Pat Metheny | A Well-Oiled Machine

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Photo: Jimmy Katz

In an old church in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, jazz-guitar legend Pat Metheny is rehearsing the music for the upcoming tour supporting his unusual new album, Orchestrion. In the church''s main room, a large group of instruments are arranged in a setup similar to the one he''ll have onstage for his upcoming tour. Some of the instruments are recognizable—a Yamaha Disklavier (a MIDI-controlled grand piano), vibes, a marimba, an electric bass guitar—and others aren''t: two groups of glass jugs, each on a shelf-like contraption; and a metallic stringed instrument with four one-string necks (aka the Guitar Bot). A drum kit is arrayed in a very unconventional manner, with the individual drums and cymbals hanging on the large metal frame that serves as the backdrop of the stage. Most of the instruments have retrofitted electronic and mechanical contrivances attached to them.

What''s most intriguing to me, as I observe the rehearsal setup, is knowing that Metheny will be the only live musician onstage during his tour, just as he was the only one on the record. His “bandmates” are all robotic instruments that he controls remotely, either from his MIDI-equipped guitar (which has a 13-pin pickup connected to an Axon MIDI converter box) or from programmed sequences coming from an Apple Mac running Avid Sibelius, MOTU Digital Performer, or Ableton Live.

I find out later that many of the instruments (including the Guitar Bot and the percussion) were designed by Eric Singer, a pioneer in the field of robotic music. Singer is the mastermind of an outfit called LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots). The group, which until recently was based in New York City (Singer has now moved the operation to Pittsburgh), builds musical robots for performances and installations of many types. (For more on Singer''s role in the design of Metheny''s instruments, see the sidebar “The Man Behind the Robots” on p. 30.) Some of the other instruments were designed by a Californian named Ken Caulkins, whose company is called Ragtime, and by Peterson (the strobe tuner-maker).

FIG. 1: Before deciding to go forward with Orchestrion, Metheny had been interested for many years in the concept of making a record with remotely controlled instruments.

Back in the Day
Before demonstrating how he interacts with his new band, Metheny gives the assembled reporters and photographers some background into why he chose such an unconventional approach for Orchestrion (see Fig. 1). He starts by showing us a book of photos of old, ornate instruments called orchestrions, which inspired the album title. “An orchestrion is basically a player piano that expands outward and upward into other instruments,” Metheny says. “It could be a couple of drums, a snare drum, a cymbal.”

He says that orchestrions came into being toward the end of the player-piano era, which lasted roughly from the 1890s until the 1920s. “There was this interesting period where player pianos emerged, which was before recorded sound. It was really the first time musicians or composers were able to represent themselves without actually being in the room.”

Back then, he explains, “If you wanted some entertainment, there were no discos, there were no record players, there was nothing like that—there were player pianos. Lots of restaurants, lots of bars, lots of entertainment, roller rinks, and whatever else had player pianos. Tens of thousands of player pianos were sold. Tens of thousands of orchestrions were sold. It was a huge business.”

Metheny explains that his interest in such instruments was sparked by the player piano that his grandfather had in his basement. “I spent every hour that I visited him messing around with this player piano,” he says. “I continued to have a fascination with that world of instruments, really, ever since.”

About two years ago, Metheny observed that the technology for modern robotic instruments, which typically employ solenoids to control the physical actions of playing (as opposed to the pneumatic technology used in vintage player pianos and orchestrions), had progressed to a point at which they could control instruments with the dynamics that were lacking in earlier self-playing instruments. As a result, he decided to pull the trigger on what is probably his most ambitious project to date, an album on which he''s accompanied only by these modern orchestrions. “I had to go about explaining to people what I wanted to do. And every single person, including my wife, thought I had completely lost my mind. I''ve gotten a lot of weird looks over the years for various things, but this one takes the cake,” he says.

FIG. 2: The Guitar Bot (designed by Eric Singer) produces some of the more unusual sounds on Orchestrion.

Photo: Oscar Solano

On the Record
The album itself features Metheny''s clean, jazzy, electric-guitar lines and solos, backed up by the sounds from the robot instruments, which provide not only the rhythm section, but also a lot of melodic support. Instruments such as the slidey-sounding Guitar Bot (see Fig. 2) and the glass-jar wind instruments add some unusual texture to the sound.

Metheny either played or programmed all of the instruments on the record. From the almost 16-minute title cut to the five other tunes on the record (the shortest one is 7:45 in duration), you get the feeling you''re listening to jazz compositions that, save for Metheny''s guitar parts, were mainly orchestrated rather than improvised. Metheny has done a masterful job of playing and programming the instruments so that their performances don''t sound robotic.

