Last September, I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to visit Abbey Road Studios where Gary Garritan, Mirek Stiles and Fred Flowerday were spending time on the final touches for the upcoming virtual piano – the Garritan Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand.
Eight months later, after working tirelessly to perfect this virtual piano, Garritan/MakeMusic whose other software instruments include Personal Orchestra 4, Jazz & Big Band 3, Instant Orchestra to name a few, have unleashed the piano onto the world so we got back in touch with Mirek and Fred to find out more about the recording process and of course, the instrument itself.
Hi Fred and Mirek, first up, please could you each explain who you are and your personal roles in the making of the CFX Concert Grand?
My name is Mirek Stiles and I am the Head of Audio Products at Abbey Road Studios. I originally approached Gary Garritan with the idea of doing a sampled piano project together in Studio One.
I worked closely with the engineering team at here at Abbey Road and the teams at Make Music/Garritan to make the product a reality.
My name is Fred Flowerday. I’m the Garritan Product Manager at MakeMusic inc. In collaboration with our partners at Abbey Road Studios, I coordinate and oversee components of product development that MakeMusic is responsible for. This can be everything from technical elements such as QA testing to design of the user interface to marketing elements such as packaging, audio demos and video content.
How did the relationship between Abbey Road Studios and Make Music / Garritan come about?
Mirek: I had wanted to do sampled piano for years. I knew Gary and his team had great expertise in piano products and sampling in general, so they seemed like a great company to approach about doing such a product.
What were the reasons behind the decision to sample the Yamaha CFX Concert Grand?
Mirek: Some the engineers here at Abbey Road Studios are massive fans of the CFX, so for this project we sampled one. To my knowledge a CFX has not been sampled before, so this added an additional element of exclusivity to the project.
What were the most challenging aspects of the recording process?
Mirek: Ensuring we captured a nice variety of preferred piano recording techniques used here at Abbey Road as efficiently and cleanly as possible. Sampling sessions can be long and sometimes laborious, so you need to avoid adding to this with technical problems. You want the process as streamlined and focused as possible.
Abbey Road Studios is renowned for its extensive microphone collection – how did you decide which mics to use for the recordings?
Mirek: Engineers here at Abbey Road made suggestions to what has worked for them over the years. We also tried some experimental techniques. For example, the Dummy Head microphone we hired in especially. It sounded so natural that it features on one of the perspective setups in the software.
How long did the recording sessions take?
Mirek: It’s a very time-consuming and precise process. We spent 60 hours over 5 days recording the CFX to make sure the virtual instrument was as faithful and detailed as possible.
Transforming all those recordings into the finished product must have been a serious undertaking, Fred can you tell us more about that process?
Fred: The Garritan technical team kicked things off by editing and trimming the start and end points of over 50,000 samples. Every sample was scrutinised and quality checked for the tiniest of imperfections, such an almost imperceptible creak of the piano bench 11 seconds into a sustain pedal sample of the note “C6” at pp and so forth. When this stage was completed, we were able to assemble early playable constructs in the ARIA player.
For well over a year through feedback from Abbey Road Studios and a very sharp Beta team, we tested and refined the CFX Concert Grand samples, playback engine and interface down to the most granular of details many, many times. I have a personal friend who is a successful composer who once said: “I reserve the right to keep writing until the downbeat”. The team definitely embodied this outlook, and no matter the task, what we found or when we found it, if something could be improved, the team would wade in and get it done. The Garritan team and the good folks at Plogue Art et Technologie Inc. consistently exceeded expectations to make this virtual instrument possible.
We also sought to make the CFX Concert Grand as much of a practical and accessible musical tool as possible regardless of its end use. In addition to close consultation with Abbey Road Studios, we interviewed performers, composers and producers from many walks of life to help steer everything from the layout and look of the user interface to features, selection of microphone perspectives and presets.
What, in your view, makes this virtual piano instrument stand out from the many other piano products available today?
