Keyboard Maestro Bruce Hornsby's Ongoing Quest to Capture Live Sound

Bruce Hornsby could never be accused of being an artist who rests on his laurels. "I’m such a different musician in every way than I was 20 years ago," he admits. Prime evidence of the master pianist's ongoing creative evolution can be found all over the double-disc Solo Concerts (Vanguard), where Hornsby explores a variety of styles from behind the keyboard: everything from blues ’n’ boogie to New Orleans funk to the tenets of modern classical music. He also recasts the character of some of his best-known songs, such as turning "The Valley Road" into a blues vamp and giving "Mandolin Rain" an indelible bluegrass stamp.

Hornsby views playing a song the same way twice as akin to being in "a creative prison." And, he feels, "if you’re a musician who’s interested in being a lifelong student who continues to grow and evolve, frankly, you’re generally going to want to move on from that."

Here, Hornsby, 59, and I discuss how he "makes friends" with new pianos, when and when not to use reverb, and his philosophy of A/B'ing to find the proper live SQ baseline. Pushing the creative envelope — that's just the way it is with Bruce Hornsby, and we hope it's something that never changes.

Mike Mettler: From the audiophile perspective, Solo Concerts is an excellent-sounding recording.

Bruce Hornsby: Thank you. I’ll tell my engineer, Wayne Pooley. That’s great.

Mettler: These recordings were all taken from different locations, so you chose the best performances to include on the album, is that right?

Hornsby: That’s right. I’m not that good (MM laughs), so I had to painstakingly go through a number of concerts to discover and identify the exemplary performances. That’s how it works. I went through 40 or 50 shows, because I played a good number of solo concerts in 2011, 2012, and 2013. And it’s a great learning tool. I mean, I know the sound of me being terrible. When I hear that sound, I know I don’t want to make that sound anymore, so it’s educational for me on a performance level, both vocally and pianistically — and maybe on an arrangemental level as well. I’ll think, “You know, this goes on a little bit,” or “This is boring. I’m not being that interesting for a period of time here.” I could go on and on about it. Perhaps it’s too much navel-gazing, but you’re asking about the process.

Mettler: Well, I think your process is quite interesting. For someone who’s considered to be a master improviser, you know when you have your clams in there. The general listener may not be able to pick them out, so you have to be self-critical enough to say, “There’s something in the middle eight of this version of ‘Continents Drift’ that isn’t working for me, so let’s find a better one.”

Hornsby: Yes, that’s exactly right. But I do tend to give the “average” listener more credit than maybe some others do. I feel that this supposed average listener may not be able to tell you exactly what it is that’s not so good about what they’re listening to; they just know that it doesn’t “get” them. There’s something about it that’s not reaching them, and not getting them off. It’s like that old thing you hear people say: “Well, I just like good music.” (laughs) The naysayer might say that’s an idiotic statement, but I don’t think it is. I think what people mean by that is very simple: “I like music that moves me.” They might not know exactly why something doesn’t move them, but they might not have the time or the interest to analyze it. It either gets them, or it doesn’t.

I apply the very same, simple test to my music: Does it get me? And a lot of my critique will be on a vocal level. I want the vocal to have a certain soulful quality to it that reaches me and gets under my skin, whether it’s a funny song, or a soulful song. You mentioned “Continents Drift” — I want that to be a very soulful vocal. In the case of “Where’s the Bat,” I want that to evoke a more humorous response.

Mettler: On many of the album’s vocals, you employ an echo effect, but on “Continents Drift,” you come across more naked and raw, and I felt more emotional content in the way you were singing that song.

Hornsby: Well, that’s good. As you can probably see, since you’re an audiophile, different vocals are treated differently. It happens to be about the song, and how I’m reacting to it: Is this reaching me? Sometimes a drier vocal seems to be warranted; it seems to be the one that works and makes me like it. And another time, we’ll use a very slight slap effect, the slightest version of the effects you used to hear on old Elvis or Gene Vincent records. Now, you’d hear them on a Dwight Yoakam record —

Mettler: Or a Brian Setzer record —

Hornsby: Yes, absolutely. Slap, or basic plate reverb, or hall reverb. I’m lucky to be able to play many of the great concert halls. You’ll see in the picture that’s on the back cover of the record —

Mettler: Yeah, that’s in the Toronto hall you played [in November 2013] —

Hornsby: Yes, the Koerner Hall Royal Conservatory of Music. It’s just a beautiful hall with a beautiful sound. My drummer Sonny [Emory] and I were doing a duo tour, opening for Pat Metheny [i.e., the Pat Metheny Unity Group]. Another great hall is the New Jersey Performing Arts Center [in Newark].

