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nathan shirley performer composer at piano pianist concert recording concert stage

This CD was made on an extremely tight budget and so I did not have the luxury of producing it in the conventional way. I had some technical knowledge and decided to take on the jobs of producer, recording engineer, graphic designer, etc (not to mention pianist!). It was a monstrous undertaking full of difficulties and near disasters, but in the end produced an album praised by many classical recording engineers, and which truly captures the essence of my music.

I spent months researching acoustics, microphones, and all the other critical ingredients. Through Internet forums I received fantastic advice from many seasoned engineers. I also decided to shoot video as well- for this my brothers were a tremendous help and now a DVD is on target to be released this fall.

The recording was done in an acoustically superb concert hall hidden away in the Appalachian mountains.

Being short on cash I decided to be still more ambitious by recording everything in a single day, but luck was not on my side….

The piano technician who was scheduled to work on the Steinway called me up a day and a half before the recording session, “how’s it going?”… “funny you should ask, I just had a heart attack and woke up from surgery.”

Finding a last minute substitute for a Sunday morning in the Bible Belt was not easy. But after talking to about every piano tech in a 40 mile radius, I found a guy who turned out to be great. I was prepared to do the tuning and minor adjustments myself, but this replacement was certainly a much better technician than I, and even very affordable.

I was told heavy rain would be audible in the concert hall, so having to book in advance was quite a gamble. And of course the morning we arrived to record it was raining. We had to wait to get in while security was finishing breakfast, and once we did get in it took a while to find the piano which had disappeared from the concert hall.

Next the key which was supposed to be left to open the acoustic curtains (very important) was nowhere to be found. But knowing just enough about electricity I managed to open up the big control box, find some discarded wire, and jump the key switch- tricking the control box into thinking the key was in place.

Lights, cameras, and audio were set up and after a few hours the piano tech was done, but rain was coming down hard which was VERY loud. A couple hours later the rain stopped, so we got to work. But after awhile, water started dripping into the hall… falling on unseen metallic objects which made random ‘ping’ noises. This went on during the whole session which caused quite a few retakes, but luckily it wasn’t constant. Meanwhile water was pooling up in the organ loft not far from the brand new million dollar organ. On top of water noises, the piano bench was a bit wobbly and creaked badly if I shifted my weight.

Despite all this we made steady progress, until the audio recorder froze up- apparently a freak memory glitch. After shutting it down, the recorder wouldn’t turn on. We didn’t have a backup recorder, and no electronics stores in the area were open on Sunday. But a couple hours later my brother managed to access the files via his laptop, deleted the bad file, and we were back in business (with only the one track lost).

We had to be out by 11 pm, but knew we wouldn’t finish. As I was taking a break in the lobby, another security guard just happened by, asking when we’d be done. After explaining he said, “I’ll be on campus until 7 am, so I could just lock you in if you’ll be done before then.” Very cool, luck was on our side for a change.

By that time my neck was feeling very sore from wearing a stiff collared shirt for so long. It turned out I had developed a nasty rash and by the time we finished, blisters ringed my neck.

We continued on, but between a heavy piano action and overplaying, my old tendon problem started acting up (sudden pain shooting from elbow to hand followed by tingly numbness… not good). I took more breaks, took some ibuprofen, and worked my way through the rest of the killer pieces… without crippling myself.

3:30 am, after nearly 20 hours, done.

There were a few minor issues with the manufacturing process (and then UPS broke 100 CDs), but in the end I’m very pleased with the results.

Incidentally, the technician who had the heart attack and surgery, while just coming out of anesthesia, had told me he still might be able to tune for me (in less than two days). I of course told him he was crazy, and to get plenty of rest. But a couple days after the recording session I called him to see how he was (I felt especially bad as I had given him a bunch of girl scout cookies not too long before the heart attack…). He told me that the same day I was recording, he was just down the street tuning a harpsichord. Apparently he needed the work, and “tuning a harpsichord is a lot easier than a piano… of course I was in pretty bad shape by the time I finished.” So then I felt even worse for giving him those poisonous cookies!

It’s certainly true that I couldn’t afford audio professionals, but I must admit I’m also a bit of a control freak. I live by the old saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Of course I wouldn’t have ended up with such a nice recording without the help from my brothers, the piano tech, and that security guard.