Valley WAC 2017 Keyboard Session notes

By TJ Cornish, February 2017


  • Roles of the keyboard
    • Chords, bass, rhythm, melody, lead, fill
    • Can do everything, which can be a detriment.  Need to ensure that you’re not over-playing.
    • What else is going on?
      • If it’s just you, go nuts.
      • If there’s an acoustic guitar player sawing away, be careful about aggressive chord playing.
      • With bass, watch left hand.
  • Analyze the song
    • Map out the basic structure – verses, chorus, interlude, bridge, etc.
    • What are the phrases in the song – i.e.4 chord pattern repeats twice each verse, different pattern repeats twice during the chorus.
    • How does the song evolve – dynamics, intensity, parts coming and going?
    • What are the signature licks?
    • Where is the keyboard not playing?
  • Creating your version
    • BE DELIBERATE IN YOUR PLAYING!!!
      • Don’t meander.  Variations on a theme are OK, but make sure you have a plan.
    • Learn the signature licks exactly.  Not every note in the song needs to be the same, but keyboard lead lines are very distinctive, and can be the difference between a great copy and a poor one. E.g. 10,000 Reasons, This Is Amazing Grace
    • Distill a complicated studio version into a live version – think roles and signature licks rather than trying to duplicate every tiny sound. E.g. an electric guitar or violin could cover a keys part
    • Put the time in to learn your instrument both technically and sonically.  Know how to audition sounds and recall them for playback, and spend time dialing through the sounds on the keyboard to know what you have.  Don’t be afraid!!
  • Voicing and inversions
    • Musicians are lazy. Things that sound natural to us tend to be easy to play – typical chord voicings used are the ones that require the fewest fingers to move, or the shortest distance to move.
    • Inverting a chord can have a significant effect on the sound of a chord – highest note is often dominant
  • Pads
    • Acts like glue to hold a song together
    • Try to move the fewest number of fingers between chord changes
    • Avoid “3” of the chord.  
    • Simple pads are most useful; more complicated or edgier sounds can be faded in to add intensity
    • “Brass” pads – sound like a mellow horn section, are very easy to listen to and fit with almost anything.
    • “String” pads – sounds like a string ensemble, are busier sounding and better for adding intensity or only playing sometimes
  • Hammond-style organ
    • “Drawbars” are used to create different sounds, and can be changed while holding notes down, creating very dynamic sounds (not every keyboard supports this; Korg Kronos, Nords, a few others do; the rest usually have sounds that are fixed snapshots of drawbar settings)
    • Was designed in the 1920’s to approximate the sound of a pipe organ at a much lower cost
    • Can range from very mellow and pad-like to very aggressive sounding
    • “Leslie” speaker – a speaker cabinet where the speaker drivers rotate, spraying sound around the room.  
    • “Slow” setting adds a chorus effect that adds depth and dimension; “Fast” setting sounds like a rich vibrato.  
    • Transition from slow to fast ramps up and down which adds interest even during the transition.
    • Speed control is usually implemented on a modern keyboard using the modulation wheel, tapping a joystick, or a button
  • Splits and layers
    • Most keyboards have the ability to play multiple sounds at the same time.  This is usually done in “Performance” mode or “Combi” mode, which is separate from the single sound mode, often called “Program”.
    • A split limits the range of keys that trigger a sound.  I.e. you could have a pad on the lower half of the keyboard and a piano sound on the upper half.
      • Useful when you need to play different sounds at different times
    • Layering overlaps two or more sounds on the same keys, so every key played sounds multiple sounds. 
      • Useful when you want to fade between sounds or put a pad sound behind a keyboard sound.
      • Ideally each layer element has its own physical volume control on the keyboard.  Sliders are easier to use than knobs, as you can move several sliders at the same time, but knobs are functional, too.
      • Be careful to not do too much; keyboards have limits to the number of notes (polyphony) they can simultaneously play, and in a layered setup each key pressed uses up multiple “notes”.  If the keyboard runs out of available polyphony, the sound can cut out as the keyboard steals the oldest notes to reuse for new notes.
  • Volume and tonality
    • It can be hard to judge what you sound like while on stage.  Ask your sound person if what you’re sending them is working.  Are you sending too much low end? How are the relative levels of your different sounds?
    • The general tendency is to play loud parts too loudly and quiet parts too quietly.
    • Be careful with your left hand.  It’s easy to overwhelm the room with too much low end, which makes the mix muddy and indistinct and gets in the way of the bass player.
    • Edit your sounds so they are the same relative volume and save them that way so you don’t have to keep track of wildly-varying knob positions.  YOU MUST DO THIS!!!
© TJ Cornish 2017