Music Production and Sound Quality: Keys!

Hello again!  Continuing in my series highlighting some key points and tips in getting a great production, we continue this time with a quick look at keyboards.   I’m sure there are many of us who find a great patch on the keyboard, run the outputs directly into our DAW, and call it a day. But, with just a little more attention, you can take “stock”  synths and samples, add your own flavor to them, and then kick ’em up a notch!

All keyboards and samples have a purpose! When I want to recreate an acoustic instrument with clarity and authenticity, I am typically going to be reaching for the higher end synths and samplers.  When I just want cool sounds, a deliberate lo-fi sound, a “dated” sound, or a starting point to create something completely new and original  – I have no problem working with the cheapest of gear and samples.   I’ve recorded album projects where an inexpensive keyboard played most of the tracks on the album, and the end result was great.  So – while I am still a bit of a “quality snob” in a lot of ways – don’t think for a minute you have to have a high-end keyboard to get great sounds. Even most of the low end keyboards these days usually have an assortment of very usable sounds, often including surprisingly good pianos.   A good rule of thumb – the more prominent the instrument is in the mix, and the more natural/acoustic/authentic the sound you desire, the more likely you should think about getting into the higher quality ranges with the synth/samples.  The more buried in the mix the track is, or the more processed you desire the sound – don’t hesitate to try to make things work with whatever you have laying around.

Preparing for your Session: Take a little time to learn how to disable the reverb and effects on your keyboard.  If an effect is an integral part of the sound, you might want to leave it on. However, if the effects are merely “icing”, then there is a good chance you are going to be able to get better quality effects in the studio, and you may want to just consider bypassing them.  And, you almost certainly want to disable the reverb, in order to utilize reverb in the mix in such a way that all of the instruments will gel together.    If you already have a specific sound in mind for various songs make sure you have a list of patch names/numbers written down with references to the various songs – you’d be surprised how many times I’ve been engineering a session and the keyboard player couldn’t find the right patch.   Also make sure you are familiar with your keyboards MIDI capabilities in case you decide to record the tracks as MIDI instead of or in addition to audio.

Recording the Keyboard: You can often get great results just recording directly out of your keyboard into the line inputs on your system.  However, so often, you can really kick things up a notch.  Outboard gear and guitar processors are wonderful toys to play with.  A few suggestions…  Pre-amps… Many preamps have a line input. I love to run keyboards through a good preamp.  My “go-to” preamp has a big, fat, transformer sound that often rounds out the low end and gives the mids a little extra edge.   EQ… many preamps have EQ built in, or you can use a dedicated unit. Whether you gently shape your sound, or mangle the heck out of it, the sound of a good analog EQ is hard to beat. I generally like to do a little subtle shaping of the top and bottom end and then leave any “surgical work” to be done later using plugins.  Compression… As with EQ, I generally prefer to do gentle shaping or limiting only on the front end, and save the precision work for later. From adding subtle warmth and body, to controlling stray dynamics, to completely smashing your dynamics, an analog compressor on the front end can breathe some new life into your sounds.  Specialty Processors… such as a Sonic Maximizer, Aural Exciter, Bass Enhancer, Tape Emulator, etc can all have a great impact on your sound. I use an Empirical Labs FATSO Jr. on just about everything going into my system. Sometimes it adds only a little tape style saturation or warmth, other times I also use it to assist in controlling dynamics.  It often makes only a subtle difference on any given track, but the impact on the mix overall can not be overstated.  Guitar Pedals, Processors, and Amps… A fun way to take your synth sounds to new places is to play with some guitar pedals or processors.  With a virtually endless supply of choices, guitar processors are a great way to enhance sounds, or create completely new ones.  Whether it be subtle, or extreme, a little experimenting can yield satisfying results that will help you create a sound that is uniquely yours, and not shared with the millions of other people who have the same keyboard you do.

Another suggestion on recording with keyboards – USE MONO! Seriously – unless you are using a true stereo sample, or a patch that has a stereo effect integral to the sound –  you should seriously consider just recording in mono. The “stereo” part of a synth patch is usually just a copy of the original track with a little chorus or similar processing to create the perception of stereo. If you want stereo, you may be able to recreate it better in your DAW.  Additionally, all those “stereo” tracks that you think will make your mix sound huge, will often (and quite ironically) make it sound smaller and/or more muddled (but that is a topic for another day).  Now again, if you have a true stereo recording or an interesting effect using the stereo field, you may still want to use both outputs, but if not, you may want to think twice.

Speaking of the outputs on keyboards, if you do record both outputs, it can be useful to run them through completely different signal paths (either during the recording or during the mixing stage) to create tracks with very different sounds that can either be layered together to make a bigger sound, or to effectively create a second part.

MIDI, Audio, or Both? More times than not, I actually commit my sound to tape early on as an audio recording. However, recording with MIDI will give you a lot of options later to alter your sound in order to better fit the mix.   When in doubt, do both!

In The Mix…. Most of what I already said about recording can all be done in the mixing stage. Most people will be using plugins during the mix stage as opposed to analog gear, but if you do have a hybrid mixing system, you can experiment with all of the suggestions previously made.  If you are using a lot of stereo tracks from your keyboard, PLEASE be more creative than just panning everything hard left and right.  I’ll do some articles in the future probably on mixing suggestions, but for the sake of this article, let me just emphasis that you should use different “widths” with your tracks and place them in different spaces in the available sound-field. In other words, your stereo piano can be still be a stereo track – but with a smaller image and panned off-center.  Bad panning/use of stereo sounds is one of the biggest problems I have ran into in working with many inexperienced engineers.

Synth sounds are particular fun to mess with in the mix – I will go to great extremes at times with modulation effects, tempo synced effects, etc to create sounds that are completely unrecognizable from the original track.

Soft Synths and Pianos… I didn’t really touch on these, but most of the things we discussed with keyboards can still be done in some way with soft synths.  Pianos are a whole other story…

My next article in this series will continue with Guitar!

Music Production and Sound Quality: Keys!

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