Professional keyboardists Andrew Lipke and Marty Marquis talk about gear & their distinctly different approaches to performing and recording.
Whether you’re rocking out onstage or creating arrangements for symphony orchestras, keyboards are key—even when they’re models or samples coming from a virtual instrument.
We turned to two working keyboardists and asked them about the things to look for in a great digital piano or synth. The answers we got from each underscored the fact that modern keyboardists have many possible paths to choose from.
Our two experts’ relationship with piano is pretty different: one begged for lessons at the age of four while the other didn’t really start playing until a departing keyboardist in his successful band forced a switch from rhythm guitarist/occasional Melodica player to full-time keys.
Practice (and theory) make perfect
Philly-based arranger, producer, composer, performer, and educator Andrew Lipke tours regularly with Led Zeppelin tribute band Get The Led Out. He’s also produced records for dozens of artists and released five solo albums. Other credits include providing the Colorado Symphony Orchestra with arrangements for an Amos Lee show at Red Rocks Amphitheater.
Andrew began pleading for piano lessons around when he was enrolled in preschool, a development he now considers essential to his understanding of musical theory.
I'm very glad that was the first instrument on which I was introduced to music because of the amazing way in which music theory is laid out on the keyboard. When I'm working on an orchestration or arranging a project, I'm usually sitting at the piano and if I need to work out a particular theory problem away from the piano, I often find myself making chord or interval shapes with my hands.
To put it simply, the keyboard has been, and continues to be, one of the most useful tools for creating, understanding, and performing music ever created. In many ways MIDI controllers are just the modern day equivalent of pipe organ manuals that go back as far as the 3rd Century B.C.E.
By way of contrast, the piano was far from uppermost in the earliest musical musings of Marty Marquis, formerly rhythm guitarist and now keyboardist for the Portland-based experimental country/folk band Blitzen Trapper. The band’s LP Furr was ranked 13 in Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 2008 and its All Across This Land album was just released earlier this month.
I had a piano in the house growing up but aside from banging out "Chopsticks" now and then I never even touched it (I now regret this immensely). In high school I took a keyboard course and in college I had some theory but it wasn't until we started Blitzen Trapper that I really played keys, and for many years this was limited to lead lines or counterpoint on [a] Melodica or Casio—I mostly played rhythm guitar. So mostly it's been on-the-job training for me.
I've played guitar and written songs since I was a teenager but once I began learning keys I felt like I'd found my musical dharma. Not to mention that the keyboard has opened up endless vistas for me as a songwriter.
Both Lipke and Marquis are seasoned stage performers, and both have favorites when it comes to traditional keyboards. Lipke, however, has recently traded in his trusty Korg Triton and Alesis Quadrasynth in favor of Apple’s MainStage sampling software, designed for use in live performance.
MainStage is my primary tool for getting the sounds I need when performing with Get The Led Out. Essentially, I have two MIDI controllers that I connect to a MacBook Air using a Mark of The Unicorn [MOTU] MIDI interface. The actual sounds are created within MainStage and then converted into audio signals using the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Thunderbolt interface.
The great thing about using MainStage is the flexibility I have to use my experience as an engineer and producer to get as close as I possibly can to the actual sounds used on the iconic Led Zeppelin records, without having to bring a tractor trailer's worth of equipment!
For example, one of the plug-ins I use has painstakingly sampled the actual tape-banks from the famous—perhaps infamous is a better word—Mellotron, used by so many classic groups from the ‘70s.
In contrast, Marquis still favors the hands-on keyboard experience.
My rig for Blitzen Trapper is a 73 key Korg SV-1, a Moog Sub Phatty, and a rackmount Yamaha Motif. We're a classic rock band and the SV-1 provides meat and potatoes tones for much of what we do: piano, Wurly, organ, tape-based strings. And I like the fully weighted key bed because I can rock out without worrying about brushing a key and accidentally triggering a bad note.
The 73-key Korg SV-1 is one of Marty Marquis’ preferred keyboards when playing with Blitzen Trapper.
The Sub Phatty is a wonderful synth for leads, noise, etc, and also has a ‘classic’ sound that works well with the style of music we play. I also use it as a controller for the Motif, which provides polyphonic synth tones and other sounds, such as when I need to play chords with my right hand on the SV-1 simultaneous with a left-handed string accompaniment.
My secret weapon is the now-discontinued Moog MP-201, a Swiss army knife of a controller pedal. I route MIDI through it from the Sub Phatty to the Motif and use two of its four programmable control channels to cross-fade between the two synths with its expression pedal functionality.
Big sound, but smaller size
Each also has advice for newbies shopping for their first keyboard, keeping both aesthetics and practicality in mind. Lipke, for example, offers a reminder that sound quality, ultimately, is what it’s all about.
Unless you're looking for a specific physical playing experience—weighted keys, waterfall keys, full-size keys, half-size keys, etc.—what really matters is what’s producing the sounds the keys are triggering. The keyboard itself is just a mechanism for controlling whatever machine is producing the sound.
That being said, I've heard nothing but great things about the sounds produced from Nord keyboards. Although I'm super satisfied with MainStage for what I do and thrilled I made the switch to a computer-based setup.
And Marquis, keeping practicality in mind, suggests that 88 keys might be overkill in certain situations—especially on stage.
Unless you're classically trained you probably don't need an 88-key rig. Playing in a rock group the bassist ought to able to hold down the low end and a full-size keyboard takes up a lot of real estate on a typical club stage. If you're going to be lugging it around much weight should also be a consideration--my Korg weighs a lot but ‘semi-weighted’ keyboards are much lighter.
We've picked up a lot of little Casios over the years at thrift stores; highly recommended as a starter keyboard. Also, getting to know MIDI and using foot controllers—whether it’s just a volume pedal or a more versatile device—will allow you to do a lot of fun hands-free tricks.
Whether you’re the kind of player who likes to bang the keys like Jerry Lee Lewis or do your rocking on a MacBook Pro, one thing’s clear: keyboard players are still an essential element of bringing music to life. They just have more ways than ever to do it on stage.