At a recent demo for Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion project, the multiple Grammy Awards–winning guitarist and jazz icon stood before a small orchestra of acoustic instruments, but without the musicians who would normally accompany them. As Metheny played his Ibanez PM120 guitar, the orchestra—drums, cymbals, other guitars, percussion, vibraphone, marimba, piano, tuned bottles, and “guitar bots” (guitar-like instruments that resemble rubber bands stretched over skateboards)—played complementary parts to his flowing melodies. Like magic, these solenoid and pneumatic driven robots performed complex accompaniment created from Metheny’s love of jazz, cross rhythms, global music, and textural sound pieces. If you closed your eyes you could see an entire orchestra performing; open your eyes and poof!—no one’s there.
The advanced man/machine technology used in Metheny’s Orchestrion [Nonesuch] relies on the work of Eric Singer and LEMUR (the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots), as well as Metheny’s mastery of MOTU’s Digital Performer, Digidesign Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Sibelius.
“Digital Performer is the champ of all MIDI platforms,” Metheny states from New York. “DP is the most musical and the most locked rhythmically, which is a huge thing for me. This project has very specific tech requirements, which are about the internal timing of how a platform works. DP was the first to do sample accurate MIDI. That figures heavily into this.”
Metheny references earlier attempts at self-playing instruments, such as Yamaha’s Disklavier, then cites pioneers like Conlon Nancarrow and George Antheil, who advanced the art of mechanically coupled instrumentation and composition. Metheny brings their work into the 21st Century.
“Triggering MIDI events from a guitar has been a challenging engineering problem for 30 years,” Metheny explains. “The key to that for me is a box made by TerraTec Electronics, the Axon AX 50 USB. It’s the fastest and most accurate guitar-to- MIDI box ever. Yet, there is a certain latency that happens from the time the string is plucked to when [you hear the sound]. The Axon could trigger samples, but this goes a step further. It’s triggering an actual instrument. How the instrument responds is another thing.”
“Different inventors do this in different ways,” he continues.
“Some use solenoids or pneumatics or air-based valves that are given an instruction to close or open at a very fast rate. LEMUR’s Eric Singer cracked this whole issue of MIDI to control voltage, which allowed the control voltage to respond dynamically. That’s a huge thing for me in this project. Once Eric had dynamics in the discussion, I knew I could pull the trigger for Orchestrion.”
Metheny recorded Orchestrion at New York’s MSR Studios North, Studio B, on a Euphonix System 5-MC console. But as most of the record was written and mapped out at Metheny’s apartment (where he squeezed all the instruments into one room), the sessions were more about documentation than creation.
“It didn’t matter which instrument was recorded first,” he says. “I went into MSR with the record basically done [in Digital Performer]. Essentially, we were acoustically treating it in the studio and recording to Pro Tools. We had to uncover the best audio result of what that is. We could have recorded guitar first, or bass drum first, or the whole thing first ’cause it didn’t matter.”
If you’re a musician, you have to wonder how it feels to play with a band of robots. And if Metheny can do it, can you do it, too?
“It’s almost identical to what it feels like when you do an overdub,” Metheny explains. “It’s me playing with something that I’ve already played. So it’s like live overdubbing. And any kind of overdubbing environment is challenging.
“People ask, ‘Can I do this’?” he adds. “Sure they can. It’s just that this tapped into a bunch of real specific skill sets that I’ve spent most of my life working on. I’ve been dealing with knobs and wires from day one, I’ve lived through the computer music connection deeply. And at the same time I’ve done many records and many overdubs. To do this you’d have to be able to do all those things. And you can. And it will sound different.”