Saturday, December 5, 2009

Video: Chopin--Etude Op.10 No.3

One of my favorite pieces to play and I finally got around to video taping it.

I'm starting to think that maybe the conversion to Flash video used by both Vimeo and YouTube just can't handle audio well. In this case YouTube seems even worse than Vimeo, but both introduce some nasty distortion. I'll post .wma files (like I did for Maiden) so that there's an accessible version of decent-quality audio. I think if you download the .wmv from Vimeo, you'll also get decent audio.

Chopin: Etude Op.10 No.3 from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Video: Soler--Sonata No.84

Ok, I'll admit it: I have a strong bias toward Romantic composers. But I've made an effort to diversify a little by bringing more Baroque and Classical pieces into the mix. This piece is a keyboard sonata by late Baroque Spanish composer Padre Antonio Soler.

Soler was a monk, musician and composer, of course. But he was also an inventor, mathematician and author.

I hear Sonata No.84 as "light and playful", though the recent trend for this piece seems to be "as fast as humanly possible".

Now. With respect to the video... I've been fiddling with this for several days. Both Vimeo and YouTube seem to be converting the file to a Flash video with some nasty audio artifacts. But I've decided I'm going to have to live with it. If you're hearing distortion, you can download the .wmv file from the Vimeo page. It should be clean.

Soler: Sonata No.84 from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Video: Rachmaninoff--Prelude Op.23 No.5

Somebody asked me last year if I played any Russian music, and I realized that I had never studied any of the great Russian composers. So I started listening to a bunch and decided on this Prelude by Rachmaninoff. It's shortish, popular and fun to play: exactly what I'm looking for in new pieces to learn.

This performance is from the ConcART recital, which I decided to video tape this year. I was happy with the performance, mainly because I didn't trainwreck. Sure there are clams aplenty, but I thought it came off pretty well anyway.

The audio, on the other hand, is horrendous. It's taken from the camera's on-board mic, which is bad enough. But the camera also has a built-in compressor which can't be turned off. So when you hear the high-pitched whine/buzz, that's the compressor trying to make the soft parts as loud as the loud parts. Ugh. You'll just have to take my word for it that I had some nice soft passages in there.

As usual, you can watch in full HD at the vimeo page.

Rachmaninoff: Prelude Op.23 No.5 from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

ConcART II Review

I'm happy to report that this year's art show/recital was a success. The demographics were similar to last year: 50 people came in time for the recital and another dozen or so showed up later in the afternoon. Johanne sold 12 paintings to friends, neighbors, and even to other artists and a couple of guests of guests that we didn't know.

Welcoming our guests

I played a program of six pieces. I put quite a bit of thought into selection and sequencing of pieces, and I think it paid off. Several people commented on how interesting and varied the program was. And like last year, they really appreciated the little stories I gave to introduce each piece.

Playing the piano

I was disappointed not to have photographic proof of applause from last year. So this year I made sure to document it. Everyone seemed happy to accommodate, even through my low battery scare.

Proof of applause

Here's what it looked like from my angle.

From the "stage"

And even with about sixty people milling throughout the afternoon, we still way over-bought on food and drink. I guess that's why it's important to buy stuff you like: you're going to be finishing it for the next two months.

Looking at art

Once again, I'd like to thank several people for making ConcART II run smoothly:
  • Gary for tuning the piano and working on the hammers two weeks before the recital, and then coming back to put on a hard tuning two days before the show
  • Libby and Annabel for handling art sales
  • Laura for protecting the doors during the recital and for kenneling Maple dog for the day
  • Debie for monitoring the refreshment stations
All-in-all I'd have to say that this year's event was even better than last year's. Now to get to work on next year's party. What should I play?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Granados: Laments or The Maiden and the Nightingale

Yesterday my father underwent (successful) coronary artery bypass graft surgery. In preparation for the tedium of convalescence, he bought himself an MP3 player. Among the 50 albums he loaded, he included the Piano 101 recordings. But he noted that some of the pieces that I made videos for aren't available as audio recordings. So I went back to the original audio files for those videos and encoded .wma files for downloading. Listening to them without the visual distraction of video, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the recording. And they capture the tone of my piano nicely. So I decided to post some of them here.

I've mentioned before that Enrique Granados' Goyescas suite is pretty much the pinnacle of piano music for me. The fourth piece in the suite is Quejas ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor (Laments or the Maiden and the Nightingale). And if you were wondering why people learn to play the piano, Maiden is a pretty good answer.

It's been a little under a year since I recorded this and I find the performance a little dry and plodding. But is it good enough to post to a blog with three readers? Most probably!

Quejas ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor (Enrique Granados)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may remember Johanne and I had a combination art show/piano recital last fall. We enjoyed it so much we decided to try to have one once a year. Well, the time has come! ConcART II will take place Sunday, November 15, 2009.

Johanne will be showing the pastel paintings and oil studies she's done this year, as well as a few older paintings that won awards in 2009.

To kick off the show, I'll give another recital of classical piano music. I wanted to mix things up a little this year. Last year's recital was very heavy on Romantic and Spanish music. I think this new program is more varied, and maybe a little more accessible.
  1. Twelve Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman" (Wolfgang A. Mozart)
  2. Etude Op.10 No.3 (Frederic Chopin)
  3. Sonata No.84 (Antonio Soler)
  4. Arabesque I (Claude Debussy)
  5. Danza de la Pastora (Ernesto Halffter)
  6. Prelude Op.23 No.5 (Sergei Rachmaninoff)
If you can make it to Austin November 15, let me know and I'll send you the Evite.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Transfer Function, What's Your... uh... Function?

Having a good mental model of how an unfamiliar piano responds helps you know how to adjust (or not adjust) your playing. For example, if a piano's action seems relatively stiff, you might be more careful to avoid notes not sounding. If a piano is voiced more brightly than you're used to, you might want to beware the tendency to underplay to compensate.

