Achieving a Personal Sound

The Zenph Innovations re-performances of classic piano performances by the likes of Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson and Sergei Rachmaninoff are very compelling. Who wouldn’t want a fresh pristine, surround recording of one of their performances from yesteryear? But among the family of instruments, pianos hold a somewhat special and unique place. In general, pianists play the instrument that is available at the venue or the studio. They don’t travel with their own instrument. I know that large piano makers sponsor many artists. I ran into this when Monty Alexander played on our Ernest Ranglin project. As a Yamaha endorsed artist, they were very happy to make available a C7 piano as long as I paid the $600 to the piano movers.

But even in that circumstance, Monty played the instrument that was made available. He doesn’t travel with a particular instrument. I honestly don’t know if anyone does. But most musicians own, maintain and travel with their instruments. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a gold flute, a ’57 gold top Gibson Les Paul or a Stradivarius violin…virtually all musicians have their own instrument. And they more they progress up the ladder of skill and virtuosity…and fame, the more personal the tone they create.

I spoke with guitarists Laurence Juber and Carl Verheyen about this recently. LJ has moved away from association with GHX strings to Martin Monels. They produce a sound that complements his style of music and playing. I remember talking to Carl a while back about his signature sound. He told me that he spent “two weeks” evaluating electric guitar cables before he decided on a brand that “just sounded right”.

My own son, who is a guitarist now, started his music training studying the cello. When he got good enough, my wife and I went to Robert Cauer’s shop to search for a cello and bow to purchase. Christopher was about 9 or 10 at the time. He sat down with the cello that we selected and went about evaluating bows. Robert set up about 10 to choose from and Christopher played a selection with each of them. After about 20 minutes he came out with the winner in his hand. Sure enough it was the most expensive one of the bunch. Musicians just know.

But pianos are different. The sound of a Model D 9-foot Steinway isn’t the same as a Baldwin or Yamaha or Fazioli. And even the same model from the same company won’t sound the same! Every instrument has a personality, a particular touch and responsiveness. The Model D Steinway at the Colburn School where AIX records is just about as good as I’ve ever heard. We tried the $120,000 Fazioli but it just wasn’t right. Check out the sound of Bryan Pezzone’s playing on the AIX Records we produced with him…amazing!

So when it comes to the validity of a re-performance of a Glenn Gould recording from 1955, we don’t associate the particular tone of the instrument to Glenn Gould. The new Zenph recordings have to be made on a current instrument with the “computer controlled player piano” technology built in. They used a Yamaha Disclavier Pro during the recording session. Not my favorite sounding instrument to record and who knows whether it was even in existence when Glenn Gould was alive. I don’t imagine that he would use one.

My point is that I will accept that a re-performance can bring back an instance of a classic recording. All of the notes are played at the right time, the dynamics are virtually perfect but the sound of the instrument becomes generic rather than personal. I doubt very much whether this approach will work with other instruments.

As much as I would love to capture a re-performance of the Sgt. Pepper record (the original was done on analog tape using only 4-tracks!), there is no way I can imagine a computer controlled mechanism playing a Hofner bass, a Gibson 335 or a set of Ludwig drums like the Beatles did. There is a lot of humanity that is transferred from your fingers or hands to the guitar strings and drumheads. That’s the magic of music.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

3 thoughts on “Achieving a Personal Sound

  • Mark U

    Vladimir Horowitz took his piano, a Steinway Model D, with him on concert tours, including his 1986 Russian tour. Since his death in 1989, the piano has continued to tour Steinway locations, where piano students get a chance to perform on it.

    • Admin

      I’m not surprised that an artist of Horowitz’s caliber traveled with his own special instrument…and probably a spare. That it still gets played is very cool.

  • Alex S

    This was a wonderful conclusion to the last several posts, Mark. I wonder how many well-heeled +music lovers install a Yamaha Disclavier in their home and enjoying re-performances rather than recordings?


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