Sunday, November 14, 2021

Violin microphone shoot-out!

For years, my go-to microphone for recording my violin (or anyone else's) in the studio has been a Cascade Microphones Fathead II ribbon microphone with a factory-added Lundahl transformer, run through an Avalon 737 tube preamp. Using a ribbon mic live is impractical for two reasons--its pick-up pattern is a figure-8, and they are too fragile for the stage.  So, for live sound reinforcement, I have used an old favorite, a Sennheiser 421 dynamic mic.  The last few times I've played for dances, I've noticed that he Sennheiser is a little scratchy-nasty in the high end, so I have been wondering if there was another option with the warmth of the ribbon mic.  I kept seeing singers using a microphone I had associated with broadcasters--the venerable Shure SM7B, and the warm, smooth sound haunted me--that is exactly what you want for a violin when you are close-miking live, because a violin makes weird scratchy bow sounds that are right there by the instrument, but not audible from ten feet away.  Somehow, the ribbon mic eliminates the bow noise, and I wondered if the SM7B would do the same.  I have not seen/heard anyone using an SM7B for violin, or any other acoustic stringed instrument, in fact.  If not for the pandemic, I would have booked time in a studio that had one, so I could try it out, but... not possible.  So, I took the leap and I just bought one, along with a Cloudlifter CL-1, which is a gizmo that takes phantom power from your preamp, and hijacks it to add 25dB of clean gain to the signal.  So here are the microphones...

From left to right... 

Audio-Technica AT4050 (the windscreen is moved off behind the mic), running into an Avalon 737 tube preamp.  This is my standard set up for a singer, and I thought it would make a good comparison to the other microphones.

Sennheiser 421, running into a channel of my True Systems Precision 8 preamp.  This is something like my usual live sound violin setup.

Shure SM7B, running through a Cloudlifter CL-1, into a channel of my Precision 8.  I did not roll off the bass, nor juice the "presence" setting--I am running it flat.

Cascade Fathead II, running into an Avalon 737.

So, what I did was record a couple of tunes onto four separate tracks, "Hector the Hero" is an air composed by Scottish fiddle legend J. Scott Skinner, and is played in Donegal (N. Ireland), and I decided to pair it with a jig from Donegal, "Hardiman's Fancy." To compare the microphones, I edited a single track (with just a bit of reverb), switching off between the microphones, at regular intervals.  The tunes are in two parts, and so on "Hector the Hero," I only played it once, so I divided each section in half, and switched at that point.  With the jig, I played through twice and switched on each part.  Here are the specific timings...

Hector the Hero

A1/first half--0:00-0:14/S421  A1/second half--0:14-0:27/FatheadII  

A2/first half--0:28-0:41/AT4050   A2/second half--0:41-0:54/SM7B

B1/first half--0:54-1:09/S421  B1/second half--1:09-1:22/FatheadII  

B2/first half--1:22-1:36/AT4050   B2/second half--1:37-1:52/SM7B

Hardiman's Fancy 

A1--1:52-2:02/SM7B     A2--2:02-2:12/S421    

B1--2:12-2:21/Fathead   B2--2:21-2:30/AT4050

A1--2:30-2:39/SM7B     A2--2:39-2:48/S421    

B1--2:48-2:57/Fathead   B2--2:58-3:09/AT4050

And here is the recording.

If you want to download it for some reason, you can do that free from that page...


You will make your own conclusions, of course, but here are mine.  I am thrilled by the sound of the SM7B--I think it wins the comparison, hands-down.  I expected it to be better than the Sennheiser, which does indeed sound a little scratchy and dull in comparison here, but I didn't expect it to be the best of the bunch.  The 4050 was better with the violin than I expected, but I suspect that has to do with the Avalon preamp, which helps to make it more luscious.  The Fathead was interesting--it is getting the cushy Avalon ride that I gave the 4050, but I noticed, in this close-miking arrangement, that it picked up the little thumps of my fingers hitting the fingerboard more than the other mics.  In a real recording I would eliminate that by placement or EQ, but I noticed the problem more in the Fathead than the others.  It is fine, but... the SM7B is superior, in my opinion.