Both of these examples illustrate the importance of sensing how effort applied translates to sound out. I think of this relationship as a Transfer Function: different amounts of energy in (effort applied) produce different changes in energy out (volume, roughly). When playing an unfamiliar piano, if you can build a mental model of this transfer function, you're more likely to be able to exploit its dynamic range effectively. It's also easier to avoid overplaying a piano whose sound is smaller than what you're used to or underplaying a piano whose sound is bigger.

The graph below shows how energy out might vary depending on how much energy goes in for three hypothetical pianos.

The yellow curve is the transfer function for a hypothetical "linear" piano, where doubling the effort produces exactly double the volume over the entire dynamic range. The red line would be a piano where small changes in effort produce larger changes in volume at the soft end, but more effort is required to produce changes in volume at the loud end. For example, a small increase in effort (from a to b) might be required to go from pianissimo to piano, whereas a large increase in effort (from e to g) might be required to go from forte to fortissimo. The green curve represents the transfer function of some wacky imaginary piano where the louder it gets, the easier it becomes to play even louder.

Real pianos would have transfer functions more like the red curve. Eventually, the curve flattens out to the right, meaning that as you hit the keys ever harder, you don't get much more volume.

The next graph shows how transfer function might account for differences in big pianos versus small pianos. One of the most surprising things when playing concert grands, for example, is how they continue to respond dynamically at the loud end. That is, even when playing loud, the piano has power to get even louder. The transfer function of smaller pianos flattens out faster than that of larger pianos. In the graph below, the red curve would be a larger piano, the green curve a smaller piano.

Any given piano may have a unique shape to its transfer function. The red curve in the graph below represents the transfer function for a piano that requires little effort to get from piano to forte, but then flattens out quickly. On such a piano, the risk to the player is in reaching high volumes with little effort, but then having no headroom left for louder passages. The tendency then would be to over-exert on loud passages, which can affect clean technique and result in fatigue. Keeping a model of this piano's transfer function in mind while playing would remind you that wide dynamic variation requires little change in effort in the soft and middle dynamic ranges, that forte comes easier than expected, and you should be careful not to hit the flat part of the curve before the loudest passages of the piece.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


I was excited by the title of a recent post on the Dallas Steinway blog: The Importance of Good Action on Pianos. I guess I was expecting a technical article about the motion and interaction of elements of a piano's action and how they affect playing. But the article seems more aimed at piano buyers, with the message: "don't be put off by a firm action... it's good for you".

The reason for my excitement (and disappointment) is that I spend a lot of time thinking about how pianos sound and feel. And I think there's more to action from a player's point of view than just "firm or not firm". So why not write about it on my blog?

When a piano requires relatively more energy to play, people often describe its action using words like "heavy", "stiff", "firm", etc. But I've played lots of pianos that felt "heavy but loose", or "light but stiff", suggesting there's more than one dimension. So here are the elements I think of when describing a piano's action:
  1. Weight (heavy vs. light)
  2. Stiffness (stiff vs. fluid)
  3. Tightness (tight vs. loose)
  4. Response (responsive vs. sluggish)
These may or may not map simply to physical differences in the machinery of the action. And they're all closely related to the subjective perception of how effort produces sound. I think of this effort-in-to-sound-out as a kind of Transfer Function, which I'll describe in another post. For now, I'll say a little more on each of the four elements.

I see weight as a perception of how much matter it feels like you're moving when you press a key. This may correspond to the actual weight of the moving pieces. It may also be affected by a sense of inertia (how much effort it takes to get things moving, and how much it feels like they keep moving once in motion).

Stiffness to me seems more similar to friction. How fluid is the motion of the key? The action can be stiff but light (like pushing an empty cardboard box across a table), or heavy but fluid (like pushing a heavy stone across ice).

The tightness of an action is more about the amount of extraneous motion. The motion can be lateral (for example, extraneous side-to-side motion if the guide pin is too loose in the bushing) or vertical. Two kinds of vertical looseness are excessive bounce on key-up and excessive mushiness at the bottom of the key bed. It's easy to imagine an action being heavy or light and loose, and fluid and loose. I'm not sure I can imagine stiff and loose.

For me, the response of an action is about the perceived directness of the connection between motion and sound. More than the other elements, response seems temporal to me. Is there a feeling of delay in the action? How quickly are notes available for repetition? Does the key motion seem synched with the note sounding (especially when playing softly)? Informally, does the piano do what you want it to without hesitation?

So where do various pianos stand on the four dimensions? I'd say the action on my piano (an Essex 183) is medium-weight, somewhat stiff, nice and tight, and extremely responsive. The Steinway D I played at my last recital was fairly heavy, but fluid and a little loose, making it feel overall a little sloppy to me (the lack of stiffness and tightness failing to hold the inertia of the heavy action in check).

Of course, all of these perceptions are in the context of how the piano produces sound in response to force exerted, which is the topic of my next post.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Pilgrimage

I just got back from a week in New York for work. For the first half of the trip I was staying at the Millennium Broadway Hotel, which is in midtown Manhattan, right in Times Square. When I learned I was going to be spending time in Manhattan, I knew there were two things I had to do while there: 1) run Central Park; 2) visit Steinway Hall.

The reception area of Steinway Hall, NYC

Steinway Hall is on West 57th St., just a half a block from Carnegie Hall. The reception area inside the entrance is a large, two-story domed room with a D sitting right in the middle (see the photo). I failed to surprise the receptionist by saying I was on a pilgrimage from Texas. She had me sign in and pointed me to the five rooms off the hallway leading from the back of the reception room. The salespeople at the desks around the outside of the room appeared not to notice my intrusion.

