Ed Thomas replica by John Knopf
Magic -- you may be over thinking things.
I'll suggest recording your playing and at the end note things you liked about a particular recording. They play it back -- the later that day or next day -- to hear what it sounds like. You can never really tell what the balance of melody to drones sounds like, your attack on the melody or drones, etc. until you hear it from "out front" as it were instead of "on top" of the sound.
I've owned one of John's Ed Thomas replicas (painted poplar) for a number of years, and agree wholeheartedly with everything you've written. John is a joy to work with and builds great instruments -- not just the Thomas replica but his large traditional Singleton replica is fabulous as well.
Judging how much and which drones to emphasize where in any particular song, is to me one of the joys of working up tunes on a traditional dulcimer.
I've had my new Ed Thomas replica by John Knopf for just over a week now and have just uploaded a couple of quick recordings, so I thought I'd share some thoughts on the instrument.
In short, I couldn't be happier with it. Neither John's photos nor mine do justice to its appearance - they make it look lighter in colour and somehow 'newer' or glossier than the lovely, natural, dark walnut piece it is. Robin Clark's testimonial about the painted poplar version, shared on John's website, describes it as having 'the Holy Grail of shimmering dulcimer voices', and that perfectly expresses how I feel about my walnut version. The melody string just sings with that 'high silvery' tone that makes it such a pleasure to slip and slide a noter around the fretboard.
I was a little worried that I might find the drones a little brash or overpowering on such a truly old-style dulcimer, since their 'bright' tone is often contrasted with the more 'mellow' tone of modern instruments (which is what I've played in the past) - but the sound is quite mellow enough for me. (I still find that I'm second-guessing myself on how to much to consciously emphasize or de-emphasize the drone strings and the rhythm, but that's nothing to do with this instrument in particular!)
Since I'm in the UK, I had to pay more than $200 in shipping and taxes to get this instrument in my hands, but I'm glad I bit the bullet and didn't just settle for anything less that the truly authentic, traditional instrument I really wanted. Not only is John's craftsmanship excellent, but the simplicity and elegance of Ed Thomas's original design is something you can only really appreciate when you hold one of these incredibly light, small, slender instruments in your hands. I would recommend them unreservedly to any player with any level of interest in the traditional 'dulcimore', especially if those players are in the US and can get hold of them at the more than reasonable price John charges sans import costs!
Finally, I must mention what a pleasure John was to work with, being more than happy to accommodate my request not just for a non-standard finish (oil rather than shellac), but also my perhaps more 'delicate' request for an 'anonymous' instrument without the name and Bible verse he normally includes on the label.