“People still don''t understand what it is,” Metheny says about the album, “because it really is something that is hard to express. So let me just say this: It''s not synths, it''s not samples; it''s a thing—a big, living, breathing thing—a combination, actually, of a whole bunch of things. It''s a very different experience—as a composer, as an improviser, as a musician—from anything else. It doesn''t connect to anything else. It''s not better, it''s not worse; it''s different. And that''s kind of the main headline. It''s no replacement for anything else; it''s no substitute for anything else. But it really opens up a whole different set of possibilities.”

Mixing in the Air
In our subsequent interview, I ask Metheny why he went through all the trouble and expense to use these retrofitted, robotic instruments when he could achieve an even wider range of sounds using synths and samplers.

“It''s not like I haven''t been right in the middle of everything else that''s been going on,” he says, “from 8-bit to 16-bit to 24-bit to, you know, the most high-def—every little step along the way, I''ve been very interested in what each of those little incremental improvements have offered, which are substantial. I mean, it''s gotten so much better. But [in the end] it''s still all getting crammed into two speakers. There was a minute there when it looked like 5.1 would be something, but that hasn''t really panned out. But to me, it''s still not anything like what happens when you have some stuff [real instruments] playing in a room.”

That sonic interaction is what made the robot-instrument approach more appealing to Metheny than synths. “It''s wildly different,” he says. “It''s like the difference between pureed tomatoes and picking a tomato right off the vine in a vineyard somewhere. The stuff is alive; I mean, every time it hits, it''s different. It''s not ever the same. If you have a sample, it''s exactly the same every time. You can, of course, fudge that a little bit with a variety of tricks that we all know. But the fundamental thing is exactly the same. And every time you play a note and it blends with other notes, you''re not really getting the sonority of those notes mixing with each other in the air. You''re getting discrete samples mixing with each other in a speaker.”

Playing With Vapor
So how exactly did Metheny go about recording Orchestrion? Did he have all the music written in advance, and then just go about orchestrating it with the robot instruments once he got them? “That would have been nice if it had gone down like that,” he replies wistfully. “I essentially pulled the trigger—‘Okay, I''m going to do this''—in the middle of 2008. I''ve been thinking about it for about 15 years, and had sort of followed who was building what and what experiments were being done. And so I made the call and told the guys that I''m going to do this thing, and, of course, everybody''s response was, ‘You''re going to do what?''”

Once he decided to go ahead with the album, he had to commit to touring to support it. “They have to book these tours about one-and-a-half years in advance, so the call was made and we were going to do that,” he says. “At that point, I made commitments to all these different instrument-makers.”

So, by necessity, Metheny had to agree to do the album and the tour before he''d even had a chance to try out the instruments. He was working with a tight timeframe and had hoped to get the instruments by January 2009, but that wasn''t to be.

“This was sort of my vaporware project for a while. I didn''t get one instrument until March. Everybody was late with everything, partially because of me,” he says. “I really wanted it to sound great. For example, the drums and the cymbals are Jack DeJohnette''s drums and cymbals. Before, [the instrument-makers] had crummy little [drums], and they were like, ‘Isn''t it cool that it works?'' I was like, ‘It''s cool that it works, but it sounds terrible.'' There was a lot of that. For instance, they had done some mallet instruments with really bad mallets and it sounded terrible. I said, ‘That''s not what those instruments are supposed to sound like.''”

So Metheny got some help from his friends. “Gary Burton gave me 37 Gary Burton vibe mallets [one mallet on each note], so it sounds fantastic. Gary also picked out all the mallets for the marimbas, so that register by register, it sounds beautifully balanced,” he says.

“In the meantime, yes, I was writing a whole bunch of music that I was then planning on orchestrating, [but], essentially, nothing that I had planned worked. And all that music, when the instruments were there seemed [not] to make an enormous amount of sense. Then I really had to start over. Really, I was kind of writing for the stuff once it came in. Everything sort of emerged. In a way, it was a lot better. It was like I really knew what I was getting, and what I was working on was what it wound up being.”

The instruments were designed to be controlled with a high degree of precision, allowing for dynamic expression. (One of the problems with player pianos and orchestrions in their heyday was their lack of dynamics.) For instance, the ride cymbals can be hit in four different ways, the crashes in two. And the Singer-built instruments have an impressive dynamic range.

“The way he cracked dynamics is a pretty fascinating story,” Metheny says, referring to Singer. “Essentially, he''s got a box that he''s built that converts the full range of 0-127 to voltage so that he can then modulate the voltage based on the velocity that it''s receiving. But if you think about it, it''s not just a matter of hitting harder, because if you hit something harder, it''s not necessarily going to be louder. It''s a question of speed. And how quickly it can get off the note, too. It''s really quite a difficult engineering problem, and he found a very elegant solution. It''s also very robust.

