The Beginner's Guide To Classic Keys

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Long before the arrival of digital audio workstations, before computers, before MIDI, we had keys. Pre-dating recorded music; pianos were among the most popular instruments dating all the way back to the early 18th century. That’s where our story begins…

Okay, not really.

But in order to understand keys (and synthesizers) in modern music production, you need to have a solid understanding of their foundations. While the piano continues to be the oldest and most recognizable keys instrument all over the world, do you know what other types of keys find their way into hundreds of songs each year?

There are musical staples for each genre that are either recorded live or synthesized, and they each come with their own sonic characteristics that add to your overall mix. Today, we’re skipping the history lesson and diving right into the classic keys every engineer and producer should be familiar with.

The Piano

A standard, grand piano – the stock preset in every key-based stock virtual instrument thrown at music creators diving into a new DAW for the first time. The default sounds canned; sampled to the point it sounds dull and lifeless.

At the same time, we know not to discard a piano right away. With a little bit of reverb and delay, any canned piano sample can spring into new life, with new surroundings.

Pianos find their way into countless Top 40 hits each year, providing an anchor to full orchestrations and quiet ballads alike. They’ve given artists like Billy Joel and Elton John a foundation to build entire legacies on.

The old standard isn’t outdated, and it most certainly is still the standard for all key-based production.

The Organ

Pipe organs pre-date modern pianos by more than a dozen centuries, so I can understand any hesitations about our movement toward modern keys… Rest assured, we’re still moving forward in time.

While traditional pipe organs have all but died out in recent years, their prevalence in modern music has done nothing but grow. Though some symphonic metal bands use the organ as a staple instrument and others use it for transitions between songs, there is a much larger use for one of the world’s oldest instruments in a much more compact environment.

The Hammond organ, while expensive, is one of the most commonly used key-based instruments in every decade since the beginning of recorded music. The organ with the most impact, Hammond’s B-3, is frequently paired with a rotating Leslie speaker, creating a distinct, whirring sound that can be both haunting and exciting.

After a standard grand piano, the B-3 is probably the most commonly emulated type of keys in virtual instruments today. The B-3 can find a home in most modern rock, country & reggae music, and is commonly associated with many classic rock acts from the 60’s and 70’s.

Electric Pianos

Rounding out our old-school-meets-new-school crowd are the electric pianos. The two most common ones are the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. While the two have very similar tonal qualities and characteristics, a discerning ear can often differentiate between the two, and more importantly, select the right sound for their production when the time comes.

Fender Rhodes

The Fender Rhodes has a warmer, slightly duller tone than a Wurlitzer, due mainly to the different tone generation it uses. A Rhodes piano creates sound by striking a metal tine with a hammer, where the vibration is then picked up by a pickup (just like in a Fender guitar). The resulting sound is a clear ringing, like a bell.

The Fender Rhodes is frequently sampled for virtual instrument packs, though some variation is to be expected due to differences in the Rhodes’ onboard preamp. Ground-up emulations are also available that do a remarkably accurate job at mimicking an original Fender Rhodes.

Wurlitzer

The Wurlitzer shares a lot of similarities to the Rhodes, not the least of which are the extensive samples and emulations that have been made for digital musicians over the years. Instead of chime-y metal tines, the Wurlitzer gets its tone using weighted reeds, which give them a punchier tone than the Rhodes.

Several reeds are attached to a bar that resonates and is transferred to a single, shared pickup (unlike the Rhodes).

Modern Synthesis

And then there is the rest…

By no means is this an exhaustive list. There are hundreds of different keyboards, synthesizers and virtual instruments out there to experiments with and learn if you have the time and effort.

Modern production techniques are available to anyone with a basic understanding of how synthesizers work.

If you’ve got a grasp on that, you’ll be able to create any sound you can think of. How’s that for unlimited creative potential?

The biggest reason these “classics” have withstood the test of time isn’t because of their flexibility though. All things considered, a piano is almost always going to sound like a piano; an organ will sound like an organ, and so on down the list.

The reason they’re all still relevant in music production discussions today is because of their ability to blend in – to sit well with other elements of the mix. Your songs need to sound cohesive and together, and if a classic set of keys can make that happen, you should use them.

If you do find your modern synth stands out from the rest of the song a bit too much, all hope is not lost. With the right mixer and the right tools, anything can be massaged into the right place for a song to work.

Keep It All Together

Don’t forget that your keys need to work as a single element of your mix, just like a drum kit or a wall of guitars. By bussing your keys down to a single subgroup and using a compressor like BG-Keys, you should be able to catch any stray transients and achieve a sound that’s easy to fit into your mix.

Interested in learning what other producers and engineers are using for keys in their productions? Come join the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook to find out.

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