The piano rooms were more old mansion than store showroom. Each had several Steinway grands, mostly As and Bs. And there seemed to be very few stock pianos: most were from the Crown Jewel Collection, with some combination of scrollwork music rack, retro fallboard lettering and exotic wood. I plinked a couple of notes on each, trying to find the piano that was expecting me. The closest I came was a Macassar Ebony B. Unfortunately, a piano tech was tuning in the adjoining Boston room, so I continued on down the hallway.

The room at the end of the hallway was the largest and housed several stock As, Bs, Os and a couple of Ms and Ss. One of the As insisted I play it, so I carried over the lone bench and pretended I was Enrique Granados. The action was gorgeous and the dynamic range was shocking. Unfortunately, the cubic shape of the large room and the tiled floor made the room much too live for my tastes. Rather than cry about it, I found a brighter A in the center of the room and blasted out some Rachmaninoff. The room may still be echoing.

I had read that there were two other floors of pianos and wanted to explore a bit more. So I returned to the entrance only to find the receptionist's desk empty. The salespeople continued their theatrical display of not noticing me, even though I was the only other person in the room. So I wandered over to the staircase and went up to the second floor. I was somehow met by one of the previously uninterested now suddenly very interested salespeople. He told me that guests aren't normally allowed upstairs unescorted. Taking this as an offer to escort me, I asked to see the second-floor rooms and pianos.

We started our tour in the Artist Room, whose walls are covered with portraits of Steinway Artists. I immediately picked out Alicia's photo. We then went on to the large room at the end of the hall, where they keep the concert Ds and Bs. The salesman started probing a little, so I told him my story: how I became infatuated with an A out of my league, had a brief affair with a Boston 215 and ultimately found true love in my Essex 183. He conceded that the 183 was a nice piano, if not an A. They don't stock many of the larger Essex and Boston because people who shop for pianos on W57th are usually there for a Steinway (even if their piano needs are for something 7-feet and black for the empty space in the living room).

I think at this point we both sensed mass was over. I didn't play any Ds, but I had seen more beautiful Steinways than you can shake a topstick at. And playing those two As in the home of Steinway was an absolute joy. Next time I'll have to think up a story that will get me into the Concert Bank.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How Many Dampers does a Piano Have?

I've played a lot of pianos. But it never occurred to me to think much about how many dampers there are.

Dampers are felt-bottomed wooden blocks that lift off a key's strings when the key is depressed, allowing the strings to vibrate. The damper then drops back on to the strings when the key is released, stopping the strings from vibrating. Each key on the piano has a damper, except for the highest few keys. I always assumed the highest keys didn't have dampers because their sustain wouldn't interfere unpleasantly with the music (either because they have less sustain or for some psycho-acoustic reason, dunno).

But I never noticed where the dampers stopped until I got my own piano. My Essex EGP-183 has 71 dampers. That means the last damper is on the G6 key. I noticed that some of my pieces sounded a little funny in the upper register. So I started looking at the other pianos I play. The nine-foot Steinway D has 71 dampers. But all of the other Steinway grands I play (M, L and B models) have 67 dampers (ending at D#6). And all the Yamaha grands I know have 69 dampers (ending at F6).

The dampers on an Essex EGP-183 go up to G6; no dampers on G#6-C8

So what difference does it make?

Turns out I play two pieces that have passages that climb up to exactly G6 and stop there, followed by rests. On most pianos, that means the G rings out over the rests. But on my Essex, the G stops dead.

G6s at the end of Ginastera's Danza del Viejo Boyero

Luckily, it's easy to hold the G6 with the right hand pinky and come off the other right hand notes dry. And I really prefer the sound (probably because I played the Ginastera for many years on pianos with no G6 damper and I'm used to that sound).

G6 at the end of Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op.23 No.5

The Rachmaninoff is a different story: I've only ever played it on my Essex. But that ending sounds really dry to me. If I hold the G6 with the pinky and take both the G3 and G4 in the left hand, it sounds "right" to me. (In most recordings, the room is live enough that the note sustains, damper or not).

So how's that for minutia?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Spring Recital Review

It's been two weeks since the Spring Recital at Steinway. I'd meant to post a review right after the recital, but never got around to it. Luckily, I checked the rulebook and there are no restrictions on how long after an event you can still blog it. So....

The Spring Recital took place May 31, 2009 at 5pm in the recital hall at Steinway Piano Gallery, Austin. The program had twelve performers: eleven students of Steinway Guy and me at the very end. The students played two pieces each. I played three:
  1. Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman" (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
  2. Danza de la Pastora (Ernesto Halffter)
  3. Danza del Gaucho Matrero (Alberto Ginastera)
The students were mostly quite young, the audience mostly camera/camcorder-toting parents. As the program wound on, some of the younger students in the audience started getting quite restless. The rising temperature in the hall didn't help either. So by the time it was my turn, the room didn't seem interested in hearing three pieces by some guy. But there was nothing to do about it except get up there and play what was printed in the program.

The piano was not their usual model D Steinway. It was a glossy D. (By default, the New York Steinways have a satin finish, the Hamburg Steinways a glossy finish... so it looked like a Hamburg D). Turns out it had recently been rented out by the Steinway Gallery to Diana Krall for a private event, and she had autographed the plate. I thought the sound was gorgeous, but the action felt a little spongy.

I gave a little opening spiel then launched into the Mozart. It was nice to hear the audience's noises of recognition when they realized the theme was "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". And to my surprise, the videos and still cameras didn't stop. I'd assumed the parents would put away the cameras when their kids were done. I think this is the first time I've ever played a recital with flashes going off while playing.

To keep things moving, I shortened my verbal introductions a little, and skipped the repeat I usually play in the Halffter. But it turns out that my concerns were unfounded: everybody seemed to enjoy the performance. And the Ginastera at the end is always a big hit.

