recording great keyboard

Seven tips for recording great keyboard parts in the studio

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Having an inspired idea is one thing, but actually recording great keyboard parts in the studio can be another. Here are seven tips to put you on the right track.

Whether you’re a hard-grooving blues piano player or a prog wizard on analog synths, a singer/songwriter with a deft touch on the electric piano or a reggae powerhouse laying down killer Hammond organ textures, the right keyboard parts can add depth, power, punch, emotion, and movement to your recorded tracks.

That said, having an inspired idea is one thing, but actually recording great keyboard parts in the studio can be another. Here are seven tips to put you on the right track.

Spend time choosing the right sound

Nearly any keyboard instrument you work with in the studio can present you with different options for customizing your overall sound. Software and hardware synths provide you with tons of options to tweak and adjust, and vintage analog keyboards like Wurlitzers and Clavinets also have tonal options you can adjust. Even acoustic pianos can sound dramatically different, depending on how you choose to place your microphones and adjust parameters like compression and EQ.

The takeaway? Before you start tracking, take the necessary time to come up with a sound on your instrument that feels good to you in the context of the recorded song and turns you on and makes you want to play. Time spent dialing in your sound will help set the stage for a powerful and meaningful recorded performance when the red light goes on.

Try using sounds from different sources

Your Roland or Yamaha workstation keyboard may have thousands of great sounds built in — more than enough for multiple recording sessions. The same could be true for your soft synth sound library of choice. Even if you have everything you need and more contained in one software or hardware package, it’s still worth considering other sources for at least some of the sonic textures you’ll be working with on your record.

The reason? Sounds from different keyboards or software synthesizers have different vibes, textures, and feels as they were likely created with different sampling or synthesis techniques. If you’re using multiple keyboard sounds, sourcing them from different instruments can add depth, variety, and nuance to your tracks. Experiment and see what you come up with.

Play around with amps and effects

Does your studio have a vintage Leslie speaker lying around, or a brand new distortion stomp box? Don’t be afraid to run your keyboard parts through different amps, pedals, or effects if the spirit moves you. You never know when changing up your instrument’s tone in an unexpected way can inspire you to create a killer keyboard part in the studio.

One word of advice — if you are running your keyboard through an amp or a processor, seriously consider splitting your signal and recording both a clean and a processed tone at the same time. When it comes time to edit and mix your track, having different sonic choices can help you come up with a finished track that you’re truly happy with.

Think about register

When you play your normal organ part behind your song’s chorus, it always sounds great live. So why doesn’t it gel when you’re tracking in the studio?

Whether it’s due to competing frequencies or a slightly denser arrangement in the studio — or something else entirely — the solution might be as simple as playing the same part in a different octave. Don’t be afraid to transpose a part up or down an octave or two and see how it sounds in context. It may be just the adjustment you need to turn a verse or chorus from slow-moving sludge to liquid fire.

Consider using MIDI

Lots of keyboardists opt to play their parts in the studio on a MIDI keyboard, triggering sounds from a software synthesizer. While this approach may not yield parts that sound quite as organic and natural as recording a real acoustic piano or vintage electric piano, it does give you flexibility that can be a boon in a number of ways.

If you played a bum note in the second chorus of an otherwise perfect take, or decide two hours after tracking that you want an upright piano sound rather than a concert grand, you can make either change with a few mouse clicks, rather than having to re-record from scratch. Similarly, if you want to nudge the timing of a certain chord or quantize your entire performance to make it lock in precisely with your drum loop, you can make it happen.

In these situations and many others, the flexibility of using MIDI instruments can be a blessing, so consider this approach when you go into the studio.

Pay attention to timing

When you’re in the studio, the idiosyncrasies of your performance can stick out a lot more than when you’re on stage playing live. One thing in particular to keep in mind is how and when you attack – and release – each note you play.

In other words, listen closely to the drums, bass, and other sonic elements as you’re preparing to play your parts, and do your best to have your keyboard parts start and end at precise moments that work within the context of the song. As a keyboard player, it can be easy to focus only on the exact timing when you hit the keys — not when you let them go — but having a sustained synth part end at the wrong time, for example, can sound sloppy and distracting. Focus on how you release your notes to avoid such problems before they start.

Think about tuning

Tuning isn’t just for guitarists and singers — it’s an important thing to keep in mind for a wide variety of keyboard instruments as well.

If you’re recording acoustic piano, try to make sure that it gets professionally tuned as close to your session as possible — unless you’re going for a beat-up, honky-tonk style piano sound. If you’re doing multiple days of piano tracking, you might even consider having it tuned at the start of every day, especially if the piano is featured front and center in your recording.

Vintage analog synths – as well as digital keyboards and software instruments – often allow you to adjust tuning, so spend a little time making sure your dials are set in conjunction with the tuning of the song before you start laying down parts.

Some keyboard instruments – vintage electric and toy pianos, for example – may just be out of tune, and there’s very little that you can do about it. In those situations, try laying down a scratch track of you playing the instrument so you can hear it in context, and decide if the off-tuning is acceptable. If it creates an interesting texture and doesn’t distract from the track, go with it. If it sounds sloppy, overly dissonant, or unprofessional, try something else.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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