Some of the latest advances in electronic music technology have been geared towards acoustic music — played by robots. For his latest album, guitarist Pat Metheny assembled an entire automated orchestra to back him.
Pat Metheny is a musician who has always kept one eye on the march of technology. An early adopter of the Roland GR3000 guitar synthesizer back in the '80s, the world‑renowned jazz guitarist has determinedly kept pace with advances throughout the decades. None of his past adventures with technology, however, can quite compete with his latest endeavour: a backing group consisting entirely of musicianly robots. The resulting record, Orchestrion, is an unparalleled technological feat. Using MIDI to 'conduct' his robot orchestra, mainly via guitar and keyboards, Metheny has crafted an album of melodic depth and staggering complexity.
Unsurprisingly, this insanely ambitious project was not an easy one to bring to life. Metheny's wife, for one, thought the musician had gone mad when he first attempted to describe to her exactly what he was trying to achieve. "Yeah, my wife, my family, everyone else I knew, they thought I'd finally gone off the deep end,” he laughs. "It was very hard to explain. It's still hard to explain it to people. This is very abstract. But once I pushed 'go' and started to commission the various inventors to start building things, finally one day, suddenly, a bunch of instruments came in and I could set up five or six things to all do stuff together. I said to my wife, 'Come in here.' I sat her down and played her whatever I'd concocted. And then she said, 'Oh, now I get it, this is gonna be really cool.' And I said, 'That's what I've been trying to tell you!'”
Metheny's original inspiration for the Orchestrion project actually came in his childhood. As a kid, the 55‑year‑old Missouri‑born musician would regularly make Summer trips north to visit his grandparents in Wisconsin, where he found himself entranced by his musician grandfather's antique pump‑action player piano. "My grandfather's player piano seemed like something ancient,” Metheny recalls. "It was like something from the 18th century, but at the same time it was like science fiction. It was this wacky combination of something very modern and something very old.”
This early attraction grew into a general interest in the original orchestrions first developed in the late 19th century, which allowed composers to demonstrate their compositions without the requirement of actual musicians. With the advent of sound recording, of course, they all but disappeared.
"The moment they came up with cylinder recording, it went away,” the guitarist says. "It was sort of like that was recording. That was really the first chance that a composer had to offer their stuff exactly the way they intended it, without being in the room. Then recordings came along, which were much more portable, much more malleable and much more open‑ended, without anything of the mechanical, technical restrictions of player pianos and orchestrions.”
Over the years, Metheny visited many exhibitions featuring mechanical instruments and his fascination grew. There was, however, one overriding frustration he repeatedly felt where orchestrions were concerned. "My response was always, 'That's so cool, but why does the music have to be so dumb?'” he says. "Why couldn't it be some hip chords and more advanced stuff? Things that cover what I've been trying to cover as a musician for the last 40 years?”
The central component of Metheny's orchestrion is the Yamaha Disklavier, the digital player piano that is often to be found tinkling away in hotel lounges. "The Disklavier is the gold standard for this,” the guitarist says. "I use a Disklavier all the time anyway. So the orchestrion is sort of like, 'Imagine that, but expanded outwards.'”
The advent of the Disklavier took automated instruments from unreliable pneumatic systems to a more efficient engine employing solenoids, which are also the basis of Metheny's orchestrion. "All the early stuff was pneumatic, meaning that it was based on air,” the guitarist points out. "My grandfather's piano, you had to pump it to get the paper to go through the thing. And it was very flabby, rhythmically. It didn't have the kind of precision that I would need.
"The other thing is — and this is maybe the most important thing — it didn't have dynamics. You could put on the soft pedal and some of the more advanced ones had a couple of levels of dynamics. But in terms of playing a really expressive line where there are many shades of dynamics, you couldn't really do that on the early instruments. The Disklavier was the first solenoid‑based instrument that really represented a wide dynamic range. And that was the model for me in all of the other instruments that I commissioned different people to make. They needed to have that kind of dynamic range. To me, without dynamics and without groove, it doesn't matter what kind of music it is, I'm not interested. I tune out.”
As Metheny began to work with the first of the many instruments he commissioned (more of which later), he was suddenly faced with the most familiar frustration when attempting to control digital technology from analogue sources: issues with latency. "In my case,” Metheny says, "we're talking about a guitar giving a trigger to a MIDI device, which then has to get translated into control voltage, which then has to actually physically hit something. It's a long chain.”
