The first musical instrument I was able to call my own was a Casio SK-10. I had a lot of laughs playing the demonstration songs and selecting a sampled sound instead of an existing preset. My finest moment was probably warping “Heigh Ho” so every instrumental part was replaced by a chorus of sampled voices saying “bum hair”.
I can still hear the intro in my head:
I got some interesting sounds out of sampling the television, and “wrote” my first real song on that keyboard — little more than a C major scale played forward with one finger and backward with the other, using a clarinet sound.
When I started to get more serious about making music and needed something with more than thirty three keys, we rented larger keyboards. Through the back half of 1994 there was a new one every month, thanks to Johnny Smith. First there was a Roland EP-9. Then a Kawai X40-D. Then a few Yamahas — a PSS-190 and a YPR-20.
(You don’t even want to know what kind of detective work was involved in figuring out what the model names were for all these keyboards more than two decades after the fact when I never made a note of any of them at the time.)
The first musical instrument I ever fell in love with was that Kawai X40-D.
Its “Super 3D” speakers put out a huge sound, and the ad-lib function allowed me to press one key and trigger a bunch of flashy runs that made me sound like a virtuoso musician. Better still, there were song “styles” built in with all kinds of different quirky personalities. While I was faking flash with my right hand, one finger on my left would lead the invisible band in auto-accompaniment mode, with buttons to trigger intros, outros, and fills.
Without the manual or any music theory knowledge, I didn’t know anything about getting minor or diminished chords out of the single-finger auto-accompaniment, so everything was always in a major key. Most of the songs I recorded during this period have me walking one finger up the keyboard without direction, getting a little carried away with the “fill” button, and not doing a whole lot of singing.
The song titles tend to outstrip the songs themselves for creativity. A few favourites: “Kiss Me Honey, Don’t Sting Me”, “The Underwater Jellyfish (They Jump More Than You Think)”, and “Beyond Modern Temptation”.
The other rented keyboards didn’t have any auto-accompaniment functions. They forced me to get a little better at playing without help. At the end of the year we stopped renting and I got my very first “serious” keyboard as a Christmas present — a Yamaha PSR-210.
A huge part of my musical education happened with this keyboard at my side (or in front of me, resting on the dinner table). For a full year I recorded with it almost nonstop, both with and without Johnny Smith as my musical other half. Little by little, I figured out how to make music that felt like an extension of myself without relying on an instrument’s artificial intelligence to fake it for me.
Early in 1996 we got a Clavinova CVP-59S. The week it took to show up after it was ordered was maybe the longest week of my life. There are few things I’ve looked forward to with such all-consuming fury. I have a vivid memory of taking time out from a grade school field trip at an ice skating rink — I couldn’t stand on ice skates anyway, never mind skate — to buy some nachos. I sat, and ate those cheesy chips, and all I could think was, “Clavinova. Clavinova. Clavinova.”
The PSR-210 was a great companion, with enough interesting sounds under the hood to let me go a lot of different places. But the Clavinova felt like a huge leap forward. I couldn’t believe how much richer and more realistic the drum sounds were. The piano sounds were meaty and robust. And it just felt good to play. Like a real piano, only better (or so I thought).
A few synthesizers would join the fray later. The Clavinova would be my main instrument for quite a while. Even when I started to gain access to dedicated “studio” spaces (aka “rooms in houses”) and picked up more instruments, it remained an important tool.
For a long time I thought, “What would I ever need a real acoustic piano for? I’ve got the Clavinova. It doesn’t need any maintenance.” It was always in tune. When I wanted to record, I didn’t need to worry about mic placement. All I had to do was plug it in. And it allowed me to record on its internal memory when I had an idea I wanted to get down fast.
Here’s a small piece of “The Things You Love (Are Always the First to Leave)” that was captured in this way, a good two years before it became part of the finished song that showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.
When I was working on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE the Clavinova started to sound a little one-dimensional next to the other more organic sounds I was recording. I worked around it by using either a Wurlitzer or a Fender Rhodes in all the places I wanted the piano to go.
Then I fell in love with a Yamaha C5 grand at Ouellette’s Pianos.
I’d played acoustic pianos before. Usually they were mediocre uprights or grands that weren’t very well cared for. This piano was different. It inspired me. It sang. For the very first time, I understood why you’d want to have the real thing around.
For about five days I was determined to own that piano, until it sunk in that it was prohibitively expensive and there was no way we would ever be able to make room for it in this house. You’d have to climb on top of it just to get into the kitchen.
I was a little disappointed to have to shrink my dream. But I thought there had to be a vertical piano somewhere out there that would be good enough to give me at least a few gooey feelings, if not the full body orgasm I got from playing the C5.
In the late summer of 2008, operation Find a Good Upright Instead was set in motion. I played a whole slew of upright pianos in the store. The one I liked best was a YUS series Yamaha. The price was a whole lot less insane than what the grand was going for, and it was a world away from the poorly maintained institutional uprights I was used to playing in classrooms and living rooms. The Pearl River pianos were alright, but they sounded kind of cheap and tinny to me. This one had class.
