Creating sound worlds, this is what I do for a living.
Mostly I create ephemeral sound worlds that come and go in real time. Sometimes I have the great privilege of creating permanent sound worlds, recorded as data, a collection of moments frozen in time that will be around forever. Or at least, for as long as the technology to replay it survives.
I’ve blogged before about the fine work of my very special colleague Virginia Read - she’s the engineer who worked on my first two albums (Mad Rush and The Good, the Bad and the Awkward ). I’ve learnt so much from her over the last couple of years not only about the actual process of recording, but the importance of focussing on the details of the sound we create. You’d think that recording solo piano albums would be a simple thing for an highly experienced classical music engineer of her calibre. I’m sure it used to be a simple thing before she met me. Ha!
On my first album Mad Rush the producers asked me if I wanted to record on a Stuart and Sons piano, an incomparably wonderful piano made locally by Wayne Stuart. It has a wider range of pitch (102 keys!!), a much wider range of dynamic and colour and an evenness of tone across the range the like of which is unparalleled on any other instrument I have ever played. Ever. This presents the recording engineer with quite a task - how to capture this range? Virginia and I took several hours to find the right place to put the piano in the hall and the right place to put the microphones. Several hours and several different setups. We ended up putting a pair of mikes quite close to the strings, almost like a pop music recording, plus two microphones behind me (It’s called pianist perspective recording) and then mixing the results together. The recording has an intimacy about it because of the closeness of the 1st set of mikes to the strings. Also, the ‘pianist perspective’ mikes make you feel like you’re standing close to where I’m playing, rather than out in the hall seeing a performance from a distance. Here’s an example of the sound we created, the title track Mad Rush.
On my second album of music from the movies The Good, the Bad and the Awkward, I took the lessons I had learnt about sound and, well, became more demanding with what I wanted. I think Virginia relished this opportunity to be a bit creative in the recording process (at least I think she did… at any rate, she never complained!). I requested three different piano sounds for three different kinds of repertoire.
1) A proper classical sound as if the listener were at a recital in a concert hall (for example, this Satie from The Painted Veil)
2) A close miked pop music sound, as if the listener were in a small studio with the pianist (for example this Angelo Badalamenti from Twin Peaks)
3) A sound that we called “pop minimalism” which was exactly half way between these two sounds. (for example, this Yann Tiersen from Amélie)
I then also had all my toy instrument tracks, for example The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Ennio Morricone. I played all the instruments which we overdubbed to make an occasionally cacophonous noise. We didn’t use a click track like the pop musicians do. For those not in the know, a click track is basically a metronome that the musicians have on headphones whilst they’re recording their parts for overdubbing. Virginia and I did it with something called internal pulse… i.e. I can actually count! ;)
Virginia somehow then magically wove all these different sounds into a single seamless listening experience. I was so impressed (I still am!) and she totally should have won that ARIA award for which she was nominated. She worked harder than any pop engineer would ever even know how to work!
Now I’m about to record my third album All Imperfect Things, an all Michael Nyman offering. I’ll be recording on a Steinway piano, which is the kind of industry standard instrument. To be frank, it has much less range/scope than the Stuart and Sons piano, but on the other hand has a much warmer and fuller sound overall. I did consider going with the “pop minimalism” sound that we used on my last album but I’ve realised that won’t work at all. The closer you put the mikes, the less dynamic range you have to play with. Loud playing can overload the proverbial system. More distant mikes, as in the bona fide classical sound, give you the opportunity to play both louder and softer.
Additionally, there is the problem of contrast within Nyman’s music. Dynamic contrast is created in his music almost entirely through texture. Rather like various sorts of dance music (techno, house, electro etc.) you make it ‘louder’ by adding instruments/tracks and make it ‘softer’ by taking them away. The Michael Nyman Band who play exclusively his music are as close to a rock band as a classical ensemble can get. There’s very little in the way of dynamic subtlety in their playing, it’s either ‘on’ or ‘off’…. and this is the joy of it! Check out the band, they really do rock.
However, it presents a solo pianist with a problem. How to create the contrast with a limited amount of textural variety written into the piano arrangements? The rock’n’roll sound seems appropriate when all the other instruments are in, but I will need to play with much greater variation in volume and colour to create the same effect all by myself as a solo pianist. Plus, to effectively record that contrast, I’ll need to go with a far more traditional recording technique (the ‘proper classical’ I mentioned above). Either that, or we could try the Mad Rush sound, but of course it will be different to that again because it’s not a Stuart and Sons piano.
Do other pianists go through all this turmoil when making a recording? I wonder….