Earthworks making waves in bluegrass

Earthworks Audio microphonesFor a great many musicians and studio folks, Earthworks microphones are known primarily for their reference and choral applications. Recognized for their remarkable sonic accuracy and lack of tonal colorization, these somewhat odd-looking microphones, with their long cylindrical shape and small, elongated elements, have more recently been making their way to bluegrass stages through the efforts of John Holder.

John runs one of the top acoustic sound reinforcement companies in the southeastern US, Blue Ridge Sound, based in Morganton, NC. His isn’t a name you’ll hear bandied about much in the campgrounds, but you can bet that the stage performers and festival promoters know who he is. You’ll see him behind the board at many major bluegrass festivals in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee, and sometimes as far from home as Florida and California.

When Josh Trivett and Moonstruck Management took over running the big Huck Finn Bluegrass festival in Ontario, CA he brought Holder west to mix the strictly acoustic and bluegrass acts on the bill.

“Huck Finn already had a very capable production company on the team, Star Way Productions, but they didn’t have anyone with John’s level of experience dealing with acoustic music. They did a great job with the staging and the lights, and brought in all their top level gear, and we had John manning the board.”

In a recent interview with the Earthworks people, Holder shared how he became enamored of their microphones, and how he introduced them to some top bluegrass entertainers.

John Holder with Blue Ridge Sound behind the board at the 2016 Huck Finn Bluegrass Festival in Ontario, CA“I had been reading about Earthworks microphones for years, and one day a friend of mine, Myron Surber, had a church gig and was having problems getting a good choir sound and also couldn’t make them loud enough. So, he took a air of Earthworks SR20 cardioid mics and placed them in front of the choir. It made them sound huge, almost like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

After this dramatic experience I purchased a handful of Earthworks FM360s for a festival gig and used them on banjo, fiddle, guitar, dobro and whatever was needed. I was also using some Earthworks SR20s. In addition to using these mics on instruments, I also used a single FM360 for a vocal mic, where everyone would stand around this single mic and sing. The FM360 can pick up a lot of voices around it because of its wide polar pattern and flat frequency response. In addition, we can crank up the sound extremely loud and it still sounds good, and with no acoustic feedback.

Balsam Range is currently using a single FM360 for their acapella pieces on every show they do. On weekends when Blue Ridge Sound has several festivals going on, I take the SR20s with me, and my other engineers take whatever mics are left over. For any show that I am doing, Earthworks are my go-to mics.”

Earthworks SR40 high-definition cardioid micBalsam Range previously used a different brand of vocal and instrument mics and we decided to upgrade the mics for their live show. When we plugged in the Earthworks SR40V vocal mics, they immediately heard the difference in their in-ear monitors, as well as what I heard in the house sound system. The SR40V is like having a high definition vocal microphone. It is like the comparison between a standard TV and a really good high definition TV. With the SR40Vs, we hear incredible detail in the sound with tons more gain, and the feedback rejection on the back is also great.

“Balsam Range has been using Earthworks SR40s and SR40V vocal mics for nearly two years on their tours, and they just finished recording an album using the Earthworks mics in the studio slated for an October, 2016 release. They used SR40s on dobro, mandolin, fiddle, guitar and upright bass. Mountain Home engineers Scott Barnett and Van Atkins raved over the tonal qualities they were getting while tracking this album.

My most memorable experience using Earthworks mics was when I was doing monitors for Tony Rice with Mountain Heart. Tony has some of the best ears in acoustic music field and has a reputation for being extremely particular over his sound. That night, he was playing into an Earthworks SR20 and all of a sudden he turned around and looked at me, and I immediately thought he wanted something that he was not hearing. Then Tony walked over to me and said ‘Hey pal, it sounds great, can you turn it down 1dB.’ This was probably the highlight of my career. Later, he told his front of house engineer, Eric Wilson, that this was the best monitor mix he had ever had.”

These are not inexpensive microphones, with matched pairs selling for as much as $2,000, but the models John mentions above sell closer to $500 each. There is clearly a trend these days in bluegrass and acoustic sound reinforcement towards upgrading stage microphones as the most efficient method for improving audio fidelity. Capturing the signal at the source is ultimately the most important link in the chain, yet many live engineers still drag around many thousands of dollars worth of house speakers and signal processing gear, along with a tub of low priced, easily replaceable microphones.

With so many touring bands now using in-ear monitor systems, lessening if not eliminating feedback problems on stage, utilizing high definition microphones for live applications is more reasonable than ever.

Holder also bragged a bit about the reaction he got out in California.

Earthworks SR20 high-definition cardioid mic“This year I was hired to mix sound for the Huck Finn Jubilee in Ontario, California, and naturally I took my SR20s with me for all the instruments. They really came in handy when I had to mix the Soggy Bottom Boys (the headliners) following a great, but rather loud, set by Leftover Salmon. The crowd was really cranked up after Leftover Salmon played, so I turned the PA to ‘stun’ for the Soggy Bottom Boys. They sounded like a record! Stuart Duncan, the fiddle player, came off the stage and told Josh Trivett of Monstruck Management who was in charge of the talent for the festival, ‘I don’t know who your front of house guy is, but that was one of the best mixes I have ever had.’ The SR20’s are like studio quality mics that really behave themselves in extremely tough situations!”

Its nice to see this level of audio precision coming into the bluegrass market, and quite rewarding to see a company as prominent as Earthworks respond so specifically to our music.

You can find out more about their products online.

Share this:

About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.