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  • Arranger Keyboards as Studio Tools? Are You Nuts?

    By Anderton |

    Arranger Keyboards as Studio Tools? Are You Nuts?

    You might be surprised at what you can  do with modern arranger keyboards


    by Craig Anderton




    I understand why you almost hit the back button on your browser: When I say “arranger keyboard,” you think “guy at the Holiday Inn doing a cover version of ‘You Light Up My Life’ by pressing a few buttons on the keyboard and singing over it.” And you’d be right…but you’d also be wrong. (You would also be lucky if you didn’t know the song to which I’m referring.)


    Arranger keyboards, like the Korg Pa series (Fig. 1), Yamaha’s PSR-series keyboards, Casio’s WK series (Fig. 2), and the like have evolved over the years by offering high quality sounds, more humanized sequencing, and a host of other features. Let’s see why this matters to you.



    Fig. 1: Korg’s Pa4X76 is a high-end arranger with over 500 styles, including some updated favorites from previous Korg arrangers. It also includes vocal processing from TC-Helicon, processing from Waves, a 7" touch display, and can save custom styles and setings.



    Fig. 2: Casio’s WK-7600 has 260 styles; however you can edit these or create your own 8-track rhythms with drums, percussion, bass, and five chord patterns, which you can save to the 100 available memory slots. There’s also a 17-track sequencer for recording. The street price is under $450.




    A virtually untapped arranger keyboard application is as a replacement for music libraries. When doing audio-for-video work, you’ll often need a few minutes of appropriate background music behind a scene; with the ability to turn out just about anything from bossa nova to heavy metal, an arranger keyboard can produce an instrumental “bed” within minutes. Given the cost of typical “construction kit” sample libraries, it doesn’t take too many of them to equal the cost of a decent arranger keyboard—which can be more flexible, too.


    However, even though the musicality of these keyboards has improved dramatically, you don’t want to sound like that Holiday Inn guy. This is where, as a musician, you have a huge advantage: Record a few overdubs with “real” musicians (e.g., some tasty hand percussion, piano, or guitar), and the overall sound belies the arranger-based origins. Although this takes a bit more effort compared to just pushing a preset button for a particular style and recording the results, you’ll save much time compared to recording from scratch.


    Of course, you needn’t use arranger keyboards solely to make full productions. If you’re writing a song, you can set up the chord progression on your arranger and play along with a complete rhythm section instead of just a metronome click. You don’t have to keep the scratch track—but if you want to, keep reading.




    For songwriting, arranger keyboards are like having a robo-partner who can churn out phrase after phrase until you hear something you like. In fact, you might actually end up wanting to use the demo track.


    As an example, suppose you’re noodling around on your arranger, and come up with a great basis for a rock tune . . . but you want to replace some of the arranger’s sounds. Many arrangers let you save an arrangement as a Standard MIDI File, which you can then import into your DAW. If there are arranger sounds you like, that’s fine too—direct some tracks via your MIDI out to the arranger, and record the audio back into your DAW. Meanwhile, you can send the other MIDI tracks to a multi-timbral virtual instrument in your DAW for bigger ’n’ better sounds.


    Or you may not want to replace sounds, but do more sophisticated mixing or processing than the arranger allows. Fortunately, some arrangers can save songs to a storage medium (e.g., USB thumb drive). If you can solo a sound, or mute (or turn the volume down on) all sounds except one, you can save each sound as a separate file. Your next step would be to import each file into your host, line up the beginnings (they should all start at the same time if you saved from the beginning to the end of the song), then process, mix, automate, and overdub as desired.


    If there’s no option to save audio to some type of transportable media, you can instead solo an individual track, send it to the arranger’s audio output, and record the output into your host. Repeat for each track until the data you need lives in your host program.


    Lining up the recorded tracks may be a problem. But as your arranger will probably have some kind of count-in or intro, if you record that at the head of the track, then you can simply line up the metronome clicks for each track until they’re in sync. Another possibility is that if the host’s MIDI out patches to the arranger’s MIDI in, a start command from the host will cause the arranger to start playing. Simply go back to the beginning of the host’s sequence each time, solo a track, record it, go back, record the next track, and so on—and the sounds will be in sync with the host, too.




    And a good arranger keyboard can save you time, whether it’s by generating tracks that kick off a song idea, provide complete music beds for audio-for-video, or generate patterns you can use in your own productions. And of course, when the session’s over, you can always pack up your arranging keyboard, plug in at the Holiday Inn, and do a fabulous cover version of “You Light Up My Life.”


    Or on second thought, maybe you should just keep it in the studio.  -HC-





     Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.


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    Hi Craig,

    I recently bought a Korg "Liverpool" arranger keyboard as a Stupid Deal of The Day, $150 from MF. It was just for fun. It turns out to be more sophisticated than I expected, except for the mini keys. It is fun to be able to play and sing along with 100 Beatle songs. However, I may actually try to use it for composition now that I have read this article. Thanks for the insight.

    Kenny BegunSSS member

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