by Jon Regen
“I wanted it to go somewhere new,” reflects Alicia Keys about her hit album
The Element of Freedom, just minutes before bringing 20,000 hungry fans at
Newark, New Jersey’s, Prudential Centre to their feet. “I was listening to a lot of
different music, which is what I tend to do before I start an album. It was about
saying, “What am I feeling? And what feels good to me?”
What feels good to Alicia Keys is almost always a barometer of what listeners
gravitate to as well. In the decade since she broke out with her 12-times platinum,
and five-time Grammy Award-winning debut Songs in A Minor, the prodigious
pianist, singer, songwriter, actress, humanitarian—and now virtual instrument
entrepreneur—has sold over 30,000,000 albums worldwide. Make no mistake,
though—Keys is a fiercely devoted musician at her core, ready at a moment’s
notice to talk shop around a piano about her latest recorded discoveries, keyboard
acquisitions, and musical influences. On The Element of Freedom, Keys’ immediately
recognizable, piano-centric, R&B-meets-pop panache is bathed in a retro
glow. Supple vocals meet analog filter sweeps, and Motown-worthy melodies are
updated with dirty, MPC-like drum grooves. It’s a re-imagining of the soul sound
that has made her one of the most acclaimed artists of the last decade.
Full story after the break
One of the most amazing things
about The Element of Freedom
is what’s not on it. Is it true that
you didn’t use a real piano, that
all the acoustic piano sounds
came from your Alicia’s Keys virtual
Believe it or not! That sound is so
incredible. Basically, we miked up
my piano, a Yamaha C3 Neo, in
my studio. We were able to sample
the exact sound of my piano
that I love so much, and really get
all the dynamics of the way it
feels; the soft pedal, the reverberation
when I hold it, the sound
when I hit it extremely hard,
when I hit it soft. . . . It was done
in such an incredible fashion that
now I don’t have to mic my piano
every time. Obviously, as you
know, miking a piano, it depends
on the tone you’re going for, and
sometimes you do a great job, but
sometimes you’re like, “Uh?”
Sometimes it takes 30 minutes,
sometimes all afternoon. So to be able to turn it on and have it be just
like I want it? [Smiles.]
If you’re a guitar or sax player, you can take your instrument with
you every night. But I find that even if I have the same piano, the hall
or the sound system changes, and I always feel a little bit behind the
8-ball. Do you feel better playing Alicia’s Keys for that reason?
Oh, yeah. Especially on stage, because I tried a lot of different keyboards,
and they were okay. But to have the sound that I love? I’m really glad we
got to do it.
Was the impetus to create Alicia’s Keys the fact that you wanted to
take the sound of your home piano with you?
Yeah, that’s where it began. Definitely. To take my sound with me,
wherever I went. On the road, or while I’m working in the studio, because
you go to different studios and that’s a whole other thing. Sometimes,
a given studio’s piano sounds great, sometimes it doesn’t. Also, for people
who might not have access to an acoustic piano, they can have the
sound of an acoustic piano.
If you’re using Alicia’s Keys on the whole record, you get many different
sounds out of it. There are times when it sounds like a Yamaha
CP70 electric grand, and times when it sounds like a full Yamaha S6
or C7 concert grand. There’s a lot of range there.
If you hear a CP70, it’s because we did use a real CP70 on the record. But
the sound of Alicia’s Keys does have a lot of range to it. We’ll even put effects
on it, you know? We’ll put guitar pedals on it, and it will sound totally crazy.
So you have that freedom to do many things.
The Element of Freedom is an amazing marriage of old and new sounds.
Sometimes an artist will go for an older, retro sound, and it sounds
forced. But this record sounds seamless. Talk a little bit about your conception
for the album’s sound design.
At the beginning of making this record, I really wanted to explore some
interesting combinations of sound and style. Take the Police—I listen to
them a lot. Obviously, they have that kind of ska vibe to them, but then
they definitely still have a soulful thing, but then they still have a pop sensibility
in terms of where the chord changes and melodies go. So I love that.
