I had an exciting chat with my friend Paul Brewer. He was looking for an overview of the teaching of Sound Production at Degree level in Ireland. If you’re interested in music production check out his podcast. I think it’s the best Irish one out there and gives unique perspective on the field. He’s a great interviewer and he kept me on topic 😁
We explored the ins and outs of teaching sound at degree level in Ireland, for both music and film/ broadcast students.
Collaborative team projects that give students hands-on experience in various roles: we call them Integrated Projects.
The work of Jason Corey, whose research and software modules provide an excellent resource for teaching critical listening and ear training.
The differences between music and TV/ broadcast/ film production, and looked at the realities of working in both fields and the technological distinctions between them.
The importance of using the right tools for the job and the need for equipment that doesn’t get in the way.
Finally we talked a bit about referencing classic productions and also microphones.
It’s something students struggle with and I would’ve liked to say more about it. In their responses or self-evaluations students will often say “this is good pro sound” but they don’t have a concrete example or definition of what that is, and often they don’t reference other works even though they are often huge fans of film or music.
Getting them to channel that love of their favourite musician or film maker can be a very enjoyable process. Sometimes they are not even familiar with “the classics” and it’s fun seeing their reactions when they hear the good stuff.
I had a chance to liberate a Yamaha CP80 from a school in Cork who were not using it. My friends at Moloney Pianos loaned me their van, isn’t it cool?
Don’t do this…
The first stumbling block was that the flight cases were missing. The piano comes in two parts, that’s the harp on the left and the keyboard on the right. I only used one strap for the harp, so it slipped on the journey home with a very loud bang! Thankfully these pianos are incredibly well made, so there was no damage apart from a small tear in the faux leather finish (known as tolex in the US).
A dream I didn’t know I had
A long time ago I had a conversation with Jenny Lindfors about what our favourite electric piano was. She argued for the Fender Rhodes, I argued for the Wurlitzer EP200. Not only was she wrong (the Wurlitzer has the superior timbre, sorry Jenny just kidding!) but I was in a way denying myself. My ultimate favourite is the Yamaha CP80. But these are bigger, rarer and more expensive than the others. I just never dreamed I could own one.
What does it sound like?
It was the instrument favoured by Prince, Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Brian Ferry, U2 and Simple Minds. For the classic album So, Peter Gabriel really only had the Fairlight, the Prophet 5 and the CP 80, with occasional Yamaha CS80. If you listen closely you will hear that an awful lot of the sounds on the record are CP80 with a lot of effects, particularly things that sound like bright electric guitars, bells, Gamelan and tuned percussion; as well as regular piano. Unlike the Rhodes and Wurlitzer, the CP is a chameleon.
The CP quickly assembled in the studio
Careful, it’s heavy!
So I got it in to the studio, and with the help of a friend lifted the harp onto the keyboard. The brochure claims this is easy- it is not. The harp weighs over 60kg, and the hinges you must attach it to are very small. Don’t attempt it before both people are fully aware of how the hinges attach!
First thing was to clean off the mould and dust that had built up on the case and keys. This was easy, using Tec7 foam cleaner and elbow grease. It became apparent that someone had used some kind of solvent based leather cleaner on it in the past, this made an unpleasant smell for a while but this was thoroughly removed with the Tec7.
Repairing the Power Supply
Someone did a messy job “converting” it to 230V. Incredibly, they decided to remove the XLR power connector and twist on the bare wires from the new PSU. There was not enough space for the rest of the power harness so some wires had to be lengthened and soldered back. At least they used a good quality transformer!
Working on the pre-amplifier
It was apparent that the smoothing capacitor was underperforming, this was confirmed by removing it and testing. I replaced it immediately. I suspect that some of the capacitors in the audio path may also need replacing. The output seems to be relatively dull sounding. I plan to test this observation by bypassing the pre-amp and doing an AB test with a split signal (possible because the impedances are so high). The pre-amp is incredibly well designed, it is all discrete with transformers for the balanced outputs. There are only two ICs, these are to control the tremolo so they are not in the audio path as far as I can tell. It is very very clean sounding.
I spent a couple of days trying to tune it myself. It’s not as hard as a regular piano, and Yamaha even list the exact pitches in a table so you can do the stretch curve correctly. Even still, this is best done by an experienced piano tuner! I like to think I made his job a little easier by getting the pitch a bit closer to concert 🙂
The sustain pedal works by lifting these dampers
The dampers are those black things. When you press the sustain pedal, it lifts them off the strings so they are not damped, and will sustain. There are no dampers on the top 14 keys- this is normal for a grand piano (that’s the CP on the left). On a regular upright, there are no dampers for the top two octaves (right).
The expert arrives
Since it had not been services in at least 10 years, the action had become stiff and heavy. There are about 8 hinges on each key, and a bunch of other adjustments. It’s exactly the same mechanism as a Yamaha concert grand piano. Making this work smoothly, with musical dynamics, is known as “regulating”. I briefly considered regulating the action myself. Moloney’s had a Yamaha grand that was being regulated by Chris Moore, so I went along to see how it’s done.
