Thursday, 21 May 2015 20:00

Man Of Steel - Making Movie Music On The Piano

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved improvising movie themes on the piano. Here's my take on the main theme from "Man Of Steel" by Hans Zimmer.


The idea to make this arrangement came from a bit of random YouTube surfing. I came across a number of amateur pianists who made their own arrangements of various movie soundtracks, and while many were quite good, I couldn't help thinking: "Wait a minute! I do this for a living! Why don't I try coming up with my own soundtrack transcriptions?"

In my work as a professional collaborative pianist (aka. "accompanist"), I'm regularly called to play orchestra parts that have been reduced for piano to accompany solo instrumentalists. Some of the parts are well written, but many of them are pretty sparse and I'll often improvise to "fill in" the music to make it sound more orchestral. With the better written parts, I've seen many techniques for capturing the orchestral sound on a limited piano palette - some work, some don't, but it's always a fun challenge to make your instrument sound like more than it really is.

I based the arrangement on this version of Hans Zimmer's theme for the Superman movie, "Man Of Steel" (2013):

The first step was to write down the actual elements of the score. Thankfully I've had great training in music dictation as a kid, and having perfect pitch is also a huge help for this. Once I notated the basic elements, I then had to figure out how to "orchestrify" them on the piano.

One of the biggest limitations for the piano is its inability to sustain notes beyond what the damper pedal can hold. There's always a decay immediately after the note. The trick is to come up with an accompanying texture that can simulate the sustain of a melody from note to note, and hopefully in a convincingly dramatic fashion.

The other challenge is coming up with rhythmic textures to simulate a percussion section, and this theme has oodles of heavy percussion. On top of the 3+3+2 rhythm line, the strings start playing in constant triplets (another really difficult thing to do well on the piano), and the trumpets interject with triplet figures of their own, adding an exciting layer of energy throughout the theme.

Then you have the challenge of spacing out the various music lines - bass, melody, accompaniment/rhythm. I always think it sounds more orchestral when you can spread your parts as far apart on the keyboard as possible. Hence, towards the climax, you'll see me jumping around a lot to cover all three layers in both hands.

In some ways, writing out the arrangement was the "easy" part. Playing it and trying to get a clean version for the video cameras? That was another story altogether. This part is HARD! Yikes!

I used Musescore (version 2, which is AWESOME) to write out the music. My Cunningham Piano is actually a hybrid instrument - it can be played as either an acoustic piano, or I can flip a switch and make it output a digital MIDI signal. I route this signal through my computer running a virtual piano program called Pianoteq. This is the best sounding piano plugin that I know of, and it comes with a nifty recording feature that lets me apply different kinds of reverb. For "Man Of Steel", I needed to sustain the sounds as long as possible, so I selected a "Church" reverb setting (I tried "Cathedrale" and "Taj Mahal", but they sounded way too soupy for the track). I can then save the recordings as MIDI files and export them as high quality WAV files as well.

While I love my Cunningham and use it constantly to teach my online students in conjunction with Pianoteq (meaning that my "piano" always sounds in tune), it isn't the most sensitive digital instrument. Many of the quieter sections came out as empty notes in the recording, and the damper pedal is a dumb "on-off" switch, meaning that I can't apply dynamic pedal controls to the performance. So, after spending several hours shooting video footage to try to get it right, I realized I was going to have to resort to re-recording the piano part on my trusty Roland RD-700SX digital piano. This is a professional grade digital instrument, and I can get a much more sensitive response to my touch with it. Plus, it accommodates a dynamic pedal controller, which Pianoteq supports, giving me quarter and half pedal effects that I love so much.

I spent several hours trying to record the piano track on my Roland, but that middle part is really, really hard, and I kept messing up at the big climax point because my hands (and brain) would get so exhausted. I came up with a two-fold solution: record the track in two parts, then mix the audio from them together afterwards. Before I did the audio editing, I imported the MIDI file into another nifty program called Anvil Studio, a free MIDI editor (for Windows only, sorry). I tried using Aria Maestosa MIDI editor for Mac, but the music notation output was totally illegible, making the program usesless to me. Within Anvil Studio, I can see my performance as a music notation score, and go note by note to delete clunkers and adjust timing and volume levels for every note. Once that was done, I re-opened the cleaned up MIDI files in Pianoteq and exported both parts as high quality WAV files. I then took those WAV files and edited the audio files together seamlessly within the open-source audio editing program Audacity.

Once I had a master audio track, I then took the footage from all three video cameras I was using simultaneously. I used the video editing software Sony Vegas Pro to put video tracks and audio together. As you can imagine, the timing of the audio recording was slightly off from the video footage - this is where multi-camera angles are a huge help. I could cut between cameras to hide the inconsistencies in timing, and used Vegas' time compression feature to massage the video and audio to look as in sync as possible phrase by phrase. If I did that with a single camera angle, the end result would look awfully wonky, I'm sure.

As soon as I finish editing the score, I will have the sheet music available to my students at my Online Popular Piano School at . If you'd like to learn this arrangement, I'll be more than happy to teach it to you there!

So, from idea to final recording, this took all day yesterday. A VERY long day, mind you. But it was lots of fun, and I'm tickled with the final result! I hope you like this arrangement - I love playing this kind of music, and would love to get your ideas on other soundtracks to arrange. Please leave me your suggestions in the comments below!

Read 6588 times Last modified on Friday, 22 May 2015 09:27

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