The chief architect of most of the instruments used on Orchestrion was Eric Singer, head of the Brooklyn‑based company LEMUR (League Of Electronic Musical Urban Robots). "He has a very, very fast processor doing the control voltage aspect,” Metheny explains. "But the guitar‑to‑MIDI part has always been a problem. It's a question of physics. On input, I sort of have to rush. But the thing is, I've been around this stuff for 30 years, so I know how to rush. I play ahead. And the thing is I kind of rush anyway [laughs]. I'm used to playing way on top. So I just play even a little bit more on top than usual. But then coming back on output, it's right in there. Once I had that figured out, then it was possible to make the kind of music that I'm interested in making.”
At the heart of the writing and programming process for Orchestrion was Metheny's Apple G5 running MOTU's Digital Performer. "To me, it's the most musical program and it has the best internal clock. When they say, 'You are three samples away from zero,' you are three samples away from zero. A lot of other programs, when you really get under the hood, they're really not that accurate. DP's clocking thing is excellent. The one thing you can count on with them is that things are where they say they are. And that's important for a project like this.”
As the instruments began to arrive at Metheny's home in March 2009, the guitarist started composing in his typical way, before quickly realising that a very different approach was required.
"All of the music that I'd written, I had to throw out,” he grins. "Not one note of it worked. It just was too dense, it wasn't clear. I thought, 'I'm basically gonna have this ensemble of a lot of malleted instruments — vibes, marimba, orchestra bells — a couple of Disklaviers, a bunch of [jazz drummer] Jack Dejohnette's drums and cymbals and many, many percussion instruments, and these wacky GuitarBots.' But the instruments couldn't speak the way that I thought they could. And it was like, 'Woah, this is not working, but just the littlest thing over here works amazing.'”
Metheny quickly settled into a modus operandi, using his guitar or a MIDI keyboard to trigger the various instruments, while recording the passes into Digital Performer.
"I have a sort of soundproofed room at home,” he says. "I say 'sort of soundproofed' because, believe me, my wife was never so happy to see me leave as when I finally left with all this stuff. 'Cause it's loud. So it was this small room packed floor to ceiling with all these instruments. And I would write in my usual way, which is a combination of guitar, keyboard of some kind and the computer. And I'm constantly moving around those three things. The instruments are completely agnostic. They don't care whether they're getting an instruction from the guitar, from some kind of keyboard input, from some kind of digital paper like Sibelius or Finale or whatever. They're just waiting for instructions.
"As an input device, it turns out the guitar really was the best. First of all, because I can really get around on the guitar, but also the dynamic aspect of these instruments is not the same as, like, if you or I were to take a drum stick and hit a snare drum as soft as we could and then smack it as hard as we could. With a solenoid, you don't have anywhere near that kind of throw or thrust. So really the dynamic range is reduced. With a pick and a guitar, I've got a lot of skill now in maximising that. So guitar became really an excellent input device for these things.”
While most of the drum parts on Orchestrion were programmed by Metheny using the low E-string of his guitar, bass immediately presented a problem. The guitarist had asked Eric Singer of LEMUR to create a bass version of their GuitarBot, the head-spinningly impressive set of one‑string automatons. But as the recording session dates loomed, it was looking highly unlikely that it would be ready.
"The whole GuitarBot issue, that's by far the most difficult technology,” Metheny stresses. "Like anything that's plucked, two things have to happen at once — there has to be a pluck and some kind of positioning of where the pitch is gonna be. And they have to happen within a millisecond of each other. It's a very hard engineering thing. And he actually couldn't do it.”
Instead, the guitarist turned his attention back to pneumatic technology, enlisting the services of Ken Caulkins at Ragtime West Automated Music in California, whose previous clients have included Disney.
"I said, 'I've gotta get some bass happening,' and he said, 'Well, I'll do an electric bass for you, let me send you a video.' And he had a fantastic electric bass thing going, really excellent. So he did a bass and an amazing guitar that complements the GuitarBot very well, and a bunch of great percussion instruments. I would've gotten more if I had more time, but I was starting to get into the panic zone at that point, and also running out of money. But y'know, he has a wildly different approach than the sort of hipster Brooklyn guys. They don't know about each other but they're doing the same thing in completely different ways.
