Monday, February 16, 2015

Blame the Equipment

If you've ever played tennis you may be familiar with the phenomenon in which a black hole mysteriously opens in the middle of your racquet just as you are about to deliver a killer shot and inexplicably causes you to miss.

I was, very technically, on the tennis team for a year in high school and experienced this an unaccountable number of times. Naturally I was so stunned each time a parallel dimension came crashing through into our reality that I looked at my racquet as if to say, "somehow, this is your fault." My friend, who liked to stretch the definition of the term friend, enjoyed merrily pointing this out every time, suggesting that it wasn't really the racquet's fault at all and that there was in fact something wrong with my game.

I am, therefore, aware of how you might react to my recent round of equipment blaming. It has to do with the organ.

Last fall, I noticed an odd thing. There were times when the articulation on some of the notes was not as crisp as I wanted. I have a stern ear, and it wants what it wants. This means that actually missing a note isn't the only thing that can go wrong with a passage. If one of the notes overstays its welcome by even a tiny bit, that passage can sound sloppy. Now given that we'd just had the action reworked and tightened, and that some of the keys were quite obviously sticking, there was a case to be made that some of the occasional inarticulate passages that mar my recordings from last September were not my fault. Since that time, the action has relaxed, and sticking notes are less of a problem, though they still crop up occasionally. But last week, I made recorded evidence that it isn't just the keyboard that can make mistakes. This one came from the organ itself.

What you are about to listen to are two passages from the same performance. Our organ has a playback system, and what this means is that I can hit a record button on the console and play a piece of music, whereon the system in the pipe room stores as MIDI data each key as it is depressed, released, when stops are added or removed, and so on. Then, when you press the PLAY button, it will replicated your performance exactly on the organ itself.

So when I say it is the same performance, I mean I played the piece one time, and recorded the results twice, each time by hitting the PLAY button and audio recording the results that I had already recorded on the organ console earlier. And when I got to exhibit A I heard a note that didn't exactly fire.

exhibit A         

"That's odd," I though. "I don't remember muffing that note when I played it."

I hadn't. That much became clear when, being a suspicious lad, I hit the play button a second time and re-recorded the same performance from organ to microphone. The second time it sounded fine.

exhibit B

What would cause a variation like that? Remember, the organ is a large and complex instrument. It consists of large metal and wooden pipes, and lots of moving parts. Those parts can be affected by humidity and temperature. Sometimes something sticks, however temporary, and affects the execution.

My theory is that, the first time, the temperature in the sanctuary had something to do with it. Typically, when I record during the winter months, I bump up the temperature five degrees, then turn the thermostat back to its regular position. During the time it takes the sanctuary to fall five degrees, the heat will not come on, which would cause background hissing on the recordings and affect their quality, particularly when it comes to recordings of the piano (on the organ you can hear the blower going anyhow). Sometimes the change in temperature can cause the wood in the building to make rather loud settling noises, which I then have to edit out. But as the temperature settles back to what that space is "used to" there is less tension on the wood. And also less time to record before the heat begins to hiss and hum all over again. In the summer this is less of a concern. I only have to worry about the birds. And the air-conditioning.

And occasionally, the equipment doesn't quite behave itself. In which case, you try it again. Even if it's not your fault. That's life.

Now that's not so paranoid, is it?

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