Second, I was really into Genesis, because
I just loved the darkness of it, and the way they
experimented with drum machines, but also
with live drums, and how they crossed between
the two. Some songs start out really dark, like
“Mama,” but then the choruses would just open
up. I really wanted to understand what that
Third, I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac.
That was because one of my closest friends
invited me to see them for her birthday. At
first, I was like, “Sure.” [Rolls her eyes.] Everybody
was singing along to every word, and
I was the only one who didn’t know the
words. I felt a little embarrassed. But it was
cool, because it opened me up to a whole
other sound, and drum style, and group. Of
course I knew their big songs—everybody does.
But to go deeper in, like the Tusk album . . .
that was the one that I really went back and
So, those were the kinds of things I was listening
to, and I did start concentrating a lot on
the songwriting style, and that influenced the
chords I would use, and the way I wanted the
choruses to be. It was about just opening up the
flow. I knew I wanted to experiment, and plus,
I was in my studio collecting tons of keyboards.
My engineer, Ann Mincieli, is a collection addict.
So, she’d be like, “I saw this new. . . .”
A little eBay action?
Yes! She gets on eBay and says, “Oh, I saw this
Roland Jupiter-8 you’d think is crazy. You should
check it out.” That was really fly, because I knew
I was searching for a new sound. So I was able to
experiment a lot with Moogs, and different oscillator-
based keyboards, and in terms of the creative
flow, it was just fun.
And then there’s a kind of Roland TR-808
drum vibe as well. It seems like there was an
amazing willingness to say, “Hey, let’s see
what this sounds like!”
Oh my gosh—it’s so much fun. I think I was
just able to bring what we started with [2007
album] As I Am to the next level. On As I
Am, I’d say we definitely did more with electric
pianos—a lot of Wurly and Rhodes. We
even did harpsichords and things like that,
but we’d put crazy effects on them, just
to take it to a new place. Now, I kind of
pushed that to the next place, going into
more of the vintage keyboard, drum
You seem pretty fearless when it
comes to different keys. You’re
in Db on one song, then F on
the next, then G. Are you
deliberately starting songs in
That’s cool. Thank you. I’m not
so deliberate with that—I think I
kind of find my way into the key
more. Like with “That’s How
Strong My Love Is,” that started
in a different key. And then as I’m
singing it, and I’m flowing with
it, I go, “Hmm, hmm.” [Sings and
raises her pitch.] So I took it up a
half-step, and I’m like ‘What does
[another] half-step feel like?’ And then I’m like, “Hmm.” So a lot of times, the playing is about how it feels
when I’m singing.
So it may not end up where it started.
Usually it won’t end up where it started. Then, by
the time I’m on the road, and I’m doing 30-
something songs a night—then I’m like, “Why
did I write that song so high?” Because
[laughs], I beat myself up all the time, like,
“What were you thinking? All the way up
there? Come down!”
Are there some piano players that were instrumental
to you when you were learning to play
and coming up with your own concept?
Well, Nina Simone has always been a huge
influence on me, because I think she’s probably
one of the baddest piano players that ever
existed, period. Period, end of story! She could
play probably every dude under the table, in a
heartbeat. And I think she’s just special. She
has this mixture about her, between studying
classical, and jazz, and also the intensity that
she has about her—her life, and the very intense
era she lived in, which makes her writing style
very deep. So I love her a lot.
I listen to Herbie Hancock. He’s incredible,
and a very special guy too. He’s been in the business
for so long, and he just loves it. He loves it purely, and it’s such a beautiful thing to see someone
love it like that. He was also generous enough
to play my plug-in and test it out. He had some
great comments, and he loved it, too!
Growing up, I really admired Brian McKnight’s
piano playing, too. Because I think that he just has
something in him as well, and I love the way his
melodies and piano playing were so beautiful.
Donny Hathaway. Like, major, zone, stone-cold,
Of course, there’s Stevie Wonder, because
we can’t even leave him out. It doesn’t even make
sense—the chords he plays! Nobody plays chords
like he plays them, so you probably might as
well just not try!
