Over the years, music or rather the sonic aspects of music have evolved with the advent of advanced technology - from old-school mixes often recorded with one microphone in the center of the room and printed to tape, to now having lush 200+-track productions of pop songs - there's a lot for the modern musician to factor into their playing.
In the world of live music, a lot can be left up to the interpretation by the musicians on stage - how raw vs. produced of a sound they would like to go for when performing a song live.
As a keyboard player, I've found that a lot of the time, I have a huge say in this based on my approach - do I want to strip a modern pop song of its production and treat it as a band song? Or do I want to elevate it to have it's own unique sound with a little bit more thought put into the sound design.
But first, let's take a look at what options we have as keyboard players to make this all happen, shall we?
1. A little research
One of the best things to set yourself up for success when performing any song live on keyboards with a band actually happens before you even play a note or turn a knob. That's right - research! With the power of the internet, I'll seek out as many resources as I can find on a song to help me best replicate what makes it tick. These can present themselves in a few options:
The Original Instrumental: Often times, you'll be able to find the original instrumental of a popular song on YouTube with a simple search of '[Your song name] instrumental'. These are great resources as they don't have any vocals taking up space in the mix and allow you to distinctly hear what each instrument is doing in the mix. Some artists like Anderson .Paak even release their instrumentals to Spotify or Apple Music which makes the process that much easier. There are also instrumentals generated by AI or with the use of phase-cancelling an a capella against the original song to generate one, but these often have a few artifacts and are a last resort for me, personally. That being said, they still work great as a reference if the official instrumental is not available. And if you can't find those instrumentals either, you can use services like Moises to generate the instrumental from an existing .wav file of the original song.
Studio Breakdowns: If you're lucky, companies like Steinburg and Genius often feature artists doing what are called Production Breakdowns of their songs. These feature the artists themselves talking about not just the song's story, but even diving into the nitty-gritties - what plugins they used, what layers, which instruments, etc. These are a gold mine of information that not only help you perfectly recreate the sounds used in the original record, but also can be used in other songs to help you in your own produciton journey.
Live Versions: A great reference that I use all the time is watching live versions of the song being performed by the artist - especially if it's a newer pop song. These often highlight the main elements that are the driving force of the song. That in turn, informs me of what I should prioritize when making a patch for that song. In addition, it also may include arrangement ideas that are not present in the original studio recording. These can be great for adding into your own arrangements or just for some new inspiration.
Articles and Forums: Apart from video resources, there are also sites like Sound on Sound that feature beautiful write-ups covering the production of an artist's particular album or single. They often feature the gear used by the producers and engineers in the studio while producing these sounds. Through reading these kinds of articles on the web, I learnt that Bruce Springsteen used the Yamaha CS-80 in Dancing in the Dark or how ABBA used the ARP Odyssey on Gimme Gimme, which informed my sound design approach for those songs greatly.
Original Stems: This is obviously more suited to when you are playing with the original artist. But it's safe to assume that if you can get your hands on the original stems of the record you're trying to recreate, there isn't really much else you need. I just thought I'd include it here to complete the list, haha. What I sometimes do too is refer to a site called Karaoke-Version just to get an idea of some of the elements in the song. These aren't always accurate and are attempted recreations themselves, but they do help me organize my thoughts when it comes to the base instrumentation that makes up the song.
2. Charting it out
The next step I do is to actually chart out the songs myself. If you're unfamiliar with what a chord chart is, it's basically a page with the chords of each section laid out in order that also includes section headers, notes, lyrics, etc. Basically any information I need to refer to when performing the song.
