I am a big Coldplay fan – they have been a big influence on my keyboard playing and I find a lot of that influence ends up in what I am playing in church every week. They have a new single out named “Magic” off their upcoming album Ghost Stories. One of the cool parts is this weird delayed piano line. The minute I heard it I knew it would make for a fun tutorial and I think the sound in general has a lot of miles in it – I expect to be using it a lot. Lets see how it’s made.
Pick a Piano
The particular piano you pick as the basis for this sound is not too important but certain pianos will probably do better than others. In my opinion the best piano would have:
- a pronounced fundamental strike (think Japanese > European > American pianos)
- Loud sustain with some harmonics (European > American > Japanese pianos)
If the piano sample you are using doesn’t have some good loud sustain we will have to beef it up in the next step. In my limited testing I prefer European type pianos (Bösendorfer, Fazioli) over Japanese. I didn’t really try any Steinway type samples.
Tighten it Up
Step one will be to even out the volume of the piano strike. Typically we want a good amount of dynamic range from our pianos but for this sound it helps to squash it a bit. Stick a compressor on there and make sure it starts with the following settings:
- Attack of 0 msec
- Peak detection (vs. RMS)
- Medium release (or auto) – something like 40-80 msec
- Soft knee
Start playing and adjust the threshold so that the compressor kicks in for about the first half of the strike and then is off for the second half. This has the effect of increasing the volume of the sustain and release portions of the piano strike and evening out the overall volume of the strike. You may need to increase the make-up gain to get the overall volume back to where you want it.
It’s all in the Reverb
This is where the patch actually happens. You will need a reverb where you can adjust the amount of early reflections vs. the reverb tail. Start with the following settings:
- Early reflection time of ~120 msec
- Pre-delay of 0 msec
- Sound to about 90% wet (or if you have wet and dry out volumes: 10% dry, 100% wet)
The early reflection time is what gives you the “off the beat” sound. The right ratio of dry sound to the early reflection is a bit of the magic to the patch and will depend on the particular piano you use. You will likely have to tweak the ER time until it is just right.
There are some other settings to try to get the reverb just right:
- Try a medium to large room size (but not huge)
- Set your low pass/high cut filter to about 2000 Hz
- Set your high pass/low cut filter to about 700 Hz
- Set your diffusion to a high setting
- Set your reverb time to ~3 seconds
This will clean up the frequency range of the reverb, get the right density and overall time.
Alternative method: Delay
Of course the main feature of this sound is that the first delay is actually louder than the initial sound which is kind of cool. We have accomplished this with a reverb by itself but you could as easily accomplish it with a delay and then a reverb. This has the advantage of tempo syncing that first delay which can be nice, according to my math it is about a sixteenth note off the beat.
To make this work again we would need to set the dry signal to a low level and then set the feedback to a low level so we only really get that initial delay hit. You will need to adjust the reverb settings as well. If possible set the early reflection volume to 0% or set the balance so that it is entirely on the reverb and no early reflection. Continue to keep the pre delay at 0 msec. Overall we want to make sure we don’t have an early reflection smearing the delay sound.
Watch Me Do It
I hope that this walk through has been helpful, you can see me go through it below. Please leave feedback on your attempts and any tips to improve it below. Thanks!