So there you have it. I'm grateful to Steinway Guy for another opportunity to perform. I feel like I'm slowly narrowing the gap between the quality of public and private performances, though it's still much wider than I'd like. I just have to keep at it!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Happy First Pianoversary

I thought I should celeblog the first anniversary of the delivery of my piano. It was one year ago yesterday (May 30) that it arrived. I play it every day and love it more than ever. It's been a dream come true. Here's to you, piano!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Impromptu Recital

My good friends Bruce and Claudia Porter saw their youngest (Ben) get married last Saturday. Johanne and I went to the wedding, which was held at The Mansion in Austin. It was a great ceremony, dinner and party and we're really happy for Ben and his bride Alejandra Rodriguez. (As an aside, Alejandra, who goes by "Ale" for short, has just inherited the best beer name ever: "Ale Porter").

The Mansion, as you'd expect, has several big rooms with pianos. They have a little Hardman baby grand (one of the huge cast of decent early twentieth century American piano makers). Another room has a Steinway M or L (couldn't quite tell which just looking at it -- it was old enough that the model stamp wasn't in the usual place and the L is only 3.5" longer than the M). But the star is a Baldwin SD10 9' concert grand. The photo shows the actual piano in its room at The Mansion.

After the bride and groom left, we were standing around and somebody suggested that it wasn't too late for me to check out the SD10. So a few of us went in for an impromptu recital. I played Ernesto Halffter's Danza de la Pastora, Alberto Ginastera's Danza del Gaucho Matrero and the second movement of Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata. It was late and I was tired, but it went well. My small audience insisted on one more, so I played Enrique Granados' Laments, or the Maiden and the Nightingale (Quejas, ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor).

Everyone seemed to enjoy the performance. As much as I did? Maybe. :-)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Spring Recital

I've mentioned here that I'd like to find more opportunities to perform. So I jumped when Steinway Guy asked me to play at a recital of his students on May 31. It's a great opportunity to play for a larger audience and I thought it would give me a chance to test-drive a couple new pieces. The recital will be at the Steinway Piano Gallery, hopefully on the D!

I asked SG if he had any preferences, or if there was an overall theme to the program. He said I could play anything I like. But then a few weeks ago he mentioned that it would be good if I could play something the audience would recognize. But not Für Elise or the Moonlight Sonata. And the pieces shouldn't be too long, since there will be a lot of kids in the audience. But they should be technically challenging to show the students what you can do if you practice your scales and technique.

Of course, I have nothing that fits all those criteria. And it seemed a little late to learn something brand new. But then it hit me! The Mozart Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman" would be perfect. I've never really learned them, but I've noodled around with them enough over the years that I was confident I could put them together in time. I'll also play Pastora and Gaucho Matrero, which the audience surely won't recognize, but are short, fast and very entertaining.
  1. Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman" (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
  2. Danza de la Pastora (Ernesto Halffter)
  3. Danza del Gaucho Matrero (Alberto Ginastera)
I sent the program to SG and he loves it. So there you go. I'm committed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Video: Arabesque I

Claude Debussy's Arabesque I might be the "oldest" piece I play, in the sense that I've played it longer than the others. I think I first learned it in 1982. (I could probably recover the year if I knew what grade it was in the RCM syllabus).

Update 4/29/09: BJ says in the comments that it's Grade 10, which means I probably started learning it Fall, 1982.

I'm very happy with the audio on this recording. The video is ok. I might start experimenting with lighting and post-production image processing.

Again, to watch in HD, you'll have go to vimeo and watch it full screen (well worth it, says me).

Debussy: Arabesque I from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Video: Danza de la Pastora

Danza de la Pastora is a wonderful piece by twentieth century Spanish composer Ernesto Halffter. The piece was originally written as part of his one-act ballet Sonatina, but he also arranged it for solo piano.

I had never heard of Ernesto Halffter. Last Fall I was hunting around the web for Alicia de Larrocha recordings. She's one of my all-time favorite pianists, and is responsible for popularizing much of the Spanish piano repertoire. I came across a video on YouTube from an old 1967 documentary pairing Spanish art and music. The second performance is de Larrocha playing Danza de la Pastora. It completely hooked me from the first notes.

So I started trying to find out more about the piece and about Halffter. I could only find one recording of his piano works, a two-disc set by Guillermo González. The liner notes state that Halffter was "one of the most important Spanish composers of the twentieth century". I have plenty of respect for Halffter, and I'm completely crazy about Pastora, but I'm going to have to call BS on this one.

A note on the video... I'm definitely making some headway with the video quality. This is my first piano video in HD. You can play the embedded version below but you won't see it in HD. So make sure you go to my page at and watch it full screen. I should also note that YouTube now allows HD videos and stereo audio, so you can watch it HD at my YouTube page too.

Halffter: Danza de la Pastora from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thom Barker Band: No Forever

The second TBB demo is a song that also made it on to Twice the Usual, though with a quite different feel.

No Forever

I'll post the version off 2x as well, for comparison.

No Forever (off Twice the Usual)

The most obvious difference is the tempo. The TBB version sits just under 150 bpm. The 2x version is 180! I like the faster tempo better, but I think the slower version would have worked if we had performed it more relaxed. As it is, it sounds like we're all fighting to hold it back.

To me the second most obvious difference is how warm the TBB recording sounds. That's the difference between a real recording studio and some schlub with a home studio. The 2x version sounds very harsh by comparison. The mix on the TBB version is better too. The bass sits in the lows and doesn't stray. The electric owns the mids, and the drums find the gaps. On the 2x version, everything is fighting for the mids.

Apart from that, I think we can all agree on what the recording really needs: more cowbell!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Thom Barker Band: All The Same To Me

The first of the two 1996 Thom Barker Band demos was All The Same To Me.

All The Same To Me

This song has all the elements of a classic Thom Barker song: happy-catchy music, despondent lyrics, hooky Chénier guitar themes, sloppy overplayed bass and horrible backing vocals.

