There is no more maligned and misunderstood cat egory of keyboards than arrangers. It is certainly a cultural divide: In Europe, the UK, and across the Arab world, an arranger keyboard is the professional performance instrument, used with pride and to great effect. Here in the U.S. the category is mostly looked down upon, and the sight of onboard speakers or a button labeled Ballroom often sets off jokes and sneers. This is a real shame, as the category has grown significantly since the early days of ’80s-era Casio and Yamaha portables. Today’s top-end arrangers offer stunning accompaniment and very advanced voice architectures, and they offer the player more sophisticated sound nuances than their workstation counterparts. So we’re staging a clash of the titans, the top offerings from Korg and Yamaha, to see what they offer the gigging musician.
Are You the Customer? Think Again!
First, let me share some perspective. The core customer for these products is a performing musician who plays solo, or perhaps in a duo. They are the typical one-man-band types and require an instrument that can play most of the parts for them; support their singing with onboard effects, vocal harmony, and lyric display; and provide both MIDI and/or audio song playback. They are more concerned with playing their songs and putting on a good show than sound editing and technical complexity. So these products are designed with that in mind.
Here in the U.S., many gigging musicians play in similar circumstances. If you play solo in a bar or restaurant, as a duo with a singer or horn player, or three pieces without a drummer, you should be checking these instruments out. Their drum accompaniment will give you more flexibility and musical realism than a stand-alone drum machine or the unvarying drum patterns your workstation offers.
When supporting a singer, I use the drums and play left-hand bass. At times I will turn on the accompaniment so I can take a solo using a non-keyboard sound or get more realistic guitar strumming, or for rock-and dance-oriented tunes. A little goes a long way; I often mute some parts so the “band” is not so overpowering. It provides more variety than a whole night of just voice and solo piano, and it’s not as “canned” as using backing tracks, since I can still vary song structures and interact with the other musicians. Do I bring it to my full-band gigs and jazz dates? Nope, I have other gear, but my arranger is the right choice for a lot of work I do.
Do you write songs? An arranger is the perfect tool for working out ideas when you are focused on melody, words, chords, and basic song structure. You can take advantage of their full “bandin-waiting” to hear your ideas right away, and make fast changes to a chord or musical style/feel without have to completely re-record MIDI parts in a DAW. Think of it this way: There is a time when you are focused on writing the song itself, and an arranger excels at that (as opposed to a sequencer, which presents you with empty tracks you have to create yourself). Do I have your attention now? Onward.