Within about 30 seconds of observing Chris at work I realised this is a highly skilled job best left to an expert! It was quite a nice grand piano when it had arrived at the shop- after Chris spent the best part of a day on it, it was incredible. So I asked him to do the CP80.
A shotgun mic is designed to ignore any sound arriving at the sides. This is how it focusses totally on the sound arriving from the front. It works great…
…unless side and front sounds are the same!
Read on to find out why…
are wide-open spaces. That seems so obvious right? But bear with me. Usually there are no reflective surfaces nearby. Nothing for the sound to bounce off. The main problem for sound outdoors is the ambient noise. On the other hand, indoor spaces are enclosed. You are surrounded by reflective surfaces such as walls, floors and ceilings. For us it is cosy, warm and sheltered :). But it can be a big problem for sound.
Let’s think about sound outdoors first.
You get in close with the mic using the boom arm. Great, we have nice clear dialogue. Now we will break the sound down into its component parts. The sound arriving at the sides of the mic (ambient) is completely different to the sound arriving at the front (dialogue). Put very simply, the shotgun mic has slots along the sides to break up the sound. Sound coming right in at the front goes straight down the tube. So it ends up being louder than any sound at the sides (known as”off-axis” sound). Incidentally, the longer the tube is, the better this works!
Now let’s think about indoors.
We have reflected sound made of the dialogue bouncing off all those surfaces. But indoors the sound arriving at the front of the mic is also dialogue! So it ends up canceling with (a delayed version of) itself. This creates what is known technically as phasing. What is that? It’s that metallic, harsh, whispery, un-natural quality that makes dialogue hard to take.
is to use a cardioid (or hyper or super cardioid) indoors. It will sound much more natural and engaging for your audience compared to a shotgun mic.
It’s hard not to feel powerless against the human rights violations being committed by Israel. Back in 2014 when it flared up, again, I saw a video by Israeli film director Naomi Levari. A very brave move for an Isreali national. I composed For Gaza quite quickly, to raise some money for the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) whose aim is “…to participate in international efforts to put pressure on the Israeli state to cease its oppression of the Palestinian people”.
The fund-raising was a great success, and this new album was an opportunity to do a remix of the track, and change a few things that were not quite right.
The origin of the piece goes back to 1990 with the little Casio SK-5 8 bit sampler and the Yamaha CS-5 synthesiser. The heavy drums and the bass loop are sampled from that original tape with all the noise and distortion it had. The strings are a development of an idea from back then. I didn’t even realise this at the time. I just went for a performance on the keyboard, while listening to the horrendous news from Palestine with tears in my eyes. In electronic music, what you hear has often been programmed in the the computer. This artificially tight, sometimes robotic rhythm is one of the cool things about electronic music I think. But it’s good to have actual live human playing on it too! Towards the end of the process I was very tempted to move some of the notes around because I felt they weren’t quite on the beat. But that’s where the feel is. Sometimes, just because it seems to measure right it doesn’t mean it hits the soul! So I built up some layers of different string sounds, to give a Turkish ensemble effect, a sound I heard a lot in North Africa and Southern Spain. The slight variations in each part are just like what happens with a real string section.
The rhythm guitar is sampled from a jam session with one of my old bands, played by Ken Hayes. This was cut up in Recycle and the parts placed across the keyboard so they could be replayed. The lead guitar at the end is from the same session, with the notes and timing played around with in Melodyne, an amazing software tool that makes pitch and time totally flexible.
This is a combination of atmospheres and sounds from the 1870s and the 1970s. The Orchestion of the title is an Imhof & Mukle Orchestrion Music Machine. It uses a wooden barrel with pins on it to open valves in over 100 pipes that are built like woodwind instruments such as clarinets and flutes. Basically, a large version of the barrel you would see in a music box. To run it, you wind a weight up to the top of the machine, and as it runs down it drives the barrel and pumps the air through the pipes. This one was located in Dunkathel House, where I worked in the recording studio. Here’s a picture of the actual machine in the house, courtesy of the RTÉ archive.
I’m very pleased to get this released. It’s been a long time brewing. Many thanks to my friends who helped with feedback and encouragement:
And my lovely wife Sally O’Reilly for encouragement both musical and emotional 🙂
Some of these ideas go back to 1990 when I first started to compose. I think it’s important to keep an archive of ideas and stuff to play with- play being the key word. I really enjoyed the process, with all the help and support. I hope you all can feel the same joy I felt in making this music. 🙂
A colleague donated his old effects rack to the college. Mostly digital boxes that might now be considered “vintage”. Being a fan from way back, I was eager to fire up the Yamaha SPX90II. Continue reading →
I recently had the pleasure of the Radiophonic Workshop at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. This was a dream come true. When I was about 10 years old my father joined the Rory Gallagher Music Library. This holds a massive collection of recorded music and spoken word. First it was Goon Show tapes, and later the full BBC sound effects library. Essential Science Fiction Sound Effects Volumes 1 and 2 became some of my favourite albums and a major influence. 🙂 Continue reading →