Sunday, 30 September 2012

Recording a Rhodes Electric Piano: some discoveries

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....

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.

So owning and recording a Vintage Keyboard such as a Rhodes is not quite the same as your average plug-in-and-play electronic keyboard. It needs love, care and understanding. But given this, it will reward you in full measure. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

Song-writing Thoughts: Lyrics or Music First?

An aspiring songwriter asked me today what's the best way to start writing a song. Well, since the question was asked, I gave my views on it, which I thought I'd include here too.

There's two ways to start in my opinion. Either music first or lyrics first. Music first is OK, and its possible to come up with something worthwhile in that way, but in my personal experience you can end up not knowing quite where to go with the song and get quite frustrated.

I've always been a fan of starting with a title for the song, which also is probably the main sung musical hook. A great title is something simple and catchy. It could be the kind of little popular expression people use everyday when speaking, that sums up some train of thought. There are also some other classic tricks people use that make titles catchy (alliteration, using colours, place-names, days of the week,  - but there's no obligation!)

Even more important though, the title must sum-up a genuine strong feeling, emotion or point of view that you or someone else has. If it doesn't, and is just a title that sounds interesting and you can't think what else to say, that's no good, 'cos it will make writing the rest of the song very hard! The rest of the song should just flow naturally from the title, and be quite easy to write because it just explains the title. When I say a genuine emotion or experience etc, it doesn't have to be your emotion, you could be putting yourself in someone else's shoes, but hopefully you would know what you're talking about.

There are so many examples of great songs that have been written like this. I remember seeing a video about Diane Warren, who's one of the most successful songwriters ever, and how she wrote "Unbreak My Heart", where she took a common expression: "break my heart",  and made it more interesting by twisting it round, and then wove a story around that. Also, if you look at the song-titles of someone like Adele, they all follow the principle of a strong title as outlined above:

Rumour Has It
Set Fire to the Rain
Someone Like You
Take It All
Turning Tables
Cold Shoulder
Crazy For You
Don't You Remember
He Won't Go
Hometown Glory
I'll Be Waiting
Melt My Heart to Stone
One and Only

With a good title, you should almost know what the song is about before you hear it, or think you have a good idea. Or at least your interest is aroused because it strikes a chord and connects with you somewhere.

Well, there you have it, that's what I think, for what it's worth. You might well come up with a strong title and lyrics that grow from it while listening to a backing track, but not necessarily, and I don't think it's really necessary to have the backing track there beforehand.

However, what I would also say is that you don't have to have all the lyrics before you start working on the song. Just an interesting title and maybe another potential line or two is enough, and then you can start working on a beat to sing those lines along to, and get a strong melody with some chords, bassline etc, which may then help the lyrics and idea for the rest of the song. So, in a nutshell, a bit of lyrics, a bit of music, lyrics, music and so on (but at least some lyrics first).

In conclusion, I'd say that when you prepare to do maybe a song-writing collaboration with someone, (for example, as a singer working with a musician), it would be good if you, and maybe both, came up with some good ideas for song-titles along these lines beforehand, not just think the first thing to do is to get a backing-track done.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Rhodes Pianos I Have Loved

This is a photo of my actual Fender Rhodes 73 Stage Electric Piano which I just published  on my facebook artist-page; I bought it second-hand in London a few years ago through an ad in "Loot".

It is the fourth I have owned, the first being one I bought when I was a student In Brighton for what seemed an amazing sum in those days, £600, the same as I paid for this one second-hand. I took that one with me to Paris when I studied there on a cross-channel ferry (that was long before the chunnel). Some Parisian friends  who wanted me to be in their band had driven all the way to Calais to pick me up, but by mistake the ferry company had put this heavy object straight onto the train that connected with the boat, and it went all the way to Paris by itself, so my friends had a wasted journey!

The second I bought quite cheaply in Boston USA to help me with my music-studies when I was at Berklee College of Music, and they seemed rather two-a-penny compared to the UK. As I used the Rhodes mainly as a study-aid, I kept it in my room in my small apartment, occasionally dusting it like a piece of furniture and even getting underneath to dust the pedal mechanism, On those occasions, I used to joke to my room-mate that, if the legs suddenly gave way, “Death by Electric-Piano” (such was its size and weight)  would make quite an unusual headline.

I sold that one there as it was too big too bring back, then bought a third one when I arrived back here to gig around town, and almost broke my back lugging it around, especially as I lived at the time at the top of a 15-story high-rise in which the elevator only went to the 14th floor and sometimes broke altogether!  Maybe they're so sturdily built  because they have their origins in the U.S. military, where Inventor Harold Rhodes was originally trying to provide a therapeutic aid for recovering soldiers. Anyway, all this was probably why I eventually sold mine, because lighter, smaller electronic keyboards came on the scene.

This fourth one came along many years later after I had  eventually come to miss the organic sound of a real  keyboard such as a real Rhodes on my recordings, having used synthesizer and sampling modules so much in the intervening period. This one had evidently lain in someone's damp garage for some years, judging by its peeling case and the mouldy look of its insides when you lifted the top! However, it had a good action and funky feel showing that someone seemed to have loved it at least at some point.

Later, I started to record the Rhodes on some tracks of my new album, and to learn quite a lot about quite a lot about some of it's little oddities that you have to watch out for when trying to do that... I'll tell you about that in a future blog.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

About practising "Jazz Scales"

There's a lot of detail you could go into about modes, chord-scales, unusual scales and so on. However, before getting into that, can I just say that in my view it would be best it the pianist was as completely in command as possible of all the "ordinary scales".

