All That We Hold

Production

Recorded, mixed and mastered in July and August, 2017, the production of All That We Hold really began a year earlier, as decisions about performing artists, recording studios, logistics, and — not least — funding, had to be considered.

Very importantly, demands made by the score’s complex piano part posed ever-increasing challenges, that eventually saw us choose a relatively unique — but equally complex — solution (more on that, below).

Throughout all of this, I was aided and encouraged by the brilliant, steady guidance of my long-time friend and colleague, Jono Grant, of Victory Drive Music, in Toronto, Canada. An accomplished and productive composer in his own right, Jono’s impeccable ears and decades-long production experience ensured that the transformation of All That We Hold — from score and midi, through recorded performance, to post-production refinement – would be a success.

Piano, voice, bass and drums were recorded separately, on separate occasions, and — in the case of the piano and drums — in different locations and studios. Besides my detailed conductor’s score and individual parts, I had prepared a precise midi (i.e., computerized) version to help performers prepare and rehearse on their own. Apart from a few phone and video-conferencing calls, Yvette Tollar, George Koller and I only met in person on the day of recording.

Michel Medrano Brindis and I created the drum part over five days — one day over Skype, while Michel was on tour, followed by four intensive days at my home in rural Ontario, during which we each learned from the other. Although Michel is a deeply accomplished and experienced musician, this particular kind of score — that borrows from a number of different musical traditions, including that of contemporary classical composition — was new to him. And though I have friends who are superlative jazz musicians, this was my first time working in such intimate rapport with the sensibilities and perspectives of a jazz drummer of such talent and gifts as Michel’s.

The real challenge was the piano part. I had meticulously checked the playability and fingering of every note during composition, and — though I’m not an expert pianist — I was confident that a jazz pianist would have no trouble performing it, as its tempi are easy compared with those routinely achieved by jazz pianists. To my surprise, however, the pianists who read my score were unanimous in their assessment that a proper performance would require many hours of careful rehearsal. While most jazz musicians practice heavily, their techniques apply to many tunes within their repertoire; my very specific score would require practice particular to this unique composition, hence the time involved. My budget could never cover the costs of such lengthy rehearsal.

One solution came to mind: I could carefully divide the piano part into two, easier-to-play, parts, and perform both myself. This, however, could pose some very challenging synchronization difficulties, in both performance and recording. Jono Grant came up with a radical — but very intriguing — idea: why not see if Yamaha’s Disklavier piano would be capable of performing my own midi (i.e., computerized) version of the piano part!?

Yamaha Disklavier

The Yamaha Disklavier is a state-of-the-art, modern-day version of the early twentieth-century ‘player piano’. Using an ingenious application of laser light technology to measure the speed of a key’s depression (which ultimately controls a pitch’s loudness), it monitors the performance of each note. Using standard MIDI file format (the same format used in music computer apps), these movements are permanently recorded, and — upon playback — activate a series of precisely calibrated solenoids to actually play the piano as it was played during the original performance. A pianist playing the Disklavier will automatically have every detail of his or her performance — including the pedals — permanently recorded and available to be replayed, at any time, by the Disklavier

Here is the actual Yamaha Disklavier used in the recording of All That We Hold, as it was being recorded, at Phase One Studios in Toronto:

As mentioned, present-day musicians use the same MIDI file format (“MIDI”) as that employed in the Disklavier — it is one of the powerful tools that make computer music possible. Because the same MIDI file format is used by both the Disklavier and computer music apps, the Disklavier should theoretically be able to actively perform any music in MIDI form — even music in MIDI form that was generated by a computer music app. Yamaha will tell you that it can — indeed, I was assured that it would. It took me five months, hundreds of hours of brain-breaking labour, and the collaboration of three first-rate technical wizards to realize that it can — but only with the most painstaking interventions.

Along with my score, I had created computer-generated MIDI recordings of the music of All That We Hold. These recordings were intensely detailed, with every note’s MIDI information carefully adjusted for time, dynamic, and attack. When played upon Phase One Studios' state-of-the-art Yamaha Disklavier, however, many notes came out louder or softer than I had programmed, while others didn’t sound at all. Phase One's owner, Barry Lubota, and his Disklavier engineer, Mike Smith, were gracious and generous: at their own expense, they hired a Yamaha-trained Disklavier technician to examine and repair any problems found, and — again, at their own expense — invited me to try again. This time, there was a change: many notes still came out louder or softer than programmed, and some notes didn’t sound at all — but, this time, they were different notes! A further attempt provided yet another version of notes that came out wrong or not at all. I had already spent many hours manually changing the MIDI information in my computer-generated recordings, in the hope that this would result in a truer Disklavier performance. Now I had to admit that, no matter how I tweaked the MIDI, the Disklavier would produce yet another inaccurate performance.

Once more, Jono came to the rescue: online, he had discovered Get Real Piano — a service that "does midi to Disklavier conversion right". Someone out there who specializes in getting the Disklavier to accurately perform computer-generated MIDI??

In an impressively detailed email, Get Real Piano founder and operator, Edwin Dolinski explained exactly how and why the Disklavier was unable to produce an accurate performance, and claimed that only he had the knowledge — gleaned from decades of work with his own Disklavier — that could achieve far better results. "I know far more about this than anyone on the planet", he said. "Either an egomaniac," I thought, "or he’s right." Impressed with the sincerity of my quest, Edwin generously offered to provide a sample of what he could do, at no charge. Several days later, he returned a recording of his own Disklavier playing a flawlessly accurate performance of a passage within my MIDI recording. He was definitely right.

I am known to be a bit of a perfectionist.

I was convinced that Edwin could indeed create an accurate performance of my MIDI recording on his 6'1" Disklavier. But I really liked the sound of Phase One Studios’ much larger, 7'6" Disklavier. Could I convince Phase One and Edwin Dolinski to work together on my project?

Barry Lubota, Mike Smith, and Edwin Dolinski are terrific guys. They agreed. Not only that: Edwin, who lives in Vancouver, was planning to fly to Toronto for his daughter’s university graduation; we could all meet at Toronto’s Phase One Studios then.

After completing pre-production work on the MIDI piano part in Vancouver, Edwin arrived at Phase One with his own laptop, from which he was able to perfectly control the Phase One Disklavier from the studio control room.

Here’s Edwin, discussing what was involved:

This voyage into Disklavier technology was driven by my having focussed on my score’s musical aspects to the exclusion of more pragmatic considerations. But in searching out ways to rectify my mistake, I opened new and unexpected doors, that led to greater knowledge, new relationships, and a successful conclusion.

For their generous guidance and expertise in helping me find my way around the Yamaha Disklavier, I am indebted to Jono Grant, Edwin Dolinski, Phase One Studios’ Barry Lubota and Mike Smith, and Yamaha Canada. This project would not have been achievable without their help.

I would also like to thank Phyllis Whyte for filming part of the footage posted here, and for her generosity in trusting me with her camera in order that I might shoot the rest of it.

In closing, I’d like to include two brief clips, of Barry Lubota and Mike Smith — owner and chief engineer of Phase One Studios. These clips speak for themselves:

Michael Leibson
February, 2019

Michael Leibson is a composer, music consultant, and music educator, who specializes in jazz and classical harmony. To learn more about him, click here; for information about studying with him, click here.