Mettler: Oh, I agree; I love that space. I’ve seen Mark Knopfler play there, Bonnie Raitt, Marc Cohn — what a great venue. You played there when, back in August [specifically, August 8]?

Hornsby: Exactly right! And with Pat sitting in with us.

Mettler: How do you know a hall like that sounds good to you? What are the tells that let you know, “Ok, this is a good space for me. I’m going to have a good time here”?

Hornsby: It generally happens during soundcheck, once you get on stage. Especially on these duo tours, I have to make “friends” with a new instrument every night. There’s an amazing variety in the quality of instruments, but Steinways are always very solid. Some are stiffer than others and some feel like organs, but in a good way — real light, like a Horowitz piano was, with light action. Some are tough and stiff, some are dark and dull, and some pianos are really bright, so you have to watch it if you bang on them. I’m not much of a “banger” player at all. But if I get a dull piano in the left-hand bass-area register, I’ll tend to hit it harder. It doesn’t tend to get you much more bark out of the bass, but I have to save my hands for later in the set.

When I get to the soundcheck to make friends with this new instrument, within the first 5 minutes, I can tell whether I’m instantly comfortable, or if I’m really going to have to work for it. But that doesn’t mean that if I’m instantly comfortable, that gig is going to be better than one where I was thrown at first by whatever quality of the piano that was distasteful to me, or the sound of the hall.

I have monitors up there with me, but there are only two things that are in them: the vocal, and the reverb of the piano. Sometimes halls are real dry and I like to have a little sonic pillow there, which makes me feel better to play in that situation. So I’ll have my engineer Wayne [Pooley] dial in just the reverb of the piano, and not the piano itself.

Mettler: Have you ever had a case of finding a “friend” that’s not playable at all?

Hornsby: Sometimes, they don’t want to be friends — at least to me. (chuckles) But not that often. Not to be a shill for Steinway, but they make great quality, consistent pianos. But sometimes a concert hall rep will say, “Well, we have our own piano here, and it’s just great.” And then they’ll say, “Oh, it’s 50 or 60 years old, but it’s been renovated.” That’s always a red flag to me. They’ve been polishing it, but it’s still the same bit of excrement. (laughs)

But then there are other times, like at the end of 2012 when I was [at the FM Kirby Center] in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania [on November 2, 2012], and I loved the piano there so much I had it shipped to New York to Steinway Hall [at 109 West 57th Street] so that the next time I went up there, I could go play it to see if I wanted to buy it. And I played it, and I bought it. It’s now in my studio. So that’ll happen too.

Mettler: You have it at home in Virginia now?

Hornsby: Yes I do. But if I bought all the pianos I loved playing on the road, I’d be broke. (MM laughs) I’m fortunate that I get to play a lot of great instruments.

Mettler: Plus, your wife probably wouldn’t let you have 100 pianos in the house, or on the property.

Hornsby: Yes. 100 pianos would be 900 feet of pianos, so —

Mettler: I think that’s the name of your next box set: 900 Feet of Pianos.

Hornsby: Kind of like that actor’s band, what’s his name, Russell Crowe — 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, so it would be 900 Foot of Piano. You could maybe only house that in a big WalMart.

Mettler: And I do! In terms of sound quality, how do you know when your mix sounds good? Was there a specific philosophy about how you wanted the Solo Concerts shows to be recorded?

Hornsby: We often A/B to other records, which I think is pretty common. If we’re making a certain kind of band record, we’ll A/B to something that we think is a sonic kindred spirit. For example, we A/B’ed the Solo Concerts record to a Keith Jarrett solo record. It’s interesting, because so many of them sound different to each other. They vary to me, sonically. Some are very dry, some are more reverberant, some are brighter than others. It’s just interesting. I generally like all of them.

