Continuing with a previous blog about Rhodes electric pianos I have owned, when I started to do a lot of recording for my new album with the one I have now, I discovered there is quite a lot to know about a Rhodes, beyond just playing it....
I took the Rhodes I had just bought (the fourth so far) back to my studio and started playing and experimenting with it. I have always found that Rhodes can have a rather “wooly” sound which does not cut through in recordings, and I discovered online an item called a “MacLaren Harmonic Clarifier” which is a kind of on-board retro-fit to the Rhodes, and, for the technically-minded, is apparently essentially a pre-amp and an aural-exciter combined. Anyway, I was so excited by the more dynamic, cutting sound this gave the Rhodes that I immediately recorded a solo on one of the tracks that appears on my new album, and have kept this very solo on the finished album!
And then something a little odd happened. For some reason, I delayed finishing off, with the souped-up Rhodes, the rest of the song on which I had recorded a solo. Also, some kind of electrical fault seemed to be developing on the Rhodes, leading to notes becoming distorted.
Now, there are still, in London and the UK, some experts and afficionados of Rhodes and other vintage keyboards, who can help with this kind of thing, but from past experience I have found them quite difficult to deal with, maybe because of their sometimes rather strange appearance and manner, perhaps connected to their rather mad and single-minded obsession with vintage keyboards. And so, with through the medium of Ebay, I came across a nice Polish man, actually in Poland, (the internet is wonderful) who was auctioning his services as a repairer and tuner of my very make of vintage keyboard! I got in touch, acquired his services, and he told me he would be arriving in England the next week at Stansted, London’s third airport, and would come straight from there to see me.
He duly did this, went into my studio and fixed the electrical problem on my Rhodes. From there he went on to give my Rhodes a thorough tuning and voicing, which is to do with adjusting the tone of each note, and it was there that the next problem started.
I had been quite happy with the tuning and voicing when he left, which gave the Rhodes a clear and bell-like tone, pretty uniformly across the entire keyboard. However, I noticed when I went back quite some time later to finish off the track already mentioned, on which I had completed a Rhodes solo, that something was wrong. Because, try as I might, I could not get the stuff I was now playing on the Rhodes to match what I had played previously, in term of the tone and funky response of individual notes. Things I played were OK, but the sound was rather bland and boring, lacking cut and bite tonally.
I could not understand what was wrong, had I previously been using a certain kind of EQ or compressor on the Rhodes to give the solo that responsive, funky sound, or what?
And then I realized: in the intervening period I had had the Polish guy tune and voice the Rhodes! He had given it a “perfect” sound, but all the grit and bump and grind of many of the notes, which had previously combined to give it its overall unique funky character, had disappeared!
What could be done? The only thing, I realized: put things back they were before the tuning and voicing.
Now I won’t go into the intricacies of tuning and voicing a Rhodes, but it involved buying (for not much) a particular kind of wrench to easily un-tighten and tighten nuts on the Rhodes, which is more of a U.S. kind of article. If it can be found here in the UK at all it is normally only used to service vintage Pin-ball machines, which somehow seemed rather fitting and charming. After that it is a question of moving bits of metal in the mechanism of individual notes up and down and back and forth to give you the tone and responsiveness you want.
But how to know what the tone previously was? Luckily, I had the solo I had previously recorded. Painstakingly listening and comparing individual notes of this solo with individual notes of the Rhodes (with the help of the computer music software and loop-mode), I was able, to my satisfaction, to put the Rhodes back to how it had been tonally, while still keeping the tuning, such that I was now able to play it with the feel I wanted, and complete the song in question, and others.
And the moral of the story is: maybe, Perfect is not always best.
Also, as a keyboard-player, having an instrument like a Rhodes makes you feel more like a guitar player, you can get your own individual sound, rather than essentially having to make do with what some bloke in a Japanese factory has decided upon and installed in a box.
I have gone on from there to learn about other odd idiosyncracies of recording the Rhodes. Such as, be careful with the studio lights-dimmer switch setting, which can introduce white-noise into the Rhodes audio-signal in certain positions. For similar reasons, don’t have a wi-fi enabled printer sitting near the Rhodes switched on. On a more basic level, don’t have the level of any track you’re overdubbing onto too loud, as it can bleed onto the Rhodes recording through the keyboard’s pick-ups; in fact, maybe its best to wear headphones, like a vocalist, while recording.