… and a plea from a fellow musician.
I love technology. Though I sometimes feel musically anachronistic since I tend to favor styles from the past like 60s soul-jazz, 70s progressive rock, and 80s new-wave, I am absolutely enamored with modern music tech. I am thankful to be alive right now when you have access to an incredibly powerful recording studio in the palm of your hand on your tablet or on a desk via a laptop. It is truly amazing.
Like all technology, however, modern digital musical instruments / software exhibit pros and cons. The pros include obvious benefits like affordability, usability, flexibility, and high-fidelity. Ease of access is another biggie. I have sounds that emulate every classic keyboard instrument you can imagine, literally at my fingertips.
The cons are a little less evident. The enormous wealth of options available can be paralyzing. What sound should I use for this particular section? Well, I could use a nice synth pad. Okay. A synth pad from what software synthesizer? And hours go by while I decide and scroll through endless presets.
I try to keep my collection of softsynths relatively small and yet I still routinely choose between PadShop, HALion Sonic (which contains numerous synth engines), Diva, Alchemy, Korg Monopoly, Zebra, FM8, Massive, or Dark Planet for that perfect pad sound. Oh yeah, I almost forgot; I also have the CS80V, Prophet V, and Oberheim SEM V available. And each of those synths has hundreds of different sounds to audition, not to mention the temptation to spend even more time making your own. And let’s not even mention my hardware synths. It can be truly overwhelming.
Another con is that despite some real stand-outs in the field (like Alchemy, Zebra, and PadShop), a lot of softsynths tend to sound mostly the same and feature the same categories and re-creations of sounds.
Beyond that is the nature of digital sound itself. What do I mean?
First a little backstory: When my father passed in 2008 I had been studying with him for about a year to learn the art of piano tuning. My dad raised his seven children with piano tuning, repair, and restoration. It’s a satisfying job and I always feel close to his memory when I tune especially since he bequeathed his tools to me. When I am home from touring, I sincerely enjoy tuning pianos, even the awful ones. Why? Because every single piano is different. Every one is a challenge. Every one requires special attention to bring out the best the instrument can offer. And each one sounds unique.
The tools of the trade.
Which finally brings me to digital pianos. No one can dismiss the convenience of digital pianos. I’m utterly amazed and delighted that Casio makes something as great as the Privia PX-5s, which weighs a mere 23lbs, plays and sounds beautiful. How far the technology has come! Digital pianos are wonderful especially on the road. I certainly do not long for the old days of the CP70, RMI Electra-Piano, and Kurzweil K250. Modern digital pianos are also indispensable in the studio for songwriting and production.
So what’s my beef? My beef is the sound of pianos on modern recordings and how they all sound the same. I love the pianos on older recordings because they are real pianos and as I mentioned above, each one is different and has its own character. And every engineer miked and EQ’d them differently. I am especially sensitive to this on my prog rock project. I love the piano on Firth of Fifth by Genesis (and the iconic intro by Tony Banks). It sounds different than any other piano because it was a unique instrument, the tuning wasn’t always perfect on every note, and it had its own idiosyncrasies. In the age of digital, it is too easy to be perfect. This is true for singing (pitch correction software), drums (samples + beat detection / grid locking), bass (samples, amp sims, micro-editing), guitar (amp simulators and micro-editing), and everything else. But it especially bothers me when it comes to pianos, probably due to an increased sensitivity from years of tuning.
It seems like everyone tends to load up their favorite piano sample library and that’s that. For awhile the sample library Ivory was ubiquitous. I could tell when they (the engineer and artist) used it. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But the sample libraries, as good as they are, still miss that realness and individuality. They are too perfect and they are always the same, every time you load it; like little clones of each other on every recording. Or like everyone is recording the same piano on the same day with the same mics, pitch-corrected, gated, and mathematically perfect.
My daughter Zora, age five, at the 1913 AB Chase baby grand. Photo taken in 2009.
All this is to say (and perhaps justify to myself) that on my upcoming prog album, I will be recording a real piano. And if I can swing it, not just any piano but a beautiful 1913 AB Chase baby grand that I found and brought home in 2009. It’s small, yes. And it needs some work. But I fell in love with the tone when I first played it even though it was horribly out of tune. It is rich and full and beautiful. And most important, it is unique.
To get it ready, I am going to replace all 46 bass strings, most of the middle strings, the hammers, the dampers, and all the key punchings. I will also refurbish the smaller action parts and regulate everything. Once ready, I will move some furniture in our living room and place the piano in the middle. I will mic it with some high-quality mics (not sure which ones yet) and record all the piano parts that I already played and edited via MIDI. I’ve been using Pianoteq for the demos and it sounds great, but I want character, the kind of character only a real piano can give due to it’s individuality.
Pianoteq from Moddart. Pianoteq is a virtually modeled piano utilizing no sampling.
The AB Chase has been recorded before, on Greg Nagy’s last CD Fell Towards None. The part was very sparse and I purposely avoided the deadest of the 100+ year-old dead bass strings to make it work. It is one of my favorite tracks on the disc (the title track) because of the dark atmosphere the AB Chase created. But for the prog project, the piano needs to be in tip-top shape. It’s going to be played hard!
If I cannot get the AB Chase ready in time, I will rent a piano from a local dealer who specializes in restoring vintage Steinways, Mason & Hamlins, Chickerings, etc. I will find one that speaks to me in it’s own voice. It doesn’t even have to be a grand piano. Just the other day I tuned an old upright from the 1920s for a client (I forget the brand name but the company is long gone). While checking the tuning afterward I marveled at the gorgeous, warm tone from that old beauty, even with old dead bass strings and the original hammers. The old wood and steel and cast iron resonated in the room and spoke to me.
To my fellow musicians; use a real piano for recording whenever you can, even if it’s a little console, upright, or spinet (I used a Wurlitzer spinet on Root Doctor’s cover of I Wish It Would Rain and it was just perfect in that instance). Yes, that newly released sample library might sound amazing, but does it sound like you? Does it speak to you? Or does it make you sound like everyone else?
A 1903 A.B. Chase upright that I restored and sold in January 2014. My father’s piano tuning tool kit (the wooden box) is in the right corner. This piano had a gorgeous sound as well especially after I installed new hammers.