big backlog of my own stuff I need to finish. I’ve really been neglecting my writing for too long, but I’m having a lot of fun working with other music… to answer the question, I really don’t know. There are some collaborative projects I’m planning, and can’t really talk about due to contract restrictions, etc. The one thing I’m real excited about is my new philosophy: NO DEADLINES! I’m going to really take my time on whatever is next. I’ve got all these wonderful guitars and audio toys, and I just want to have some fun, make a little noise. That’s where it starts for me, and I’m anxious to get back to that place again.
Q: Tell us about how the album was recorded- what did you use.
A: Well, to start off with, there was always a Neumann KM140 (condenser microphone) on the guitar, which always went to the left channel of my DAT machine, straight out of the mic pre on my little Mackie 1202VLZ. The right channel got all the guitar electronics- Fishman pickups, sometimes the Joe Mills mini mics I have inside all my guitars. Whatever reverb or effects they went through, which was usually very minimal, went to the right channel. Sometimes, when the gigs were a little closer to home, I recorded to ADAT, which allowed me to give everything its own tape track, including an audience mic or two.
Q: Once you got everything recorded, how did you put the album together?
A: I searched through several boxes of DATs and ADAT tapes- unmarked, of course! (laughs) and listened to many hours of tapes. I realized that trying to compare different takes this way was going to be very tedious, and I knew I was going to have to find an easier way. So I got Ensoniq’s PARIS hard disk recording system and a Macintosh G3. There’s a bunch of different interface cards for PARIS- I got the ADAT card and the 8 channel 24 bit I/O card. Then I started flying all the stuff into PARIS digitally, SPDIF. I was able to get several different recordings of many of the tunes up at once, and compare them all very easily. When I decided which version of any particular tune I liked best I’d just dump all the other ones. The whole album stayed digital all the way through, and I think it really helped. I was able to link my Lexicon PCM 90 to everything. PARIS was real easy to work with and sounds great. The reverbs in PARIS are very good, although I didn’t use them much. Once in awhile I’d use a bit more pickup in the mix than I usually like to- you know, at a concert there’s always noises that drive you crazy like traffic outside, obnoxious kids, etc. The pickup is unaffected by all the extraneous sounds, but it sounds too dry without some light reverb. When I had to cut the mic levels for this reason, I’d use the ’90 and the PARIS ‘verbs to help recreate some of the ambiance that was lost. I was amazed at how accurately I was able to dial in these rooms. I didn’t fudge anything, just helped it out a little bit. Sometimes I got a nice room sound naturally- a couple that were recorded to ADAT had one or two channels of room mics- a Neumann TLM 193 or a Sony C48. I got the mixes together and transferred digitally to my Panasonic SV3700. I think the converters in PARIS are better than the 3700, so the sound stayed true. That 3700 is my buddy, though. I’ve had it since 1992 and have never had a single glitch with it.
Q: Did you get into any serious editing?
A: There was temptation at times to tweak things here and there, but I didn’t do it. I EQ’d things a little, sometimes I touched up the ambiance a little. I tried to leave stuff alone. I’m more interested in the feel, the overall impression than in technical perfection. There are some rough spots, but there are some spots that I feel are very inspired. You get what you get. I think the record is an honest representation of how I play, warts and all. I know that there are live albums that are brought back into the studio for overdubs, replacing lead vocals even. I’ve got nothing against using the studio to enhance or even create music, but I don’t like being jived.
Q: Give us a rundown of your studio gear.
A: Let’s start with microphones; I’ve got a pair of Neumann KM 140s that I’ve had since ’92. I love these mics. They’re very true, maybe a little dry. If what I’m playing sounds too dry, I adjust the mics a little and/or change the way I’m playing until it sounds right. I’ve also got a Neumann TLM 193, which is a large diaphragm cardioid mic. It sounds a little darker, a little fuller. Sometimes I’ll use all three mics- “The Water is Wide” and some other stuff on “Counting the Ways” was recorded that way. I also have a Beyer M500 ribbon mic that isn’t that well suited for recording acoustic guitar. The output is very low. I’ve tried combining it with a 140, though, and a little bit of the 500 fattens things up a bit. The mic preamp I’m currently using is a TL Audio PA-1, which is a very fine tube mic pre. The sound of a fine guitar through the Neumanns into the TL is audio bliss for me. I’m hoping to check out some new mic preamps soon- there seems to be a mic pre renaissance going on right now, and it’d be shame to miss it. I also use the mic pres on my Mackie mixers- they are really good. From there I’m going straight into PARIS at 24 bits. The sound of 24 bit audio is very nice. I recorded some guitar at 24 bits, re-recorded the same thing at 16 and compared them and it was a revelation. I remember, years ago, reading interviews with engineers and producers who’d rave about digital, you know, “What comes out sounds exactly like what went in,” etc., but I never felt that way. But with PARIS’ converters at 24 bits, I feel like it’s true. The resolution is very fine- I can hear my hair turning gray! (laughs)
Q: What do you listen through?
A: I still have my Tannoy PBM 8 II’s, the powered ones. I really like these speakers. The market place is flooded with all kinds of new monitors (lots of really good ones, too) but I’m still really stuck on these Tannoys. When I took this live album to Toby Mountain for mastering I was very surprised at how close I got to finished masters in my mixes. Granted, this is basically a bootleg, but what I heard on my Tannoys was what was there. I just love ’em. For headphones I have Sony MDR V6’s and 7506’s. I’ve used them for a long time and am used to their sound. Toby had some headphones that I really loved- Sennheiser HD 580s. Really expensive, but very detailed, round and open sounding. I’m gettin’ me some of those. I still have a couple of ADATs- a blackface and an XT, and my Mackie 8oBus console. I love that console. I mixed three records on it and it never frustrated or confused me.
Q: What led you to start engineering your own records, and what do you feel are the benefits?
A: First of all, I don’t call myself an engineer. I reserve that title for the real engineers out there. I have always been fascinated with the recording process, and with every album I’ve taken a more active role as I’ve gotten more confident. I really prefer working alone, and I don’t need tons of gear to make my records. They’re pretty simple, really. Also, my last experience in a commercial studio was a nightmare- I felt I could do way better myself, and I did. The benefit for me is that I can work at my own pace. I can get up and walk around when I’m tired, work as long as I want without worrying about anybody else’s schedule. I can work all day and all night and I love every minute of it. I don’t know any engineers who feel that way, at least I haven’t met one. I’m sure they’re out there, though, and my hat’s off to them. You can tell when a lot of care has gone into a recording, no matter what kind of music it is, and it’s very inspiring to me.