Keyboard fanatic Chris Griffin of Syntheticmess
Photo: David Weiss
How does one of the ultimate small-studio applications, Propellerhead's Reason, cross paths with Avatar's Studio A, one of New York City's ultimate big rooms? By putting together a Reason ReFill sample library with true tone.
For New York City — based producer and keyboard fanatic Chris Griffin (www.syntheticmess.com), the path to creating M-Audio's new ProSessions Premium and Premium Refills Rhodes, Wurly and Clay was paved with a need to hear things as he knew they should sound. “I started sampling out of necessity,” he says. “I know what real instruments do to a mix, and if you understand how a keyboard like a Rhodes works and sits in a track, pretty soon your samples start to sound like a real player. There's no way you can get that organic sound from a computer, but with good programming and engineering techniques and knowing what an instrument does in your soul, you can come really, really close.”
Griffin proved himself by creating the majority of the electromechanical Reason ReFill for Propellerhead. After hustling his way onto M-Audio's roster with old-fashioned tenacity, they collaborated on the concept of a Reason ReFill that would bring a small-sized but superior-sounding '70s Rhodes, D6 Clavinet and Wurlitzer Model 214 into the soft synth workstation. “The basis was recording the sounds in a great room,” Griffin explains. “I wanted that Avatar vibe, that sound, so you immediately feel at home because you've heard it so many times.”
As any new sound library offering should, the Rhodes, Clavs & Wurlies collection, with both 24-bit and 16-bit versions, fills a niche. “Reason has graduated from being just a dance tool to a composer's writing tool,” says Johnny DeLeon, new media product manager for M-Audio. “We looked at the marketplace and said, ‘What is missing in that area?’ When we got to the natural and organic instruments, Reason was not necessarily raved about. Chris is a Reason user himself, and we talked about how we can develop a sound library so they would experience it as if they were playing a Triton, Motif or Fantom.
“The concept was looking at Reason as a keyboard and these ReFills would be the expansion boards,” DeLeon continues. “Looking at the staple items in these keyboards, you definitely have to have piano, strings, Rhodes, B3s, Clavs. That's why we looked to Chris — for his history and what it means to understand and just capture the essence of an instrument and and then create a ReFill for Reason users and plug it into an NNXT [Reason sampler]. You'll almost feel as if you're playing a true Rhodes and it's affordable — it will street for $79.95.”
The seriously miked Fender Rhodes at Avatar’s Studio A
Photo: Chris Griffin
Before he could provide those users with all that beautiful inspiration, however, Griffin had to face an incredible amount of perspiration, starting with the recording session in Avatar's famed Studio A. He used a three-pronged approach to capturing the sound — with a DI, miked amps and room miking through Studio A's Neve 8068 into Apogee A/D 8000 converters and then Pro Tools. Griffin and Avatar staff engineer Peter Doris had their priorities firmly in order, starting with the source: “It was more than just recording a Rhodes or a Clavinet,” Doris points out. “These are the Rhodes or Clavinet that 99 percent of the people would use when they come to Avatar.
“To make a sample library, you have to find the best instruments you can,” Doris continues. “You can have the best mics in the world, but if the Clav hums, it will hum in the material. Getting your instrument in top shape is probably foremost to any recording process. If you're going to try to record your own sample library, it doesn't have to be the most pristine signal path — it has to be the one you'd use to be authentic, which is why dirt and fuzz is not always a bad thing.”
“Being an engineer myself, I knew the technical aspects of what needed to happen and what we needed to capture to create a vibe,” Griffin says. “I knew I wanted a Neve, Pultec EQs, Coles mics and something sweet and vibe-y on the DI. From there, it's all about the instrument. The Rhodes, for example, has a pickup on each key. If there's any 60-cycle hum or noise or RF, the Rhodes will pick it up, so a lot of our time was spent getting the noise down. There are de-noising techniques I use while processing the sample, but I don't want to use too much of that because it alters the character of the sound. We tracked onto individual tracks in Pro Tools. If you look at the session, you can see the phase alignment on the separate signals: The DI is sitting just ahead of the amp, and then the room is sitting way back here with nearly a 10ms delay. That's not a problem. I think some sample libraries would tend to line that up, but then you lose your [room] space. I'm trying to keep that intact all the way through the process so the player will get that, too.”
Once Griffin and Doris were finally plugged in, the unfun began. “Our session was very tedious,” Griffin admits. “I started playing at 11 a.m. and stopped playing past 12 a.m. the next day. You have to have your game on so you can know if all of the velocities have been taken, because you can't go back and get it again. The mics will never sound the same. I just sampled the white keys. Because I'm a programmer, I can work that out.
“I went through the keyboard, playing extra soft, as light as I could play it, all the way up, from F0 to F6 on the Rhodes. Because I'm not a robot and each key doesn't respond the same, the lightest I can play it will vary from key to key. So I took five to six velocities within the range of extra soft. I repeated the process for medium soft, medium hard and hard. I played the whole keyboard four times, getting six velocities each time I went up.”
Back in his own Pro Tools — equipped Manhattan studio, Griffin's labor of love became even more laborious. “This is an editing nightmare,” he says. “You have a four-hour 5-gig Pro Tools session that must be edited down to a 200-meg Reason patch, and even that is large because in Reason, you also need to be able to load up a drum set and horns — this shouldn't be the only instrument you get to load.
“So I just dive in. The velocities get separated out. That way, I can manage my editing task. I just go through it, take the notes, start isolating them and cutting out the blank space. I can't do ‘Strip Silence’ because when the Rhodes hammer lifts off the key before the initial attack, that's part of the characteristic sound, but it looks like silence to most gates. Ultimately, I have them arranged from softest to loudest for each note and I put markers on them accordingly.”
To keep things tightly organized, Griffin gives each sample a name such as “Rhodes DI FF F0 2,” with the last number representing a velocity rating from one to five. “That way,” Griffin says, “when I'm building my ‘extra-loud’ key map and start loading in the extra-loud notes, for example, some of the notes with a velocity rating of three may have responded louder or have a different timbre than other notes rated a three, so I might need to calm one down a little bit with a one or two to match. That way, a keymap is even.”
At that point, Griffin digs in again, meticulously tweaking filters and envelopes for each note in the keymap. “Then, the programming in Reason starts. Just because I have four keymaps doesn't mean the player will use only those four velocities, so I have to make those keymaps crossfade into each other or do creative filtering to make the velocities work. Using the filters and envelopes to make it act like a real instrument takes a good amount of programming. You have to know what the real instrument is doing, not to mention that not all of the keys on even the best real Rhodes are the same. With good looping and envelope techniques, you can effectively extend the decay on abnormally short sustains or, with the exception of long decays, you can shorten it to blend with the other keys.”
It's a ton of work, but for Griffin, hearing his music played with may be even better than hearing his music played. “When I did the electromechanical ReFill and heard what the demo guys had done with the sounds,” he concludes, “it was like, ‘Okay, I've raised the bar here.’ You get that kind of magic holy moment where you realize other people will benefit from this and that music will be changed as a result. That's probably its own greatest reward.”
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