Guest Contribution by Ali Lacey
When someone mentions a Toy Piano, the last things you would think are 50Hz Booms, sub drops, eerie textures, bows and big percussive hits. But have you ever actually pondered the cinematic qualities a toy piano might have?
After obsessing about owning a toy piano, I found a vintage 1950’s mini grand piano on Ebay for £20. I had plans to sample the instrument to create a chromatic piano library that would be playable through Kontakt sampler (similar to the already existent one by Soniccouture). Once in my possession it came to my attention that the piano was actually rather out of tune, and wouldn’t even play in key with itself. This would make hard work of creating a decent chromatic piano library, so with this in mind I started to delve into the possibilities of creating a slightly more unconventional and experimental toy piano library.
I took the piano into the studio with Liam Lacey to experiment with these ideas. Liam Lacey is the Senior Software Developer at Nu Desine, where they are developing a new electronic musical instrument called AlphaSphere…Check it out, it’s pretty fascinating. Luckily we managed to get our hands on some rather decent microphones including a Neumann U87, AKG D112 and 2 Gefell M 930s. Regardless of the pianos tuning issues we sampled all 25 keys at 5 different velocities, including key release samples for all notes and all velocities. This would give me the possibility to create a chromatic Kontakt library with release sounds for a genuine feel.
After a good few hours of repetitive sampling, we thought it was time to open up the piano and experiment with its internals. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the infrastructure of a toy piano, individual tuned rods that are struck with plastic mallets produce the sound of each note. By opening the wooden casing and revealing the rods, it could be played in an unconventional way. Firstly, they were plucked with a guitar pick. This created a new transient to the sound and changed the timbre, also bringing out lower frequencies that are usually unheard. All 25 keys were sampled at multiple velocities using the ‘plucked’ technique; this would allow for a playable instrument to be mapped into the Kontakt sampler.
The next step was to attach the rods to a resonator to amplify the sound and bring out the lower frequencies. The first attempt saw us mounting the body and rods of the piano straight onto the back of an acoustic guitar, the guitar would then be laid across a chair and amp. [See Image below.]
Though this may look odd, it was all in the hope of capturing good sounds. The idea behind this setup was to strike the top of the piano with a mallet, which in reality was the handle of a screwdriver, covered with a sock. This would cause the rods inside the piano to ring out, rattle against the wooden casing and resonate through the body of the guitar to create a unique tone. So, wearing one sock I proceeded to hit the piano at different velocities, by also altering the tension on the guitar strings we could achieve a sustained eerie rattle. There were many other factors that would also change the sound e.g. tuning the guitar to an open D tuning would create tuned hits, while applying pieces of metal and crushed coke cans to the rods & strings would create different rattles and textures…basically experimenting with what we had a recording the outcome.
The D112 was placed in front of the guitar sound hole to pick up the low rumbles (predominantly being produced by the large body of the acoustic guitar), whereas the U87 was placed at the point of impact to allow us to mix in the attack of the hits. The 2 Gefell microphones were placed slightly lower to pick up stereo rattles and the higher frequencies from the strings; high pass filters would be applied to these microphones in the mixing stage.
Once mixed, these recordings created some great cinematic booms, hits, thuds and taps. I recommend using decent speakers with a good frequency response for playback, or grab yourself some headphones.
The next step was to completely remove the rods from the piano so they could be used to their full potential. While keeping the concept of using a resonator to amplify the sound, a 12” Spash Cymbal was applied to the mix to bring out some sharp high frequencies and create some sustain. The position in which the instruments connected left the rods exposed, this meant that we could bow them to create some eerie scrapes and drones. The longest rod (Lowest note) was hooked under the strings of the guitar while gently resting on the cymbal. This meant that any vibrations from the rods would travel through the strings and body of guitar, while also traveling through the cymbal.
The U87 picked up great detail and allowed us to capture the crackling sound of the bow against the rusty rods, while the D112 picked up the resonating low tone of the rods. By experimenting with different bowing patterns and placements, a huge variety of scrapes, bows, glissandos and smashes were created. Once mixed and given some ambience, some great cinematic sounds were produced.
I have recently used these samples in an original trailer score for a new release, soon to be hosted by Machinima. The samples work excellent in a cinematic/soundscape context and I am very happy with the outcome. The audio clips that I have spoken about in this article are not the full extent of the recording, this is an unfinished project and I am yet to create any Konakt libraries out of the samples. I am happy to invite any interested parties or Kontakt library developers to join me in the creation of the Cinematic Toy Piano Library.
I hope you enjoyed this brief insight into experimental instrument sampling.
This article was contributed to Designing Sound by Ali Lacey. He can be found on LinkedIn, or contacted directly via e-mail – alilaceyprodcution [at] msn [dot] com. Examples of some of his work can be found on Youtube and at Bandcamp. We’re always open to guest contributions on the site. If you have something you’d like to share with the rest of the community, contact shaun [at] designingsound [dot] org.