Of course, this sets up an experiment I didn't yet do--SM7B into the Cloudlifter...and then into the Avalon preamp.  Really, my point here was to see how the SM7B would do live, and so the squeaky-clean solid-state Precision 8 was the best test for a live sound, but next time I record the violin for to make a real recording, I will have to hear the SM7B through the Avalon.  That it compared so well with the Fathead in this setting bodes well.  And I should try the Cloudlifter on the Fathead, too.  

Saturday, August 21, 2021

A year of flowers #73: Jessica's aster

Symphyotrichum jessicae
Well, I thought the show was all over for the year (which is why I did a weed post), but I was wrong!  I had thrown a five-gallon bucket of water at my Jessica's asters about a month ago, and then we had a couple of minor rainstorms, and I was out in that part of the prairie last week, and darned if they weren't blooming!  This is another plant whose scientific name appears to have changed.  Once known as Aster jessicae, apparently it is now Symphyotrichum jessicae
This is a rare species, native only to the Palouse region, in Washington and Idaho.  My two monster examples came from the annual Idaho Native Plant Society sale several years ago, and they obviously like it here.


Wednesday, August 18, 2021

And now, a weed... Prickly lettuce

Lactuca serriola  
...from down the road, fortunately NOT on our property!
This is my current nemesis in the prairie restoration--Lactuca serriola, aka "Prickly lettuce." The really bad stuff out there is gone--no more field bindweed, Canada thistle, poison hemlock...but Prickly lettuce is formidable. It was pervasive when I moved here, with many years of spreading seeds, of which there are many in every plant, as you can see above.  As I have battled it, I have learned of its extraordinary powers, but now I seem to have gained the upper hand.  

One of its weapons is persistence.  Here on the WA/ID border, they start sprouting in April (though some that sprout in fall will winter over and can start growing by March), and will continue through the Spring.  If you clear all of the plants in, say, late June, the sprouting throughout July and into August will get you.  In a serious infestation, seedlings will begin to sprout after the first few rains in fall.  I was just at my dentist's office yesterday, and we got to talking about the weeds (between cleaning and suction... usually the conversations are pretty one-sided). He was saying that after the little spray of rain we had the other day, he was seeing little seedlings of Prickly lettuce seem to spring up, bloom, and go to seed in one day.  Still, they all do at least mostly bloom at the same time, July into August.
As with many aspects of this project, my process was trial-and-mostly-error.  I did discover that if you have a substantial patch of it, mowing can be effective just as they start to bloom.  Many will survive, but if it's during a hot dry period, some will give up the ghost, and you get rid of a lot of future seeds.  Similarly, in the years where they just got past me, I cut down a standard hoe for a shorter handle (better for whacking), sharpened the blade and would hack off as many flowering/seeding heads as I could.  The trick was to strike so that the blade would encounter the plant down into the root a bit--often I'd get enough of the root to take it out.  While doing this with a perennial weed like bindweed would be pointless, I found that, like mowing, I could get Prickly lettuce seeds out of the system, and some plants would eventually quit trying.  Unless you have a small area to work, or you are crazed, this method will not work to eradicate Lactuca serriola.

You know what's coming, right?  

Yep, as I have mentioned in these posts before, I am not above using herbicide.  I understand that some people are horrified by this, but there is no prairie restoration without it, and as I have seen here, there is no. consequence. whatsoever. from its use in this project.  I have used glyphosate and 2,4-D, and they really work to get rid of invasive noxious weeds I couldn't have eliminated otherwise.  Here, I must recognize the guidance of my awesome father-in-law, Frank Abderhalden, retired farmer of 250 acres of spectacular farmland beside the Willamette River near St. Paul, OR, who walked through the prairie with me for the first time in 2006, and said in a way I wish that you could hear--"So, are you serious about this?  Would you like my advice?" Yes, I wanted his advice.

