Arranger Keyboards As Studio Tools?!?

I understand why you almost turned the page: I say “arranger keyboard,” and you think “guy at the Holiday Inn doing a cover version of ‘You Light Up My Life’ by pressing a few buttons on the keyboard and singing over it.” And you’d be right . . . but you’d also be wrong.
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I understand why you almost turned the page: I say “arranger keyboard,” and you think “guy at the Holiday Inn doing a cover version of ‘You Light Up My Life’ by pressing a few buttons on the keyboard and singing over it.” And you’d be right . . . but you’d also be wrong.

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Arranger keyboards, like the Korg PA series, Yamaha’s Tyros keyboards, Roland’s GW-8, and the like have evolved over the years by offering high quality sounds, more humanized sequencing, and a host of other features. Let’s see why this matters to you.

Your Music Production Library

A virtually untapped arranger keyboard application is supplementing or even replacing music libraries. When doing audio-for-video work, you’ll often need a few minutes of appropriate background music behind a scene; with the ability to turn out just about anything from bossa nova to heavy metal, an arranger keyboard can produce an instrumental “bed” within minutes. As typical “construction kit” sample libraries cost around $100, it doesn’t take too many of them to equal the cost of a decent arranger keyboard— which can be more flexible, too.

However, even though the musicality of these keyboards has improved dramatically, you don’t want to sound like that Holiday Inn guy. This is where EQ readers have a huge advantage: Record a few overdubs with “real” musicians (e.g., some tasty hand percussion, piano, or guitar), and the sound belies the arranger-based origins. Although this takes a bit more effort compared to just pushing a preset button for a particular style and recording the results, you’ll save much time compared to recording from scratch.

Of course, you needn’t use arranger keyboards solely to make full productions. If you’re writing a song, you can set up the chord progression on your arranger and play along with a complete rhythm section instead of just a metronome click. You don’t have to keep the scratch track—but if you want to, keep reading.

Turning Demos Into Productions

For songwriting, arranger keyboards are like having a robo-partner who can churn out phrase after phrase until you hear something you like. In fact, you might actually end up wanting to use the demo track.

For example, suppose you’re noodling around on your arranger, and come up with a great basis for a rock tune . . . but you want to replace some of the arranger’s sounds. Many arrangers let you save an arrangement as a Standard MIDI File, which you can then import into your DAW. If there are arranger sounds you like, fine—direct some tracks via your MIDI out to the arranger, and record the audio back into your DAW. Meanwhile, you can send the other MIDI tracks to a multi-timbral virtual instrument in your DAW for bigger ’n’ better sounds.

Or you may not want to replace sounds, but do more sophisticated mixing or processing than the arranger allows. Fortunately, some arrangers can save songs to CD. If you can solo a sound, or mute (or turn the volume down on) all sounds except one, you can save each sound as a separate file to the CD. You can then import each file into your host, line up the beginnings (they should all start at the same time if you saved from the beginning to the end of the song), then process, mix, automate, and overdub as desired.

If there’s no option to save audio to some type of transportable media, you can instead solo an individual track, send it to the arranger’s audio output, and record the output into your host. Repeat for each track until the data you need lives in your host program.

Lining up the recorded tracks may be a problem. But as your arranger will probably have some kind of count-in or intro, if you record that at the head of the track, then you can simply line up the metronome clicks for each track until they’re in sync. Another possibility is that if the host’s MIDI out patches to the arranger’s MIDI in, a start command from the host will cause the arranger to start playing. Simply go back to the beginning of the host’s sequence each time, solo a track, record it, go back, record the next track, and so on—and the sounds will be in sync with the host, too.

Time is Money, They Say . . .

And a good arranger keyboard can save you time, whether it’s by generating tracks that kick off a song idea, provide complete music beds for audio-for-video, or generate patterns you can use in your own productions. And of course, when the session’s over, you can always pack it up, plug in at the Holiday Inn, and do a bitchin’ cover version of “You Light Up My Life.”

Or on second thought, maybe you should just keep it in the studio.