There are certain piano sounds I like, but I tend to like a “round” sound. I don’t like it really bright. My first couple of records were big pop successes on radio, and they were really bright, so people sort of pegged that as “my” sound, where in reality, I didn’t like it at all. It sounded good on the radio. Somehow the radio compressors make “The Valley Road,” “The Way It Is,” and “Mandolin Rain” sound pretty good, but I’m not a fan of those records sonically. They sounded thin to me if you were listening to them in your house or your car.

Mettler: On “Mandolin Rain,” what else are you playing on that track besides the piano?

Hornsby: It’s the MIDI attachment, the Bob Moog Piano Bar. It’s on a few of the songs here. So few people play acoustic instruments in the popular music world or even the jazz world. The Piano Bar has gone into obsolescence, but I, an old style/old time acoustic musician, like this sort of extra fuzz that the piano is MIDI’ed to — some ersatz string sound. (chuckles)

I don’t like to have it too loud. It’s also on “Continents Drift,” but generally, it’s on the ballads, like “Here We Are Again.” When I’m playing these ballads, I feel like I want to hear the orchestra playing with me. I have the orchestra in my head, and since I’m not playing stadiums and can’t afford an orchestra or hire an orchestrator for all of these songs, I need to do it this way to hear the sound of these songs that’s in my head.

Mettler: It’s a testament to the mixing that the MIDI doesn’t overtake the vocal or the piano itself. It’s a good supplement to the arrangement.

Hornsby: It’s a support sound, and that’s hopefully what it does. We worked really hard on this. If something’s out of place, then we’ve done a really terrible job. We have been really terrible at making records in the past. I have loads of regrets — not entire songs, but certain albums where I go, “Aww, man, I should have used that one.” And I’m not alone; I know lots of my singer/songwriter friends who tell the same story: “Dammit, this is a lot better song than the record of it is!” (chuckles)

Mettler: Most records are just a snapshot in time of the moment you recorded them. A lot of times, when you’re out there onstage, a song evolves quite literally at your fingertips.

Hornsby: That’s exactly right, and that’s my approach. And you bring up a good point. It’s such a creative prison if you have to play that snapshot, as you call it, every night for the rest of your life — because it is just a snapshot of the way you heard it in, say, 1992’s way. And hopefully if you’re a musician who’s interested in being a lifelong student who continues to grow and evolve, frankly, you’re generally going to want to move on from that.

I’m such a different musician in every way than I was 20 years ago, and definitely 30 years ago when I was “popular.” It’s a whole different thing now. And this record may be the best version of that. And Bride of the Noisemakers, our live record from 2011, is a really good version of, when people ask, “What do you sound like?” Generally people say to me, “Oh, I’m such a big fan of yours! I love — ” and they’ll say one of the old songs. My standard answer is, “Thanks a lot, but you’ve missed the best part!” That’s just my feeling. Maybe some people would think I’m completely wrong, and I’ve gotten worse. But it’s clear on some levels that this album and Bride of the Noisemakers are good testaments.

In the last 3 years, when people have asked, “What should we get that shows us what you sound like now?” — I would say Bride. Also, I like to lead them to that record because it has that beautiful cover of my bass player [J.V. Collier] getting married to my keyboard player [John “JT” Thomas] in drag. (chuckles) Brave choices for them.

Mettler: Me, I like hearing how songs change over time. I happen to like the way songs like “The Valley Road” have evolved over the years because I don’t want to hear them exactly the way they were recorded. I can just put the original album on if I want to hear that. But not when it’s live.

Hornsby: I feel the same way. I wish there were more adventurous listeners like you are, but I don’t expect them to be. A lot of people don’t have the time to want to do that, and I don’t blame them a bit.

Mettler: To borrow a title, they want it the way it is — or rather, the way it was.

Hornsby: Yeah, that’s right, and I understand that.

Mettler: I guess that’s the two-way street as an artist: “I’m going to give you a little of what you came for, but you have to give me a little bit of what keeps me going.”

Hornsby: I’m going to give the songs to them in a way that I hope they recognize, but they’re very different from the originals. I’m not demanding they “allow” me to take the space — I’m just going to take the space. (laughs) Their choice, later, is whether they want to come back again. Fair enough. But I have to do this, because this is what moves me. I feel that what I owe my audience every night is the music I’m most passionate about. To be up there as their vehicle for a stroll down memory lane is just not for me. I couldn’t do that.

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site,