“Peaceful Journey” and the Use of Technology

I offer no apology for my use of technology. Let’s just get that straight up front! 🙂

There are some that feel like technology makes people stars who don’t really have the talent to be stars. And in some cases, I would agree. A singer who can’t stay in tune may sound great in recordings because pitch correction can do wonders in the studio! In that case, technology makes up for a lack of true talent. But in a lot of cases, technology is not a replacement for talent, but rather an aid in capturing the talent that is being recorded. I would hope that is the case for me 😉

Let me explain it a little differently. Recording takes time, and time often equals money. So, if I can actually play every note perfectly, but in the studio I hit a wrong note or two, I have a few options available to me:

  1. Continue recording take after take until I eventually get the perfect take.
  2. Make use of technology to correct the wrong notes or insert the correctly-played notes
  3. Release the recording with the wrong notes in order to remain true to some perceived expectation that I’m not replacing talent with technology.

Option 1 is a valid option, but again, could take a looooong time and cost a lot of money! Option 3 is also a valid option, but I have found that I, as well as other listeners, are not nearly as tolerant of wrong notes on a recording as we are in live performance. And I’m not just talking about my own recordings.

So, in my case, I find option 2 to be the best use of both my time and my talent. The technology exists to help me achieve that “perfect take” and I don’t see that as falsely representing my talent at all. So I take advantage of it.  Ironically, I don’t fix every little thing (maybe because subconsciously, I don’t want to misrepresent myself), but I do try to fix glaring errors.

In my first three recordings, I did this solely through audio editing. I would either re-record a section of the music over again to correct something that went wrong, or would (at least in one case) change the arrangement slightly to edit out the error. In one case, I couldn’t find any way around a note that I didn’t like, and I actually recorded something over top of it to “distract” from the note and make it less obvious!

In the upcoming “Peaceful Journey” release, I went a step further with the use of technology, though. I actually recorded all of my tracks to MIDI format first. Now, if you’re not familiar with MIDI, I can’t fully explain it here in this post, but suffice it to say that the MIDI file format keeps track of every note played, its place in time, its velocity (how hard I hit the note), the length which the note was held, when the sustain pedal was held or released, etc. This enables a degree of editing virtually impossible with audio editing alone.  If a note is wrong, I can simply correct the file to point to the correct note instead of the wrong one. Then, when the file is played back, the correct (the intended) note sounds instead of the wrong one that my fingers unintentionally hit.

Using a digital keyboard (a Yamaha Clavinova, if you want to know), I recorded the MIDI files into software called Pianoteq, my latest technological dream toy! Pianoteq does something that most synthesized or sampled pianos do not–it actually models the sound of the piano in realtime rather than depending on pre-recorded samples. (For the real geeks out there, this results in a thinner, leaner software that can run on computers that have sufficient CPU, but without using a lot of RAM…in other words, this thing can actually run on a netbook or old laptop. Try that with sampled pianos that require more and more RAM for each note you play!) This gave me quite a few advantages.

First, I was able to record with a decent piano sound to get the right type of audio representation to my ears, but not lock myself into one piano sound until after the recording was complete. How was this possible? Well, once I finished editing my MIDI files (I used ProTools for this task because it proved to be the easiest and quickest method for my editing purposes than anything else I had on hand, despite the fact that ProTools has always been more about audio than MIDI), I was able to open those MIDI files into Pianoteq and “re-record” the audio with their “export WAV file” feature.  It was at this point that I had to make my final decisions with regard to piano sound, mic placement, etc.

Pianoteq allows me to control virtually every aspect of the piano that I’m modeling for my recording. I can control the string length, the hammer hardness, the effectiveness of the dampers, the tuning, etc. etc. etc. And then I can control where the virtual microphones are placed, their relationship to each other, etc.  So, once I had recorded and edited my files, it was almost like I got to be the piano technician and recording engineer for someone else playing my music; it was as if I had cloned myself! 😉  So, as I listened to myself play, I tweaked the settings on the piano (something that is not even remotely capable of being done in real life!) and moved mics around until I got the sound I wanted (something that is only possible in real life when two people are involved).

Once I created the audio files from the self-edited Pianoteq piano model, the audio files went back into ProTools where they were combined with the nature sounds that I used on this recording as well.  The songs were sequenced, everything was mixed the way I wanted it to be, and the final audio was bounced from ProTools to WAV file format.  Then, that final mix was imported into Adobe Audition where some mastering tools were used to polish off the sound, insert the CD track markers, and create the master CD that was sent to the replication company.

What is the end result? Well, I believe that the final product is a very true representation of my musical ability. I believe that I have honestly captured who I am musically. I don’t think that I “cheated” in any way, nor do I apologize for any use of technology in this fashion.  Truth be told, I didn’t do a huge amount of editing. I tend to be pretty happy with my first takes in recording. But occasionally, there would be very small things that I adjusted–the volume of a particular note that needed to come out more, the timing of a run that had the smallest of hiccups in the middle of it–things that some people might not even notice.  Just for fun sometime, I might post a “before and after” set of files for people to play on their computers and see if they can detect the differences!

And with the use of this particular technology (specifically the recording to MIDI, which I had not done with any of my previous recordings), I have the capability now of offering MIDI files to those who would like them. Some people have pianos in their home that are capable of playing MIDI files. For those people, they have the ability to experience me playing their piano right their in their own home without me physically having to be there. For other people who would like to learn some of my arrangements but can’t wait for the sheet music to be produced, a MIDI file gives you an easy way to change the playback tempo and study what I’ve played at slower tempos. (A disclaimer: I did not play with any kind of click track, so importing these MIDI files into software notation programs will likely not give you anything very usable in terms of notation of my arrangements.  If anyone knows of software that would allow me to manually place bar lines within a MIDI file, please let me know, because I would love to use this technology to produce sheet music of my own arrangements/improvisations!)

So, that was probably way more information than most of you care to hear.  And maybe it peaks out on the Geek-o-Meter 😉 But I hope that at least some of you enjoyed this “behind the scenes” look at the creation of the latest Steve Sensenig CD.