Saturday, August 29, 2015

'The Piano Makes Its Stand'

The Marquee, Cork. June 2011. A significant date in terms of Elton history. Why? Because we got to hear Funeral For A Friend played three times in succession. All because the piano broke down. Cue man with little screwdriver, twiddling the twiddly bits and Hey presto he was like Ahab off and running. Elton's current piano the Yamaha, is in Elton's own words that night, the Ferrari of pianos. And who can argue. If you're going for speed with good handling and a sweet sounding motor then he's riding the right horse. But it's not always been the case that the live piano has had such a high degree of engineering. Elton being the first and foremost of the piano players that reached vast live audiences he has (with the help of the men with the screwdrivers) really been to the forefront of developing a live piano sound that is truly the best. Ground was broke...before the piano broke.

They say the first taste of you food you make is with your eyes. Our meal of choice is Elton as most of us who are Elton fans are first and foremost listeners. So when we head out for a night at ‘his place’ our ears will be our eyes and taste buds all rolled into one. Trying to describe to someone who has never heard Elton's live piano would be like reading a review of an album that you've never heard and making all sorts of deductions. Then again, that may be possible...even on this blog...but one thing is for sure. The sound in the auditorium can never be repeated at home. Putting aside the acoustics of the venue, the mixing and the sheer volume it's the actual sound the piano makes that is impossible to replicate. The sheer depth of it, the power that flashes out like an unseen shockwave each time Elton hits a key. By the time it hits your gut, you’ve got a pretty deep hole gouged out. But it's also the clarity of the whole procedure. Elton's little nuances in how light and heavy his touch relayed from his finger tips to our ears with zero lose of translation. And that’s the key.

By the time we get to hear a live show disc any imperfections can be rendered inaudible. Remixing can push his sound up and down to the mixers to one’s own satisfaction. Not always to the listener's of course. If Elton's people are doing a sound mix and the broadcast host use it then all is well. If somebody else thinks they know best, then disaster can strike. But that's something for a future blog post, this time we'll focus on how Elton has developed with the aid of cutting edge technology a piano sound that can hack it like the Martini girl. Anytime, anywhere etc.

Back in the 70's the live piano sound in stadium shows was distant and indistinct in amongst the band mix. On its own it had a 'sticky' sound, like as if the hammers had drying glue on them. Wings and Pink Floyd outside of the Elton world are testament to that. A sound that didn't really carry or last long wasn’t s true live representation of what he was all about in terms of getting his sound across. When he played indoor venues the sound was superior. Up to that period of time technicians were well versed in setting up pianos for live music indoors. But Elton’s style of music demanded new advances in micing and mixing, amplification was going to be key to any future developments. But outdoors had never been really done before and as Elton around 1975 was expanding into the stadium field then the boffins were going to have to rewire the mother board. Running alongside all of this was the advances on the mixing. The piano sound on the Edinburgh show (1976) and the Rainbow Theatre (1977) are probably the zenith achieved during that time period in terms of the ‘purest’ acoustic sound generated. They had the ‘base’ sound perfected and were now able to do exciting things with it .Going as far as they probably could with that model, in to view comes a white charger to lead a new offensive.

So when what is commonly known as the ‘White Steinway' appeared on tour in 1980 it brought a whole new dynamic to Elton's live piano style. No coincidence that the golden age of solo's started around this time I suspect. No longer hampered by an underpowered unit, Elton felt comfortable playing a device that responded to his needs, desires and moods. If ever musician and instrument became one, then this was certainly the eve of conception. Where was previously a piano sound that muddy at best, lost altogether at worst, in its place stepped a sharper more brighter sound. It's almost metallic sound, like aluminum reflecting bright sunshine with heat, it cut through even the most aggressive (as all the shows in the 80's were up to 1986) of band mixes that you never felt Elton was overborne by those around him. In fact because he could 'mix it' (on all senses) he could battle, be in tandem and in some cases outdo Davey on guitar such was the verocity of his playing. Like I said earlier, he was finally at ease with an instrument. He wasn't the sideshow sound to the sounds around him.

By the time of the 85/86 World tour which culminated in the terrific Tour De Force, he had succumbed to modern technology and added the MIDI hookup to the old beast. Like a new set of colours, a more flashier sound could be incorporated into the more traditional sound. The integrity of the acoustic sound was never devalued, nor was the added colour anything off a Klaus Wunderlich album. It was interwoven, especially when Elton was solo at the piano, to flesh out parts that detailed what could have been hidden otherwise. So the age of digital had finally arrived for Elton onstage. How would he take it on to the step.

Roland. A name in the 80's that conjures up a wide variety of emotions. Whether it be rat's or past pupils of Grange Hill, the piano that Elton used in the late 80's/early 90's certainly has a great reputation among the piano playing public. But for the piano listening public something didn't sound right. I've mentioned it's failings as s standalone instrument elsewhere, so we'll move along. Because at the request of Elton, a new piano was sought after he got fed of looking at everyone straight ahead for those few years.

