Tips and Tricks: The Keys to Great Piano/Keys Sounds

Welcome to our new 5 week series from the Tips and Tricks section. This category is all about peeking behind the curtain of what the pros do to bring their mix to the next level. This week we are going to talk about getting great Piano and Keys sounds and over the following 4 weeks we will discuss the dynamics of drums and effective gating, properly setting up guitars for wireless packs, getting the most out of your tracks inputs, and leveraging google to improve documentation and backup of your critical files. These are the topics you probably won’t hear many people talk about or see as the subject in breakouts at your local tech conferences but they are all things that if you don’t do well, will greatly impact your recording session and/or service.

As I just mentioned, this week is all about the piano and keys. We all know the battle here, feedback vs. tonality. Often by the time you’ve gotten that perfect sound from your piano with the perfect locations/combination of microphones, you then add in the band and it’s all messed up or causing all kinds of feedback with the PA at full volume. Why is that? Well to be fair, you did just put two condenser mics on a stage with a live drum set. Be something must be done. You have that piano out there for two probably reasons, the first and most common is just that your grand piano sounds better than your keyboard and brings a certain aesthetic to the stage that people like to see. Probably a lot better. The second is feedback and bleed. Whenever you mic up piano on a band stage with a drum set and full band, you are always fighting bleed from your PA and the drum set and that all brings feedback. Believe it or not there is a solution to be had, in fact, I’m going to propose two!

The first option involves making sure your have a great keyboard or if you can’t afford a new one, have spent a fair amount of time going through and picking the right settings on what you have and going out into your space with the keyboard and really dialing in the sound your PA gives it as well. Even cheap keyboards can be made to sound fairly good with some effort. If you do have a little money than I’d recommend one of two options. The first is to look for a Nord Stage keyboard. This is the keyboard you will see a lot of touring bands use. That is because it sounds amazing. The keys are perfectly weighted and feel like you are playing a real piano rather than just being spring loaded like most keyboard. If you can’t afford the full Nord Stage than they have a version that is just piano without the extra sounds and patched for pads or organ, it’s called the Nord Piano and is priced a bit more affordably. If that is still a bit steep for you check out Roland’s new Juno Keyboard. It’s keys are also weighted really well and this keyboard has been critically acclaimed by several recording artists. But I know what you are thinking, it looks like a keyboard. It doesn’t have that grand piano or upright piano look that I really like. Well, there is a solution for that as well.  A few years ago before we had really refined our keys setup at CCC we had a guest artist come in for our Christmas show and he needed a piano to play. We knew that we didn’t want to have a live mic’d baby grand on stage with the band but that we needed the piano to sound amazing. So, we took out the action of the piano (the keys, pedal system, basically everything but the strings) and slid in our Nord Stage in the hole we had just created. We then hid all the necessary cables by using the piano structure itself to hide everything. With that setup, we got the look of a baby grand on stage for Christmas with the lid open and shiny brass strings, with the clean and crisp sound of the Nord keyboard without any of the feedback or bleed issues we would usually have. For the first time we had our cake and ate it too! But it doesn’t take a baby grand piano to do this, most 88 key keyboards will fit within upright pianos as well.  At CCC, we had a volunteer who wanted to get rid of her family’s half-height upright simply because no one was playing it anymore so we took it, took the action out and slid in our Nord and voila, every weekend we have great keyboard sounds within the aesthetic feels of an upright piano shell. No microphones needed, just a pair of DIs for the outputs of the keyboard. This also works well in the studio for those music video shoots as well and larger band recordings where bleed can be a real issue but aesthetics matter.

The other option a lot of touring groups and churches alike are doing now is using a program called Mainstage. This is a keyboard software that is sort of like the dark horse of the apple software suite in that it never seems to get enough attention but a ton of people are using it. Mainstage is an awesome little $30 piece of software capable of so many things. It comes with a generic suite of sounds that are pretty good but where the good stuff comes in is the sounds you can add. The top three that we use are Native Instruments, Omnisphere, and Alicia’s Keys. Yes, you read that right. There is a patch for Mainstage that is the model of the keyboard that Alicia Keys uses not only for her album but also for her tours. If you pick up mainstage, buy an apple computer (or if you already have one), and pickup some good sounds, mainstage becomes basically the cost of a Nord Piano (potentially cheaper if you already have a mac to run it on). But remember the keyboard you get to work with mainstage is just as important. We used to to use an Akai keyboard that worked pretty well but after a few issues, we just switched to our Nord, which has midi connectivity, to just be the controller for us. All of our players prefer to use the keyboard on the Nord over everything else we’ve used in the past so it just worked out really well. We also wire in the main outputs up so we have a backup keyboard if Mainstage decides to just not work (haven’t had this happen yet but we are ready just in case). There is a definite learning curve here but with mainstage you can get Leslie B3 models, really nice and smooth electric pianos, pads, strings, or really anything you desire. I believe you can also make your own patches from recorded sounds. On top of that, all the sounds are of great quality and can be tweaked to work well in your space or desired sound. Mainstage is basically a plugin rack for your piano. When used wisely, it can be one of the best things you can do. You can also, for that extra cherry on top, can download and use the mainstage patches from bands like hillsong or elevation when you sing one of their songs to get the actual sounds they use.

Well that is it for this primer on great piano sounds. Be sure to comment below with the tricks you use to get that perfect piano sound in your mix. I love learning something new so please, feel free to email me as well at daniel@studiostagelive.com. As always, if you are new to the blog and would like to receive weekly updates or just when new content is released just follow this link, fill out the form real quick, and hit submit. See you next week!

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