"Ken does his guitars by actually drilling holes through the neck and having a mechanism that when it gets a pitch identity, pulls back to fret the note while a circular thing that he calls a 'plucker' plucks the note as the damper opens up. So it's pulling it from the back of the neck. And this all happens very fast. I mean it's kind of amazing how fast all this stuff is. We're under five milliseconds, so it's very effective.”
Surveying his orchestrion at this stage, Metheny felt there was still something missing. "I had all this smacking and hitting and smashing and plucking and Disklaviers,” he says, "but I didn't have any air. And air is actually the hardest thing to do in this world. But I've always loved the sound of bottles when you blow over them. And basically there is a mechanical instrument like that — the pipe organ. So I was like, 'Maybe I can get something like that.' I finally talked to a bunch of pipe‑organ people and they said, 'Yeah you might be able to get one that you could take around with you, but it would probably be about two tons.'”
In the end, Metheny chanced upon a solution while talking to Peterson — the US company known largely for their tuners, who still maintain a wing dedicated to making pipe organs. The guitarist explained his notion of creating a bottle‑blowing device and it turned out that Peterson already manufactured a similar novelty instrument used at sports games, which automatically plays a team's signature song on beer bottles.
"I said, 'Could you make it go down to E1, the low note on the guitar?'” Metheny remembers. "He said, 'No, not with a beer bottle. You wouldn't mind if all the bottles were different sizes?' He called back in a few minutes and he said, 'OK I've got the whole team on it, we're gonna do something great.' And they built this gorgeous instrument.”
One of the trickier aspects of the whole orchestrion process, according to Metheny, was the fact that these inventors and engineers weren't typically accustomed to their instruments being used in a high‑end recording project. As such, many of them originally banged and squeaked to a worrying degree.
"I would go to where they were being built and I would hear all this squeaking and banging and I'm like, 'Man, that's not gonna work. You've gotta get that much more refined.' Nobody had ever asked these guys to do something really sophisticated in a way. In a lot of cases, just the fact that it worked at all was kind of amazing. And I'm like, 'Yeah it works, but if you put a mic close to that going squeak squeak squeak, it's louder than the note, it's not gonna work.' So I pushed them to another level than they had ever been pushed to before, just in terms of the subtlety and finesse of the sound.”
If Metheny sounds as if he was completely in control of his orchestrion by this point, that wasn't entirely the case. "You have to work with this stuff,” he stresses. "It's not like, 'Oh, it sounds perfect.' Y'know, it sounds weird. You have to work hard to get them to sound good and mostly you have to write music that takes advantage of what they're good at. And for me that was a big part of the process.”
Beyond the technological and mechanical experimentation, the guitarist insists that it was always the end result that was uppermost in his mind. "Honestly, for me, all of this was sort of an elaborate scheme to trick myself into writing music that I wouldn't normally write, which works well for me. I've done that many times over the years — created an environment that's effective enough that I have to discover new ways of addressing counterpoint, rhythm, melody, harmony. And as much as I enjoy talking about it, 'cause it is fascinating, the main thing I'm excited about in this project is the actual music.”
In choosing a studio for the recording of Orchestrion, Pat Metheny settled on MSR (formerly Legacy) Studios in New York where, in October 2009, he arrived to set up his automated ensemble and figure out exactly how he was going to record it. Assisting him in his efforts was recording engineer Joe Ferla, who has racked up nearly 40 years of experience working with everyone from John Coltrane to Marianne Faithfull to John Mayer.
"He's an amazing, incredibly experienced engineer who I've worked with various times over the years. My first choice actually was, 'OK what kind of engineer am I gonna use for this?' It's a very technical project, but yet at the same time, in terms of the technicalities, I pretty much had that under control. It was so technical I couldn't even explain it to anybody. I mean, I had no assistance or help during the process of writing and putting together the music. Just because by the time I would have been able to explain it to somebody, I could've just done it myself. So really for the whole process of putting it together, it was just me in my room.
"But making a record is a whole different animal. And I know a lot of young hot‑shot Pro Tools techie kinds of engineers. But I thought, 'What I really need is somebody who's made a lot of really good‑sounding acoustic records, because this is an acoustic ensemble.' Joe was a great choice because he's got all the experience imaginable for mic placement and so on. I didn't really know what it was gonna sound like in the recording studio. I didn't know if it was gonna work, if it was gonna explode or what. I didn't know if we were gonna be recording everything all at once, individually, how? It was unknown.”