"You have to be willing to use herbicide."  OK.

I adjusted my schedule for the difference between the wet climate of the Willamette Valley and the drier and colder Palouse region, but in late May/early June, after some rain, I walked through the prairie, spraying every Prickly lettuce I saw with 2,4-D.  Any living Lactuca at that point will be toast.  Ideally, I had native grass growing in that area, and so the 2,4-D would not disturb it.  This is the most profound effort by this plant, and 2/3 of your problem will be gone.  The next important time to go through was around the first week of July, hoping for summer rain we would often get, and spraying a day or so afterwards.  This would be the last time I could use herbicide until fall.  In this instance, I would use what I called "kill juice"--OK, yell at me, but... whatever. "Kill juice" is mixing as much glyphosate as would be appropriate for that much water, and then mixing 2,4-D into that same liquid, appropriate for that much water.  It is very effective, and used in spot spraying applications.  In fact, the bindweed, poison hemlock, and Canada thistle I mentioned earlier?  That takes it out.  With the glyphosate, it will also take out grass, so into those spots where I had grass, I would again use pure 2,4-D.  I should say that this method is also how I rid myself of another similarly-invasive weed, Salsify (except for the odd one blowing in from the neighbors).  Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) was easier because it doesn't have as much of a long period where the plants will sprout. 

This will eliminate 80%-90% of the Prickly lettuce, but the 10%-20% of it remaining will ruin everything.  One single plant, unmolested, can spread (hundreds? thousands?) of seeds--each one of those little pods that were flowers you can see in those plants above is loaded with a bunch of tiny seeds.  It will--this is the years of trial-and-(mainly) error talking here. So, then comes the bucket-and-shovel.  Now, I know some people around me here want to be organic about things, and OK, I do the same in my vegetable garden.  A small space can be cleared (not of field bindweed, poison hemlock, or Canada thistle, but...) through this ritual of physical control, but the weird thing is that I have never seen my neighbors using the classic dig-the-actual-weeds method.  But I start up in July, and keep going.  I have a five-gallon bucket, and I go out in the mornings before it gets too hot (I have been thwarted by smoky conditions as well... sigh...)--I discovered that blooming Prickly lettuce closes up its flowers in the middle of the day--if you go in the morning, the pale yellow flowers of blooming Lactuca will tell you where they are.  This is important.  Some years I have dug more than 75 gallons of weeds in this way.

I take my little shovel (I had a cool Army-surplus trench-digger from my ancient boy scout days that did a great job until the blade cracked through), and dig right alongside the Prickly lettuce plant in question, pop the dirt sideways as my gloved hand gently pulls the plant stem, and it nearly always pops out with enough roots to take care of business.  Into the bucket, and from there to the burn pile.  In early July, the plants are not that resourceful, and I can break off the top blooming part to put in the bucket, and drop the roots, lower stem, and leaves as compost on the ground.  By the end of July, you can see the blooms/buds popping out of the leaves all the way up the plant, and you've got to put the whole thing in the bucket.  Now in mid-August, the plants come up blooming and you have to get all of it in a hurry.  It has been so hot and smoky here that on the rare days I can get out there, I've got to go.  Weirdly, in this smoky drought, I think that many of these plants gave up on the future and sprouted earlier than they normally would have, and thus... I have cleared them.  In this bizarre time, I have to say that I'm optimistic.  For the first time I've gotten ahead of them, and most of the prairie is completely free of weeds.  I still go out most days, but there are less and less of them in a few areas that had been impossible for years, but now...  I get my five-gallon bucket maybe a third full. 

So, the next step may not be necessary this year, but in the past, after the first rains (October), I would go through and spot-spray any Lactuca that sprout with the notorious kill-juice, or I would use pure 2,4-D where there was grass, or plain glyphosate where I was preparing ground to plant native grass seed.  I think this year there will be so few that I can walk through with the bucket and shovel in late October and get the few that show up, from seed that blew in and sprouted.  It has been a few years, but satisfying to know you can get there.  