“Essentially, I had from the middle of March until the middle of September to learn all this stuff and write all this music. I wrote a lot of stuff that I just didn''t get to, that I was not able to finish. Everything was in a room in my apartment. And believe me, my wife was never so glad to see me leaving [laughs].”

Tracking It Down
One of the issues Metheny ran into in the studio was the latency of the robot instruments. He discovered that there was from about 25ms to 50ms of delay in all the instruments. “I''m very groove-aware,” Metheny says. “And for me, the feel of things is important. And honestly, before I could do anything serious, I had to spend weeks measuring all of those latencies and really understanding what they were from instrument to instrument, and setting zillions of software offsets [for use] under these conditions or those conditions, so that ‘one'' was really ‘one.'' I''m kind of way pickier about that stuff anyway, under any circumstances. I''m one of those guys who''s really concerned about latency.”

The solution to the latency issue was not an easy one. Metheny had to engage in his own manual version of latency compensation while he was playing. “You can get something in there by rushing, which I do anyway, so it fits in nicely with my thing [laughs]. Then on output, meaning when it comes back, if it''s something that I''m laying there, all of the offset stuff that I''ve done compensates for it. That in and of itself was a pretty massive undertaking. And it''s another one of those things where people didn''t exactly know what I was talking about in terms of how specific I needed that to be. It turns out that Digital Performer is really the one for that.”

Software to Hardware
During the writing and recording process, Metheny used a number of different software applications. He is accustomed to working in a notation-based environment, so Sibelius was always running.

“When it comes time for just writing notes and organizing music in the sort of conventional way, Sibelius is the greatest,” he says. “I always had Sibelius going in the background with ReWire. I always keep a score going with everything I''m doing because I need to see that. Sometimes I need to play this part or I need to transpose this part, or I need to do this or I need to do that. If I don''t have actual music in front of me, I''m just lost.”

However, when writing, Metheny often relied on the improvisational capabilities in Ableton Live. “For developing materials and being able to organize things in interesting and fun creative ways very quickly, you can''t beat it. It''s just a fantastic sort of playground for ideas,” he says.

For getting the parts ready for recording, Metheny chose Digital Performer. “It''s the deepest, most musical, and—for me, this is the most important thing—most time-locked, where you get exactly what you think you''re getting, down to the sample program there is,” he says. “And for me, it''s the program that I have 14 years'' experience with now, so I''m very fluent with it.

“Once I had everything organized, put together, and recorded in my world, going into the studio where we actually recorded the audio part of it and mixed it and everything else, Pro Tools is still the king for that. So, really, it was four platforms.”

Metheny offers this description of how he worked up the material for the title cut: “I started in Sibelius, wrote a whole bunch of material,” he says. “I had a huge amount of stuff. And then I started splitting it off, kind of into certain keys, certain areas, and then loading those into Ableton—kind of setting up some canons and stuff within Ableton. And then wound up with an Ableton file that had, I think in the end, 400-and-some scenes. Then I had all this material and kind of developed the form in Ableton and tweaked it till I got it—not on the scene-based page, but on what they call the Arrange page—and basically nailed the form there.

“Then I dumped it from Ableton over to Digital Performer. I used that to do all the fine-tuning stuff, all the guitar-audio recording, all the musician-y kind of things.”

When tracking the final parts into Pro Tools, Metheny and his crew had two somewhat contradictory aims: to record the tracks as cleanly as possible and to capture as much of the sonic interaction of the instruments as was feasible. “We had everything set up in a room,” he says. “They were divided up a little more into sections where percussion colors were all in one general area, and drums and cymbals were all in one general area, and the mallets were all in another area. But we did try to record as many things together as made practical sense, and as made sonic sense. There''s a certain kind of bleed that''s good, and there''s a certain kind of bleed that''s not good.”

Depending on the song, they took different approaches. “There''s everything from all the instruments playing together at the same time to each string playing individually, sometimes bar by bar,” Metheny says.

Logistics Gone Wild
As mentioned, the album''s writing and recording processes presented a number of challenges to Metheny, which he overcame with his musical skills, technical knowledge, and creative use of DAW and notation software. But the recording was only one part of the equation. He also had to learn to tour with his band of instruments, which presented a whole other set of logistical issues (see the sidebar “Take This Show on the Road”). As I write this, Metheny has just embarked on the Orchestrion tour, which will run from early February through June and travel to cities in Europe, the United States, and Asia. That tour, which will be his most expensive ever, will be a real test of his talents, his crew, and the road-worthiness of his robotic instruments. Reports from his early shows are quite positive.

As for the music of Orchestrion, Metheny''s efforts demonstrate that mechanically controlled instruments are capable of playing music that''s complex harmonically, melodically, and, most important, dynamically. While some might consider all the time, effort, and money spent on this project to be frivolous and might argue that synths and samplers could achieve much the same result, Metheny clearly does not. He has impressively overcome myriad technical and aesthetic obstacles in the course of writing and recording this album. He views this project as just another challenge out of many he''s had in his career.

