Diamonds In The Rough

Note to self – when you roll back into town, after a day of snowmobiling, and you’re sweaty, really tired from riding on slush, dirt and mud; when there’s dead grass, rocks and sagebrush stuck in your skis, and your sled is overheating… you need to face it, boy. Your sledding season is over.

The Sagebrush chronicles is taking a short break from its weekly post. It’s been a difficult winter in Montana, and a strange one. This winter has brought some hardships, some new realizations, and some successes. These  winter elements need to be processed before they can be shared. For those of you who have been with me pretty much all along, I appreciate you, and am taking this sabbatical in the spirit of renewal, regeneration and new and better topics of art, adventure and life to share with you. the Chronicles is getting less and less interested in perspective and way more interested in the life, the adventures, the music and art of Montana and the Northwest. This is what I want to share with you. I’m guessing you’ll let me know if you want/expect anything less, or different.

                                 The ranch in the Ruby Valley, where we recorded

Music happens in Southwest Montana… on many different levels. In all my experience in the music business across this country, I still get surprised… sometimes by the hidden quality of a player or a band, sometimes by the passion that some of our musicians play with. And sometimes, how much they love what they do, how hard they try, what they’re willing to sacrifice and how much they’re willing to share what they do.

The band I’m recording right now is called The Ruby Valley Boys and Barb Wire, made up of several ranch owners and… a woman, Barb Pearson, who plays violin and sings. John and Jim Anderson own and work the Anderson cattle ranch, on the south end of the Ruby Valley. Steve, the guitarist, manages a ranch as well. Barb is a fine horsewoman who has a Masters in Education and has taught, and run a day care center. They all sing, and they all love their music and take pride in the band. The afternoon of our first recording session they had already played for the folks in a retirement home in Dillon, 50 miles away. The evening of our second session, they’d been calving all day. The third session, they’d been branding and tagging. On these session days they still rolled in to record with good attitudes at the end of a hard day. Oh, did I tell you why they want a CD? Not to sell… they want a CD of the band as it is now in case one of them “tips over.” They’re getting long in the tooth and one of them, Steve, is retiring next week.

Turning a big metal storage garage into a recording studio is a neat trick. Carol, Steve’s wife, and Barb spent over 3 hours the day before our first session, hanging burlap and blankets everywhere, and putting down old carpet and rugs everywhere they could, just trying to cut down on the ambient echo that one gets in a large metal building on a ranch. The “baffling” that they did was surprisingly effective, and the sound of the instruments was far better than I ever suspected we could get when I first walked in. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but with some close miking and steering a little left, then a little right from song to song, we got… something.

The homebrew sound baffles, to cut down on the echo… burlap, blankets and old rugs.

The second evening we recorded it had turned cold again, so Steve lit a fire in that big stove. The stove leaked smoke, and the chimney leaked smoke in a bout 4 places, and we finally had to let it go out so we could breathe, and see. The third night we tried to run two little electric heaters, but one of them was a little too noisy, so we turned it off and played cold. I don’t think it was much above 40 in there… look at the jackets on everyone. That hot coffee tasted good!!
                       Jim, his brother John, Carol & her husband Steve, and Barb

For you techno-buffs, the band has an audio console, or “board” that balances all the microphones and sends the sound into the PA system. This is a must for this band, as they play so many venues. And besides, when you are playing in a big room full of rowdy and drunken cowboys, you better be able to turn up, or they’re likely to forget you’re even there. They have their own sound man, and he was happy to hand me the reins on this particular recording, as the situation is totally different from running a sound system with stage monitors. He’s good at that, while I’m good at recording… I would never think to try to run a console for a live band….  no.
          See that little hand-held on the stand at the left? That’s the killer recorder

We used the PA console to get the instrument and voice balances in some sort of stereo mode, then took the outputs of the console into a little hand-held  4-track digital recorder I bought for the occasion. I had read about it, studied it online and thought it would be an inexpensive way to record a live CD on location. It turned out to be more than up to the task. not only was it able to record 3 hours of stereo sound on 2 AA batteries, but it has audio edit functions in it, hi and lo-cut filters, and a killer limiter-compressor, which I used throughout the sessions. It saved my gravy several times. That little hand-held recorder ($300) does what about $6500 worth of equipment would have done 15 years ago. And it does it all better, cleaner, easier.

The final step of the process is to bring the hand-held back to my studio at Fort Apache and transfer the recorded files into my big music computer, which I did. From here I can edit the songs, pick the final selections, tweak the sound of each song and burn a master CD of all the songs, in the order the band wants them.
                                                           Our “studio”

Our first session was a bust… there were too many strange and unusual elements to deal with, and I was struggling with learning a new console while figuring out who sang leads on which song, and when there were harmonies and when there weren’t… I wasn’t complaining but I’m sure they knew I was scrambling. So three songs into the second session I informed them that the sound, overall, was so much better than the first session, we might as well start over. They all smiled and said, “Okay. We’ll start over.” And off we all went. The positive attitudes of all the band members was so impressive to me. I mean, I love my Montana folk, I’m prejudiced and think they’re the absolute best! Remember, I did this in the big city for 35 years, and in that time, ran into more prima donnas than I care to tell you about. So the band’s willingness to toss the first session completely, pass the flask around one time and start all over again without giving me a ration of …. well, that was truly refreshing.

The second and third sessions went beautifully. The band usually played a “keeper” on the second take… rarely did they struggle with relative perfection. And the last night, cold as it was… no one complained at all. We had to tune after almost every song, as the strings on the instruments kept going sharp in the cold. And, in the end, we got around 16 good tunes that will take up just about 60 minutes on a CD.

The Ruby Valley Boys and Barb Wire. They played and sang their hearts in a cold storage building on a ranch in the Ruby Valley this Spring. And won my heart in the process.

Steve Hulse

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