“The first choice is clear. I’m confident that La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano will receive little competition as the most important and beautiful new work recorded in the 1980s. Young’s achievement is unique, the recording a technological triumph.” — Kyle Gann, FANFARE November/December 1987
“…this marvelous recording of a landmark piece in contemporary music and the work that probably coined the categorical term Minimalism is born. The Well- Tuned Piano is an extremely insular, calming and personal work and a masterpiece at that. Listening to the entire five-hour-plus composition [one] discovers something new each time.” — Brooke Wentz, DOWN BEAT August 1987
The 1987 edition of La Monte Young‘s The Well Tuned Piano on Gramavision records (full title: The Well-Tuned Piano 81 X 25 6:17:50 – 11:18:59 PM NYC) is something of a holy grail for experimental, avant garde, and minimalist enthusiasts. The multi-album set was released in CD, LP and cassette editions, which, as of this writing, go for hundreds of dollars on the used market: the set is out of print.
The Well Tuned Piano is a very long (approximately five hours on the Gramavision recording) piece for just-intuned piano. Its construction is part composed and part improvised and involves series of cycling themes and sound clusters (called “clouds”).
Bob Ludwig is credited with mastering the Gramavision recording of The Well Tuned Piano, and his then-assistant (and current owner of Masterdisk) Scott Hull is credited with digital editing, which was no small task in the case of this particular recording. In fact, it was rather epic.
One July afternoon I sat down with Scott and asked him to go back to the days he spent in 1987 editing this storied recording.
THE WELL TUNED PIANO
JB: What was your role in the production of the album?
Scott Hull: Digital editing would have been my title though the task took on a life of its own. It was very unusual to take so many days to edit an album together.
The deck they used to record The Well Tuned Piano was a Sony PCM-F10 — one of the first digital recorders. The piece was a five hour continuous performance and the only recording medium that was capable of doing that in 1987 or 1988 was Beta 1 F1 — a slow speed video deck capturing 16 bit 44.1 digital.
The first part of our process at Masterdisk was getting the F1 transferred to a professional format. Because you can’t edit the F1 [tape]. There’s no method of doing digital tape editing and the music ultimately had to be cut up into sides: the ultimate destination was for CD, vinyl and cassette. Each required their own side splits and it’s a continuous performance: no breaks, no intermissions. It is a continuous performance that creates a meditative sort of atmosphere continuously.
The first problem was to transfer all the F1s to a 1630 tape system, which is professional digital audio that could be edited. But the F1 didn’t want to play particularly well. And we also had a problem because this piece was so continuous and repetitious — the themes come back again and again in cycles — that it was very hard to tell where you were in the piece just by listening. Even the composer would have trouble telling where he was in the piece unless he could listen to a significant portion of it.
We needed to find a way to time-stamp the thing. And the beta tape that was used had time code, but my professional 1630 Sony audio machine wouldn’t read it.
Bob Bielecki was the recording engineer on the project. He was known for doing some pretty wild and interesting performance art recordings, so he knew the kinds of editing challenges involved. He’s an astute technician as well — so he understood that the time code that was coming off the beta tape wasn’t clean enough for my editor to read it — and he figured he could fix it. He asked me if I had some parts he could use. We went into the shop. “Well what do you need, switches or something?” I said. He says “I need an op-amp or a transistor or two and I need a couple resistors and something to attach it all to.”
This was the evening — the session didn’t start until 7 or 8 at night — and the technician was gone. So I showed him the drawers in the shop. He rattled around for about 20 minutes and came back out with a little board that had standoffs on it, he had wired a cap around a transistor, put a couple resistors on there, attached an input connector, a volume control and an output connector. He made a time code reshaper in the shop while I wandered around wondering “what are we going to do next?”
I plugged it in and tweaked it a little and the damn thing worked. I suspect that it still sits in a drawer somewhere around here because I didn’t throw it out. I thought it was a marvel. [Ed – we did in fact find it, in July 2011; now pictured below.]