“From my perspective,” he says, “it''s like I''ve been building this house for all these years, of all these musical opportunities—playing trio, playing with my band, playing with this, that, or the other thing. This is nothing more and also nothing less than a whole new addition onto the house. It''s like a new bunch of things that are possible, and I honestly didn''t know what the result would be. I wasn''t sure whether it was going to be cool or what was going to happen, but it took me to some places that were really very different places. And the result speaks for itself.”

Metheny onstage with his “band” in Amsterdam on one of the early shows of the Orchestrion tour

Photo: Ron Beenen

Take This Show on the Road
When Pat Metheny embarked on the Orchestrion project, he realized that touring with the robotic instruments would be very different from recording with them. “I knew I would have two big jobs,” he says. “Make a record and do a tour. I knew the making-the-record part would be the harder part because there''s no visual feedback. It''s got to do what records do; it''s got to tell a story and do all the things that music must do as an auditory function of our existence. Live, there''s a lot more information about what''s going on.”

Onstage, there''s also more chance for improvisation, and much of it will involve Ableton Live. “The live jamming that he does is going to be very different every night because of the way that Ableton morphs the stuff,” says David Oakes, one of Metheny''s two longtime techs; the other is Carolyn Chrzan.

Live, Metheny will record scenes (groups of triggerable individual parts) in Live. It will be similar to using a looper. “He''ll start building the tracks up, and all of a sudden, the drums will be rocking, everything will be going,” Oakes says.

Touring with the robotic instruments also opens up some unique logistical issues for the crew. They can''t carry spares of the instruments (they''re too big and expensive for that), but they will be stocking a lot of spare parts. “On most of these things, if the solenoid breaks, you can unscrew it, put in a new one, wire it up,” Oakes says.

He points out that when a human plays a percussion instrument, he or she will hit it in a variety of different spots, whereas a robot instrument will hit in precisely the same spot each time. “You''re going to wear out drum heads a lot faster,” Oakes says.

“The instruments take a different kind of abuse,” Metheny adds.

With so many instruments together onstage, the need to minimize mic bleed will be great. Oakes says he was considering using ribbon mics to help cut down on the leakage. “What I''m doing now is experimenting with using all ribbons, or as many ribbons as I can, mainly because, with the figure-8 [polar pattern of the ribbon mics], the side rejection is pretty total.”

Eric Singer is the inventor of many of the robot instruments Metheny uses on Orchestrion.

Photo: Evan Cairo

The Man Behind the Robots
Eric Singer, who invented the Guitar Bot and many of the other robot instruments Pat Metheny used on Orchestrion, spoke to EM about his creations.

Which of the instruments in Metheny''s project did you invent?
Almost everything. Toward the middle and later parts of the project, he brought on some instruments from some other inventors to kind of fill out the orchestra. But we built all of the traditional percussion, some of the nontraditional percussion, all three of the mallet instruments—which were marimba, vibes, and orchestra bells—and two Guitar Bots. [We built] four ride cymbals, four crash cymbals, a couple of congas, a couple of toms, snare drums, a couple of bass drums, hi-hats, and a whole bunch of different styles of rattles. All in all, about 40 to 45 individual instruments, but maybe 150 different mechanisms.

Your instruments take the MIDI signal coming from his MIDI guitar setup and translate that into mechanical actions?B Exactly. The way all of our instruments work, and how they''ve worked from the beginning, they all have microprocessor boards, kind of black boxes. MIDI goes in and a variety of control signals come out to control motors and solenoids. All of the hard work is taken care of inside those boxes; they''re all custom. And so the instruments are all designed to work just the way you would expect them to as a composer or performer. So you could literally plug a MIDI keyboard in and run up a scale and play the notes on a mallet instrument or play different percussion instruments that way.

Your devices are reading the note on, note off, duration, and velocity.
Yeah, we translate all of that, even like a sustain message. On the vibes, if he holds down the sustain pedal, the volume pedal goes down. All the note ons, the note offs. For percussion, you ignore the note offs, you just use the initial hit with the velocity, and that velocity is converted into a timing signal from the solenoid. It''s just basically how long you pulse that solenoid that controls how hard it hits.

For those not familiar, how does a solenoid work exactly?
A solenoid is really a very simple device. It''s an electromagnet and a rod, and when you turn on the electromagnet, it pulls the rod down into the body of the solenoid. Now you take that and you need to attach it to a lever because it''s a very small action. They only move perhaps half an inch to an inch. So that rod goes to a lever, and that lever gets pivoted, and that pivot is attached to a mallet or a stick or a brush, or anything.

Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.