Songs in the Key of Life

Rob Arthur covers Stevie Wonder’s classic album Songs in the Key of Life on a Vintage Vibe Piano™.

On the first floor of a Greenpoint, Brooklyn warehouse building, Eric Ambel and Timothy Hatfield run Cowboy Technical Services, a recording studio. Eric is also the founder of independent record label Solo Sounds. True to its name, Solo Sounds specializes in intimate recordings of iconic songs and albums performed on a single instrument. The label exists to answer questions like what would The Beatles’ hits sound like on a single Hammond organ? Or what would Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison sound like on a solo harp?

Since we discovered the label, we’ve been dying to work with the team at Cowboy Technical Services to cut some beautiful tracks on a Vintage Vibe Piano™. Solo Sounds often features vintage electric pianos so we knew they already had a taste for a rich vintage electric sound. We spoke to Eric about a collaboration and he thought it was an excellent idea to make a record with a Vintage Vibe Piano™, our signature electric piano. 

The next thing we had to decide on was what album to cover. We threw around a few ideas but only one felt like a perfect fit: Songs in the Key of Life by the great Stevie Wonder. We have a special connection with Stevie after he chose to take the Vintage Vibe Piano™ on tour for the duration of the Songs in the Key of Life tour in 2014-15.

Cowboy Technical Services asked Rob Arthur to take on the challenge of recording Stevie’s signature double album. For the last thirteen years Rob has been the keyboardist for Peter Frampton and has an amazing reputation. He’s a lifelong fan of Stevie and has studied and devoured his music from an early age.

Together with Rob Arthur, producer Timothy Hatfield and engineer Mario Viele completed the talented team that recorded Songs in the Key of Life on the Vintage Vibe Piano™ in just two days.


Rob Arthur

Note from Rob Arthur:

I was compelled to share my rediscovery of this brilliant work of art not only for its musical breakthroughs, but for its brave message. One that is loud and clear and so very needed by us all right now. Thank you Stevie Wonder for sharing this complete statement. I hear you!


We asked Rob a few questions about the album:

Vintage Vibe: Will you tell us your experience playing and recording the Songs in the Key of Life? 

Rob Arthur: I’m a Rhodes freak. When I lived in NYC, I was able to talk my favorite playing studio Rhodes out of its owner’s hands. I would book sessions at that studio because I loved it so much. Well, that piano is now in my own studio at home. That being said, when I first put my hands on the Vintage Vibe Piano™ to make this record, I could have said that THIS is the best electric piano I’ve ever recorded on. It looks beautiful, and behaves exactly like I want. I find that you play so differently on all the different classic keyboards, and this is IT. The feel. I played it all day for two days straight, as a solo instrument, and it kept me inspired all through the recording.

VV: How did the Vintage Vibe Piano™ capture the spirit of the original Rhodes in the songs?

RA: Perfectly. It sounds exactly how I wanted it to sound. And when playing Stevie’s songs, that precise tone is needed.

VV: Can you describe the sound of actual tines recorded vs. a sampled effect

RA: It’s very hard to capture the feeling in sample of how the tines react with different velocity. Of course, I have yet to play Keyscape from Spectrasonics!

VV: Anything else you’d like to add?

RA: I want one of everything that Vintage Vibe makes!! Ha!

We also asked Tim Hatfield, Owner and Producer at Solo Sounds Studio what his approach was to the recording...

Vintage Vibe: How did you record the piano? What was the signal path?

Timothy Hatfield: It was simple: we used the stereo out of the keyboard direct into a pair of Avalon 737s and on board tremolo. Using the depth and speed controls we were able to gauge the vibe for each song. Rob Arthur brought in a line 6 DI with various effects. That was recorded direct through API 512 mic pres. The send out signal was split going direct to the preamp and the other to either a Fender Pro Jr. or a Princeton reverb. The Pro Jr. was used to provide some muscle when needed. For the ballads we used the Princeton for a cleaner sound and to add a little spring reverb for more vibe. The amps were mic’d with a Royer 121 and we used a Telefunken v72 as the preamp.

During the mixing Mario used Manly Elops and UAD 1176s for compression and api 560 and Rupert Neve EQs.  For all solo sounds there is an EMT-250 reverb and the Crane Song doing its master bus compressor thing.

The balance between DI and amp changed per song leaning on the DI for the smoother things and adding the amp for the more up-tempo songs. We recorded and mixed at Cowboy Technical Services, a studio owned by Eric Ambel and me, in Greenpoint Brooklyn. Eric is also one of the principals in the Solo Sounds label.
Since Vintage Vibe keys are so responsive and emote so well,  I knew we needed the right player, that’s why I brought in Rob.  He is the kind of guy who can play one note and you know he is a serious player and a player like that needs a responsive instrument to really shine.  I have worked with Rob for years now and we have done several of the solo sounds recordings together.

Note from Chris Carroll:
The album is a tribute to Stevie Wonder, we are honored that Tim and Eric thought enough of our piano to take their time and energy to make this happen! Often when working long hours in the shop I’m reminded of a section in the Bhagavad Gita: "You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work.” While this is certainly our guiding philosophy, every once in a while we really do get to enjoy the sweet fruits of our labor. This was absolutely one of those times and we're happy to share the results! Give us a listen and if you like it let us know and feel free to share with a Stevie fan in your life!

Solo Sounds will officially release the album in early August. If you're interested in supporting this amazing project and discovering all kinds of great tunes, visit Solo Sounds. We'll keep you posted when the album is officially released!