The first thing that jumps out at me is how over-compressed the drums are. Sure, it makes them sound nice and punchy. And it was the '90s. But man, that's a lot of compression.

Second thing is Chris' electric theme. He has this knack for coming up with a hook that's completely original, but ends up defining the song. Underneath, the acoustic and bass just repeat I-vi-IV-V (the Heart and Soul chords... and a million other pop songs). Chris' hook gives it its own character.

The bridge (at 2:03) is a departure for a Thom Barker song. I can't think of another one like it. I'm pretty sure Thom had the idea of breaking down to a half-tempo version of the chorus. I think it was also his idea to switch to 6/8 time. I do remember working it out on my SY77 sequencer to show the band how to get in and out of it. We never quite got it right, though. We got into it ok, but tended to rush the half time a little. And the band was never really comfortable coming back out. You can hear in the recording that the outro chorus is a little slower than the beginning of the song. It's maybe 8-10 bpm (about 5%) slower. The highlight of the bridge for me is Chris' harmonic embellishments. Any time he accuses me of playing too many chord extensions I can point him here. Who's the jazz-head now, eh?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Thom Barker Band: The Recording

The Thom Barker Band recordings were done at the new Sound of One Hand Studios at their location on Liverpool Court (off Innes Road) in south Ottawa. It was after they moved but before they renamed to Liverpool Court Studios. We recorded in the big room and Marty Jones was the engineer. The photo clearly shows their new (used) Neve console.

Marty Jones at the Neve

Both songs were straight guitars-bass-drums. Thom used his blue Yamaha acoustic and his yellow hair.

Thom at Sound of One Hand

I had recently upgraded to the John Pattitucci signature Yamaha six string bass (the TRB-JP). It's still my all-time favorite instrument with a single-digit number of strings. We recorded it direct through the good-old Sans Amp Bass Driver DI.

Ken at Sound of One Hand

Chris was still using his old Ibanez electric at the time. This was obviously before he developed full-on GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). He tracked his parts from the control room, but the sound was mic'd off an amp in the big room. I remember us fooling with different amps (including the big Marshall in the picture and the smaller combo that Marty is messing with). I don't remember what amp we went with.

Chris at Sound of One Hand

Scott was playing his basic Tama kit (with one anonymous rototom).

Scott at Sound of One Hand

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Thom Barker Band Promo Photos

In the Fall of 1995 when Thom was getting serious about promoting the band, he put together a "promo package" which included press clippings, the Forest cd, bios and promo photos. We had done up a couple of photos specifically for the promo package. I don't know what happened to the negatives or any of the prints. I assume they're probably lost forever.

Thom Barker Band, Fall 1995, Regent St., Ottawa

But this was 1995 and there was a new craze sweeping Computer Science Departments. It was called the World Wide Web. It made it easy to publish text and pictures online in a way that was presentable for reading (as opposed to just searching and downloading). Not being immune to the draw of a bandwagon, I started scanning photos and putting them on web pages in my Unix account at the University of Ottawa.

Unfortunately, sometime in the late '90s I accidentally deleted all photos in my musicpix directory whose filename began with the letter 't'. Don't ask me why. So the scanned versions of the Thom Barker Band promo photos (tbb-promo1.gif and tbb-promo2.gif) and a bunch of others were gone.

Fast forward 14 years to April, 2009. Thanks to the magic of the Wayback Machine, I found the deleted photos. Sometime between 1995 and the date I deleted the pictures, the Wayback Machine archived them. I'm sure I've checked the archive before, but if you've ever tried to find old stuff there, you know it's kind of hit-or-miss. Today I got lucky.

Thom Barker Band, Fall 1995, Regent St., Ottawa

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Thom Barker Band

Hold on to your hat, blogreader... you're in for a surprise. I have uncovered the long-lost Thom Barker Band recordings! And I've digitized them and cleaned them up for posting. But first, a little background.

Thom Barker Band at The Pit, December 21(ish?), 1995

Shortly after we finished recording Forest for the Trees, Thom decided he wanted to go for more of a band concept, and to ramp up our performance schedule. He was used to doing solo shows and duos (with me). We added electric guitar (Chris Chénier) and drums (Scott McCulloch).

Zaphod Beeblebrox, August 9, 1996

We rented a rehearsal studio in the basement of Irene's Pub in the Glebe (Ottawa) and booked a whole bunch of shows over the winter of 1995 and well into 1996.

The Gluepot Pub, August 10, 1996

We also booked Sound of One Hand Studio (where both previous albums were recorded) and got the whole band in there to record two songs. I thought we had lost those recordings forever, but I found a cassette at my parents' house and brought it back to my studio in Texas where I was able to get a decent quality re-recording of them.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Piano Fire

What a horrifying noun compound that is.

Gary-the-Piano-Tech was over yesterday. It's the longest I've gone between tunings since I got the piano (15 weeks!). I showed him the sticky G and he pointed out that its hammer was rubbing against the adjacent hammer. He explained that when the hammer shank wood is still young, changes in humidity can cause the shank to warp a little making the hammer go off center. All you have to do is warm up the wood and coax it back. In the shop he has a heat gun for just this task. For location jobs he keeps a torch in his kit.

Let me repeat that and let it sink in: he keeps a torch in his kit to warm hammer shanks so he can bend them.

It's a little hard to see, but the photo shows him applying flame to wood inside my piano. I implored him not to start a piano fire (and immediately regretted coining the term).

Anyway, he did three shanks and the tuning. We talked about options for voicing and some of the subtler aspects of regulation (like leveling the hammer line). I won't be getting any of that work done soon. But the voicing has already noticeably hardened up a bit.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Repertoire and the After-Work Musician (II)

Back in November I wrote about trying to build repertoire on a shoestring practice budget. At the time I was holding 13 pieces at performance level. Keeping a daily practice log allowed me to concentrate on squeaky wheels without letting the more settled pieces go too long without attention. But I was already feeling a little stretched; I wrote:
I'm curious to see how far this routine will take me. Will it continue to work with 20 pieces? 25? Or am I already at the limit for the number of hours I put in?