Fred: The CFX concert grand piano itself is one of the most spectacular instruments ever made. I had a rare chance to sit behind the CFX in Studio Two on a recent visit to Abbey Road Studios and it is a stunning instrument. The craftsmanship, the tone, the balance of the keys, the felt on the hammers… there is just no effort or resource spared on any aspect of this instrument. The sum of the parts is simply jaw-dropping.
It also has never been recorded for a virtual instrument library before. What really stands this virtual piano apart is something that can get overlooked in virtual instrument libraries: the recording process. This is as critical to the end result as what is actually getting recorded. This task was performed by the very best in the world: Abbey Road Studios. Recording this amazing instrument in Abbey Road Studios Studio One with the best mics available anywhere and by the best engineering team on the planet has ensured that this virtual piano has a unique depth of character and richness that just can’t be matched. It is in a league of its own.
Mirek: The CFX itself has not been used for a software instrument before. The beautiful sound of Studio One with the ability to mix your own blend of close and ambient microphones, a selection of unique recording techniques using the best of old and new microphones from the 50s up to modern day classics. Add to all this the input we had from producers and engineers and their tricks for recording the ultimate piano, such as extending the amount the lid opens with a custom stick to get a fuller and richer tone.
To sum up we have one of the most beautiful sounding pianos created, recorded in one of the most amazing sounding rooms in the world captured by the some of the best engineers in the world in a terrific amount of detail. I personally feel it’s on another level compared to other piano products on the market.
Each of the three mic perspectives has several presets – which are your personal favourite (presets) and why?
Fred: For the Classic perspective, I am partial to “Dark Cinema” and “Solo Piano 1”. “Dark Cinema” has a dark, moody quality that I find very inspirational for scores and “beds”. I also really like “Solo Piano 1” for it’s open and woody quality. It feels very organic and expressive.
For the Contemporary perspective, I really like “Brighton Rock”- It has a punchy and lively feel to it. The lower intervals speak out and it has an overall clarity and raw power that’s fabulous! On the other end of the spectrum, “Soft and Moody” has a great warm and delicate feel to it.
For the Player perspective, I have to go with “Edward’s Reflection”. This is just the KU-100 (Dummy Head) microphone soloed and this gets as close as it is possible for feeling like you’re sitting on the bench. It just sounds amazing in the headphones.
The product ships with two versions – Compact and Full – pretty self-explanatory in basic terms but could you explain what this means for the user in a little more detail?
Fred: It is critical to be inclusive to as many musicians as possible; both size and performance have practical considerations. To ensure the CFX can function in as many system environments as possible, we configured a “Compact” install which has a considerably smaller footprint than the “Full” version, weighing in at just 24.5GB. All the perspectives and presets are still represented. In this version we went as “light” as possible without compromising the depth, character or expressiveness of the piano. Additionally, installed with either size configuration, we have a special uber-light 2-channel “Notation” version of all three piano perspectives to ensure optimal performance in as many settings as possible such as large scores or with many other simultaneous plug-ins.
Fred, not only are you the product manager for this title you’re also the pianist behind many of the incredible audio demos, presumably this is your go-to piano now (other than a real one?!)?
Fred: Yes, and thanks so much! It definitely is my “go-to” piano. This has had the unfortunate side effect of making me a bit spoiled though!
Is there anything else, either of you would like to add about the product?
Mirek: It’s been really satisfying knowing that some of the regular composers who use Abbey Road Studios are already using this product on their current projects. It’s a unique and amazing sounding sampled instrument. It doesn’t sound too safe, it has lots of character and a nice big wide open sound. It also has a huge amount of control that allows you to tone things down if you need to.
Most importantly it sounds like a piano in the famous historic Studio One at Abbey Road Studios – this is the only piece of Software in the world that gives you that.
Congratulations to you both on the release, we look forward to hearing what our customers think of it!