In 1993 during the short tour with Ray Cooper the white Steinway reappeared for the first few shows. Then a black Yamaha at the subsequent shows. Essentially what was happening here Elton was road testing both machines to see how he felt with them, the first hurdle to be jumped. And how they sounded on the floor. In other words, he desired to go back to a more truer sound, organic with added technology that was kind to its roots. At the end of the tour he had settled on what has become his ride of choice, the Yamaha with its various pieces of technical aftermarket addon’s. These are done for two reasons. For Elton as the artist to deliver exactly what he wants and for the audience to hear it exactly as he intends it.

The Yamaha was ahead of its time but is now not behind the times and I think that is best summed up every time Elton takes to the stage. Because he’s still using it. As a direct result of the unseen switches and gismo’s lurking in its underbelly Elton, especially for a solo show, can deliver an incredibly rich and full sound. The string patches he incorporates for example never distract nor detract. Inserted at the right time just to neatly dress the songs. I did a piece  on the Fairbanks show in 2008 recently with all those elements and more are present and correct. The acoustic sound of the Yamaha, which sets itself as the basis of everything he does on stage, is luxuriatedly mixed with the MIDI hookup and in turn they combine to create an almost unique sound for every song. Each song in turn has its own identity. Everything is balanced and mixed with measured textures. The treble is finely gauged; his light touch is captured right down to the the slightest movement of the little finger. The bass is sturdy and strong; Elton’s left is the heaviest in piano rock and every night it withstands that (kind) abuse and the deep rooted power of it thunders loud and proud.

If the music and the word are to be married, then the piano is indeed the matchmaker. For that marriage to work there has to be peace and harmony with all participants. I think the divorce courts won’t be contacted any time soon. I couldn’t possibly give examples of the many facets of the piano sound. I think most folks reading this will have their own. But I want to leave with one piece. No matter how often you hear the same song and the countless times it’s been performed there’s always one version that stands out. If the White Steinway was indeed the peak of acoustic technology then what better way to showcase it than this incredible version of Song For Guy. Some of the high notes he hits at the end, well, if they don’t hit you ‘there’ then your armour must be pretty thick…


  1. Hi Paul

    Great post. Always good to consider the various pianos EJ has played through the years. My thoughts (strictly my own and happy to be corrected by those in the know):

    I always thought the Steinway from the early 80s sounded more like a 'real' piano (apart from in Australia 86/87) although it was a heavily EQ'd sound in order to make it cut through the band.

    The Yamaha (originally a CFIII and later the Disklavier version) is a great -indeed one of the finest- pianos around. But the sonic qualities of the piano are I understand something of a moot point insofar as the live 'grand piano' sound goes.

    As I understand it there is rarely more than a small % of acoustic sound in the actual mix due to the fact they can't have the mic's inside the piano loud enough (too much feedback through his vocal monitors). From reading elsewhere, and the very talented Max is best placed to comment on this, what we hear is basically a combination of the Roland MKS20 module plus the Yamaha Powergrand piano samples, with other samples for the Rhodes style electric pianos on Daniel, Philadelphia Freedom etc

    This is why I was somewhat perplexed about him coming off stage and saying he needed a new piano. From our discussions, it sounds as though the Steinway was set up with the same Gulbransen system - with the same sampled sound - as they then used on the first Yamaha.

    The other side of it is the touch: what the keyboard feels like. All pianos are adjustable to a degree (or perhaps more than that, if you were Glenn Gould) the touch of the Yamaha is almost certainly lighter and quicker.

    And there's the main purpose of playing a proper grand piano on stage, apart from looking the real deal: the feel of it. Apart from the Yamaha Avantgrand series there is not a single digital piano I am aware of which replicates the feel of an acoustic grand piano properly as they don't have a full blown grand piano action in them.

    The Roland may have had full length wooden keys with individual lead weights in them, like a grand piano, but it sure didn't have the rest of the action in there.

    Back to the sound, the reason I find the Steinway more 'real' (although having watched the Central Park concert again, I may defer from my own opinions on this) is that the digital piano sound he now uses on stage seems heavily compressed and lacks the full range of 'piano-forte', to give the instrument its full name.

    You certainly notice this more in recent years on solo tours/songs where there is much less colour between soft and loud passages.

    Compare the Rainbow Theatre with Ray, or the Edinburgh Playhouse concert to the last EJ/Ray tour. At very least the soft passages played on the Yamaha are just louder so there is less range between soft and loud.

    I also don't think the bass thunders resplendently like a true acoustic piano would. Again, I think there is some heavy compression/limiting on the sound across the keyboard. I also think the digital sounds may be programmed to have less sustain than you would expect from an acoustic grand, which again means the sound has a different colour to it. It may be a hangover from the Roland sound module which would have had much less polyphony than current sounds do.

    Notwithstanding all of the above, if you combine the lighter quicker action of the Yamaha with the sampled sound and there you have it: the EJ sound. And it certainly sounds and looks a whole lot better than the Roland did on stage.

    If I have a gripe, it's that the Roland sound is quite dated now and he really could chose something a bit more convincing - Yamaha's own modelled piano sounds are pretty stunning! It might be that they have been moving more in the Yamaha direction.


  2. Not going to argue with EJ, but I'll take the Steinway piano any day. The Yamaha sometimes sounds like a toy!