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Tony Hall – man and melodeon

October 22, 2022

Tony Hall’s melodeon playing has long been much revered in the world of folk music, and can be heard on Maddy Prior and June Tabor’s ‘Silly Sisters’ album, on Nic Jones’s ‘Penguin Eggs’ album, and on his own recordings: ‘Field Vole Music’ (1977), ‘Mr Universe’ (1995), and ‘One Man Hand’ (2008). Despite his many live performances over the years (not least with the weekly performances of The Vonn Krapp Family Band for around 50 years), there are few videos of Tony playing. Given his unique style and, also, his relaxed and humorous stage presence, this is a real pity. A few years ago I set out to rectify this, but Covid intervened and, to be honest, Tony got slightly cold feet about such self-promotion! But patience rewards those who wait, and with the help of a mutual friend (thank you Matt!), a few weeks ago Tony agreed to the recording and filming of a live performance.

Tony’s set followed a harvest supper at his local church so I had no wish to intrude too much on the occasion. A low profile was essential, and there would be little to no time for adjusting gear on the night. With such events, preparation is, of course, very much the order of the day, so in the weeks beforehand I had a sound check with a stand-in melodeon player (thank you Rob!) and a lighting test (the church lighting looked hopeless) one evening.

On the audio side, recording melodeon (and accordion) is challenging since so much sound comes out of the sides and, of course, the left (bass) hand moves in and out. I’ve tried various techniques over the years, and the sound test before this session confirmed my conclusion that the best way is to record with mics positioned either side of the instrument. It’s also how Tony has mics set up whenever he uses a PA, so it was good to have a set up that was comfortable for him too. I’d have preferred omni mics, not least as the acoustic was good, but with an audience liable to sing along or cough, and, even, the potential for a bit of clatter from someone having their third helping of pudding (I wouldn’t blame them as they were marvellous!) I went for cardioid mics, and angled them a bit so the rear nulls had some effect. Mics either side gives a much fuller sound than a stereo pair in front of the melodeon, but, of course, if hard-panned left and right the mics make the instrument sound 30ft wide: after playing around and testing on speakers and headphones in post, I settled on panning 40% left and right. I used a pair of Rode NT55s. For vocals, I wanted as much separation from the melodeon as possible, so that I could vary levels after the event, and would have preferred a large diaphragm condenser (LDC) fig 8 so I could use its null to good effect, but, conscious that this would mean the rear lobe would pick up the audience too much and that it would be far from discreet, went for an SDC hypercardioid – the AKG CK93.

Filming gear needed to be equally discreet. The bad lighting was solved by a single softbox lantern (the SmallRig 65cm version) with a SmallRig 3616, which is a COB LED light that is bi-colour (so I could set colour temperature to match the church lights at 2700K). Lanterns are so much gentler on the performer than a rectangular softbox, and the single light didn’t intrude unduly: as benign as a standard lamp. Cameras were a Lumix G9 and two Lumix GX80s, two cameras roughly at 45 degrees, and one, low down, centrally, to catch Tony’s fingers on the melodeon buttons (so aficionados can see how he does it). All three cameras locked off on tripods, and two unmanned: far from ideal, but nicely low key. With a bit of varied cropping from the 4k capture for the 1080p output, that gave some variety in the shots in the final video. And low-key video suited the occasion anyway.

So the end result? Well judge for yourself, but it certainly captured something of the event, is a step up from the few mobile phone videos of Tony online, and was a reasonable stab given the understandable constraints. And the bonus? Tony is keen to go on and make a proper album in the same church this autumn/winter, without an audience. He doesn’t enjoy the stress of studio recording, or the excessive editing of multiple takes to create the performance that never was, but he’s up for a relaxed recording in his local church, which is great news: Tony still has many a song/tune he would like to record for posterity. Obviously there will be scope for much improving the sound of the audio from the harvest supper gig, so more anon.

Live Music

A European tour

January 8, 2021

An acoustic performance next to the Halle aux grains in Auvillar

With Brexit on its way, in 2017 I organized a small European tour for local band Rattlebox (for which I am sound-engineer). This was an exercise entirely determined by fun and entente cordiale: free gigs in some fairly random and mostly very small places in France, Andorra and Spain, largely determined – though not in all cases – by one of us having some connection; and six families, and a few extras, with us on what would be their summer holiday. Even so, there were practical issues to sort: arranging gigs (much helped by my French-speaking and living elder daughter), accommodation (largely campsites: this was a budget tour), power supplies, intermediary stops (this was part holiday, remember) and, of course, the PA. Anyway, here’s to the gigs:

Fri 28 July: Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre (central France, midway between Bourges and Limoges). A fitting start to the tour: the gig was in the open-sided market hall in the square of the village made so famous by Jacques Tati’s 1949 film Jour de fête. We were a little nervous about the gig as we had no previous contact in the village, and had just had a few – hard won – emails with the mayor’s office. But they came up trumps, and had set out the market hall with benches (which filled up), put up posters, and even produced a few slabs of beer. We felt as welcome as the fair folk in Jour de fête. After a little electric shock (a reminder that wiring isn’t always what it should be), the technical side went OK: the PA was a combination of Alto and Proel speakers, with a Soundcraft mixing desk, all fairly basic but fine for what is a slightly raucous folk band. Beers after at a bar, then all of a hundred yards to the village campsite with its profusion of Swallowtail butterflies. Perfick, as Pop Larkin would have said.