Here is my four-month update.

I've managed to bring up three more pieces. So I have 16 that I would feel comfortable playing from memory in public. As expected, the practice gaps for most pieces have gotten longer. I may go a week or even two without playing Puerto or Sonetto 104, etc. But they don't seem to be suffering much. When I come back to them, the memory is fine and there's even a freshness to the interpretation that I'm really enjoying. I'd probably want to work them hard for a week if I had a serious performance, but I'd have no qualms about whipping them out for something more casual.

As for new pieces... I'm working on two big ones and three little (tiny) ones. The big ones are a Rachmaninoff prelude and a Mozart concerto. I played the Mozart a hundred years ago, so the learning curve isn't too steep. It's longer than the solo pieces, so that takes time. I've never played the Rachmaninoff before (or any Rachmaninoff). It's a challenging piece and requires daily attention. But I'm definitely over the hump and it's getting close (mostly memorized, almost to speed).

The three tiny pieces are from Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. Mom sent me the music and I chose three of the more popular ones to learn. It's good to have some short, popular tunes in the bag.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Fifteen Minutes

I'm not quite sure how to "file" this, but I thought my blog readers (all three of you) might be interested.

That great video hosting site that I love ( allows users to create "channels". A channel is simply a place to showcase videos that have something in common. Anybody can create a channel on vimeo and add any videos they like to the channel. Channels are organized into categories (comedy, music, nature, etc.) making them a great way to discover new videos.

The creator of the Classical Music channel on vimeo stumbled across my piano videos and added my Moza Donosa video to the channel. I think it's pretty cool to see my video somewhere that I didn't put it. (But I amuse easily).

Monday, March 9, 2009

It's not the heat...

What is the the maximum room humidity for a piano to be playable?

In general, I don't know. But right now, for my piano, it seems to be about 60%.

I used a humidifier during the winter to keep the humidity up to a level comfortable for the piano. But in the space of a week the temperature has jumped in CenTex, humidity is into the 60s and my baby is suffering. I have one hammer that's sticking pretty badly. A few dampers are a little sluggish. And in general the action just feels a little less responsive... a little less crisp. (Or maybe I'm just playing badly these days.)

Anyway, I'll break out the dehumidifier. But humidity in the low 60s shouldn't be a problem. I'm sure the action still just needs some first-year adjustments. I've heard it's pretty common to have sticky keys/dampers in the first year.

Paging Gary....

Monday, March 2, 2009

Piano Lid Pillow!

Behold my new, one-of-a-kind, Essex piano lid pillow, custom-made by my wonderful wife, Johanne:

If you're wondering what a piano lid pillow is, don't bother Googling it. The Internet doesn't know what it is either. It's a cushion that sits on the lid of a grand piano so that when you fold the front part of the lid over it doesn't rest directly on the back part of the lid and mar the finish.

I've been hunting for one for months, but nobody makes them. The only one I've ever seen is made by Estonia pianos. When you buy an Estonia piano, you get a lid pillow with it.

So Johanne made one for me from an Essex polishing cloth. I expect that this post will now be the only Google hit for "piano lid pillow".

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Forest: Cuba

Here is Cuba.


It's one of the few guitar+bass tracks on the album where the timing wasn't a complete mess (except at the beginning and during a couple of the breaks). It's also one of the few tracks where listening to the backing vox doesn't cause me physical pain.

I think Thom was planning to do the solo on guitar, but I had been noodling around with some Latin stuff on bass and we thought it might fit. The main bass on Cuba was my old Yamaha TRB-5p, but I played this solo was on my Steinberger XL-2A. I had the Steinberger strung up tenor (A-D-G-C) in those days because I was trying to learn Monkey Businessman off of Michael Manring's Thonk album, which had been released in 1994. Between the high tuning, the EMG pickups and the SansAmp, that bass cut through the mix like a buzzsaw. When I later replaced the TRB-5p with the TRB-JP, I was able to do both bass parts live on the same bass.

Thom played the mando himself on the track.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Forest: She Makes Me

The only gospel song in Thom's catalog:

She Makes Me

Ok, it's not really gospel. It's just a simple, pretty song. But the chord progression (I-III-IV-I) screams gospel to me, and I wasn't able to resist pulling out a bag of gospel clichés in the piano and organ parts.

This is one of the few songs on the album where the feel isn't too rushed. Somehow we were able to relax on this one. But the lead vocal needs to be dragged a little. Nowadays, you'd just nudge the vocal track by 50 ms or so. I did this to the lead vocal on Life is a Circle off of Twice the Usual. It completely relaxes the vocal part. But in 1995, recording to analog tape, you did the best you could and lived with it.

The piano (E-mu PROFormance again) and organs (Roland JV-1080) were tracked separately (they're different parts). But when we played this song live, I would just layer the E-mu with the XP-50 and it came out pretty close to the same thing. I still like the organ sound for the solo, but dislike the main background organ sound in the verses.

And I still really like the gospel organ solo (starting at 2:58). It's just one B3 cliché after another. In particular I'm digging the four descending "blue" figures starting at 3:34.

On the down side, there's too much compression again on the acoustic guitar. I wonder why we thought we needed it. And the doppler effect of the Leslie simulation on the B3 organ just makes it seem out of tune. (A Leslie is a speaker that spins around inside a cabinet. It adds tremolo because the speaker is alternately louder (facing you) and quieter (facing away). It also adds vibrato because the speaker is sometimes moving towards you and sometimes away from you, causing a rise and fall in pitch like an approaching/retreating ambulance siren). In hindsight, I probably should have just turned off the Leslie simulation. (For the record, this is also why the organ at the end of Even After All This Time from Twice the Usual sounds out of tune).