Yes, you can get a chart from the web which may or may not be accurate. But I personally like to chart the songs myself. This is because in doing so, I familiarise myself with the little nuances in the song that I may not always catch if I'm just playing off someone else's chart. I personally use two apps for creating my chord charts:
Fig 1.: An example of an iReal Pro chart
iReal Pro: iReal is what I use to make single-page charts that are super quick to make and are great for use on stage. It allows you to also make setlists and reorder your charts for on-stage use, making a great tool for the majority of live musicians. Not to mention it's got a great forum and charts of the old classics that are 100% accurate, should you need to refer to them in a pinch - songs like She's Always a Woman by Billy Joel or jazz standards like The Girl from Ipanema by Antonio Carlos Jobim. iReal Pro is available on iOS, Android, and even macOS which is how I tend to use it - on my MacBook Pro. And the cool thing is it syncs with my iCloud account so when I show up to rehearsal, it's all there on my iPad, ready to go. Plus, if I do make an edit at rehearsal on my iPad, it'll also be reflected on my MacBook. Great system for Apple users. Unfortunately, Android users can't utilize the iCloud feature. Pros: - Easy to make - Single-page, no scrolling required - Apple devices sync to iCloud - Built-in setlist manager Cons: - Not available on Windows - No iCloud sync for Android - No rhythmic or melodic information
Notion Mobile: I was looking for an app like Sibelius, Finale or MuseScore that was cross-platform and low-cost to make scores with and I found exactly that with Notion Mobile by PreSonus. I make what're called slash charts in Notion, which are basically manuscript-style charts that have slashes to fill up the bars that would normally be filled up by notes. The reason I got into using these charts over a simpler iReal chart was so I could also notate the rhythmic timing in a section easily, or even melodies, counter-melodies or riffs that I might need to play, However, it is worth noting that Notion is simply used to creat the chart. You'll have to use another app to organize the charts into setlists for easier setlist management. Notion Mobile is avaiable on everything - iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, heck even Kindle! I found a hack where I point Notion's save path on all my devices to my Google Drive folder. That way, any chart I make on any instance of Notion on any device syncs to my Google Drive automatically. I never have to worry about transferring anything across devices and it keeps things stress-free for me. Pros: - Available on all platforms - Can sync across all platforms using third-party cloud storage solutions e.g. Google Drive, DropBox, etc. - Include rhythmic and melodic information Cons: - Takes time to learn and make charts - Often extends to two or more pages, requires scrolling - No built-in setlist manager
Tying it all together - OnSong: OnSong is an app that has a bit of church theme to it, in that it syncs to services like Planning Center that are typically used by churches and places of worship. Even though I started using it for church services, it quickly became apparent how powerful it was for use on stage. I use it in conjuction with Notion Mobile by importing the PDFs created with Notion and organizing them into songbooks (per artist/act) and of course, setlists. Plus, if I do end up having a mix-and-match situation with older songs having iReal charts and newer songs having Notion charts, I can simply import all of them into OnSong and my setlist is good to go. OnSong is availale only on iOS, although I believe it does have a browser-based editor should you want to create the chart within the app itself. But I've retired from the chords-over-lyric style approach as I've found it to be not as accurate for me.
Fig 2: An example of an slash chart in Notion Mobile
What I end up using ultimately depends on the complexity of the music and how much time I have to create the charts. If I need efficiency, I go for iReal. If I need detail, Notion. The one universal thing I'll do is note down any specific things I may do as switching sounds is concerned. Speaking of sound...
3. Sound design
This, in my honest opinion, is what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. If you are unfamiliar with what sound design is, it's basically how I create the sounds that I use on stage. This is my approach to preparing patches for my live shows.
Before we dive in however, I think I want to just talk about the kinds of songs we may deal with as keyboard players and the approach best suited for them.
Keyboard-driven old-school pop/jazz songs: Songs like When I Was Your Man by Bruno Mars or a jazz standard like Straighten Up and Fly Right by Nat King Cole are examples of songs where the role is clear and obvious. These are low-hanging fruit and require no real sound design other than maybe selecting the right piano sound for the job and you're off to the races!
Retro-themed pop/rock/dance songs: These songs generally made use of technology that was famous at the time and can be easily replicated if you know what synths they used. Common keyboards included the CS-80, the ARP Odyssey, the Juno/Jupiter, the Yamaha DX7, Minimoogs and the like. Songs like Jump by Van Halen or Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship would fall into this category. These I've found to take the most work as far as live keyboards are concerned. I wouldn't hide behind a piano-pad combo for these and try to match the original parts as best as I can.
