The Keyboard Conundrum sounds like a novel by Robert Ludlum; ‘How the world was stopped from being annihilated by a fully weighted eighty-eight note piano that carried the secrets of the universe therein with an evil Russian Oligarch as the concert pianist’!
Keyboards used to be real. There were no virtual simulations sitting in the cloud or any other virtual domain. Keyboards were touched, felt, played and, often with great effort, carried.
You could only dream of one single keyboard playing a bank of other modules via MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) or dialling up layered programmes of sounds to be split evenly over the eighty-eight notes.
My first keyboard was a Fender Rhodes Electric Piano. Despite its distinctive sound of bells hitting metal with an edge of flanging distortion, it was impossible for one person to carry. Hence the porterage for each session tended to be more than the fee itself, not to mention the hospital bills and threat of a hernia when faced with a flight of stairs.
This monolith ended up residing in a permanent garage and I was able to beg, borrow and sometimes steal other lighter models.
I remember being invited to play on an album. It was at a lovely residential studio called Ridge Farm in Surrey. Famed for hosting many a legendary rock god or iconic band, I was asked to attend what they called an overdub session on keyboards. Sadly, at the time I didn’t really have any. But I knew someone who did. I’d had my first tour with Cliff and found out that all the gear was stored away between tours gathering dust and mildew. I called our lovely stage manager and asked if he could help. After finding out that all of the familiar keys were there and available, I asked him for another favour.
The clients were American and had flown over to do these sessions but had used Los Angeles musicians to do the backing tracks. Usually over there, they never simply turned up to a session with one instrument. Instead, they used their own trucks containing every piece of equipment, guitars, drums or keyboards, including all the accessories, wardrobe and extra kitchen sink. The engineer of this session was Jack Joseph Puig, the man and the legend, so I thought I needed to impress. I asked my man if he could provide all the keyboards that existed in the lockup and bring them to the studio in Surrey in the largest van he had and then set it all up for me. I would then simply turn up unflustered and, removing my white gloves, start to get creative.
It became a fine session with Jack and I getting seriously colourful with reverbs, delays, layered keyboards and discovering where we could stick microphones and speakers to get new and different sounds. Nothing was saved or committed to any form of recall. What we ended up with we recorded. How did you get that sound? Can you get it back? It was a moment in time when what you created and played existed simply there and then. Onwards to the next song when you could start fresh with just a few ideas and loads of blag. And of course, I was able to present the perception of having my own roadie, walking out after the session, L.A. Style, to the next studio requiring my overdubbing skills! Or should I simply go home?
The only thing more creative was the invoice but that would have to wait for another blog.
And of course, turning up nowadays with a laptop and dongle isn’t half as sexy or impressive and certainly the Rick Wakeman cape does nothing to add to the illusion that was once normal and exciting way back. But at least, I can now walk up a flight of stairs with little or no injury.