Notes from the Shore

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Project Studio Upgrades, Pt. 3 – Keyboards

This is the third installment of my studio upgrade series.

Part 1: Microphones

Part 2: Preamps and Channel Strips

Part 4: Mixers and Audio Interfaces

Part 5: Computers, DAW’s and Control Surfaces

Part 6: Monitoring and Acoustic Treatment

Now on to my favorite part of this list and the one I have probably the most experience with: keyboards! I’m talking synths and MIDI controllers and digital pianos and even more.


For the first two installments we dealt with the audio signal path. We were concerned with turning an acoustic signal from a voice or instrument into an electric signal we can record. Now we will turn to the realm of digital instruments and controllers. First, a quick note about MIDI:

Before, we were recording actual audio signals – waveforms like anyone can see on the Windows Media Player visualization. Now, we are going to record instead data representing the performance – when notes are played and how loud – but nothing about the sound of the notes themselves. Think of an old-fasioned player piano roll – the roll tells the piano what notes to play, but the sound itself is coming from the piano, not the roll.

MIDI works the same way, but on a much more sophisticated and flexible level. In addition to recording when notes play and how loud (already a step above a player piano, which couldn’t record a loudness) we can also record other controller data, which allows us to modify the sound of notes while they’re playing. Long-time readers of this blog will know most of what I do is recording MIDI, and a good example of the possibilities can be found in this post here.

3. Digital Pianos

I believe that most home studios should have a digital piano. Unless you don’t play a lick (guitars only, thank you) you will find it useful. If you have a keyboard-playing friend with whom you like to collaborate, it is a valuable investment.

At the basic level, let’s take a good look at the Yamaha P-95. I am a huge fan of Yamaha’s piano sound for live applications. I’ve played this particular piano in a band context before and loved it (thanks, Steve). At $550, it’s even cheaper than the M-Audio ProKeys 88 that I do own and dislike (because the touch response is uneven and in four years almost all of the indicator lights have stopped working). This Yamaha gets my nod a the basic level with no hesitation.

So, here’s the thing: at the well-equipped level, I’m selecting another Yamaha, but this one isn’t a dedicated digital piano. The Yamaha MM8 has 88 weighted keys and the killer Yamaha piano sound (probably the exact same piano as the P-96 above), but it also has a load of other keyboard and synth sounds. At a grand it’s a real steal, and those extra sounds will come in handy for the gigging musician.

As we get into the next category of keyboards below, you will see that they tend to lean towards specifically synthesized sounds, rather than emulations or recreations of acoustic instruments like strings or horns. This keyboard has a load of them, including other keyboard sounds like organs and electronic pianos, too. Pretty power-packed for a keyboard weighing in at only a grand.

Some other options in this price range include the Kurzweil SP4-7, the Kawai EP3, and the Yamaha CP33. Kawai and Kurzweil are both great names in the industry, but having played a ton of different brands, I’m still sold on the Yamaha sound for live applications. (Since there are incredible piano software instruments out there, the sound of the digital piano is most important to me in a live context – recorded I will use my Garritan Authorized Steinway). Note that all of these are dedicated digital pianos, not full blown synths like the MM8.

At the dream level I’m after only one keyboard. The Korg SV-1 is aimed specifically at recreating classic keyboard sounds – from pianos and electric pianos (Rhodes and Wurlies), to clav and organ, with some variations on each. The 76-key version clocks in at about two grand. I can live with a 76-key piano (I know, blasphemy). I really don’t use the top or bottom couple of keys anyways. This keyboard also has really nice effects, including a Leslie speaker simulator (I’m not a Leslie snob – Leslie simulators sound just fine to me).

But, all that being said, there’s one reason that I really, really, really want this keyboard. It looked cool in a magazine review, so when I saw it in a mostly empty music store I decided to take it for a test drive. 45 minutes later I wasn’t sure how I was going to live without this instrument. I literally don’t remember the last time I was this inspired playing anything. In fact, most of the time I sit down behind keyboards in music stores I come away unimpressed, and definitely uninspired. I think mostly the manufactures are targeting a different audience than I represent – except Korg, that is.