So we got the time code reshaped. It was necessary because sections of the tape had to be transferred more than once to get a proper playback. And now, thanks to Bob, each time you played back that same stretch of tape you’d get the same code so we could line it up.
JB: Why would you have to have multiple transfers to get a good playback?
SH: The slow speed beta format liked to drop out. If there was a drop out, we’d have to go back and change the tracking manually — basically fiddle with the area of tape that it was having trouble with — and figure out a way to get through it. You couldn’t generally get through the tape in one whole pass.
So, the first night was sitting with this piece attempting to get the F1 beta tape transferred to 3/4″ digital. That took many hours. I don’t recall whether we even started editing it that night or whether that was another night.
Eventually we created a running master of the entire show, split across 3 or 4 U-matic tapes with overlap. I had to recreate the F1, basically, but smooth out the overlapped edit bits. Each one of these edits had to be acoustically scrubbed-to. The time code would get me close, but I’d need to be more accurate. So I was using room noises — chair squeaks and stuff — in the recording to tell definitively if it was lining up exactly. It would have been possible to do edits in the music, but it was easier if you could find a steam pipe squeak or a bang. Because there were some occasional steam pipe bangs — you’ll hear them in the recording. We were able to seamlessly remove a couple that were in spaces where there was no music. But in the midst of the performance when somebody shuffled around or a chair moved or something there was no way to get it out with the technology we had then. Now, you might be able to get it out. Maybe you wouldn’t want to anyway — we were going for authentic representation of the event.
By the way, at the performance people were invited to bring whatever they needed to make themselves comfortable for several hours because the piece was very long. So they were sitting on pillows and blankets, some were curled up… I assume some of them fell asleep at different times, coming in and out of consciousness while listening to this thing. Because even the engineering team fell in and out of consciousness while listening to this piece! (laughs) It was very difficult to remain completely engaged for, you know, 5 or 6 hours at a time. It was just exhausting.
I don’t believe LaMonte came in for any of this. I think it was just Bob Bielecki and I doing the assembly. It was very technical.
Next we got word of where the side-breaks were supposed to be. Like how long each LP side was going to be, and where in the performance we should break for the CDs. We all needed to make sure it didn’t break in the middle of a sequence of musical events.
From the three tape running master we created three tape sets of LP, three tape sets of cassette and 3 tape sets of CD masters. Each with the appropriate fade-down at the end of each side, and fade back up.
We created the CD master first, and then we put one additional fade in the middle of each CD to create the album. I think we found the CD breaks first because we didn’t want to create more than we absolutely needed to. So after the CD masters were made the decision was made where to make the LP breaks.
I really have no idea how many days and nights were spent on assembling this thing. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. It would have been impossible even with the foundation that was funding it to actually bill for the time and the equipment that was being used for the durations that were really needed. There was only one way to do this well, and it required completely tying up a room that was normally booked for $200-250 an hour. And this is back in the 80s!
The technology today makes this so simple to pull off that it’s really easy to forget how hard it was to do this digitally. But they really wanted to guarantee that the performance was captured the truthfully. They wanted a running master from top to bottom.
After we got all the running masters together La Monte came in to listen to them with Marian Zazeela. He wanted to listen through the whole thing to hear the fades — to listen to it as a consumer would listen to it.
I got them comfortable, got the music playing back in the room, and asked them if they needed me to be in the room. They didn’t, which was good! Quite frankly at that point I’d heard this piece in its entirety about twelve times. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sit through it again and show the respect it, and they, deserved. I didn’t want to be in there looking bored! So I waited outside.
Shortly into the playback, La Monte came out to find me, looking worried. He said there was something wrong, and asked me if there was some way that the music could be playing at the wrong speed. I was immediately very concerned because of all the work we had done up to that point — we were essentially done with everything!
