I’ve always been the sort of guy who wants to have a real piano around. I’m not even a real piano player, but I like having a real piano in my studio for recording. I know there are plenty of good keyboards out there, but for the kind of recording I do, I like having a real piano, mic’d up with microphones. It’s old school, I know. I’m an old school kind of guy.
For the last sixteen or seventeen years, I’ve had this Baldwin upright piano at the house. When I bought it, I shopped around for an upright that sounded good, with loud bass notes. I found a great one! I loved that Baldwin upright. It recorded really well. I made tons of records with it. I really had no plans on getting a different piano. But like so many other things in my life, things just kind of fell into place…
A few months ago, I went to Texas to do a presentation at Texas Tech in Lubbock. My host, Roger Landes, and I took a day and went to Norman Petty’s Recording Studio in Clovis, New Mexico. I did a post about the trip, maybe you saw it.
I’ve been to Norman Petty’s studio several times, and every time I do, I pay attention. I try to study the little details. Norman Petty was a really smart guy. When he built a recording studio in the 1950s, every little detail was thought out, from the design of the room to the recording equipment and the microphones and the musical instruments. Norman Petty was very, very intelligent—he only got the best stuff. Every detail in the place is worth studying.
All that said, I’d never really paid attention to the grand piano. This time, however, I took notice. It was a huge, nine-foot concert grand piano made by Baldwin. I thought to myself, that’s unusual, I figured a guy like Norman Petty would have a Steinway. This was the piano used on such Buddy Holly songs as “Rave On” and “Think It Over.” I played a few bass notes on the thing, and it sounded like cannons going off. Holy cow, it was impressive! I filed that away in my mind—Norman Petty had a Baldwin grand piano in his studio, and Norman Petty knew what he was doing.
A short time later, I was back home in Los Angeles when my friend Abe Levy invited me over for his birthday party. He had a Baldwin upright just like the one I had at home. Abe let me know that it was a particularly rare model, known as the “Scandinavian Natural Walnut” model, only made in 1961 and worth a lot of money. Whoa! I had no idea that my upright was a collector’s item. Wheels started turning in my head. That’s usually when I get into trouble.
A couple weeks later, I drove out to the desert to visit my friend T.K. Smith, who was hosting a little pickin’ party at his house in Yucca Valley. Whenever I travel, I always like to check out the local Craigslist ads. I noticed an ad for an old Baldwin seven-foot grand piano in Palm Springs. I went out and looked at it. It was a nice old piano in very good condition, and apparently it had sat unplayed for decades (a lot of grand pianos are sold to rich folks for, you know, “decoration”). I played a few bass notes on it. They sounded like cannons going off, just like the piano at Norman Petty’s studio. Damn! The nice lady selling the piano said that the house and piano belonged to her mother, who had recently passed away. She was trying to clear the house of “things” so that she could sell the property. She was asking more money for the piano than I could consider paying, so I thanked her for her time and went on to hang out with T.K. and kind of forgot about it.
A couple weeks later, I saw that the grand piano in Palm Springs was still for sale. I sent the lady a text and made a lowball offer. “I know it’s a low offer, but if you need to get it gone, out of the house, let me know.” She texted back immediately: “When can you pick it up?” Doggone it, I had myself a Baldwin grand piano, for an amazing price. Buying a grand piano is a commitment, and I wasn’t sure I was ready, but as Stymie once opined in an Our Gang short called “Free Wheelin’,” “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re on our way…”
In a few days, there were two pianos at my house, and that presented a problem. I didn’t have room for both. My old Baldwin upright had to go! I put it up for sale online and wasn’t having much luck until I got an email from some real nice folks I knew from shows around town, Bob Coddington and his wife, Jennifer Fournier. Turns out they’d moved into my neighborhood, about five minutes away, and wanted my piano to put in their new house. Wow, that worked out perfect. My old Baldwin upright found a great new home with some nice people who appreciated its unique midcentury modern styling. And through a lot of hustle, I was able to sell the upright for the same price I paid for the grand piano.
Since the seven-foot Baldwin grand piano arrived at my house, I started paying attention to grand pianos. I guess I’d never really thought about them before. I started looking at old photos of old recording studios. I always thought that all the famous recording studios must have had Steinways. But I discovered that for the type of music that I loved—American rock ‘n’ roll and country and blues and soul—most of that music was made with…Baldwin grand pianos. I mean, this made sense—Baldwin was a company based in Cincinnati. They produced well-made workhorses for working musicians and working studios. They didn’t have the cachet of Steinway pianos, but they were also a lot less expensive, which is why they were used in so many studios back in the day.
Sam Phillips bought a Baldwin grand piano to replace his old upright at Sun Studios. Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, and many others recorded on it (and it’s still there at Phillips Recording Service on Madison in Memphis). Cosimo’s studio in New Orleans, where all those Little Richard and Fats Domino records were made? Baldwin grand. Stax Studios? At one point, it was a Baldwin baby grand piano. Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals? Baldwin concert grand piano. It wasn’t just the Southern studios, either. Photos from other recording studios and concert appearances showed virtually all of my piano heroes and heroines playing a Baldwin grand piano at one point in their career, often in the studio on some of my favorite records. One great photo I found on the internet showed Buck Owens and Ray Charles playing together on Hee Haw. You can see Ray is playing a Baldwin grand piano in the photo. That photo kind of said it all, as far as I was concerned.
Even though the piano has been in the house for a couple of weeks, tonight was the first time I had a chance to record the it. Carl Sonny Leyland, genius of the eighty-eight keys, stopped by the house to give the new piano a workout. He liked playing it and thought it was a really nice-sounding instrument. I had never mic’d up a grand piano before in the studio, so I was anxious to try out a few different setups and see how they would sound. Variously, I tried a stereo pair of small capsule tube condenser mics, a stereo pair of RCA 77s (ribbon mics), a mono overhead U67 clone (large capsule tube condenser), and a mono RCA 44 (ribbon mic). I set them all up at once, but planned on “soloing” them while recording to see which sounded the best.
I went back in the studio room and dialed in the levels. Carl started playing some boogie-woogie, blues, and jazz. He hit some of the low notes. Damn, it sounded like a cannon going off through my studio monitor speakers. The whole thing sounded remarkably lively and three-dimensional. I knew at that moment that Norman Petty knew what he was doing, and I knew that all the wrangling and effort I had gone through in the previous month had paid off.
Carl stuck around and played some more, and we did my very first direct-to-disc recording, which was exciting! He played live and I cut his performance directly to a lacquer disc on my lathe. It sounded great. For those recording nerds out there, I think all of the mics sounded really good. If I had to pick my two favorites, it would probably be the stereo pair of Telefunken small capsule condensers for a real “hi-fi” sound, and the mono RCA 44 for that classic 1940s “radio transcription” sound. Just to hear a guy like Carl play any piano is a treat, but to hear him coaxing that sound out of the new grand piano, all mic’d up in the recording studio, was out of this world. Sometimes, things just work out like they’re meant to be.
Have you ever looked at a nice grand piano? They really are beautiful things. And man, those bass notes sound like cannons going off!