The timing gets sloppy at the end, too.

But overall, a pretty cool song.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Forest: Could Have Been

Here's where things start to get a little scruffy.

Could Have Been

I really like the lyrics for this song. At first blush, they're positive: the verses are full of pleasant imagery and the chorus has explicitly positive phrases. But the "it could have been" raises doubt, making the ultimate message ambiguous.

Marty Jones suggested the crashing surf sound during the chorus. He happened to have just that sound in some sample library and triggered it directly from a button the front panel of the rack-mount sampler. I think I ruined this song for Thom some time later when I suggested it sounded more like a toilet flushing and he wasn't able subsequently to shake that impression. It didn't help that I also used to make toilet flushing sounds when playing this live.

Thom played the electric on this. He had some flavor of Fender Stratocaster and I think a Fender Twin Reverb amp. The lead part is ok, but I don't like the sound... again it's thicker, more phlegmy than it needs to be. But I love the sound of the rhythm electric (the part is in the chorus, hidden under the surf sound, and is mixed pretty low).

Technically, the recording is a mess. The acoustic sounds like it was recorded with a cheap mic (which I'm sure it wasn't) in the bathroom (which I know it wasn't). The timing of the bass part is terrible. The backing vox are cringetastic. And the tuning is just way off, all around. It's shocking how bad the tuning is on the whole album, really. I think I'll do a whole post on tuning and intonation (and all the work that went into it on Twice the Usual).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nice Day for a Walk: A Video Test

This post kind of stretches the boundaries of "a blog about my music projects", but what the heck. Let the blog police come after me.

If you've read my posts with videos, you know that I've been frustrated with the process and the quality. So I've been experimenting and I think I'm getting closer to finding the equipment, software and skills to produce better video.

The clip below is one such experiment. I shot it with a borrowed Canon HV-20 mounted on my own home-brew, totally ghetto steadi-cam. It was a very windy day, so there's plenty of camera movement, but not nearly as much as if I had shot hand-held.

I captured the video to hard-drive on my studio desktop computer because it's the only computer I have with a firewire card and a fast enough disk to handle the realtime HD transfer. Unfortunately, the only software I have on that machine that can capture HD is an old free version of Pinnacle. Strangely, Pinnacle can capture the HD stream and save it to an HD mpeg file, but then doesn't recognize the file format and can't edit it. The only software I have that can edit the HD file is Movie Maker HD on my Vista Ultimate machine (which doesn't have a firewire card). But my expectations of doing video on computer have been so reduced that I'm actually quite happy with this rigamarole of a process!

You'll have to go to vimeo to view the clip in HD because vimeo (understandably) doesn't allow embedding of HD. If you watch the video here in the blog, it will play in standard definition.

Nice Day for a Walk from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Forest: Why

This is another one of my favorite songs, and one of Thom's saddest songs for me. Obviously, there's a lot of competition for that title. But Why is sad in a different way. It doesn't have the angry hurt of some of the others. The calm, detached acceptance in this one is what makes it go deeper.


If I remember correctly, Thom had a basic chord outline and asked me to write a piano part. Unlike others that ended up keyboard-only, Thom planned that this one would be from the git-go. In fact he may have come up with the original structure on piano. But my memory is a little fuzzy on that.

The take is ok... but it's still obviously done under the stress of pay-by-the-hour professional studio time. It's just not relaxed and there is some sloppy timing. The piano take for Down By Your Fire is better in this regard, but I had been playing Fire for years, whereas my Why part was only a week or so old when we recorded it. Once again, the piano is the E-mu PROFormance/1+, and it's not bad, even out there by itself.

I think three things give the piano part its particular character:
  • the use of sixths and ninths all over the place
  • splitting four-note chords into two consecutive two-note chords (first and third note in one, second and fourth in the other); this adds rhythm and opens up what would otherwise be more dense voicing
  • horizontal and vertical "shifting" of the split chords; vertically there is shifting among different inversions of the chords up and down the keyboard; the solo is really just different shifts of figures already played in the chorus; horizontally, the split chords shift to different beats in subsequent bars and also shift off the beat occasionally
We recorded the piano first and then added the vox, so Thom had to get the timing just right to anticipate the re-entry of the piano after the big pauses at 1:02-1:04 and 2:33-2:35. I think Marty and I made him redo those entries like 20 times each. And the temperature in that vocal booth just kept rising and rising. Haha. Good times.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Forest: I Know Me

There's lots I like about this song, and plenty I don't like about the recording. But the former definitely trumps the latter for me.

I Know Me

The song also has a special significance for me. When we recorded this in August, 1995, Johanne and I had been dating for about four months. But our pre-dating "courtship" took place over winter 94-95. We were Ph.D. students together at the University of Ottawa, with the Rideau Canal just outside our office. Most days, after work we'd lace up and go for a skate down the canal in the dark, getting to know each other, falling in love. The line:
And where ice on Rideau Canal lights
Glistens in skating lovers' laughin' eyes
can still make me mist up a little.

Thom's voice kind of cracks on the word "free" at 3:31; I remember lobbying to re-record the line, but we left it in. I don't remember why we did, but to this day it's my favorite moment of any recording of Thom's vocal. It's raw emotion in a song that's already emotional for me and I honestly still get a chill when I hear it.
Where the snow flies free,
Where the cold cuts the skin...
It's the only cold weather imagery that makes me miss the Canadian winter.

As for the technical side...

There's way too much compression on the acoustic guitar; this sparse arrangement didn't really need much.

I think I came up with the string parts in the studio. We decided the track needed something extra. Marty found violin and cello patches on the Roland JV-1080 and I noodled for a bit and then recorded them. They're simple and they build verse-by-verse until dropping out to let Thom finish alone. I like the counter-melody they add.