Guitar-drive metal/rock songs: Songs that were written for the power trio - guitar, bass and drums - would fall into this category. There may not be inherent keyboard parts and sometimes, I even sit them out if it doesn't require anything. But otherwise, I try to enhance what's going on by doubling up the riffs on an overdriven organ or a rock piano. Hole-hearted by Extreme or Cochise by Audioslave are good examples that spring to mind.
Modern pop/dance: These are the slightly more wildcard songs. It's often unclear as to what to play given the vast difference in production quality modern pop songs have. And here's where we tend to employ the use of auxiliary tracks and a click track sometimes to get everything done while holding down the main parts. Songs like Levitating by Dua Lipa or Blinding Lights by The Weeknd would fall under this category. Though not all modern pop songs are written equal, so it's purely situational.
As far as gear goes, I used to use a Novation Impulse 61 MIDI Controller along with a Macbook Pro running Ableton Live and a Focusrite 2i2 Audio Interface, but that setup got little too cumbersome over time and I simplified my setup.
I now use a Yamaha MODX6 and have been doing so for years now. It falls under the Yamaha Montage line of digital synthesizers, having the core elements that make up the Montage without some of the bells and whistles. But let me tell you, the MODX is no simple instrument. It's an absolute beast of a machine!
That being said, these principles are not tied down solely to the MODX, although I will be using it in my examples as I am most familiar with it. You can most certainly adapt these concepts to your own board of choice. So without further ado, let's dive in to it, shall we?
Think in sections: The way I like to go about creating a Performance (Yamaha's term for a song patch) is to listen to each section and add sounds as I go. This also makes it so that when I use the Scene switches to switch between sounds, it happens in a logical order that almost flows with the song. So for example. if a song starts with piano in the intro and an organ in the verse, I would add the piano first followed by the organ.
Bread and butter sounds: Depending on the style of song we discussed above, there'll typically be atleast one "bread-and-butter" sound - piano, rhodes, organ. These are sounds I'll generally use a MODX preset for, without really tweaking things. If the song calls for it, I may reach for a few effects like a drive, a different reverb or some EQ and Compression. But that's about it. It's often a great starting point to then add new sounds to. I use the 'CFX Stage' or 'CFX Padded' (if there's a pad) Performances as my starting point for a ton of songs.
Custom sounds (It's about to get heady):
Synth: What I like to do for synth sounds is to use Subtractive Synthesis to shape my sound from scratch. The MODX has the basic oscillator waveforms built-in. I start there and using the ADSR envelopes for my amp and filter, create sounds from scratch. This is where the research comes in that we did at the start of the article. I then proceed to use the 2 insert effects, 5-band EQ and 2 return effects in the MODX to take my sounds to the next level. The inserts I typically use are compression, drives, custom delays and modulation effects (chorus, phaser, flanger). I never use the EQ insert because I'd rather use the dedicated 5-band EQ. And I never use the reverbs or a standard 8th note/dotted 8th note delay insers because I'd rather have those set up as returns for all my sounds to go through, creating cohesion in the overall Performance. I've used this to create the ARP Odyssey organ sound in ABBA's Gimme Gimme that I've layered with strings to play the intro.
Customising presets: Another common technique is to use a pre-existing sound and simply tweak the sounds to morph them into the sound you're going for. For example, I took a standard piano sound and added a ton of distortion to it to create the intro for Linkin Park's Numb. I may EQ out the excess brightness after the fact and maybe add a little bit of reverb to complete the sound. Another example I recently did at time of writing this article is Taylor Swift's Cornelia Street, where again, I took a piano sound. But this time, I filtered out the high end, increased the Attack to make it swell more, and added a 16th note LFO to modulate the volume, creating the intro sound. I play that on my right hand while playing piano and pads on my left hand.