That's the method.  Good luck!


Saturday, August 14, 2021

A year of flowers #72: Autumn willowherb


Epilobium brachycarpum
This is probably the last of the year of flowers, but it has been a strange year, so who knows...?  I never planted it, but it's everywhere out there, and this is another plant that I couldn't ever get rid of even if I wanted to, so I was delighted to find out that it is indeed native.  I have recognized that it does a good job keeping the other noxious-weed seeds floating in the air from alighting and sprouting.  In August, it begins producing a pink cloud out there, hovering at about 3-4 feet above the ground, and this year seems to be utterly undaunted by the drought and heat.  
I just read an article describing methods for eradicating it, and it was interesting to read about how difficult it is to eliminate it.  I guess it is a noxious weed in a lot of places, but not here.  I suspect that annual plants like this do a lot to provide structure and biomass for the soil, and this one certainly provides a lot beauty out there at a time when other things are drying up. 

Sunday, August 8, 2021

A year of flowers #71: Missouri goldenrod

Solidago missouriensis

This is the other goldenrod species in our area, more common than the earlier-blooming S. canadensis.  This is another vigorous species like yarrow that is very easy to grow here.  My first plants came from seed I got from a local native plant legend, Dave Skinner, who was the USDA native plant guy at WSU.  He passed away a few years ago, but his influence is still very much with us, because he did a lot to inspire people around here to grow native plants, and he did a lot of research to discover effective methods for propagating local native plants.  
I don't remember how I found this website, but I enthusiastically recommend it, if you are interested in propagating native plants.

If you use the pull-down menu for "Genus (species)" you can find studies related to the propagation of whatever plant you've chosen.  For every Palouse prairie plant I have wanted to study in this resource, the best propagation information here is invariably from Dave Skinner's work at WSU.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

A year of flowers #70: Western aster

Aster occidentalis

Western asters were an early success for me.  I collected seed down by the river in the late 90's and grew a bunch of them in pots, and then planted them in the middle of what became the prairie.  They loved it here.

In fact they spread enthusiastically through the northern part of the property, and Dona expressed alarm at their vigor.  They were not unlike yarrow, Missouri goldenrod, and Spring willow-herb (those last two are still to be chronicled, herein), in that they were, well, invasive.  But ultimately, this wasn't a problem.  They first produced huge versions of themselves over a large area, and then have gradually gotten smaller, thickened, and established themselves in a cooperative role out there.  Even in this difficult year, you can see that the asters are fine.  

It is very smoky and hot here now, and so I haven't gone out for a few days, but I just came in from walking through, and I am delighted to see that I seem to have eliminated Prickly lettuce and Salsify from most of the property.  In the past I would go out in early August and see a new population coming up, but my suspicion that the heat and drought inspired these opportunistic plants to go early, and I was able to get them. Now, it's dry as a bone out there, and I hope those natives come back, but... no weeds.  It has been a long time to get to this point.  


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A year of flowers #69: Douglas' knotweed

Polygonum douglasii

It turns out to be very difficult to get a photo of this flower, because it's so tiny that the camera assumes I must be trying to photograph something else.  I don't know what I did to get it to focus this once, but I'd better declare victory and post it.  This is another plant that just showed up, that I suspected (correctly) was a native.  

I have been writing about our weird drought and epic "heat bubble," and it has been interesting to just let things go out there, and we'll see what survives.  Another flower that I won't be able to post is the Jessica's asters--I have a couple of monster plants, but no blooms this year.  I threw some water at them but they don't seem to be interested.  Maybe they'll do something.  Still, many plants are proceeding as though it's just another year, a bit drier and hotter but... fine... Here are next year's Scarlet gilia that seem not to be perturbed by the conditions.

In fact, overall, the prairie is certainly dry, but it looks OK.  It's just August out there several weeks early...