Castle Rock, CO—While many artists and musicians have taken to streaming during the coronavirus pandemic in order to stay connected with fans, few, if any, have attempted real-time collaboration. There’s a good reason for that, of course: latency. But at Tenderdyn Arts in Colorado, studio owner and multi-instrumentalist Tad Michael Wheeler has a solution—for piano-based music, anyway.
Not long after the lockdown took effect across the country, videos began to appear from collaborators such as the Immediate Family, a group of seasoned session musicians, and the Colorado Symphony, whose “Ode to Joy” went viral. But whether they featured six musicians or 60, the videos were all recorded individually and stitched together in post.
“Anyone can sit in their bedroom, stick a phone up and livestream. And anyone can pre-record whatever they want and stick that up,” says Wheeler.
A graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, Wheeler once had a career in aerospace, which allowed him to indulge his passion for music. He released his first album in 1989. A percussionist and a piano player, he was a very early adopter of the Yamaha DX-7 synth and MIDI technology. He has composed for numerous films as well as his own projects, additionally working with other artists to produce and record their music.
Wheeler explains that Tenderdyn Arts, completed in late 2017 and designed around the piano, occupies 1,800 square feet in the basement of his custom home just south of Denver. Tenderdyn’s 1,000-square-foot live room, with a 12-foot ceiling, features a Yamaha DC7X Disklavier Enspire Pro grand piano. Outwardly an 88-key concert grand, the Disklavier incorporates an electromechanical system that enables performances to be recorded and played back, complete with moving keys and pedals, while also offering MIDI connectivity and streaming audio and video capabilities.
“I didn’t know how great the room was until we started having house concerts. We can seat 30 people comfortably—that’s a great size crowd,” Wheeler says.
One of last year’s four concerts featured Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman.
Wheeler also hosted sessions by pianist Lara Downes, helping her complete a collection of Florence Price compositions after she had technical issues with a Disklavier in New York, he says. “She had three of the 12 songs done and needed to finish the project, so I mastered and re-recorded everything here. That recording, which came out amazing, was my first classical recording. Because of the room I have, combining that with mic placement and using just a bit of the Capitol Chambers [plug-in], I was able to give it a more ethereal sound. That has been getting great reviews, and Lara is really proud of it.”
More recently, he collaborated with pianist Louis Colaiannia. “We recorded solo piano, then we took the master piano tracks and I did arrangements for each of the songs. I was playing everything from hand pan to virtual cello and strings.”
In this “Corona Concert” video, Louis Colaiannia joins Tad Michael Wheeler for a unique piano experience. Colaiannia performed live on a Yamaha C7 piano at Tenderdyn Arts, but he controlled it from his home on a Roland V piano. Wheeler accompanied on a couple of songs from his home. (Originally broadcast early April 2020)
The Tenderdyn Arts control room is designed around his ATC SCM45A main monitors. Early on, Wheeler decided not to install a traditional mixing console, he says. “I really wanted to be streamlined, so I got into the Universal Audio gear. The Unison preamps are amazing, so why would I spend $150,000 on a console?” He plans to upgrade his UA setup to the new Luna recording system. On the back end, a Dangerous Music system provides 16 channels of summing.
But with a need to integrate all of his signals, Wheeler has since added a Behringer Wing digital mixer. “It’s deep,” he says. “There’s no manual and it’s not necessarily intuitive, but the built-in plug-ins, like the 1176 and the LA-2A, are pretty damn good.”
Wheeler, who is also a filmmaker, purchased four RED cameras, combining those via the Ecamm app to produce interview sessions for his In Studio Now website and livestream performances. “I can stream the interviews. I don’t cut those in post—I switch on the fly.”
Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic. “Being stranded here with an empty room with this amazing piano, I just started going nuts,” he says. Then he heard about the Audiomovers Listento platform, which enables high-quality, low-latency audio streaming from the DAW.
“I started thinking, the Disklaviers are set up to talk to each other. They’ve been doing that forever. There is no reason we can’t do MIDI over the internet, which is successfully doing Skype calling just fine. MIDI data takes up a fraction of that bandwidth,” he points out.
“I can pull in the video and the MIDI, play it back on my Disklavier in real time, put good mics on the piano, pull it right back into the stream and play to the final result here. There’s something about being able to collaborate live, as we would do in the studio. That’s what brings magic to this.”
Wheeler can use his facility to its fullest to produce a project for a collaborator. “Part of what I like to do is record the room,” he says. “I feed stuff back into the room. I can use my plug-ins and piano and put it through the Neve channel strips or any combination of stuff. I can be mixing it on the fly. And they can record the result right back into their DAW.”
To highlight the many ways he can capture the Disklavier in his space, one of Wheeler’s blogs links to a page where he demonstrates 10 different recordings of the same performance using AEA, AKG, Neumann and Townsend mics in a variety of configurations.
After hearing Downes’ Florence Price project, Yamaha’s artist services department in New York has expressed an interest in remotely using Tenderdyn, he reports, since their facility is prone to traffic noise from Fifth Avenue. “They were blown away by what I did with Lara’s thing, so we’re going to be testing that.”
As for his collaborative streaming method, he says, “There’s video latency, but by the time you thread audio through the piano and back into the system, it kinda lines up. It’s about a frame off. It syncs up really well. It’s watchable, I would say. And what goes out live sounds like it’s real.”
Tenderdyn Arts • www.tenderdyn.com