Samples: If I'm being honest, I haven't used a lot of these so far in my playing as the acts I play with typically use a dedicated playback rig. That being said, you can also load in samples or sample sounds from the original record. A pro tip would be to use Moises to split tracks up and use a DAW to extract the samples, which I would then load into my MODX and map to a particular note. When doing this, make sure there is no velocity tracking, unless you want the volume of the sample to fluctuate. Songs that I've used this on in the past are Warning by Incubus or You and I by Lady Gaga. I've also extracted the vocal sample from Illicit Affairs by Taylor Swift and given it to my drummer to trigger it from his Roland SPD-SX while I play piano and synth. Remember, whatever works!
Time-based sounds: Sometimes, you'll want to employ the use of sounds that may not work unless you play to a click track. These are what I like to call time-based sounds. It allows you use an LFO to modulate the sound over time at a fixed rate. A common thing I tend to do with this is to use a reverse Sawtooth LFO and create the famous 'sidechain' effect you hear on countless modern pop records. Another use of time-based sounds is any arpeggiated sounds you may use. Examples for side-chained sounds include Can't Stop the Feeling by Justin Timberlake and Born This Way by Lady Gaga. Also, Cornelia Street I used in the previous example used a 16th note LFO so that too, we do to click. An example for an arpeggiated sound that I've used is the synth bass in Radio Gaga by Queen. I layer that on my left hand along with an 80s-style piano.
Control: The MODX has a bunch of different ways of controlling your sound over time - mod wheel, pitch bend, sustain pedal, expression pedal, assignable switches, assignable knobs, faders, preset knobs and of course, the big SuperKnob. If I'm using a preset, I typically just use whatever controller mappings are set up with that preset - e.g. in the 'CFX Padded' Performance. the SuperKnob controls the pad. If I'm creating a performance with lots of sounds, I'll actually go in and delete the preset mappings of a sound before I add another sound. This helps me from running into problems where sounds misbehave if I move the SuperKnob. I will then only map what I actually want to use with that sound - e.g. mapping the cutoff knob of a pad to the mod wheel. Another important thing to do is to unmap controls from certain sounds. For example, if have a piano on my left and a lead sound to my right, I often unmap the sustain pedal to just the lead sound. That way I can still play the piano with my sustain pedal and play the lead sound freely on top.
4. Patch Management
There are basically two approaches that I can consider when it comes to how I manage my Performances on my MODX:
Preset per song: If I have a set act that I play a bunch of songs with, I employ the preset-per-song method. Basically, every song, no matter how simple it is, gets its own dedicated performance slot. I can make small tweaks during rehearsal per song and save each Performance individually. This is the most ideal way of working because it means you can have very specifc settings for even your bread and butter sounds for each song.
Mix and match: I use this typically for sets that are more one-off than steady. What I'll typically do is have my bread and butter sounds in front of me and only make custom performances for songs that require it. This makes it so that every song that requires a piano has the same piano performance and allows for a more cohesive set, at the cost of less customizability. It also means I can fit all my sounds for the gig on one Live Set page, which is great!
5. Back it all up
You put in a ton of hard work into making them, make sure you never lose your Performances. What I typically do is I save what's called a User File from my MODX to a USB stick that I carry around with me. I also have a backup of this User File on my Google Drive, should the USB stick ever fail. This User File can load on any MODX or Montage with the latest firmware update - the installation file of which I also carry on a 2nd USB stick. That's how I go about gigging on any rental Montage around the world, without the need for having to lug around my own MODX.
And that about wrap things up! This is an all-encompassing view on how I approach keyboard playing as I have done for the past 8 years and counting. If you've made up to this point, I applaud you for having the same drive I had in figuring all this out. Haha. If you have any questions with regards to any of the points discussed here, please feel free to drop a comment down below and I'd be more than happy to help answer any questions you have.
Thank you so much for your time and I hope you go on to rock it at your next gig! Until next time. Cheers!