If only I didn't need to use the middle pedal!

No recording session should start like this!

There are some recording sessions where whatever can go wrong, does, and none of the problems has a simple fix.  Recently, I had a piano session like that–tracking my composition “Equinox.”  The timing of the session was already a surprise, the setup was a monstrosity, and even the piano itself was having mechanical issues.  But strangely, I walked away from the studio that night sincerely saying, “I can’t wait to do this again!”  The studio is an odd place.

The session’s unexpected twists started when I awoke to the news that the piano tuner was actually coming that day–five days earlier than I had planned.  The Rode NT5 mics that I bought for the session had only arrived the night before, so I had just started experimenting with them.  Also, I wasn’t even sure that I was playing the piece well enough yet to record.  They were less-than-ideal circumstances, but what choice did I have?  The piano would be in tune that day, and besides, I had to go back to school the following week.  It had to be a good time to record.

What a mess!

One of my schematics for the setup

Regardless of when I recorded, I already knew it would be a difficult session (as previously discussed here).  I’d already had to figure out a way to switch between three different metronome settings without disrupting my playing.  The solution was so complicated that I have an entire future blog post dedicated to it.  Basically, it involved putting a MIDI keyboard under the piano and using its three pedals as controllers.  Convoluted, but functional.

My crazy MIDI pedal controller was working great, but the night before, I had noticed that the piano’s middle pedal was making a loud click.  How could I have that in a recording?  So while he was still there, I asked my piano technician if he could do anything about it.  His response was, “I think you and your dad can fix it if you pull the keyboard out.”  Welp.

It just so happened that my dad had gone into work.  We had fixed the problem sostenuto rod before (which is probably why it still wasn’t quite right), but now, I would have to do it on my own.  The recording had to be made today.

Let's just say my "fix" involved a twist tie and some yarn...

Let’s just say my “fix” involved a twist tie and some yarn…

So out came the keyboard.  I peered inside and discovered that the fix would require taking out many screws and doing careful repositioning.  After two hours, I had temporarily solved the problem, but I “fixed” it using some pretty awful methods.  It was silent, however, and that was my mission.

Okay, I was ready to record now.  I set the mics up in the quasi-ORTF configuration that I’d decided to use, and I did a test recording.  But guess what?  There was a bunch of noise coming through one channel. It wasn’t even there the night before!  I swapped out the cable, but it didn’t help.  I ended up switching inputs, which meant I had to change the configuration of all the tracks I had set up ahead of time in my Logic template.  Well, at least it was working now…

ORTF Micing

ORTF Configuration Miking

Finally, I could begin to lay down my first real takes.  I took a listen, and the recording still sounded fine (even in mono).  Alright.  Let’s just get five more takes… Or six… Or maybe seven…

Every few takes, I like to listen again to be sure there isn’t a problem.  Well, after several takes, sure enough, I heard strange clicks in one of the recordings.  The meters were nowhere near clipping, and it wasn’t the headphones, either.  The noise was coming through on both tracks, and switching mic inputs didn’t help.  It turned out to be the power supply of the pre-amp!  Swapping pre-amps halfway through tracking is less-than-ideal, but it had to be done.

Perhaps my biggest challenge was being “in the moment” when I hit that record button.  I’m always in the moment when I’m producing someone else, but it’s different.  I’m thinking about whether I have the right elements to put the song together, or I’m thinking about what needs to be done differently and how I can diplomatically tell that to the artist.  But in my own session, I found I needed to turn that off to some extent.  I couldn’t be thinking about how I would need to edit out that one note I missed–I simply had to focus on playing musically.  Good editing can’t make up for poor musicianship.

So did this crazy session with seemingly endless problems ever come to a close?  Around midnight, I played the final take.  I was exhausted.  No matter how crazy a session may be, it’s so empowering as a composer to be able to not only put my compositions down on paper, but to record and edit them myself so that the rest of the world can hear them.  What an amazing time it is that this is possible for us!

Anyone who spends time in the studio is bound to have weird sessions, so let’s hear from you all: What was your most challenging or your strangest recording session like?  What happened?  How did you deal with the obstacles?

P.S.  For more crazy pictures from the session, feel free to check out the album on my Facebook page here.

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About Shelby Rawlings Blalock

I'm a 22-year-old composer, pianist, audio engineer, student, and GRAMMY Camp 2012 alum––a Charlottesville native making my way in Nashville! I write music for orchestra and small ensembles, but my debut solo piano album Airborne is available now on iTunes.

2 responses »

  1. […] the way, as expected, I faced tremendous challenges.  I took apart (and reassembled) a piano, finding out more about the sostenuto mechanism than I ever wanted to know.  I picked up and […]

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  2. […] solo piano album is going to be a wild ride––it sure has been so far.  (Just check out my post about what happened in my latest tracking session!)  Even so, I’m hoping to finish by the […]

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