We also re-recorded this in a more radio-friendly arrangement a few years ago when Thom was still in Austin. I should try to find the newer version.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Forest: Down By Your Fire

Down By Your Fire was the last song on Forest. But I'm blogging it first because I think I think it's the best track on the album.

Down By Your Fire

This is a great song. A great, great song. Thom used to play it with guitar only. And we played a guitar + piano version on the Regent Street album (1991). Listening back to the Regent Street version, I notice that some of the Forest piano part was already in place. Over time I started adding more of Thom's guitar part on piano and eventually he stopped playing guitar on the song altogether.

The instrumental part is much more relaxed than other tracks on the album, and has better time and feel. It's probably because I'd had the part under my hands for years by the time we recorded it (in contrast with the song Why, where the piano part was written just prior to recording it).

The keyboard sound is my E-mu PROFormance/1+ layered with my Roland D-50. The PROFormance piano sound can't really compete with modern, multi-layer, disk-streamed, non-looped, gigabyte sampled grands. But it actually holds up ok in this context, even out there all on its own. I guess the one part of the sound that bugs me is the ridiculous sustain. But in 1995, this was a really good piano-in-a-box (and it was already five years old at the time).

It seems I have some deficiency that renders me incapable of finishing a song on a straight major chord. I have to play the ninth. Chris Chénier's wife Nathalie once asked him after one of our shows: "Why does Ken always play that funny note at the end of every song?"

I miss playing this song with Thom.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Forest: The Recording

We recorded the album at the old Sound of One Hand studio in Ottawa (when it was still in The Market, before they moved to that business park off Innes Rd. and ultimately changed their name to the considerably less inspired Liverpool Court Studios, after their street address). Marty Jones was the engineer.

Despite what I said in an earlier post, I think this was before Sound of One Hand got their Neve console. I'm pretty sure that's not the Neve in the photo. But we did record to two-inch, 24-track tape. You can see the tape machine in the photo below, along with various testaments to Marty's shark obsession.

What other equipment did we use? I'm pretty sure Thom used his blue Yamaha acoustic. I don't remember what vocal mic we used, but it was a large diaphragm condenser. For keyboards I used my Yamaha KX-88 controlling my Roland D-50, the studio's E-mu Pro/Formance (piano module) and the studio's Roland JV-1080. We also used the studio's sampler, though I can't remember exactly what it was... probably an Akai S-series or Roland S-series. I'm thinking maybe a Roland S-550.

For bass I used my old Yamaha TRB-5p direct through an original Sans Amp DI. What a great little box. The original Sans Amp didn't have the knobs on the outside (like its successor, the Bass Driver DI), so you had to unscrew the back and dial in your settings with those tiny little plastic screws. That meant that you'd usually come up with a sound you liked and leave it that way. The sound Marty liked (the sound everybody liked back in '95 when they discovered the Sans Amp) was with the "Drive" cranked. So that's the sound on Forest. It's probably got too much dirt/wool/Ampeg for my current tastes, but it's sure full of character. And I'll be darned if it doesn't sound like we mic'd up a big ole tube amp through a huge cab. I also used my Steinberger XL-2A for the solo on Cuba.

Ok. Enough mumbo-jumbo. Let's get to the music!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Forest: The Album

Listening back to The Forest for the Trees after all this time, two things stand out for me. First, the songs have held up; the songwriting is really the highlight of the album by far. Second, many of the recorded tracks are a mess. The timing is sloptacular and everything is out of tune. Thom, if you're reading this, I mean no offense. My bass parts and bvox are the worst of all.

But in spite of the warts, I still really enjoy listening to many of these tracks.

So I'll probably only blog the less egregious tracks. Or maybe I'll leave the rough ones until a later date when nostalgia defeats shame. Either way, lets jump right in.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Forest For The Trees

The Forest For The Trees was the third Thom Barker album, and it was our first CD. Marty Jones was the engineer at Sound of One Hand studios in Ottawa, where we recorded it between August 1 and September 14, 1995. I forget how many sessions there were, but I remember there were some longish gaps during the recording and between the recording and mixing while Thom scared up the money to pay for it all. I'm guessing there were at least a dozen sessions. It's probably been close to ten years since I actually listened to Forest, but I remember being pretty impressed by the sound quality at the time. Marty was a good engineer, and Sound of One Hand had recently bought a great Neve console. Also, we were recording to 2-inch tape. So, as you'd imagine, the raw sound was kind of like butter melting on hot asphalt in the summer sun (poetic, no?).

Well, I listened to the album yesterday and two things struck me:
  1. In comparison, the quality of Twice the Usual is much better than I've been giving it credit for
  2. In spite of some truly cringe-worthy moments, there is some Gold! on Forest
Listening to the album also brought back a flood of memories from the sessions, inspiring me to do a little Forest-blogging. Thom has given his permission for me to bare the skinny and post the audio. Are you guys in?

Update (2/07/2009): Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure Sound of One Hand didn't yet have that Neve console.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Video: Danza de la Moza Donosa

Danza de la Moza Donosa (Dance of the Graceful Young Maiden) is Ginastera's second piece from the Danzas Argentinas. I like playing this piece a lot, but I can't seem to play it at the speed indicated. Every couple of months I force myself to speed it up, but it gradually settles back down to the tempo I'm playing it in the video. For some reason, this is its natural speed in my brain.

The video itself turned out ok, I think. But I really need to find a camera with manual exposure control (or even just fixed exposure). I wore a brighter shirt in this one to fool the camera into making the video darker than the last one. But the automatic adjustments it makes as I'm moving around are really annoying.

All part of the big experiment, I guess.

Ginastera: Danza de la Moza Donosa from Ken Barker on Vimeo.