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Struck by a Chord: Keyboardists Sound Off

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There are countless options available for someone in the market for a keyboard. Size, weight, style, features, ports, price, and effects are all important considerations in a new keyboard, and there are many options in each category. Where do you start? What should the priority be?

We talked to eight professional keyboardists about their inspirations and experiences, and got advice on the music industry in general and keyboard shopping specifically. Their time-tested insights will help you find your perfect keyboard among hundreds of worthy instruments, and inspire you to use it to carve out a name for yourself in the music industry.

What Are You Looking For?

Andy Oliver

Andy Oliver is a songwriter, composer, and performing artist. He got his start on a Hammond electric organ at the age of six.

My real inspiration to play was my grandmother, she had an old Hammond drawbar organ that she would let me play when I was visiting her, and I was hooked from the first whirl of the Leslie speaker. We shared many days playing old Motown tunes and film themes.

Oliver cites the two proudest moments of his career as the album he released with the UK music label, Steetley, The Moment She Fell, and his latest film score for Celluloid.

It was a milestone for me to record with one of my musical heroes [Steetley bandmate Jeremy Spencer], and the fact he saw something in my music that made him want to work with me is surreal but very rewarding. I am equally proud of my last film score as it was a real departure from my usual style.

When it comes to shopping for keyboards, Oliver emphasizes the importance of function. There are a lot of options on the market, so it’s important to decide how you will primarily be using your keyboard before you buy.

I record a lot in my home studio so I have several keyboards. I have a Korg, as it has a good string section, and a Nord for the feel of the weighted keys and piano sounds. I also have a few simple, two-octave MIDI triggers that use the bank of sounds in Logic Pro X.

If you are looking for one that has the feel of a piano, there are countless great brands out there. Nord has a great portable keyboard now that has the feel of a piano and doesn't pack the weight. A piano is not very practical when playing the top floor of a club with no elevator. Sustain can really put emotion into your tracks, so look for one that has pedals attached or a separate input for sustain.

If you are recording at home, MIDI capability is a must. I use pads an awful lot as it helps add to the sound I have created, this is where I prefer non-weighted keys to make sure I register notes without having to hammer on. You can get a pretty decent MIDI trigger for a reasonable price now.

Although playing live means you are playing whatever the band wants, it’s still pretty important that you play something you enjoy. I bought my Korg for this reason, and it’s the one that I take all over.

Will you be more often playing gigs or recording in the basement? Before you start shopping, make sure you know what it is you’re shopping for.

Play to Your Unique Style

Tiempo Libre

Jorge Gomez is the pianist and Musical Director for three-time Grammy-nominated Cuban music group, Tiempo Libre. Gomez founded the group in 2001, and has produced all of their albums, three of which have been nominated for Grammy’s. His father was a classically-trained Cuban pianist, who inspired Jorge to start playing at the age of five.

For the past 37 years I have played classical music, Spanish rock, jazz and timba, among other styles of music. At first it was my father, Jorge Gomez Labrana, who inspired me to play. Later, I also drew inspiration from great musicians like Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Chick Corea, Michael Camilo, Papo Lucas, and Herbie Hancock.

When asked about the highlight of his career, Gomez turns back to his instrument.

I have learned so much about my instrument. Earlier in my career, I only played the keyboard. Now I use my keyboard to produce tracks, arrangements, and sequences. I really enjoy searching out all the possibilities of sound, patterns and effects I can put out into the world.

Jorge Gomez

Gomez plays a Yamaha Motif, and is practical about shopping for a keyboard.

First, will it do what you want? Since I perform Cuban music, I need the drums, congas, piano, bass and brass sounds to be as authentic as possible.

Also, make sure it has the capacity to amplify the polyphony that you need to have, so that nothing gets cut when there are many sounds playing at the same time.

Finally the price, of course, and the size and the weight. In my case, as a touring musician, the lighter and smaller the better!

In addition to what you need the keyboard to do, consider how you want the keyboard to do it. Your musical style will have a big impact on which keyboard works best for you. Once you find it, take the time to really learn everything it can do.

It’s All About the Music

Shmuli Rosenberg is the owner of SkyLine Music, NYC, and has been playing keyboard professionally - in the studio and on stage - for over a decade.

I have been playing keyboard since I was nine years old, making it 22 years. I was inspired to play in summer camp. Songwriting was a big part of activities, and I was always drawn to that. I thought, “Hey, I can do that too.”

Rosenberg has worked with musicians, corporate clients, TV/Radio producers and more.

