In part 3, I’ll focus on the mechanics and logistics of sampling instruments. Every composer should do some sampling as it widens your understanding of instruments. There’s nothing like painstakingly analyzing an instrument and breaking it down into its’ components to truly understand it. Learning to listen to a single note at a time as it fades into nothing is an exercise in patience and listening.
We’re very used to hearing instruments blended together played that you can sometimes lose the essence of the instrument itself. Sampling forces you to listen to each note on its’ own. The case study I’m using is the California Keys sampling project. We were assigned the task by Guitar Center Hi Tech Brands to record grand piano and vintage keyboards for their Williams Digital Pianos. Quality, playability and expressivity were the prime objectives.
Step 1, Choosing Instruments
Let’s start with the grand piano. Pianos are plentiful. There are so many to choose from. There are certain brands and models that have been sampled quite often. Bright, bombastic strident pianos are the norm. We were after a much more sophisticated instrument. I spoke to several colleagues and pianists. I also consulted with lots of engineers. My friend and engineer Bob Abeyta kept raving about the Fazioli 10 foot grand. This piano happened to live in SLC where Bob lived. Bob had also recorded this piano many times for lots of different musical applications and said it recorded better than any piano he’d ever engineered. We settled on this instrument and arranged to have it arrive at Counterpoint Studios in SLC, Utah. We arrived at the studio and there were 2 Faziolis there. The 10 ft. and the 9ft. The 9 foot was brighter, more jazzy and rock n roll. We played both pianos and again settled with the 10 foot. The tone is rich and warm. It’s not a bombastic or strident rock n roll piano at all, more of a classical/film score instrument with mellow harmonics and lush sonority and overtones.
Step 2, The Players
We had a pianist scheduled to arrive the morning of recording. He called the night before and cancelled. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we ended up hiring Candace Winterton, a wonderful pianist who had competed in Rachmaninoff competitions and turned out to be a perfect pianist for this arduous task. A few words about the players you hire for sampling sessions; just because a musician is accomplished on a particular instrument does not qualify them for a good sampling candidate. The temperament of the person must be considered. A musician with a quiet nature and infinite patience is best, one who understands the dynamics and touch available for a given instrument. Moving around while playing notes renders the samples useless. They must also be facile with touch. Knowing every dynamic from ppp to fff and everything in between is essential. The player must have infinite patience to sit still while holding notes for several minutes. Our pianist sat for several hours each day for a week as we recorded single notes up and down the keyboard at every viable velocity level.
More to come next week. Thanks for reading! Comments welcome.