Sat 29 July: Auvillar (Tarn-et-Garonne, south-west France). A weekend here in this most beautiful of small towns, courtesy of an old friend (a retired French general) and the indefatigable efforts of Gilles Compagnat. Unknown to us beforehand, Gilles organized everything, from a short taster acoustic session by the circular Halle aux grains (where our carefully transported English cider – yes, we took a present of booze to France – went like lightning), paella for all in the square, the main evening gig to an audience of 200 (then a record for Rattlebox) outside the church with its natural ampitheatre (with lights set up specially too), and a Sunday morning acoustic gig in the Place du Château. Having no PA to run on the Sunday morning, I set up a couple of omni mics and recorded the band outside, ambience and all. Goodness, were we sad to leave.

Tues 1 Aug: Vinça (Pyrénées-Orientales: southern France, near the east end of the Pyrénées). After stops at Carcassone, Lagrasse and, for some, the Med, this more workaday small town had a great lake and, by the side of this a lively bar  – the ginguette d’Aquagliss au lac. A compressed stage, but, who cares, there was more paella and dancing for the first time on the tour.

Thurs 3 Aug: Andorra la Vella. It had always been an ambition of Danny (of Rattlebox) to visit Andorra, and as we pitched up in a very urban campsite next to the national football stadium in insanely hot and humid conditions, we wondered why? But the evening gig in the Harlem Bar (organized by the remarkable Pierre Infante Lagrave and the bar owner Josu Adanez) was a great success: small, extremely sweaty and with enthusiastic dancing. What more can you ask for?

Sat 5 Aug: Junzano (near Huesca, Spain). Courtesy of  the sister of Simon (also of Rattlebox), a long-time resident, of this small village, we were part of the municipal fiesta, and welcomed enthusiastically yet again. A bigger stage and, for the first time, other acts: yet more paella (at least in Spain this time), dancing and, afterwards, sad farewells before the long journey home.

During all the mayhem of keeping things on track, running the PA, being the roadie, and occasionally snatching bits of holiday – all in the unremittingly fantastic weather – there wasn’t really any time for serious filmmaking, but here’s an extremely rough film (largely an aide-mémoire for us) that captures something of the fun and, indeed, the welcome: the eternal question down the pub is where next?

Film Projects Live Music

Busking in Andalucia

January 7, 2021

As live music goes, this was about as easy as it gets for the sound-engineer: the band (Rattlebox) decided on a long weekend in the south of Spain in May 2019, to play a largely acoustic gig at a bar and to busk for the first time. That meant no PA and no mixing, but I tagged along for the craic and took the chance to make a short film. Not as simple as you might think: the handy flight from Norwich to Malaga was delayed, and we only arrived in La Tahá in the Alpujarras in the early hours, and there was never a chance to catch-up on sleep. The band kept pace with the lack of sleep and the booze, but, goodness, I felt rough: getting too old for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle? And equipment-wise, things were tricky: it was nearly all hand luggage to keep costs low and to squeeze into the single seven-seater hire car, with underpants and socks stuffed into musical instruments, and my cabin baggage allocation mostly given over to the band. So I bought a Páramo Halkon traveller jacket with 15 pockets, which I stuffed with gear for that low-rent Hulk/shoplifter look. As for the gear, well that was mainly a Lumix GX80 camera with a Zhiyun Crane M gimbal, and a Sony M10 recorder with a stereo pair of Primo EM172-based Clippy mics): can’t get much more minimal than that.

It was a lively gig at the La Cueva de Mora Luna in Mecina Fondales on the Friday night, even if slightly surreal with cars driving past between the band and the audience. Spectacular pizzas afterwards on the house. The next night we were invited to a wake in the neighbouring hamlet of Ferreirola (never met the chap alive) and ended up muscling a grand piano down impossibly narrow streets followed by a local on her penny whistle. And on the Sunday we made it to Granada for busking. No time to visit the Alhambra, but made enough for dinner. Satisfying.

Anyway, here’s a rather rough and ready film that captures something of the weekend. The first song (Hares on the Mountain) was recorded back home in Norfolk, outside in the woods with a pair of Rode NT55s with the omni NT45-O capsules.