Tone Talk with Aubrey Richmond

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Photo by Stasi Photography

Hi, I’m Aubrey Richmond, a fiddling, chord strumming singer-songwriter. I’ve been in Los Angeles for 14 years now, which is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. I grew up in the northeastern corner of Washington state, but I am a California native, born in Sacramento. I grew up homeschooled in a tiny house, 30 miles from the nearest town. Even though I studied classical piano and competed in fiddle contests, music was something I did more than something I listened to for enjoyment. But my parents had good taste in music, so my ear was developing to artists like Alison Krauss and Union Station, Beethoven, and the Beach Boys. Some of those early influences are still my favorites, but there are so many more now. I love rock ‘n’ roll, jazz standards, the American songbook — great songwriting.

Because of my fiddle background, I’ve done a lot of work in the roots genres like Americana, country, and folk, but I can play a mean blues violin, and it all sits on a classical foundation. I’ve been touring and recording with Shooter Jennings since 2014, and am signed to Blue Élan Records with my Americana band, Mustangs of the West. It’s a group of five talented women, and our album “Time” was released last month,

These are interesting times. The landscape of live entertainment is changing, and many of us will be redefining ourselves and what it means to be a musician or artist in the wake of all this. It’s causing us to explore new outlets for creative expression and connection. Hopefully, it will also encourage our society to reevaluate the value we place on music in our culture.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?

To me, tone is a reciprocal relationship between the quality of the instrument and the skill of a player. First, you need to evaluate whether the instrument has the innate tone quality that you’re looking for, but after that, it’s up to you to make it work for you. I can pretty much pull the tone I want out of any violin, but pay attention to how hard I need to work to get it. Usually (not always), the better the instrument, the easier it is to get the tone I want, but there are a lot of variables. I think of tone as sonic quality, separate from what or how many notes are being played. How good can you make one note sound? That is tone. If you need amps or pedals to make it sound good, then it’s probably time to get back to the basics. Of course, electric instruments are designed to be plugged in and need to be played a bit differently as well, so then it becomes about matching the instrument to the amp and pedals to get the desired tone. To me, that’s a subcategory of tone, though.

Violin is a particularly tricky instrument when it comes to creating good tone. Not only is it fretless, but the right hand is distinctly different from almost all other instruments. You’re not picking, strumming, or holding a slide — you’re balancing a bow and drawing horse-hairs across the string. You’re pulling tone. When you’re learning as a kid, it’s so hard to get anything you play to sound good. You’re either using too much bow pressure, or too little. And that has nothing to do with whether your left hand is even playing the notes in tune. Violin and its fellow stringed relatives are the ultimate Goldilocks instruments; everything has to be “just right.” We have old video footage of me trying to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” at a talent show, and every time I made a little screech I would stop, giggle, then start again. My tone has evolved a lot as a direct result of the bands and artists I’ve played with over the years. Through learning different material and trying to complement each vocalist and their genre in the most appropriate way, I’m always experimenting with ways to play more quietly; instead of just playing well and sounding good, how can I use tone for effect? How can I make something sound ominous? How can I use tone, and not just notes, to amplify the emotion and meaning of the lyrics? Your instrument is the paintbrush, and tone is whichever color you are using.

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Which instruments, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

I mainly play acoustic violin with an LR Baggs pickup for live gigs, so I don’t typically need much in the way of gear, at least not for local shows in the roots genres. A good clean sound goes a long way. I’ve always gotten great feedback from engineers at venues about my sound, which is in large part due to my LR Baggs pickup and DI. Once you plug in, your tone becomes much more dependent on what you’re using to translate your acoustic sound to an electric signal. I can run through my DI straight into the PA, and if the monitor situation is good, then I’m set. But if the band has a high stage volume, or if I have to share a monitor or monitor mix (or all of the above), that’s when I need an amp, just to hear myself on stage. I have an endorsement with Roland, so for the past couple of years, I’ve been touring with their Jazz Chorus Amps. I had the JC-40 for a while but traded up for a 120. That thing cranks. It’s all about knowing what you need.

I use a pedalboard on the Shooter gig and on the Duff tours we did. It’s mainly Roland pedals. I tend to use the Reverb and Delay the most, with a little flange, chorus, and some fun synth effects here and there. But the real MVP of my set up is the BOSS FV-500H volume pedal. I’m a nerd when it comes to levels and a stickler for self-mixing, but that can be tricky on live gigs. Even if you do have a FOH guy who’s really dialed in, they can easily override you if they don’t understand what you’re doing. Sometimes I’ve wanted a part to be soft, but it was too loud in the house mix. Other times it’s the opposite. We’ve started telling the FOH peeps to mix me like a guitar player, hahaha. You’ve got the rhythm level and the solo volume, but I even play around between those levels as well.