My proudest moment was hearing the version of the Kars4Kids jingle I produced playing on the radio. I did the remix. Hearing my work, and my keyboard and organ playing, on the radio, especially to benefit such a great charity, was amazing.

There is a lot of technology in the music industry, especially when it comes to keyboards, but Rosenberg’s advice to aspiring musicians is to stick with the basics.

Stay focused on the art of making music. Develop strong technical skills, and most of all - practice! It is easy to get caught up in the web of technology. Music is not about the latest and greatest toys and gadgets, it’s about expression and style. If you stay true to the art and create good music, someone will find you.

When it comes to buying a keyboard, he agrees that where and what you are going to play will be major factors.

When choosing a keyboard, it depends on whether or not you are looking for something to play live or in the studio. It also depends on what genre of music you are playing.

When playing live, if you are playing piano, electric piano and other classic instrument sounds, then feel is the most important. Todays keyboards, for the most part, have pretty good sounds. The feel is what allows you to play each sounds as expressively as possible. If you will be switching sounds often, having easy access to your sounds and easy preset storage is crucial. For more experimental players, feature like Roland's D Beam are important, because they allow you to manipulate the sound on the fly.

In the studio, the quality of the sounds become more important. Quality of the hardware and low noise floor are important. Also, MIDI capabilities, and being able to save presets and recall them are very important if changes need to be made at a later time.

With so many options available on keyboards, it’s hard to over-stress the need for some pre-shopping planning. Will you be playing this instrument primarily in a studio or a live setting, and what kind of sound are you looking for?

Prioritize Your Wish List

Alexander Danieli of The Sixth Ocean

Alexander Danieli is the artist behind the solo act, The Sixth Ocean. After repeatedly sneaking into his sister’s room to play around on her keyboard, he started piano lessons at the age of five. He is at the start of a bright career, and his pride and joy is in his friends.

I'm most proud of the small, lovely group of fans that I have. It's nice to know that people are interested in my music and songwriting. I really couldn't ask for more.

Danieli plays a Yamaha P-95 Digital Piano, and values versatility in an instrument.

Overall, sound, the ability to use the keyboard in a variety of situations, and portability are all important in selecting a keyboard.

Above everything else, the keyboard needs to be dynamic. By that I mean that it needs to be able to do a wide variety of things. Ports for amps and MIDI support allow the keyboard to be used both on stage and in the studio.

The keyboard should also sound good out of the box. On the hardware side, hammer-weighted keys help the keyboard sound more natural, but these are expensive. If hammer-weighted pianos are out of the price range, there are pressure sensitive key options that are generally cheaper.

The only downside to my current setup is portability. My Yamaha is the length of a full piano, and, as such, it is both heavy and unwieldy to carry around.

Once you’ve determined what you will primarily use your keyboard for, and what features it needs based on your musical style, be prepared to prioritize and compromise a little if need be. You might find the perfect instrument that does it all, or you might sacrifice a little convenience for the sake of the right sound.

Compatibility Isn’t Just for Internet Dating

Jim Vacca of SPiN

Jim Vacca is the keyboardist for Philadelphia-based, modern pop band, SPiN. He started taking piano lessons in second grade.

My dad's band practiced at our house and listening to them - and his Beatles, Eagles, Steely Dan, and The Who records - is what drove me to become a musician.

When asked about the proudest moment of his career so far, Vacca quipped, “The fortune I’ve amassed.” He added “compatibility” to the list of qualities to look for in a keyboard, and recommends extra cables and cords.

I'm currently playing a Roland Fantom X6, though I'm looking to replace that soon. I also use a Muse Receptor, which I control with an Ovation Impulse. I also use the Ovation Impulse in my Pro Tools rig at home.

Functionality and compatibility are the most important aspects for me in a new keyboard. I need to make sure they work seamlessly with my live rig, and in the studio setup. Plus, obviously, they need to have great sounds.

For me, extra cables, MIDI cables, and power cords are important accessories to invest in. It's certainly not because of the drinking, but I tend to misplace or leave these items at shows. It always helps to have a backup.

If you’re upgrading your keyboard, or adding a new one to an existing band or studio, make sure the plugs, programs and style are all going to work together.

You’re Not Sponsored Yet: Price Tags Matter

Pete Cannarozi

Pete Cannarozi is the organist for the New Jersey Devils, and pianist and conductor for Valerie Simpson.

I started playing the organ in church at the age of 11, and was gigging by age 12. My inspiration at that time were organists Jimmy Smith and Eddie Layton. When I moved on to piano in my teenage years, Keith Jarret, Herbie Hancock, Keith Emerson, Chick Corea and Greg Rollie became very influential.

