Author: Sargent, Geoff

Searching for the Mysterious Goodsound

Do any of you ever wonder how some of these bluegrass groups get to where they sound so good? That might be a stupid question of course….especially considering who the folks are reading this. But I have to admit that sometimes it completely escapes me how good-sounding groups put it all together. This goes beyond the obvious answer of practice, practice, and more practice; where I’m going is arrangements, dynamics and all that other stuff that gives each group their own unique sound. I’m learning there’s so much more to putting a song together for performance than just figuring out what key works, what tempo, who does fills, who does breaks, where they go, and the harmonies….oh my word, the harmonies are some of the slipperiest things to get ahold of. Granted, I’m still a rookie at all this and only dabble in the singing end of things for the moment.

So how do they do it? At my first Father’s Day Festival, a few years ago, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver gave a workshop on how they do it…well it wasn’t so much a workshop as a question and answer session. If you’ve ever heard Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver in the flesh, and had your retinas burned by all the sequin flash, you’d probably be curious to hear what they had to say and hopefully will get the opportunity again this summer at the Father’s Day Festival. Basically they practice their vocals in the morning, take a break, and then get together a few hours later and do it all over again, and again, and again…….. Coming from Doyle and the other group members it sounded a lot more impressive than my few words, and the story is their practice ethic is intense, and I would guess verges on obsessive. But, I don’t recall them discussing how they come up with the song arrangements, much less their intricate vocals.

So how do all these groups do it? One of the things I’m learning is how to handle dynamics….or at least appreciate dynamics better. If it isn’t complicated enough, we’re supposed to play quiet sometimes and sometimes loud, and sometimes when I think I’m playing quiet, it’s really louder than I realize, and sometimes if I don’t get right on top of the mic you can’t hear me above everyone else. Seems like a lot to handle on top of trying to wrestle a good sound out of my dobro.

It turns out the damnamics are bit more difficult than I figured. Now when I listen to bluegrass I try to hear the individual roles the instruments are filling. You are probably muttering to yourself….”isn’t this all obvious, it’s bluegrass 101?” Well I thought it was obvious but now that I’m playing in a band I’m not so sure and really surprised at how…not easy it has been controlling the dynamics. So imagine you’re in a 5 piece group…bass, multipurpose guitar, mandolin, dobro, and fiddle…..ok let’s throw in a banjo in the mix as well. So in most songs, live or recorded, I can always hear the bass. Depending on the group I might or might not be able to really hear the rhythm guitar. True to its reputation, the banjo is usually towards the front of the sound and often seems to be providing some drive to the music, and the mandolin is the chop machine….Those four instruments are typically at the front of the sound and often present throughout entire songs. So now of course I have totally annoyed the fiddle and dobro players; the poor guys are often relegated to kicks, endings, fills and breaks…..and chopping when the mando isn’t. But the thing is the fiddle and dobro are always there…..but when they aren’t kicking, filling, or breaking, sometimes I barely hear them. Listen to Alison Krauss and Union Station or some of Tony Rice’s stuff…….a lot of times I really have to struggle to hear Jerry Douglas on dobro or whoever is playing fiddle.

It turns out one of the hardest things I’m having with dynamics in my bands is giving up sonic space…..even when I think I am, sometimes I’m not. That only came to light, or maybe came to sound, by listening to recordings of our practices and going “ewwwwwww did I really do that, I thought I was playing too soft to be heard!” I have a real love-hate issue with those handy digital recorders..they help me to improve my sound, but it sure hurts to listen sometimes.

So I still don’t know how all those groups do it. My bands are getting there, it seems oh so slowly, with a few exciting moments where it all comes together. Those moments feel so good and it’s a wonderful surprise to hear a recording where I think “damn that sounded good, was that really us?” Now the big question I have is how did Bill Monroe and all the pioneers of bluegrass do it……….maybe somebody sent a Zoom digital recorder back in time.

Posted:  12/19/2010

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