By that I mean majors in all keys, over several octaves, and similarly minors of all types (natural, melodic and harmonic) as fluently and rhythmically as possible. After all, you can argue that all the modes are just a re-working of those: same notes, different order, even though some may finger them differently. Chromatics are good too, and I'm now very grateful to my early piano teachers for making those the basis of my technique, though I'm sure I wasn't at the time! Blues scales are indispensable too.

Of course, all the other scales, such as whole-tone, diminished, Lydian b7 etc are great, and sometimes necessary, but they are, to some extent the "icing on the cake", in my view.

How to Develop ideas when solo-ing

Following on from my contribution to a discussion on Linked-in:

To someone who knows some chords and scales theory and so on but isn't sure how to begin solo-ing, (i.e. developing ideas, building phrases, "telling a story" musically, as it were), I'd advise the following.

Start with some "simpler"  material such as a Blues, or maybe something in an easy key involving diatonic ("in the key") chords and a II-V progression  e.g. Cmaj7, Emin7 , Dmin7 G7, Cmaj7.  Make sure you can keep a steady rhythm going with your chords in your left hand, or, if you need help, maybe play along to a simple drum beat on your computer.

Now you have a musical "bed" that will carry you along, try to invent a three-note phrase that suits the first chord, Cmaj7: let's say "E-G-E", in any rhythm that you like that pleases you. Now, your job in your next musical phrase as a composer (because that's what improvisation is: composition "on the fly"), is to develop that first phrase, which you could do by a number of tried-and-tested techniques.

For example, turn it upside down (G-E-G), or add to it (e.g. E-G-E-D-E) or play around with the rhythm by stretching it out.  Whatever you play must suit the chords you are playing over of course: that's where the  theory-stuff comes in, but hopefully you will have done that enough, and practised it enough aurally, for that to be "in your ear" already (and, of course, you can keep practising that).

If you could be singing or humming while you play, (like Oscar P. did a lot of!) you would be doing a great job, because that would prove that your fingers weren't just on auto-pilot! Instead, you would really be engaging you mind and your ear, as well as your fingers. Even if we can't hear you, like we did Oscar, that solo ought to be sounding privately in your head, so that even if you weren't playing your instrument, you could be singing it (if you could sing well enough!)

By developing a phrase (or motif, as some say) using such techniques as described above, you can hopefully build longer phrases and chains of phrases over your chord progression, which grow out of one another and, all-in-all, add up to a meaningful solo. It takes practice, just as it does using the verbs, grammar and sentence-constructions of any language to converse fluently in it.

Sorry if this sounds a little "dry" as advice, which is just the way it is when you try to put an "organic" process into words.  However, just as with the theory aspects, if you practice this kind of phrase development enough it should get "in your ear" and become second-nature, so you can just concentrate on the music! Apologies too, if it's too basic for some. Some people are lucky enough for this to come naturally to them for the word go, others maybe less so, but I would say everyone can always improve.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Thoughts on How to Play a Jazz Piano Solo

I was inspired to write a comment about this article on Linked-in about: 
How to Play a Jazz Piano Solo

I feel what's missing in this discussion is that any successful jazz solo on any instrument over any set of chord changes relies much more on the "ear" of the player than anything else. It doesn't matter how much you know about harmonic and melodic theory, extensions, chord scales etc, or how much "feeling" you want to put into your playing, if you don't "hear" what you're playing, it probably won't add up to much.

That is not to say that all the theory does not matter, of course! It's just that 95% of that should have gone into the practising and study in the months (years, decades?!!) prior to playing the solo, which was not necessarily even over the same tune! That's why any good improviser can blow successfully over almost any set of chord changes that are put in front of them.  Having improvised over that kind II-V-I progression so many times, it pretty much has become second nature to you, and your brain can be somewhat more preoccupied with musical concerns other than simply what the right notes are.

I wouldn't deny at all, of course, that a bit of study of the particular tune in question, and technical analysis of its possibilities, will yield benefits, but what I'm trying to say is that if more than one or two percent of your brain is focused on that when you're actually soloing, you are likely to be distracted from really creating a solo that hangs together and has the feeling that is so important.

All in all, I'm talking about ear-training here, of course. This can be done by formal study, which is very valuable, but in my opinion, the ear is also developed simply by your continual exposure to, and practice of, jazz, (and other music too). So along with traditional  ear-training things, simple things like practising scales, analysing music, and just playing a lot, can help your ear.

In a nutshell,  it's all very well knowing you "could" play a #11 or a Lydian flat 7 scale over that chord, but unless it's not only in your head, but also in your ear and your "heart" wants to hear it, it probably won't come out of your fingers successfully! That for me is the magic of improvisation, all of this comes together in the instant. And that instant is, in a way, the end-result of all your previous musical study.

If all this seems an impossibly long and steep learning curve to someone starting out, I'd recommend starting with "simpler" material. The Blues, for example (not that I mean to say the Blues is simple in many ways, but it does basically only have three chords). Make sure your  "head" understands what Blues scales, structures and progressions are about, that you can hear a Blues scale internally and sing it, that you can play it well, that hopefully it means something to your "heart" and hopefully  you are on the way to a good solo coming out of your fingers.

The Blues is a great place to start because it permeates all of jazz, in my view. I'd go so far as to say there isn't one great piano-jazz solo, from Art Tatum to Chick Corea and beyond, in which you couldn't find a trace of the Blues. And speaking of note-reading, I doubt many Blues-players in early 20th century New Orleans could read music, yet there's no doubt the music was in their head, ear, heart and fingers…