Two career highlights have taught him the importance of always being prepared, and of wearing many hats as a music industry professional.

I played my first live performance on stage with Ashford and Simpson in Baltimore with no rehearsal, and got offered the job after the show.

My second big moment was playing the organ at the Continental Arena in East Rutherford for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Devils beat the Anaheim Ducks 3-0 in that game to win the Cup in June 2003.

Cannarozi would applaud your current pre-purchase research. When asked about shopping for a keyboard, he replied,

What kind of keyboard player are you? Pianist? Organist? Synthesist? All of the above? Choose the keyboard that best fits your craft. Do extensive research, and get multiple price quotes before purchasing.

Finding a keyboard that suits your style is important, but make sure you’ve also figured out your budget. There is a wide range of price tags on keyboards, so make sure those numbers are part of your planning as well.

You and Your Keyboard Should BOTH Have This Feature

Henri Herbert of the Jim Jones Revue

Henri Herbert plays keyboards and co-writes music for The Jim Jones Revue. He cites the highlight of his career, so far, as performing on The Letterman Show in 2011, but it all started for Herbert about 20 years ago.

There was a Yamaha Clavinova in the house and I used to spend hours trying to play it. I stuck at it, and by the age of 14 I was playing reasonable boogie woogie. I had violin and piano lessons at school, but none of what I was being taught excited me like Jerry Lee Lewis. I was also very much into movies, and especially the film soundtracks by Ennio Morricone.

On starting out in the music industry, and purchasing a keyboard, he is equally succinct.

Keep healthy and keep an open mind. Be tenacious and persevere.

When buying a keyboard, consider sound quality and build quality. There are many good keyboards that suffer from poor quality casing, which falls apart on the road. The Roland RD700 series is very sturdy and roadworthy and also has great samples.

Durability is a feature that professional equipment and professional musicians both need to have.

Make Yourself Comfortable

Simone Giuliani

Simone Giuliani is a music producer, composer, arranger and keyboardist born in Florence, Italy and based in New York. He has worked with artists like Beyonce and Wu Tang Clan, and written original music for Spike Lee and Volkswagen, among many others.

I was about 12 years old when I received my first synth as a present, and that completely blew my mind. From that moment on I just knew that I wanted to be a professional musician. My great-grandmother was a huge influence on my musical path, although I never met her in the flesh. I heard a lot about her and read many articles about her from very old newspapers. She was a mandolin player performing in a traveling circus, and one of the first professional female performers in Europe in the 1880s.

Giuliani has met with a good deal of success in his career, which he calls, “a beautiful, wild ride,” and it has taught him the value of persistence and originality.

Be true to yourself and never, ever, ever give up. Let the music become your guiding force, not the latest trend. Put some time into your music everyday and experiment. Have fun! Music is a vast playground, and nobody can really tell you what you're best at until you try it for yourself. Don't copy others or pretend to be someone else. We want to hear your voice, not someone else's.

His keyboard setup is definitely original.

At the moment I'm using a master controller AKAI MPK88 with weighted keys, connected to my laptop, which is running a bunch of virtual instruments - mostly Kontakt 5 and Omnisphere. I also use a Fender Rhodes Mark I from 1973, a Moog Little Phatty and an iPad Mini running mostly Animoog and Orphion, which I control with an AKAI Synthstation on the side. I'm also looking to implement my setup with the incredible Seaboard by Roli. That's really an instrument from the future that opens up an endless amount of creative possibilities in both studio and live scenarios.

True to form, Giuliani emphasizes the importance of finding a keyboard that is just plain comfortable.

When you're about to buy a new instrument, make sure that you are comfortable with it. Try it out, and if you don't like it, send it back and try another one. It's a lot easier nowadays to find something that suits you. There are so many options, but what may work for one of your fellow musicians may not work for you.

Comfort should always be the final test. If your instrument doesn’t suit you, it doesn’t matter what it can or can’t do, because you’ll be less inclined to actually use it.

Your Turn

Whether you’re shopping for your first keyboard, or looking for an addition or upgrade, you have a lot of professional advice to get you started. Make sure you know what and where you will be playing, what your budget is, what your priorities and focus are, and what specific features - if any - you’re looking for. Once you’ve narrowed down your options, don’t overlook the importance of comfort. Your instrument should be an extension of your style and your art, so in addition to suiting your requirements, it should suit you.


Learn more about keyboards and pianos of all types with our Keyboard Buying Guide.

Tags: Keyboards

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