Analog-style keyboard synths offer intuitive, hands-on control over vital sound-shaping parameters that you can use to orchestrate your tone as you play (see Figure 1). Because one of the roles of a keyboardist is to accompany other musicians, having immediate access to each characteristic of your patch lets you modify the sound to support a soloist better. This article focuses on five classic techniques that you can use to add interest in your comping patterns in addition to rhythmic and harmonic variation.
Fig. 1: A modern analog polysynth, such as the Dave Smith Instruments OB-6, makes it easy and intuitive to tweak the sound of your patch as you’re comping behind a soloist. We’ve pointed out the controls described in this article—the Loudness Envelope’s attack and release knobs, filter cutoff (Frequency on this synth), and the octave button (Transpose). Begin with a basic synth patch (such as a saw wave) as you work through these examples. A certain amount of coordination is required when executing these techniques, where one hand is on the keys while the other turns a knob. Depending on how the controls are laid out on your synth, you may want to alternate hands; switch back and forth to determine which way of playing feels the most natural.
1. Basic Comping Pattern
Ex. 1 illustrates the basic chord progression and comping pattern we will build on.
2. Highpass and Lowpass Filter Sweeps
A gradual filter sweep is one of the most commonly used effects on a synth. The crescendo marking in Ex. 2 demonstrates where you would manually change a filter’s frequency cutoff to alter the timbre of your patch and build excitement or tension behind a soloist. Start with the cutoff knob all the way down and slowly open the filter through all four bars of the pattern. If you use a lowpass filter, your patch will sound muted at the beginning and brighten as the filter opens. Using a highpass filter, lower frequencies will be gradually revealed as you turn the cutoff knob. An audio example of both types of filter sweeps is available online.
3. Alter the Attack
In Ex. 3, each chord is sustained throughout the bar. By manipulating the envelope generator’s Attack control on your synth, you can adjust the amount of time it takes for the notes to fade in. Alter this parameter as you play to match the volume swells to the tempo or chord changes of a song.
I’ve changed the comping style to a single-note pattern in Ex. 4 to demonstrate how you can use the Release knob of an envelope generator to gradually shorten the sustain of the notes. Starting with the release knob turned up so that the notes ring out, gradually shorten the release time at the beginning of each bar so that the tone gets progressively more staccato sounding.
5. The Octave Button
An Octave button allows you to instantly transpose the keyboard up or down one or two octaves. Ex. 5 shows the octave switch being used in the second half of each phrase. Octave displacement can sound very exciting if you use it in an unpredictable and random way, especially at faster tempos. When practicing, start slow and focus on keeping the comping rhythm in the pocket.
Listen and Support When playing behind a soloist, consider the entire arc of the solo and pay attention to where he or she is taking the music emotionally. Rather than simply laying down the changes, alter your patch’s tone and color to aid the soloist in building up and releasing tension, throughout. But don’t be too sporadic about your patch changes: Choose one and build on it carefully. And think of these techniques the same way you would think about harmony, melody, and rhythm— as just another avenue of musical expression.
Listening List—Modern Synth Comping
Jason Lindner on Donny McCaslin’s Fast Future and Beyond Now
Big Yuki (Yuki Harano) on Greek Fire