5 Things I've Learned About Crafting Better Studio Keyboard Parts

December 30, 2014

I’ve been a producer, keyboardist and programmer for over 30 years. My concept is rooted in two applications of playing and recording: First, accompanying a vocal and second, arrangement and orchestration. The first I learned from listening to artists like Bill Evans, Elton John, Jackson Browne, and Chuck Leavell. The second is the most ever-evolving part of what I do as a keyboardist, and one that takes some very non-traditional forms with current music. Still, early on I learned “part-oriented” keyboard orchestration from friends like producers David Kahne and Michael Omartian—two masters of the art. Here are five things I’ve learned about crafting studio keyboard parts that I hope will serve you as well as they have me.

1. Simplify Your Voicings

The classic singer-songwriter piano style that worked so well on songs like Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” in the 1970s seldom works in today’s pop music. Younger pop artists are all about economy of playing and never letting an accompaniment part poke out. (For evidence, listen to Mikky Ekko on the Rihanna hit “Stay” or my production of “Poison and Wine” by the Civil Wars). What’s “in” today are simple and clean chord voicings with not one stray note in them. This might feel like tying one hand behind your back, but it’s all about what captures the emotion of the song. 

2. Know Your Genres

The perception of appropriate high- and low-end frequencies is something that changes with the times. Programmed pop keyboard parts have never been as full-range as they are now (e.g., deep and wide sub-bass and tinkly bells), yet switch genres and you’ll find a whole new set of freedoms and restrictions. For example, current Americana music is all about a warm mid-range of largely improvisational playing using the basic keyboard food groups (Hammond B-3, acoustic piano, Wurly, accordion), and the parts can’t be too thought out or repetitive. Study all the genres you’re interested in and familiarize yourself with their current conventions.

3. Use Your Imagination

It’s difficult for me to imagine creating keyboard parts without customizing them through analog and digital treatment. For example, I may play an entire acoustic piano part and use the attacks of chorus downbeats to trigger infinite reverbs that I then create pads out of. Going one step further, I may gate the pad and use a percussion or acoustic guitar part as a key trigger to create a rhythmic part. 

4. Skill Matters

Despite the democratization of the recording and creation process, technique and skill still matter—a lot. For example, over the last five years almost every record I’ve produced has been “off the DAW grid” with no quantizing. I’m far from perfect, but I’m glad that time, groove, and execution are keyboard values I was taught. I remain a huge advocate of music education and believe the fundamentals still give me an edge today over players that only play with quantization in mind.

5. Listen First, Play Later

You know the saying, “To a musician with a keyboard everything looks like a chance to overdub a hundred parts?” Don’t be that guy. Successful, meaningful keyboard parts are always about context. Listening is everything. Always hear before you play and don’t be afraid to not play. Just because you have some wonderful vintage keyboards and tons of software synths doesn’t mean you have to use them all. Think like an artist first and a keyboardist second. It’s much better to listen, hear, and execute, say, one highly musical sine wave with a Memory Man delay part in the bridge, than to muck up an otherwise lovely track.

Nashville-based producer and keyboardist Charlie Peacock has been at the forefront of the “New Nashville” sound, producing acts like the Civil Wars, Holly Williams, the Lone Bellow, and Chris Cornell’s “Misery Chain” from the 12 Years a Slave film soundtrack. He also recently co-composed and produced the title theme for the AMC drama Turn. Find out more at charliepeacock.com.

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