Instrument spotlight: 1908 Steinway B

Below, recording and mixing engineer Taylor Tatsch shares his earliest memories of his Steinway B piano, as well as how he currently uses the instrument in his studio.

A family favorite
There are times when a musical instrument enters your life and becomes a part of you. Finding an instrument that resonates with how you play and how you operate in the studio is an inspiring experience. This particular instrument was always nearby, but it went relatively unappreciated for much of its life until nearly 15 years ago.

My piano, a Steinway B, originally belonged to my mother. As best as I can tell, it was bought by her parents sometime in the 1950s. It may have come from the Steinway Hall, a college, or a private owner—I was never told. My mother was the oldest of three sisters. It was more or less the custom in that day for women to receive piano lessons, and all four sisters learned to play. One sister, Helene, became very good and was a concert pianist who made a few recordings.

My mom was also a good pianist but didn’t consider herself very creative. When we moved back to her childhood home after her mom passed away, she became organist at our church in the small town of Dilley, TX. I would wake up on Sunday mornings and listen to her practice the hymns she knew so well. The sound of the old Steinway reverberated throughout our old farmhouse.

I was always drawn to the guitar, but I would sit at the piano from time to time and bang out chords. As I got older and played trumpet, my mom would accompany me for my district solos until the parts go too complex and we would have the school music teacher come and accompany me. In all these years, I never remember the piano being tuned, moved, or even cared for. We were not even allowed to open the top because my mom was paranoid about fingers getting smashed!

When my mom passed in 2006, we sold off the old ranch house, which needed cleaning out. Of all my siblings, I was the closest to our childhood home geographically, and the only one who still played music. It was agreed that I would keep the piano, and I had it moved to my house in Dallas. It was hard for me to tell what kind of shape it was in. Some of the keys didn’t work and it was badly out of tune.

A welcome surprise
I called Steinway Hall in Dallas and they sent a piano tuner over to assess the situation. He pulled 5 (!) pencils out of the action, which allowed all of the keys to move freely. The soundboard appeared to be undamaged. He did some basic maintenance, tuned up the piano and got it sounding amazing. He then turned to me and asked, “Son, how old do you think this piano is?” I replied that I didn’t know. He then gave him a brief history, revealing that it was made in 1908!

This blew my mind, not only because this placed the piano’s construction well before Rock and Roll, Jazz and even the Soviet Union, but because it testifies to the build quality of this amazing instrument. It sat for decades in an un-air-conditioned house, relatively unloved, and yet it sounds so rich and bright 100 years later.

The Steinway is now a cherished member of my studio, an almost living and breathing source of inspiration for performers and songwriters. Many mornings I come into the studio to the smell of coffee and the sound of an artist writing a song on the piano or finishing up lyrics, newly inspired by the instrument. After sessions are over, the bands often crowd around the piano, whiskey in hand, to figure out the intros and bridges of the songs they will record the next day.

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The sound of the piano is rich in the low mids and bright on the top, but not to the extent of a Yamaha piano. Multiple pianists have told me that they like that it is brighter than other Steinways they have played, but still retains the rich bottom end. The action is moderately soft, which allows players significant breadth of expression, especially if you lay into it. It records great for rock and roll. I usually mic it with a stereo pair of AKG 414s to capture the full range of the piano. Using a mono Neumann U87 setup with an 1176 compressor gives a more vintage, barroom sound. If an artist is going for a brighter sound, a pair of Shure SM81s or budget Rode NT5s are good choices. On a whim, I used a pair of cheap CAD ICM 417s and was still blown away.

I installed a Helpinstill magnetic pickup on the piano a few years ago (requiring no modifications to the instrument) that further broadens the sonic palate. With it, we can plug it into guitar amps, effects pedals, or even use the piano as a giant reverb unit with the sustain pedal held down. The possibilities are endless.

The piano is now an integral part of the studio; an irreplaceable, versatile instrument that continues to inspire and motivate the talented artists who grace AudioStyles.

Recordings featuring this instrument:

 

One comment

  1. Reply

    What a cool “Behind the Music” insight! I’m a huge fan of rock memoirs, and this reads like one. I already love “Lucky Smoke”, even more knowing this. Selfishly, I’d like the next post to cover bass set ups, but I am excited to read more about the workings of the studio.

    Like

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