Anthony Miller (left) and Onree Gill (right)
“I’ve been Alicia’s musical director since
the beginning,” says Onree Gill. “I started
with her in 2000, and have worked with
her ever since.” Keys, Gill, and Anthony
Miller hold keyboard court behind three
“Alicia’s playing a Yamaha C2 grand
piano with MIDI. The C2 drives the Alicia’s
Keys virtual piano, which she loves The
engineer mikes the C2 as well, and decides
each night how much of each signal to use in
the house. Alicia also plays a Suzuki
Omnichord and a separate synth rack with
a Yamaha Motif ES6 and Minimoog
Voyager. She makes sure to have a digital
piano backstage to warm up—usually a
Yamaha PF85.” Alicia's Keys runs on a pair of maxed-out Muse Research Receptor 2 units (one is a redundant backup) with solid-state storage drives.
Anthony Miller plays a Yamaha Motif
XS7 and XS8, along with a B-3 organ
chopped by L.A. supertech Ken Rich. Gill
also has a Motif XS7 and XS8 onstage.
Says Gill, “I can bring up different sounds on
different Motif faders: a piano here, some strings there. It’s perfect for what I do.” Gill
runs some drum and sample tracks on a Roland VS-2480 hard disk recorder. “I
sequence in Pro Tools and Logic, then I transfer everything to the 2480. It’s rock
solid for the road.”
The Element of Freedom features
Keys’ personal acoustic grand, the
Yamaha C3 Neo—but in sampled
form for her new signature virtual
piano plug-in, Alicia’s Keys. “All the
acoustic piano sounds on the album
are from Alicia’s Keys,” she says.
“The sound is just incredible.”
Featuring nearly 3,000 samples in
12 velocity layers, Alicia’s Keys captures
the sinewy piano sound that
helped rocket Keys to worldwide
THE ELEMENT OF GEAR
Ann Mincieli on recording Alicia Keys’ new album
Alicia Keys’ engineer Ann Mincieli with (left to right) Oberheim OB-8 synth atop Yamaha CP70 electric grand piano, rare Hofner bass, and Fender Rhodes Piano Bass atop the rare ARP Electric Piano. Her left hand rests on a Gibson EH-150, one of the first guitar amps ever made.
The concept of every Alicia Keys album is to marry new sounds
with old ones. Alicia always wants to be retro-futuristic—she has
an amazing collection of gear, and lets me scour the earth looking
for new toys.
Between As I Am and The Element of Freedom, we designed her
signature Alicia’s Keys piano plug-in. We also built an incredible arsenal of drum samples. I hired
drummers, bought and rented drum kits, and spent days sampling
and mapping in NI Battery. I also roamed the world trading producers’
sounds. Almost every drum sample on The Element of Freedom
came from libraries we built and collected. Alicia has bought some
very exotic drum kits throughout the years; this time, we bought a
1970 Ludwig red sparkle drum kit, a 1960 Rogers exotic kick drum,
four toms, (including a 16" x 16" floor tom with beater), and 6" x 8"
We also purchased nine rare drum machines, which we sampled
via Pro Tools and 2" tape. These included a Linn LM-1 (serial
#25, made by Roger Linn himself), Roland TR-808, TR-909, CR-
78, and CR-8000, a LinnDrum 2, and an Oberheim DMX. You hear
a lot of these on the album, which includes programmed drums
over live ones. Alicia is an incredible producer who can program
drums better than anyone!
The Element of Freedom has a lot of synths: Prophets, Moogs,
Roland Junos, the Yamaha CP70 electric grand, and many others. We
also used a lot of vintage guitars and amps—everything from Carol
Kaye’s Versatone bass amp, to one of the first 1950s Hofner violin
basses. Alicia owns two from ’56 and ’57—Paul McCartney doesn’t
even have those!
Alicia owns her own facility, Oven Studios, and it’s like a candy
store of gear! I have about 80 of the most vintage guitar pedals,
40 of the rarest guitars, and a huge collection of guitar amps. We
use the amps and pedals on everything from guitar to keyboards
I’m already preparing for Alicia’s next album. I found an old Rheem
keyboard from 1967 that has a double-octave bass. I’m also making new
drum samples, and reworking her whole virtual synth rig. For the next
album, I’m going to take all of the gear we used on this one and hide it
away to push her to try new things!