This recording was made right after I wrote the piece.
This was my first attempt to record it for the album.
This song is the oldest one on the album and marks the very first piece I consciously composed for my solo project back in 2017 after playing improvisations only in the early phase. I had two inspirations for it: The music of Philip Glass and a painting of my dear friend Andreas Pietsch, which he created for my daughter’s birthday.
The piece is about the deep, unbreakable friendship of two little girls, experiencing adventures in their fantasy and steering a magical ship by the name of Örmimi (a portmanteau word, made from the nicknames of the two girls, Örma and Mimi). The ship gets into a threatening thunderstorm and the girls have to fight for their lives together with the rest of the crew, a bear, a fox and a raven.
To represent this fantasy on the piano, I was looking for a very rich sounding instrument with an almost exaggerated bass and the possibility to drive the resonance board into crazy noise…
Unfortunately, the 6-foot Grand Piano in my studio provided neither of those qualities. So I recorded a sketch and settled to search for an apropriate piano for that piece later on.
While I went on to record the other songs, I tried different options every now and then. The most promising was the Steinway B Grand Piano in my teaching room at the college of music in Dresden. I love this particular instrument for its exceptional dynamic range and a beautifully soft mezzopiano sound. Unfortunately, this beautiful instrument sits in an awful sounding room with way too much reverberation for a studio recording of an intimate solo piano piece.
I gave it a try anyway and hauled some recording equipement up to the 4th story of the college building. It turned out quite nice, but not really what I envisioned for that piece. While it did provide some of the rich bass I had in mind, I was still looking for a more intimate sound. Like on Nils Frahms recordings, for example…
And as I had that thought over and over again, I began to dream – when I want a similar piano sound like Nils Frahm‘s, why not actually record his piano in his studio!? I knew he also had the rare EMT reverb devices I love, plus this awesome reverb chamber and … a real Mellotron!
Heck, let‘s call the studio!
Nils‘ personal audio engineer, Antonio Pulli invited me to come to Berlin and visit their studio at Funkhaus and check out the pianos.
Right after that conversation, the whole project and everything else came to an abrupt stop. I was driving home from the studio with a borrowed bicycle, going at full pace, when the cars in front of me stopped at the traffic lights, I swerved to the sidewalk, catched the wheel at the curb and crashed. Both of my hands smashed. Deep scrapes on my right hand and my left thumbs tendon overstretched. This left me not being able to play for weeks and I still have some issues with the scars on my right hand and my left thumb.
After some months of recovery, I finally took the offer and went to Berlin to see the Funkhaus studio. To say the least, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the room, the inspiring spirit of the place and of course the instruments themselves. After checking out the pianos, I had a little talk with Antonio with the bottom line that I not only wanted to record the piano pieces there, but also mix the whole album, using their one of a kind mixing desk, custom built with vintage Neumann components, their Telefunken tape machine und all those reverb gems…
More on that later.
After my initial visit to Funkhaus, I had six weeks to prepare for the actual session. Sounds like plenty of time. But considering the fact that I would have only one day to record two whole solo piano pieces, an improvised piano solo overdub and a prewritten piano part for a third song, plus all possible Mellotron parts throughout the album, I better start to practise immediately.
But the real bulk of work lay in the preparation of all the tracks to be ready for mixing in the other two days of the session. That ment a lot of small and big decissions to be made, to finish and terminate the whole recording and arranging process and clean up the mess such a big recording project tends to get over time and deliver clean and well organized tracks to the studio.
At the end of April, I arrived at Funkhaus again for the actual session. I met the piano tuner and felt preparation expert and watched his final touch to the tuning of the Zwicki Pianette.
Antonio and his assistant had already prepared the microphone setup for the two pianos I intended to record. The Yamaha CF6 Grand Piano for Örmimi had a pair of vintage Neumann M49 tube microphones and a vintage RCA ribbon microphone set up. „With this piano and these microphones in this room, it is almost impossible to not get a great sound“, said Antonio and I sat down at the piano to play the first take.
We listened back in the control room and the sound was just amazing. Exactly what I was after for so long. Antonio suggested to set up another pair of microphones to capture more of the gorgeous room sound of the studio, so we could bring that up later in the mix for the louder parts of the piece.
I played a few more takes until lunch and left the decision for which one to go with for later.
Fast forward to the mixing stage. The first thing we had to do was adjust the pitch of the recording. The piano was tuned to the standard 440 Hz tuning, while I had recorded the rest of the album in 432 Hz. To solve that problem, we had recorded a 440 Hz test tone at the beginning of the tape we recorded the piano tracks to. Now we played back the recording and adjusted the tape machine to a slower speed until the test tone was at 432 Hz.
The sound was already amazing without touching anything. But since I was here for an unusual sound that matched the dream like story of the piece, we did some magic to it. Antonio used a Siemens EQ to exaggerate the bass of the piano. Then we set up the mixing desk to send the sound of the piano to the reverb chamber next to the recording room. This is an empty room, designed just for the purpose of providing reverberation to a sound that is sent into it through a set of speakers and then rerecorded with a set of microphones. This was the most amazing reverb I ever heard before.
In addition to that, Antonio patched the piano tracks through two of the 12(!) Roland tape echos in the studio. The actual mix was an analog performance like in the old days, long before automation and digital technology was invented: We recoded the whole piece back to tape with Antonio standing on a bench at the tape echos, messing with their speed controls to create a dreamy modulation and me standing at the faders of the mixing desk, moving in and out the effects of the reverb chamber, the tape delays and another echo unit, set to a different sound. We performed that dance three times and then decided for the best „take“.
This was also fun for him, he said, as he didn’t do a mix for a long time that was this analog.
Yamaha CF6 Grand Piano, owned by Nils Frahm