5 Keyboard and Effects Combinations Worth Exploring

Keyboards and synthesizers (both hard and soft) are more plentiful than they've ever been. Whether you're an independent songwriter and DIY producer/engineer, it's never been easier to start spicing up your recordings and mixes with pianos, organs, pads, bass lines, and leadlines that sound plenty impressive right out of the box.

All too often, however, "out of the box" is exactly where things get a little sticky when it comes to making magic in the studio with these wondrous toys. Sure, all of the presets and stock sounds on these gadgets sound pretty legit. But, often, it's a struggle to take them from "legit" to "truly unique."

Particularly for the hobbyist who possesses only rudimentary knowledge of how to tweak the parameters of a given instrument or patch, the limitations of being a non-keyboardist can be a frustrating barrier when it comes to making these instruments truly come alive in an otherwise-great recording.

Luckily, one great shortcut to keyboard tweak-ability and creativity likely already exists in a source you may be overlooking—even as you trip over it while walking across the studio floor. Yup, I'm talking about pedals.

Yes, it's a little unconventional (and you have to be a little conscientious when mixing line-level and instrument-level signals), but with a little patience, you can often achieve some magical results just by transforming your preset keys sounds with effects boxes. Here's five of the simplest and most effective ways to get started.

Electric Piano & Delay

When it comes to adding some distinctive color to a good vintage pop track, an electric piano such as Rhodes or Wurlitzer is a great option. While these instruments are wonderful in their true analog form, many fantastic emulations—such as a Nord Electro keyboard or Waves' Electric 88 Piano plugin—can get you 99% of the way there. Sometimes, though, the direct signal from these patches can still sound a little thin and lifeless as a dry signal.

For a little more character and dimensionality, try adding an analog delay like an MXR Carbon Copy or a basic digital delay like a Boss DD-3. [Need help in running VSTs out through pedals? Find our "How to Use Effects Pedals as Outboard Gear" video.] You can adjust the delay time to achieve either a short slapback, or a long, psychedelic tail, depending on the vibe and tempo of your song. Or you can add more chaos by tweaking the feedback knob, even creating some truly unique-sounding sustained drones this way if you're so inclined). I find that the added "smear" and "wetness" always make a DI'd Rhodes signal come alive in a mix.

Easy-to-Use Delays

Digital Synth String Pads & Delay

Whether you're creating ethereal ambient swells for an IDM track or adding heft to a soaring pop-rock chorus, warm, luscious polyphonic string pads are an awesome trick of the trade, particularly on digital synths like the Korg MS2000 or Yamaha DX7.

However, that "warmth" and "lusciousness" can be a little elusive. A fantastic workaround for this problem is to introduce a little bit of analog attitude to your digital pad sounds by strapping an analog delay (my all-time favorite workhorse here is the EHX Memory Man) or any rich digital delay unit.

Because the signal level from your synth is, by default, "hotter" than that which a guitar pedal is expecting, it's pretty easy to oversaturate an analog pedal. For a truly syrupy string sound with a nice decay, turn the blend to 100% wet, keep the delay time very short, and dial in a good amount of feedback. (For a positively huge, wide-screen stereo effect, record separate doubles of your faux-analog string pads and pan them hard across the field.)

Delays for Digital Synths

Monosynth Bass & Fuzz

How often have you found yourself using a killer monosynth (like a Korg MS-20 or Moog's Voyager plugin) to record a bassline... only to find that, in the context of your song's whole mix, the sound is fluffy, muddy, or simply not cutting through the mix enough? Believe it or not, the answer could lie in a fuzz box.

Not only does putting an abrasive little firecracker like a Big Muff or Fuzz Factory in the chain cause synth bass to take on a fiercer midrange character more akin to an amplified electric bass guitar, but these pedals' intense compression will also level-out the more resonant notes, reducing unwanted boominess and making the bass easier to fit into your mix in general.

If you want to retain a little bit of the synth bass' massive low-end, try splitting the signal and adding the fuzzed-out sound on top of the dry signal. (Be conscientious though with those settings: A little fuzz goes a very long way.)

Fuzzes for Bass Synths

Piano & OD/Distortion

Even without access to a "proper" baby grand or upright in your home studio or practice space, adding the majestic clang and percussive heft of a piano to your mix with a virtual sample library like the AIR MiniGrand or hardware instrument like a Nord Stage is as simple as picking out which chords to play. But what if you're working on an aggressive blues rock or experimental indie track and the "classic" piano sounds are just way too clean and one-dimensional? When this happens, don't be afraid to reach for your humble distortion pedal.

It might sound blasphemous at first, but adding an extremely basic pedal like the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver or DS-1 Distortion to your chain with the distortion/drive turned up about ¼ to ⅓ of the way will basically turn your piano into a brand new instrument. This trick is especially effective for leads, solos, and heavy-fingered riffs where you want the piano to sound like it's basically tearing the mic pre apart at the seams; but it also works nicely for blocking in left-hand chords that you want to "chug" like an electric guitar (just be careful with how dense your chords are, as all those harmonics will add up quickly).

Distortions and Overdrives

Leads & Octave/Harmonics Pedals

Adding a simple square wave or saw wave to the top of your hip-hop, rock, or electronic track during an intro, outro, or solo—maybe with a bit of portamento and some sweepy modulation—is a classic move. Unfortunately, sometimes it can also end up sounding like a pretty stale and predictable one. But before you give up on your Moog Little Phatty, Arturia MiniBrute, or Roland SH-101 plugin, consider overhauling that ubiquitous synth lead with some wild octave and harmonics effects from your guitar pedal arsenal.

On the snazzier end of the spectrum, EHX's POG or HOG pedals are amazing tools for this kind of job, allowing you to fatten, mangle, and re-imagine the sound of that original tone all kinds of original ways — but I've had loads of fun running synthesizers through a simple DigiTech Whammy or Boss PS-5 Super Shifter for some real-time pitch control and dive-bombing effects too.

If you want the melody to remain relatively coherent, it's a good idea to stick with doubling up and/or down the octave or adding the harmonic fifth; but if color and character are more important to your song than pitch, the sky's basically the limit with these pedals.

Octaves and Pitch-Shifters

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