By Rob Taube
These days any music making software has a ton of different keyboard sounds pre-loaded, with a bunch of options available for arranging and altering them. While it’s fun to surf around and try stuff randomly, some historical context of what these sounds are and where they come from can be both grounding and inspiring. Let’s take a look at some of the top stars in this field:
The Wurlitzer, or “wurly” for short, is one of the most popular and yet most taken-for-granted of keyboard sounds in popular music. Listen to the opening bars of Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine” or Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World” to hear it handled with funk and verve, or to the more gentle layering on Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why.” It has a soft sound that sort of distorts when hit hard, and is often used with a light tremolo (volume vibrato effect) that came on the original analog instrument.
Nowadays we usually access the wurly through our software or a keyboard instrument that can call up many other sounds. Make sure your wurly is not overdistorted or too trebly, unless this is a specific effect you are going for. Sometimes the wurly sounds great through a “leslie” or rotary speaker effect (see “Hammond Organ”), listen to the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” to hear this done amazingly well.
I’d say you should play the wurly sparsely, try hitting long individual low notes hard for accents, and weave it in and out of your other parts. Avoid extreme highs and lows unless you are really inspired to do so. Remember I’m just generalizing about the rules; giving you someplace to get started. It’s up to you to follow or break them according to your artistic conscience.
Hammond B3 Organ
Much of modern popular music is drenched, soaked, and marinated in the gorgeous, swirling, soulful, celestial sound of this classic instrument, first introduced in the late 1930’s. From Booker T. and the MG’s doing “Hang ‘Em High” to Stevie Winwood’s beautiful “Once You See A Chance” to Alicia Keyes’ “Superwoman” to country songs like Montgomery Gentry’s “I Believe,” the Hammond sound can add depth and character to almost any track.
Part of the remarkable sound of the Hammond is the “leslie” rotary speaker effect, which once was generated by an actual spinning speaker in a really heavy wooden cabinet. Some B3 players had two or more of these monsters and a crew of roadies standing by to lift them when needed. Now we can get the same sound out of our software or light synthesizers, but we must make sure to use the slow/fast control of the leslie just right. Good players toggle between slow and fast constantly, using the fast to add drama and crescendo to rising parts of the song. On a long outro chord or musical denouement, it often sounds great to let the leslie slow down to bring the song to a close.
A Hammond or a good simulator (try the Nord series of keyboards, or dedicated software that has Hammond graphics) can also approximate the drawbars on the original instrument, which bring in different overtones and add incredible flexibility to the sound. There is also a “percussion” feature which can add punch to individual notes—very nice.
Don’t play too many notes in your Hammond chords, instead let the richness of the tone fill the sonic spectrum up. Try sliding up and sliding down the keyboard, use a volume pedal, experiment. Learn from the masters, have fun!
Originally invented to approximate a guitar sound, the clavinet (or “clav” to pro players) quickly became a funky instrument in its own right largely due to the influence of Stevie Wonder, who created entire musical landscapes with his Hohner D6 clavinet on his early albums. Sometimes his clav sounds like a fingerpicked guitar (“Happier Than the Morning Sun”), sometimes like a funk guitar (“Superstition”) and sometimes like something entirely unique and intriguing (“Maybe Your Baby”). In the 70’s it was a staple of the disco scene, on songs like “Get Down Tonight” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and “December 1963” by the Four Seasons. Michael Jackson used a clavinet on “Shake Your Body,” one of his mid-period hits.
The clav is played two-handed, with the hands tapping out notes and chords in alternating rhythms with the motion of a drummer or dulcimer player. In this way the back-and-forth motion of a strummed or “scratched” guitar can be duplicated.
Try using the clav with a “wah” effect, which can be accessed automatically or with an actual pedal depending on your software or keyboard setup. Experiment with different tones, filters and octaves. A modern hit could easily benefit from the sound of this classic instrument.
The Rhodes was first used by Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock as a jazz-rock instrument, but it found its way into pop through Stevie Wonder (“You Are The Sunshine of my Life”) and such bands as Styx (“Babe”), where it was used to add a sugary sparkle to tracks. This gradually morphed into a more generic “electric piano” sound that was soon digitized by Yamaha and others and that wound up on 90’s tracks like “From A Distance” by Bette Midler and “Save the Best For Last” by Vanessa Williams. Pop electric piano is a sweet sound that is not always the most ironic or funkiest thing to add to a track, but it can really bring out tender moments or help reinforce acoustic piano lines.
Try playing lots of 6ths on your Rhodes sound, use a stereo panning effect (that ping-pongs between your stereo speakers) and some chorus, delay, reverb or flanging. Use the texture that best blends with your overall track.
Keyboard string sounds have been around since the Moody Blues did “Knights in White Satin” in 1969, and have gone through many changes as technology sought to duplicate the sound of dozens of violins, violas and cellos playing in a concert hall. Nowadays all software and standalone keyboards have killer string sounds that can be blended into any track.
Hint: arrange your strings like a real orchestra, with moving single parts and two or three part harmonies, rather than just playing chords on them like an organ or piano. Listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles for a perfect example as to how this can be done.
Analog Synth Sounds
Stevie Wonder was known for the best bass synthesizer ever (check out the exuberant funk of “Boogie on Reggae Woman”), and bass was an important use for classic synths like the Arp 2600 and the Mini Moog. But loads of other sounds are found on timeless records: a beautiful soft horn-like Moog on “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles and proud gliding sound on Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Lucky Man.” Lady Gaga and Rhianna have been more recently using analog synth sounds on their records like “Just Dance” and “Umbrella,” and these are probably generated with software synthesizers (or “soft synths”) hooked up to a digital audio workstation. There is so much flexibility in these instruments that I can only tell you to listen for them and play around with them in your sound bank to get ideas as to how they can create different musical characters to fill our your tracks.