But there really wasn’t any way that this could have been running off speed because it’s digital, and all locks to clock, and everything about that is pretty stable. So I came back in and La Monte asked me to play a section of it, and then it got to a spot where the piano was holding a tone. And he said “There! Right there! Like that — that’s a spot I mean”. And I was very confused because I didn’t know what he was hearing. I was expecting him to be talking about something that sounded like it was warbling — you know, changing pitch.
So I stopped the music, I asked him to explain what it was that he was hearing, and we talked about it a little bit, but he suddenly stopped talking. “You hear that?” he said. I didn’t know what he was hearing. He said “I’m hearing beats NOW! There’s something in the room, even without the music being played.”
So I started shutting off equipment until I figured it out. The Sony 1630 tape recorder we were using was a big, professional video deck with a significant motor inside it. And a fan to keep the motor cool. I had two of them in the room. And these fans were running at ever so slightly different speeds. With the two machines running there was a very slight modulating sound, and it was affecting the way that La Monte was hearing the beats and the relationships within his music. The fans were effectively superimposing additional “beats” on the top of his music! His hearing was that sensitive.
I didn’t need to have both decks on while we were doing the playback so I shut one of them off and I covered the other deck with acoustic foam to cut down on the amount of noise. And then I played it back for him and he said “That’s it! It’s perfect!”
JB: The “wrong speed” question must have confused you initially considering that in digital, tape running at the wrong speed would not effect pitch.
SH: Right. It’s something we just believe in: word clock is word clock. We know now that information that’s been converted to analog and back to digital can show some microscopic drift, even with digital. Especially with workstations. But this was digital audio on video tape so it’s all referenced to video sync. Word sync is derived from the video interval sync so there’s just no way that it’s running off speed. Well, I should say that when everything’s working properly there’s no way for it to be running off-speed. La Monte was just trying to guess at what could possibly be causing the reaction he was having; this unpleasant feeling that he had.
After La Monte’s approval we went on to make running masters for the cassette, the vinyl and CD. And each one of them had to be listened to in real time; proofed for dropouts and for any other problems.
And we had one other problem through this whole process — a technical problem. During these years CD run time was generally 65 to 70 minutes. But albums started getting longer. That’s when the reissues were happening and people were trying to put out longer and longer CDs. So they came up with longer tape formats because the original 1630 tape format was a 60 minute format. Then they came out with one that was 74 minutes, and then 75 minutes, and finally these 80 minute tapes which gave you a bit of buffer at the head and tail.
Well those 80 minute tapes didn’t play so well in machines that hadn’t been modified for them. And so one out of five of all these tapes I’d pull out of a box to try to use on The Well Tuned Piano would fail. Sometimes after we had already done the whole process the tape would get a crease — it was very thin Mylar. So many of our sessions were interrupted with me lifting the cover off the tape machine and taking a crinkled tape out of the thing and figuring out where it had been damaged, monitoring it up to that point and then doing an edit in the midst of some abstract tone cloud. So there was a lot of time spent just fighting the technology to get it done.
Then I assisted the cutting engineer who was Bill Kipper I believe. Bob [Ludwig] was credited with mastering on it, but it was essentially transferred with Bob Bielecki’s sound and EQ. And the vinyl I believe was cut by Bill.
JB: What would you say is the main thing you took away with you from your work on The Well Tuned Piano?
SH: It was one of my first experiences with an artist where I learned that just because you don’t hear something you can’t say it’s not there. I mean La Monte’s hearing was absurdly accurate. Even if you can’t measure what an artist is hearing, they’re hearing something. So I learned that my first reaction can’t be “oh, you must be hearing it wrong.” That’s definitely the wrong approach.
The quotes at the top of this post were selected from a collection of press quotes at the MELA Foundation website.
Scott Hull has continued his work in experimental and avant garde music throughout his career. He regularly masters albums for independent artists and labels in the experimental music field, and has mastered all the releases on John Zorn’s Tzadik label since 2001.