Thankfully for me, it’s not the end of the world if my rig goes down or we do a fly-out, and I don’t want to haul it out for a one-off. I like playing without effects because it encourages me to try new things. I don’t like being dependent on something I have to plug in, and because of the instrument I play can get away with that. I learned to create a lot of sounds acoustically way before I discovered pedals. Back then, I thought pedals were just for guitar players, hahaha.

What about strings?

I try to keep it simple with my strings. I tend to like expensive ones like Evah pirrazi and Obligato, but dominants are great too. Thankfully violin strings have a much longer play life than guitar strings. I’ve heard about players who nerd-out on strings, swapping them often and even mixing their sets. I haven’t gotten that in-depth and tend just to use whatever set I’ve got if it sounds good. I like darker fuller tones, so that informs which strings I use. I’ve definitely tried a new set and couldn’t deal with the way it felt or sounded. If they’re too thin, it hurts my fingers, and sometimes I can’t pull the tone I want from them. Strings do make a difference in tone quality, but with a violin, so does the placement of the sound post. Any given set of strings put on the same instrument, depending on what material they’re made of, how they’re wound, gauge, etc., will sound and respond differently.  Sometimes it’s subtle, but it can also be glaring. You will know when you hear it.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

I like to let the engineer/producer do their job. Ideally, they know their gear and the room better than I do, and I tend to trust them to make it sound good. There have been a few occasions where I was disappointed with the sound of the final product, but that hasn’t happened in a long time, and usually had more to do with the editing, as opposed to sound quality. I rarely allow anyone to record me going direct because while that’s necessary for playing live, the studio is where you should be taking advantage of the natural tone of the instrument, the space in the room, and the quality of a good mic — not dousing it in unnecessary pre-amps, compression, and plug-ins, just because you can. Less is more, in my opinion.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?

If your rig is consistent, your sound should be fairly consistent. Since I don’t run my effects loop to my amp, I only hear them in my monitor or in the house if I’m lucky. Some pedals have been more tricky to dial in than others. Because I don’t tend to have loud stage volume, and can’t usually hear the house that well, it’s been tricky knowing how to place myself in the mix. If I’m playing I expect to be audible; however, sometimes you want to be background texture as opposed to a boosted solo volume, so if you don’t have a FOH guy who’s really tuned in, the audience may not always hear the performance the way you intended them to. I’ve definitely listened to live audio playback and noticed that my parts were completely inaudible, and that goes for BGV’s as well. Like guitar players, I use a boost for my solos and parts that need to cut through more; that way, I’m not relying on someone who just heard one or two songs in soundcheck to know when all the solos happen during a 90-minute set. Unless you’re Guns N’ Roses or touring with your own FOH person, that’s just completely unrealistic.

What does your practice consist of?

Playing! I remember starting to fall asleep whenever I practiced as a child, especially playing scales — and not much has changed. For me, practice consists mainly of listening. If I need to learn exact parts, then I listen to the music and learn them. Otherwise, I just familiarize myself with arrangements and explore parts during rehearsals and make adjustments depending on what the other players are doing. Different gigs require different kinds of preparation, and each player will have a unique process that helps them learn and improve. I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all approaches to most things. I need practice to be as interactive as possible. Having already put in many solitary hours developing my tone and learning to play in tune (and by ear), sitting in at jam nights is the best kind of practice. Since we can’t do that right now, the next best thing would be just to put on records and play along!

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?

When you’re first starting out, it’s important to get as much exposure as possible. If you’re a player, find out where the jams are and sit in. Great playing is always the best calling card. Get out there! Network. Meet lots of people. Be interested in who they are and what they do, and learn from them if you can. You’ll learn how to sift quickly, and probably make a few great friends as a result. Mentors will emerge as well. Learn to value yourself, your time, your talent, and you will present yourself with confidence. Be nice, but don’t let people take advantage of you. Boundaries are SO important. There are so many beautiful, talented, dysfunctional people in the arts, so if you don’t have the experience and tools to navigate manipulators, you’re better off avoiding them. But for every bad apple, there are so many more kind, amazing people in this industry. Just remember that like attracts like, and an optimistic outlook will always take you further. We didn’t get into music to be miserable, so if the prospect of something makes you cringe, walk away and allow room for something better to come along. Learn the art of the smiling “no” because diplomacy is a huge asset in this industry. Cultivate a mindset of abundance and inclusion over scarcity and competition. If you love music and this is really the life you want, you just have to be persistent. Think turtle, not hare, and play the long game.

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