Christmas with The Celts is a collection of ancient and traditional Celtic music—some of it dating back to the 12th century—reinvented with tasteful, modern-day musical touches. The album, which was recorded in Nashville with engineer Donnie Boutwell at the helm, features classic Celtic instruments such as the Uillean pipes, the Irish whistle and the Bodhran (an Irish drum made out of goat skin), combining them with tasteful modern elements such as drum loops and synthesizers.
Ric Blair, the principal bandleader of The Celts, possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Celtic music. He did his homework researching and learning long-forgotten songs before his seven-piece band ever set foot in the studio. While the recording itself took just two weeks to produce, the end result has carved its own place in the holiday music tradition. Pro Sound News spoke to Blair about brushing the dust off of some very old tunes.
On the Material
This album took a lot of research because we uncovered a lot of old Irish and Scottish Christmas carols, many of which haven’t been heard recently. As far as the content itself, some of the songs go back to the 12th century and some of the lyrics go as far back as the Gregorian chant era. One of the songs in particular is called “Balulalow.” That was written in Scotland, and it’s a mixture of English and broadscot, which is a dialect in Scotland. While learning the songs, I had the help of Deb Shebish, our fiddle player, who has a degree in ethnomusicology from University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Plus we’ve performed in Scotland, Ireland and the U.K. several times through the years.
Learning the material was pretty straightforward, but we wanted to give it sort of an ancient-meets-modern feel, so we used EQ’d drum loops and synth pads and combined them with modern drums and bass. We also used the traditional instruments as well.
On Capturing “Magic”
We recorded it at Kosmodrone Studio on Music Row, which had a really cool vibe. It is situated in an old house, and there’s a rumor that Johnny Cash himself made records in there. Before we went in to record, we were performing these songs for at least a couple years on our Christmas tours, so when we went in the studio, we had this stuff down. The mixing engineer was a guy by the name of Donnie Boutwell, and he’s one of the best engineers in Nashville. He really got what we were trying to do, so when we went into the studio, we got the basic tracks down in just two weeks. I’ve recorded a number of albums over the years, and you can just tell when the magic is coming together. It involves the placement of the mics, the preamps you are using, the inspiration and the players. This recording was a collaborative effort, and everything seemed to flow. It was more special than other records I’ve worked on in the past.
We recorded each song differently, but we took the standard approach with the songs that were performed with a band. We would play with a click track and do bass, drums and acoustic guitar simultaneously. We would try to be in a place where we could see each other, but in almost every case, we had each instrument isolated. We would have the pipes in one room and the fiddle in another. One of the tunes was called “Baloo Lamey” that was just pipes and acoustic guitar, and we did that entire song live.
On Microphone Techniques
I’ve heard these horrible mass-produced Celtic compilations. They will put the mic right on the whistle or the pipes and over-compress it, and the music just doesn’t breathe. I believe we used two mics for the whistle, but leaving a lot of space, making sure the mics were getting a little bit more of the room and allowing the waves to develop. On Uillean pipes, you have a chanter and a drone, which plays the lower parts. We would record the drone twice to add fullness on some of the tracks and then pan them. You have to be careful, because the fiddle in particular can sound very much like the pipes, which is a reed instrument. We usually have the fiddle almost 100 percent panned to the right, pipes to the left, and the whistle in the middle. We used a Neumann U87 on all these instruments. I have a classic Neumann U87, and it’s the best mic I’ve heard for vocals, pipes or any instrument, really.
On acoustic guitar, we used this Nashville way of miking, which involves placing a Shure SM 81 at about an arm’s length to the right of your ear on the acoustic guitar and facing it straight down to the floor. Then you take a Neumann U47 or U87, and place that directly facing the guitar sound hole, but again, at an arm’s length away. This technique sounded great, and it almost sounded like two guitars, especially after you pan those tracks.
On Mixing and Completion
Because Donnie is such a professional, we generally just let him do his thing; I trust his ear. He would get it to where he liked it, and then we would do small tweaks. We did use quite a bit of effects, particularly some very nice reverbs and delays on the vocals. You don’t want to make everything too washy though, so we were very selective on what we decided to put effects on. The whole process was one of the smoothest records I’ve ever worked on. It has a lot to do with the collaboration involved and the fact that I didn’t try to do everything. There was also a lot of humor in the studio, and that is very important.