Previously, I talked with Mark Dillon about teaching music technology at Guilford Technical Community College’s Larry Gatlin School of Entertainment Technology, and completing his doctorate in Music Education from UNC Greensboro (Congrats, Doc!), which you can read about here. We also talked about how he uses Pro Tools in the creation and performance of string music, both in the studio and on the stage.
While nonlinear multitrack editing is a key function of Pro Tools, it can also power live music events and ensemble recording. Mark describes taking an unconventional approach with his own projects. “Oh.. I’m a weirdo… While I do projects with lots of multi-tracking, effects, and overdubs and teach electronic music, most of my projects in the past few years are stripped down to one or sometimes two microphones.”
Mark loves recording old-school string bands that highlight the music of the North Carolina Piedmont on one mic. Yes, that’s right – one mic. He describes how recording with one mic in mono or using a second mic to capture mid-side stereo forces musicians and engineers to think in creative ways.
“You have to think beforehand what instrument is in what register. You also start realizing how important subtle EQ is to a mix. You’d think you can’t “mix” a band using one mic but a tiny cut or bump in EQ makes a huge difference in an instrument’s presence.”
Recording with one mic also forces Mark to think about how the musicians work the microphone. “A good way to compare it is to Buddhist sand mandala. You get everything set, you hit record, and you go. It’s never perfect, but it does capture a mood.”
As an example, Mark describes hearing the Cowboy Junkies’ 1987 Trinity Sessions album, recorded on one Calrec ambisonic microphone. “That was perfection. I was only 17, but I knew that was the sound I loved.”
“It’s also really important that you work with exemplary musicians, I’m lucky to work with Christen Blanton Mack, Dan Clouse, and Ryan Mack. They are willing to follow along on some of my crazy ideas in The Zinc Kings.”
One microphone recording is best expressed in Mark’s own words:
“In one microphone recording, there’s no punching in, there’s no pitch correction, there’s no beat detective. It’s live by the microphone or die by the microphone. Banjo too loud? Then you have to move the banjo player further back or persuade the banjo player to play softer. It’s a sort of glorious art.”
“In live performance it forces you to listen to your bandmates because we ditch the monitors as well. You’d think that volume with one large condenser on a stage would be a problem, but we often play large festivals where we’re as loud as all the other bands… our setup time is just faster. The hardest part is convincing a sound guy with $50,000 in live sound gear to turn off the monitors and plug in one microphone.”
I asked Mark about a typical recording issue – mic placement. But with one mic it becomes about instrument placement. “You have to think about where your fiddle player is going in relation to the banjo. Where do you put the bass player? How about the guitar player on a parlor guitar? At the end of the day, all of this works out to a lot of thinking and listening, which keeps you honest. As I tell my students, you can have a million plugins, but none of them are going to fix bad mic technique.”
Mark talked about the importance of improvisation when performing or recording takes, and he says it is a skill than can be taught. He teaches commercial music and country, bluegrass, jazz… “Anything that helps students be well-rounded and able to drop into gigs. I learned more about improvisation from taking some jazz classes and Indian music classes at the University of North Carolina Greensboro than anywhere else.”
The faculty at UNC Greensboro include Steven Haines and Chad Eby, who, in Mark’s estimation do a killer job of teaching jazz improvisation. “I feel like every musician should take study some jazz if at all possible, even if it is not the genre they want to pursue… also, there are some killer jazz recordings!”
Mark tells me that Indian improvisation takes it to a different level. “The instructor Gaurang Doshi teaches improvisation not just from a musical level but a philosophical level.”
On the larger scale, Mark says, improvisation is everything, even at its most subtle. In recording, improvisation is a constant.
Where it all Comes Together: On Stage
Mark is organizing the 1st Piedmont One Mic Acoustic Convention, a three-day festival devoted to a central North Carolina tradition, the performance and enjoyment of old-time, bluegrass, blues and mill music. The groups that will perform include many virtuoso string players used to blending their sound in live performance.
I asked Mark about the history of NC’s string music tradition.
“How much time do you have?”
Plenty, I say. Mark takes us where the rubber meets the road:
“The short answer is that in the American South, as well as a lot of other areas in the United States, there is a rich history of community music. People get together on porches and play fiddle tunes and sang songs. It sounds romantic, but it served a pretty important purpose. With limited access to large urban areas, local string bands were a central focus of entertainment. This carried over to fiddle conventions where fiddles and band from all over the South would get together to compete. North Carolina is a hotbed for fiddle competitions still, and it’s awesome.”
So why one mic?
“The band I play in, The Zinc Kings, started doing the one mic setup up around 2011. Frankly, I started doing it because it meant I could do a gig and tear down and setup in five minutes. It didn’t take long to figure out that it sounded perfect, the balance was just there.”
These aren’t just any mics, though. The one mic scene, like any true passion in music, has an entire set of techniques and gear wrapped around it. “We were using a Groovetube large condenser microphone, and then heard one made by Ear Trumpet labs that was purposely designed for the one mic setup.”
The microphones sound amazing, offer great feedback rejection, and Mark became further fascinated by great musicians that can work a microphone. The one microphone setup forces musicians to be at their best; there are no monitors and no ‘tweaking’. “If you aren’t at your best in front of one microphone, it shows.”
Before you apply to be the sound engineer at the one mic festival, remember that Mark is a professor of music and recording technology at the Guilford Technical Community College, and a Pro Tools genius, who has just completed his doctorate in Music Education at UNC Greensboro. You’d better know your way around recording techniques and digital processing, especially an equalizer.
“Not to put too fine a point on it.. but man.. doing a one microphone festival is significantly more affordable than bringing in a large sound system.”