The Magic of the Sostenuto Pedal

I thoroughly enjoyed creating my Piano Resonance sound library. As a composer, the piano’s singing overtones are one of my favorite piano sounds. I discovered this sound years ago when I was composing my master’s thesis for piano and seasonal electronics. Below, you can listen to the beginning of my thesis in order to hear how I have used these sounds in the past.

Sitka for piano and seasonal electronics from Thomas Rex Beverly on Vimeo.

SITKA – PROGRAM NOTE: 

Sitka is a twelve-minute work for piano and seasonally variable electronics that explores the relationship between music, technology, and nature. Since Steinway piano soundboards are made exclusively from Sitka spruce, the trees and the forests in which they grow served as the conceptual material for many of the piece’s musical components. Environmental elements including forest density, weather, and the Sitka tree’s shape informed the composition’s structure, density, frequency spectrum, rhythmic activity, and live electronics.

The composition’s form models the United States Geological Survey species range map for Sitka spruce trees, which grow throughout Alaska, Canada, and the United States. Curiously, when the map is rotated ninety degrees it becomes a fitting graphical depiction translatable into musical form. The piece’s growth and rhythmic density mirror this graphic, as does the rhythmic language, with more active rhythms appearing at times when tree growth is denser in corresponding map regions. In addition to conceptual translations, I connect the piece to Sitka, Alaska, in real time via an audio software program I developed using Cycling 74’s Max/MSP. The program polls real-time weather data from a weather station in Sitka, Alaska during performance, which in turn influences the piece’s accompanying live electronics. For example, when polling on a sunny summer day, the software generates higher pitched sonorities to create a light, open sounding accompaniment. Conversely, on a cold winter day the live electronics exhibit a darker, denser tone. These and other live electronics are projected over small speakers placed in front of the piano, mixing with the acoustic sound and emanating from the same physical space.

PIANO RESONANCE – RECORDING STEPS:

While writing Sitka, I experimented for many hours to find the best ways to record these piano resonances I’d come to love. So, when I decided to make the Piano Resonance sound library a few months ago, I knew exactly where to start. Now, let’s unpack how I recorded these drones.  

  1. Silently depress a series of piano keys. To do this, lightly press down several keys without causing the note to make a sound.
  2. Using your foot, press down on the sostenuto pedal (the middle pedal on a grand piano). This holds up the dampers on the silently depressed keys.
  3. Here’s a short video demonstrating how it works:
  4. Then, take your hands off the piano keys and leave your foot on the sostenuto pedal.
  5. Next, smack a low note on the keyboard. Specific dampers are already held up by the sostenuto pedal, so the thunderous attack quickly dies and leaves the open strings ringing.These higher strings sing with drones unlike any other sound created by the piano!
  6. Enjoy this lovely sound for 15 to 30 seconds :)
  7. Repeat with a variety of silently depressed key combinations. I love the sound of 5ths so, I used 5ths in the key of C, with the lowest C on the piano used as the attack.
  8. Repeat with multiple microphone perspectives on a single grand piano.
  9. Repeat with two dueling grand pianos.
  10. To capture both attack and the resonance, many recordings were made with a lower gain setting. However, my favorite sound was created when the gain was cranked. This caused the attack to clip and distort but the resonance was captured in much more detail. These recordings are included in the library as “resonances”. The attack has been removed and a fade-in added. Here are a few examples:

RESONANCE ONLY: 

ATTACKS WITH RESONANCE: 


MICROPHONE TECHNIQUE:

  • Sennheiser MKH 50 and 30 in MS into my 702.
    • This setup was used in various positions to capture a variety of images
  • DPA 4060 in AB
    • It was fun to place these tiny lav mics extremely close to the strings. This yielded great results.
  • Aquarian Audio H2a hydrophone - used as contact microphone
    • This mic alone on the soundboard is quite lovely
    • However, it is even better when mixed together with an MKH50!
    • Both perspectives are included in the library
    • I also had some fun thumping the body of the piano to create resonances. This worked quite well.
  • Sennheiser MKH 8040 in ORTF and MKH 50 and 30 in MS
    • This 4-channel setup was used for the two dueling pianos. Four channels where recorded into my MixPre-6.
    • Two microphones were used on each piano. Then, the four channels were mixed into two channel stereo for the sound library.
    • I sat at one grand piano and had a friend prepare for the duel at the other. We’d follow recording steps and then smacked a low C on both pianos at the same time. This created a thunderous sound with a richness only two grand pianos can create.

    OTHER THOUGHTS:

    • These drones are very versatile and also sound fantastic in reverse.
    • Therefore, I also duplicated each file in reverse for easy use.
    • This library includes 2GB of unique sounds. Total size is 4GB including the reversed files.

    THANKS FOR READING

    • Sound libraries are works of art and I hope you enjoy reading these behind these scenes stories. Really, what I’m trying to say here is thank you. I’ve put a little piece of myself into each recording, and I hope that you love them as much as I enjoyed making them.

    Piano Resonance – $39