Thursday, April 28, 2011

“The Piano Singing Back To You”

Today is a sort of half-and-half day. It’s almost a day where I have nothing at all to say, but I do have a little bit of stuff to say.

But not much.

Okay, I’ve still got synthesizers on the brain. For some reason I can’t stop thinking about oscillators and filters and amplifiers and harmonic analysis and all that stuff. I don’t know, really, what it has to do with music (or writing, for heaven’s sake!), but, nonetheless, I can’t stop thinking about it.

I described how I started thinking about it in February Ketchup, when I accidently recorded ambient noise along with some music.

My arranger keyboard can do a little synthesizer stuff, but so far as I know I can’t actually access the oscillators themselves. I can select a classic synthesizer as a voice. Or layer different sounds on the same keys. Or wildly alter the effects applied to voices. But no actual sound-shaping.

A while ago I mentioned a little synthesizer called the Korg MicroStation. Then, as a kind of counter-point, I talked about the Roland Gaia.

I really like the Gaia. I suppose, someday, I’m going to buy one. To my eyes it strikes the perfect balance between being complicated enough to do interesting and involved stuff—like generate artificial sounds which mimic the harmonics of real-world, emergent sounds—but it cuts away the frills and pointless complexity, the, so to speak, bells and whistles.

On the other hand—here we go for today’s sort of counter-point—there is this beautiful bit of endless complexity:

Many people consider this the very best synthesizer in the world. It’s made by a German company called Access and it’s called a “Virus.” They have three or four different models, but they’re all the same sound engine.

They have oscillators and filters and amplifiers just like all synthesizers. They just have a lot of them. And they have everything else, too. They have a lot of everything else.

These machines are expensive as all get out but they are used on a lot of pop music. I’ve heard—and I don’t know if this is true but I strongly suspect it is at least true-ish—that when people like Shakira or Katy Perry put out an album there are some songs where every sound you hear, except for their voice, every sound you hear was created on an Access Virus.

They’re very cool, very powerful, very beautiful.

I suppose I’d love playing with one. But the thing is, sound is sound. And synthesis is synthesis. Even though these fancy machines have many, many more bells and whistles than the Roland Gaia and cost about seven times as much, the Roland Gaia can do the same kinds of things the Access Virus can do. And—I strongly suspect—many people listening over cheap ear buds to, say, a YouTube video created with Roland Gaia sounds might not be able to tell the sounds apart from a video created using Access Virus sounds.


Telescopes. Cameras. Computers. Musical instruments.

The real fancy, expensive stuff is seductive. It’s pretty and powerful and fun. But it’s always good to remember that—somewhere—there’s a point, a kind of plateau or cut-off point, where the functionality kind of levels off and all the extras are only bells and whistles.


Pretty stuff. Pretty expensive stuff.

I strongly suspect someday I will buy a Roland Gaia. (Thanks to MIDI, I could use my keyboard to play any sounds crafted on a Gaia.)

Here is a quote from back in the day—ancient history times—when synthesizers were first starting out and entire albums could be recorded without any synthesizers at all. But the people still used technology to make interesting sounds:

...So we moved smartly on to a second idea: a gigantic piano chord. You get a wonderful sound from a piano if you let the overtones work. Try it for yourself: if you have a piano in your house, open the lid wide, press down the sustain pedal (the right one), lean over, and shout. You will hear the piano singing back to you all the little notes that are in your voice. When there are many of those overtones working against each other, they generate extra frequencies, so-called ‘beat’ frequencies, which give a wonderful kind of rolling effect. Now multiply that a thousand times . . .

We managed to scrape together three pianos. After a few hilarious practice shots, Paul, John, Ringo, Mal Evans and I crunched down on the same chord as hard as we could. You can hear my voice on the master tape counting in to the chord, so that everyone hits it at exactly the same time.

If you recorded a heavy chord strike like that on a piano without any compression, you would hear a very, very loud note to begin with, but the die-away would be very quiet. We wanted the first impact of the chord to be there (although not overbearing), but the decay to be very loud. (Compression takes the impact of the note, absorbs it like a shock absorber, then brings the volume back up quickly to compensate.) As the chord started to fade, Geoff Emerick raised the gain gradually, to keep it singing on. At the end of the note, forty-five seconds into it, the volume level on the studio amplifiers was enormous.

Everybody had to be terribly quiet. If anybody were to have coughed, it would have sounded like an explosion. As it is, on the special Ultra High Quality Recording edition of Sgt. Pepper, you can hear the Abbey Road air-conditioning system purring away in the background as Geoff opens the volume faders to the stops at the very end of the die-away. That’s how we got the famous piano chord.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

More plastic doll and rubber lizzard movies, please. You have fans of these movies... :)