When I told Bob I was interested, he said, “Can I give you some advice? Wait about a week. I’ve got some new Yamaha U1s coming in. That’s a nice piano, but if you like that one, you’re going to love the U1.”
I’ve never been the most patient person. When I want something, especially if it has anything to do with music, I want it last year. Bob convinced me to sit tight.
That week was nothing like the the week twelve years before when I waited for my Clavinova to come in. I was looking forward to trying out some pianos. I wasn’t expecting to hear anything that knocked my socks off.
When the day came, there were two U1s for me to try. I must have spent close to two hours moving from one to the other, trying to decide which one felt and sounded better. There were subtle differences. Hard stuff to put into words.
The upright I was going to buy before Bob told me to wait a little while was a nice piano. For not much more money, these were on another level. He was right. Holding off was the right move.
After a lot of waffling, I settled on the U1 I wanted. My grandfather had just passed away, and after telling me he was writing me out of his will I was shocked to discover he either didn’t get around to making good on the threat or he’d been bluffing all along. I inherited enough to pay for that piano, almost down to the cent. It was surreal.
My U1 was delivered to the house a day or two later. Somehow it sounded even better at home than it did in the wide open store. It was a game-changer for me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the first instrument I developed any kind of proficiency on. It isn’t an accident that the first album I recorded with this piano features it on sixteen of its twenty-two songs.
That was the beginning of the end of my ability to play a digital piano, live or in any other setting, without feeling like too much soul was getting lost. If you grow up playing keyboards, I don’t think you can appreciate what a real piano gives you until you get the chance to play a good one. Just playing a chord and holding the sustain pedal down with your foot or letting a few simple notes ring out is an almost otherworldly experience. There’s so much more living inside the sound than you could imagine. A real piano sounds alive in a way even the best digital pianos haven’t yet found a way to emulate.
Nine years later, I’m still in love with this piano. It’s never felt like a compromise. As much as I lusted after that C5, my U1 has always felt like the piano I was meant to end up with. It’s added depth to my recordings that couldn’t have existed otherwise and been a great ally and songwriting tool.
Ric was over here about a week ago, tuning it for the forty-seventh time in its life. I snuck a picture as he was finishing up. Even its guts look like art.
When I told him I still sometimes feel like I’m on my honeymoon with the piano and it’s been fascinating to hear the tone mature over the years, Ric said, “It’s at its peak. It’ll probably never sound better than it does right now.”
That got me thinking about the first song I recorded with the U1 — not the first song I wrote on it, but the first one I wrote specifically for it.
When I knew I was a few days away from getting my black and white beast, I wrote one last song on the Clavinova so I’d have something to tackle as soon as the real deal showed up.
(I wasn’t kidding when I said I never gave much thought to whether or not my face and hands were visible when I was using the camcorder to capture ideas and songs in the process of being written.)
The difference in sound when I was able to play the chords on a real piano for the first time almost knocked me over.
You know that thing I said about being impatient? I couldn’t even wait to get the piano tuned before I started recording with it. The factory tuning held up well enough that I didn’t mind a bit of drift. I propped the lid open, moved two Neumann KM184s around until things sounded right, and that was it. I’ve been recording the piano the same way with the same mics ever since.
Technically this was the first song recorded for AN ABSENCE OF WAY, though it didn’t end up on the album. I made at least four different mixes in rapid succession. I almost never do that. Most of the time I’ll do a rough mix, take a look at what needs tweaking, do another mix or two for fine-tuning, and then move on.
In this case every mix was different. The first one had everything in it, the second had less glockenspiel, the third stripped away almost everything but piano and vocals, and the fourth featured most of the instruments minus electric guitar. None of them felt definitive. They all had elements I liked and didn’t like.
Three years later I took another crack at it. I always felt the drums were a little weak, both sound-wise and performance-wise. I was expecting to mess with a lot of things, but adding a new, more robust drum track seemed to be all the song needed. I thought I was done.
About a month later I listened again. All at once, everything sounded wrong. The drumming was too aggressive. I went back and tried it a lot of different ways. Something more intricate with brushes. Something more subdued with mallets. Something more skeletal with sticks.
I thought about ditching the bass part and replacing it with some deep sustained organ notes. I tried recording some metallic bell-like synth sounds. I thought about ditching the triple-tracked vocals.
I didn’t know what to do to get this song where it needed to be. The more I tried to change, the less sure I was of where I was supposed to go.
The thing that finally glued it all together was plugging in the Alesis Micron and playing some simple synth chords to shade what the piano was doing right at the point where the drums came in. I got rid of a lot of the electric guitar, threw out the drums altogether, kept the vocals and the original bass track, got rid of some wordless vocal harmonies near the end, and chopped out a little instrumental electric guitar/bass harmonics bit (I always liked it, but now it sounded a little superfluous).
After three years and far too many different mixes, at long last the song felt just right.
It’ll probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I’ve been picking away at that album here and there for ten years now. That’s a scary thought, but one of the benefits of taking such a long time to finish a gargantuan album is giving a song like this the time to find the clothes it wants to wear.