4. Keyboard Controllers

Digital pianos are marked by two characteristics – a good piano sound, and fully weighted keys. This means that the feel of the keyboard mimics that of a piano – rather than the simple spring-loaded keys like one finds on an organ.

While this is fantastic for playing piano instruments, when playing other instruments, like organ or strings or solo sounds, it’s not optimal.

Another factor is control. Digital pianos frequently have volume and that’s it. No pitch bend, no modulation, no nothing. A good MIDI controller will have a plethora of associated buttons, knobs and sliders that can be used to control various parameters of the sound. A case in point is our entry level controller, the M-Audio Oxygen 49. At just over $150 dollars it’s a steal! In fact, I would have one of these except one of my requirements at time of purchase was a two-octave keyboard so I could carry it along with a laptop for remote composing. I picked up an Oxygen8 to fulfill the requirement.

At the Well-Equipped level I have an interesting selection. Several years ago the soft-synth company Arturia released a product call the Analog Factory which includes patches from many of the Arturia classic emulations. Here is a track by my good friend Will that uses the Analog Factory to great effect.

Several years later Arturia expanded the Analog Factory by adding a small controller keyboard that integrates seamlessly with the  software. More recently they added to that line with a more advanced keyboard and called it Analog Experience – the Laboratory, and that is what I have chosen here.

The keyboard has 49 keys with velocity and aftertouch, 13 rotary encoders, 9 sliders, 22 switches, 4 touch-sensitive pads, 1 modulation wheel, and 1 pitch bend wheel. Loads of control that can be used for any softsynth, but integrate seamlessly with the Analog Factory software. I’m looking forward to trying this one out.

At the dream level I’m turning toward the original, the classic, Moog! This is the man and company that championed the synthesizer in popular music. (There were some others who very influential, including Don Buchla and Tom Oberheim.)  The only difficulty is choosing which model – there are two primary lines they sell, the Minimoog Voyager and the Little Phatty. The Voyager is an advanced recreation of their classic the Minimoog, but it sells for a whopping three grand! That makes it about the most expensive piece of kit in the entire studio. Killer sounds, though.

The other main Moog option is their much more reasonably priced Little Phatty. The main differences between the two are in the interface and build, and the Voyager has an extra oscillator. Interface: the Voyager has a one-knob per function design that makes designing and tweaking sounds a breeze; the Phatty has several multi-function knobs with buttons to indicate what parameter is being edited. The Voyager also has a higher build quality, but it’s hard to tell whether that would be worth twice the price. Maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to have enough cash that I’ll have to make this decision…

5. Other Controllers

There are a few other controllers that I think are worth mentioning. The two main categories are wind controllers and percussion controllers. Wind controllers are played like a clarinet or soprano saxophone (with alternate fingerings available for flute or recorder). There are two primary competitors in the wind controller camp: the Akai EWI (pronounced Ee-Wee) and the Yamaha WX-5.

The EWI comes in two flavors: the high-end 4000s and the entry level EWI USB. The 4000s is the only wind controller that comes with an onboard synth – all the other models on the market must be connected via MIDI to a synthesizer.

The WX-5 is the model that I bought. There are two main differences between the two brands: on the Yamaha the buttons move like on a saxophone and you can blow all the way through it (i.e. the air can escape at the bottom). On the Akai, the air is stopped (most players will release the air out the sides of their mouths) and instead of keys it has electro-resistive contacts that don’t move.

Percussion controllers have pads that can be played with sticks or hands. They have been around a long time from the Roland OctaPad to modern digital drum kits. I have to admit limited knowledge of these products, but I imagine I will have plenty of opportunity to learn since I have a budding drummer in the family.

Next time: Mixers and Audio Interfaces.

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