Early on in discussions, Metheny and Ferla had taken the decision to record and mix in the same studio. "I knew I would be changing things,” says the guitarist. "Their Studio B [currently being refurbished] had a Euphonix in it and it's sort of a mid‑sized room, which was perfect for this. We could leave everything set up and in fact it was exactly as I expected. All the way to the end, even during the last mixing thing, I was like, OK, let me change that marimba part, let's try distant miking for the orchestra bells instead of the close. I mean, we were doing that kind of stuff all the way to the end.”
In the end, the pair found themselves experimenting with playing certain sections of the orchestrion together as an ensemble and then focusing in on certain individual parts. "It was really a sonic decision,” Metheny says. "Basically I came into the studio with a script, in a way — a sequence with all the instructions for the instruments. Lots of times having everything playing at once was great. That became sort of the challenge. It was like a jigsaw puzzle — 'Is it better if everything plays except the bass drum? And then the bass drum gets recorded separately? Maybe for this piece or for this section, yes. Should the piano go with the marimba and the vibes because they work together so well?' So it was really case by case to get the best musical result.”
Given the lengths that Pat Metheny has gone to in creating his robotic ensemble, should we expect to see Orchestrion 2 at some point in the future?
"Well, y'know, there's probably a couple of hundred people around the world doing stuff in this general area,” he says. "Since I've started doing this, I've heard from all of them! And there are people really making some incredible instruments. A lot of people say this is where computer music was in 1976 and the same thing is gonna happen, and I agree with that. I really feel like there's a strong impulse amongst musicians to address the technology of their times. It's always been that way from the time some guy hit this rock with a stick instead of that rock. From then until now, whenever there's a new technology or a new idea, musicians are all over it.
"Basically, robotics is about to explode,” insists Metheny. "Eric Singer has a great line. He says, 'Yeah, robots are coming. Now's our chance to get on their good side…'”
As impressive as Orchestrion is as an album, it's in the live arena where the project really comes into its own. "I knew going into this I had two big jobs: make a record, do a tour,” says Pat Metheny. "The making the record part of it I knew would be the harder of the two jobs, because there's no visual element to it. The thing is so visual. I mean when you see it live, it's just kind of overwhelming, 'cause there's all this stuff moving.”
Most exciting for Metheny are the improvisational possibilities available to him in performing with his Orchestrion. Rather than simply playing on top of sequenced parts, he is in complete control of the parameters of every instrument via Ableton Live and can switch between, say, having a marimba or a vibraphone shadowing the guitar top lines he improvises on stage.
"Live, I'm able to do a lot of variations on things. I can also start with nothing and build a whole world, using Ableton. It's a real different environment. I mean, obviously DP is a linear environment. Ableton is a sort of 3D environment, if you're using velocity. I can have lots of things kind of lying in wait that I only get to by increasing velocity. So there's a lot of control aspects of the Orchestrionic instruments that I can do live that are really fascinating. The panorama available is everything from the most composed, the most planned‑out to absolutely improvised. And sort of every shade in between.”
Still, don't expect to see Metheny fiddling with a laptop on stage — he absolutely detests seeing them used in a concert setting. "I always feel like, 'What's he doing? Sending an email?'” Instead, the guitarist's main computer controller on stage is the Moog Taurus 3 pedal synthesizer. "The Taurus is a fantastic way to control things. You can really set up a lot of environments and you can do stuff without people even really knowing what you're doing.”
Playing live with the orchestrion has also helped Metheny overcome a long‑established dissatisfaction with recorded sound.
"As much as I love technology,” he points out, "and as much as I've been right in there with 8-bit to 16-bit to 24-bit to 44.1 to 192 [kHz] and right on the front lines of all that, music coming out of speakers is fundamentally flawed to me. We all accept speakers. Of course it's gonna come out of speakers. But I really feel like someday somebody's gonna invent something that is not a speaker as a way of presenting sound. To me, music coming from singular sources in a room is really not what music sounds like. It's an interesting reproduction mode and certainly I make records. But in terms of what happens when you're playing on stage, it's nothing like that.
"So for me, as much as I love the front end of all this — by that I mean the Sibelius aspect, the Digital Performer aspect, the Ableton Live aspect — I've never been crazy about the result. And when you have one thing going into one speaker, that's sort of OK for me — like a guitar or a bass into an amp. And yet at the same time, to have a whole bunch of things crammed into two speakers, which is what we all do, it's not that satisfying to me.”