Key Issues: Crafting Unique Rhodes Sounds

The Rhodes. From Steely Dan to the Pussycat Dolls, this beauty always delivers a hot sound. Every sample library has to have a Rhodes sample or two, and almost every hardware synth includes Rhodes sounds, as well. But while Rhodes samples can capture a wonderful essence of this classic electric piano, real Rhodes are individual instruments that—like guitars and horns—can sound very different depending upon the artist who plays one. So how do you capture unique Rhodes sounds—even if you’re using a software emulation? Well, following the rule that there are no rules is a nice way to start. Then, you should be open to letting your ears and imagination guide you. To help you get started, here are some real-world Rhodes situations I dealt with recently that might trigger some sonic ideas of your own.
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Amped Up

A session player opted to get his sound by plugging his Rhodes into a Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp. His signal path was a ’70s Rhodes 73 suitcase model with the output routed to a MuTron Bi-Phase, a Boss DM-3 Analog Delay, a volume pedal, a wah pedal, and the Twin. This was a great sound, and I wasn’t about to mess with it. So I captured the Twin as if it were a guitar amp, while also listening to any changes in dynamics or tones the player made as he played the song. I positioned a Royer R-121 ribbon mic to the left side of the Twin’s right speaker—four inches from the grille—tilting it inward towards the center as if it were tipping its hat to say, “Top of the morning to ya.” Then, I centered a Shure SM57 dynamic on the Twin’s left speaker. Finally, I added a Studio Projects C4 small-diaphragm condenser (with hypercardioid capsule) to the right speaker, compressing it hard, and padding it 20dB with the mic’s pad. The blend of the mic trio provided options for everything from a relatively organic sound with a little snap (when favoring the ribbon), to a somewhat in-your-face tone with aggressive mids (favoring the dynamic), to a slightly gritty and overdriven-type sound with a lot of density (favoring the condenser). Any of these perspectives used solo, or blended together in most any configuration, yielded a Rhodes sound that was slightly out-of-the-ordinary, and even a tad otherworldly. Options are good!

Tweaking the Standard Issue

The other player on the above session liked using the Rhodes’ stock speaker cabinet. To impart some new attitude into this “traditional” setup, I wanted to get a full-spectrum sound—meaning deep lows, punchy mids, and airy highs—with some room tone in the mix to animate the stereo perspective. I put a Røde K2 large-diaphragm tube condenser on each of the cabinet’s two speakers at distances of about nine inches each. Each mic was set to its cardioid pattern. The bass seemed pretty fat with the mics positioned this way, although I anticipated a little more boom from the wood floor. It seemed as if the weight of the Rhodes itself deadened the resonance of the wood—and therefore the low end—a bit. In any case, I was still able to document a classic Rhodes and cabinet sound with some warm bass tones and a touch of room ambience—which added just enough vibe to twist the part out of a relatively conventional “dry” (or close-miked) Rhodes tone.

The Soft/Hard Approach

Another session player liked to go the software mixed with hardware route. He triggered his Rhodes sound from a DXi Lounge Lizard EP-1 plug-in running on a laptop, and then routed the signal to a Motion Sound rotating speaker, a Traynor guitar amp, and wah, volume, distortion, and delay pedals. The player was going for a freewheeling, club-style pop-rock sound that involved different tones coming in and out of the mix. I liked how he used volume swells, distorted the Rhodes and then ran the sound into the rotating speaker, and spiked things up with the wah. I wanted a real wide sound when he hit the rotating speaker, so although the Motion Sound unit has direct outputs, I opted to position two Røde NT3 small-diaphragm condensers on each side of the cabinet to document the sound of the speaker swirling in a room. The dry sound of the direct outs would have robbed the listener of some nice dimension and room reflections. To capture midrange grit and boom from the Traynor, I put a Shure SM57 centered on the speaker cap, and an Audix i5 off-axis at about 45 degrees. The i5 picks up a bit more low end than the SM57, so the two mics delivered a thick, but punchy spread that blended well with the Motion Sound track. Again, having sonic options allowed me to craft a blended tone that not only sounded more like a “real” Rhodes, but also matched the vibe of the performance better. As the player utilized effects and dynamics to enhance the song, for example, I could choose which sound, or blend of sounds, best suited the performance. This approach also helped hone in on the individuality of the player, and that’s always a good move when you’re trying to catch a listener’s ear, and the performer is delivering the goods.