6 Simple Ways to Enhance Your Keyboard and Synth Tracks

If you’re a recording musician and frequent visitor to Reverb, you’ve hopefully gobbled up tons of great articles full of useful and tips and tricks for getting the most bang for your rock 'n’ roll buck when tracking guitars and drums in your home recording studio. These sonic sources are the meat-and-potatoes of a majority of rock records and, as such, they get lots of love and educational attention.

But sometimes all of that focus on capturing the high-SPL stuff can leave us scratching our heads when trying to make our beloved line-level gear – digital pianos, keyboards, synths, and related electronic gadgetry – sound as huge and as “three-dimensional” as those mic-captured sources. Let’s fix that.

Here are just a few quick and relatively accessible tricks you can use in your studio to infuse a little more life into those often sterile sounds you get when plugging keyboards straight into your board or DAW.

Double It Up

Sure, there are potentially a lot more moving pieces to ten fingers worth of Wurly than there are to a monophonic vocal line or power chord guitar, but that doesn’t mean that recording doubles of your keyboard tracks won’t yield some really interesting results.

Especially if your signal is mono, try recording another pass of the same part and spreading the two across the stereo field, perhaps adding the slightest delay to the second part for some added depth.

Warning: the busier the keyboard part, the less chaotic and cluttered your results are likely to be if the double is a fairly faithful doubling of the initial track.


Vary the Voicing

Sometimes a heavy organ pad or giant poly-synth stack sounds enormous out of context but gets lost once in the mix. To make a part pop, the solution can be as simple as changing the voicing.

If you’re chording, put the 3rd or the 5th on the bottom instead of the tonic note. Or try eliminating the 3rd or the 5th altogether and adding a 6th or a 7th or a 9th instead. Or try a different octave all-together.

If you’re playing a melody line that’s the same as a guitar lead or vocal line, switch up the register. Or improvise a slightly more contrapuntal (contrasting) line to create more separation. You get the idea – just mix it up.

Meet the New Sound – Different Than the Old Sound

Sometimes an organ just sounds... well... kinda like an organ. Just ask any old genius like Brian Wilson. But an organ part doubled-up on vibes and marimba with a pizzicato cello reinforcing the bass notes all fed through an Echoplex and bounced-down to a single mono track? That’s something else entirely.

If you’re unhappy with the color palate of the traditional keyboard sounds currently at your disposal, get creative and start layering sounds and textures together. From there, use the old school technique of sub-mixing (bouncing to one track) or the liberal application of compression, echo, and other effects on a dedicated Keys Buss or auxiliary-send to help “fuse” the sounds together into a single whole. Or keep ‘em all separate, and manipulate them independently.

Deploy those Guitar Amps

Who ever said you can’t push your keyboards, hard and soft-synths, drum machines, and samplers through guitar and bass amps?

Depending on the source, you may have to do some fine-tuning to get the signal levels where you want them. But once you get everything dialed in gain-wise, blast those uninspiring, preset-sounding loops and samples into your live room and record the results with your go-to amp mics or favorite room mics.

Heck, I’ve even done this with a digital baby grand piano when the occasion called for it. Odds are that your studio is already fairly set-up to try this trick, so why not experiment with amps a bit?

Transformers Galore

If you’ve got a direct box with some tubes and transformers on hand, like the A-Designs Audio REDDI or Radial Firefly, try pushing your keys through that instead of going straight into your board/DAW. These particular units and similar tube boxes actually provide a healthy line-level output so you can skip the mic preamp on the back end and go straight into a line input. A cleaner, more standard direct box like a Radial JDI can offer a slight touch of transformer tone, but will really come to life when paired with a colorful mic preamp on the output.

As with the guitar amp tip listed above, this trick will add a nice little bit of natural compression to the signal being tracked, and – depending on how you gain-stage – will allow you to add anything from “a little warmth” to “over-the-top fuzz” to that cold, sterile patch you’ve never liked.

Outside of the Box Boxes

The use (and, more often, the creative abuse) of “guitar-oriented” effects gear still gets sadly overlooked in the keyboard world. And that’s a shame as plugging your Korg string pad or Nord Electro Rhodes patch through a few of the stompboxes you’ve likely already got lying around is one of the quickest ways to take your sound from stale to stellar.

In my most recent band, I almost never played Rhodes patches without kicking on a DD-3 delay for slap and Blues Driver for color. And unlike some very elaborate guitar chains, there’s usually no need to get too fancy or complicated when pairing keys with pedals.

I’ll never forget how excited I was at 15 years old when I first hooked up a single, humble Boss DS-1 Distortion to a cheap ‘80s Casio’s (fairly crappy) “upright piano” patch out of sheer desperation. Soon, all my music geek friends were asking what the heck I’d done to get that “rad keytar” sound.

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