File Under: what have I gotten myself into, synthesizer edition
November 9, 2018 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I've been asked to play a synth in an indie pop band. I grew up playing classical piano and am still competent with a keyboard, but I don't know how it works with being a keyboard player in a band (composed of guitar, bass, drums). I need ... a book or website? examples of bands I could listen to? Some kind of instruction or guidance.

They have not had a keyboard player in the past and are mostly looking for an additional instrument to bulk up the sound so I don't need to be fancy, but I'd like to be competent.

All their songs are originals and are relatively simple. I've been going through figuring out the keys, chords, and melodies - but like, what parts am I supposed to play? Should I play along with the singer, or just some chords? Mix it up? What? I am not good at improvisation, but I have a good sense of rhythm and can read music and have a good instinctive feel for music in general.

Are there any Mefite keyboard players who might have some tips or ideas of where to get started?
posted by something something to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Listen to The Rentals,
Friends of P and Waiting both will give you clues, audio and visual.

Also listen to Tame Impala, Tycho, maybe Black Moth Super Rainbow.

Definitely listen to Superorganism. They are infectious, up and coming, and driven almost entirely by synths, attitude, and a bucket of water.

For indie pop, you could go a lot of ways. You can play mono leads, riffs and intros, you can play spacey pads drenched in reverb, you can fire your bassist and take over that role. What do they want you to be, what do you like to do?

Also: what synth(s) will you be using. You play different things with a nice mono like a Moog, compared to a poly like a Prophet or Nord lead, which have more in common with a piano. Either can rely heavily on pitch bend, mod wheels, glides, and knob twiddling, which are all musical skills that you might not know anything about. While you don’t have to learn that stuff, it will pay off.

You should learn at least some basics of sound design. This series of articles is very good and comprehensive. It is freely available from Sound on Sound Magazine piecemeal, but the combined pdf can serve as a reference manual as well as lesson book.

Reddit’s /r/synthesizers is heavily moderated and can be a great resource. They are generally a nice bunch but if you ask low effort ‘help me I’m a newb who’s done no homework’ you won’t do as well as if you read and learn and ask what crafted, targeted questions.

I’m no pro but I do know a fair bit about the current lay of the land of synths. Happy to discuss further so feel free to memail me.
And —have fun :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:35 AM on November 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

Some tips on a more basic level -- if you are the synth in a band which has guitar/bass/drums (echoing some of what SaltySalticid already said):

• as a general rule, you don't want to play exactly along with the singer (if what you mean is just doubling the melody).

• if your guitarist is playing rhythm guitar, then you probably want to be playing riffs (some kind of little hook-y mini-melody.) Some kind of little melodic bits that interlock with what the singer is doing.

• in general, you want to be in a different octave than your singer (this is broad advice and has many exceptions, but it's a good place to start.) Could be lower, could be higher.

• for keyboard in general, less is more (like you probably are going to be playing a part which can be played with one, two, maybe three fingers). It's a bit different than playing piano because you aren't covering everything. (This probably is obvious to you but it was a realization to me when I went from playing solo piano to playing keyboard with a band)

A really really basic example from Jukebox the Ghost -- in the very beginning, the synth is playing the pad while the guitar strums chords. Then in the little intro, there's a one-finger melody from the synth.

But it could be so many different things -- just depends on the sound and style, which is a wide range. What bands are they emulating?

And again on a basic level -- if you have figured out the chords, you can make a simple chart (not sure if you know how to notate music or not -- you can be pretty basic with this.) Like a simple chart can just be the chords written over the lyrics. If you know music theory well enough to know the notes in the chords, that can help you in figuring out your riffs.

But it mostly boils down to experimentation -- maybe recording the band at a rehearsal, then going home and noodling along to the recording until you have something you like.

There are a million music theory sites and videos, for all styles of music.
posted by profreader at 11:54 AM on November 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Start by just playing root notes along bass and guitar, figure out some patches that sound good, start coming up with some details, and step up if they want more from you. Don't overdo it, simple songs don't mean "so much room for activities!" Synths tend to be unusual sounds (even in this day and age), very ear-catching, and it's very very easy to become Synth Guy. That said, don't be afraid to diverge harmonically. You're a trained musician, use your powers for good.

Are there shows coming up that would provide a deadline? Otherwise, hold practice, take recordings of practices home (get some without keyboards if you can, but also listen to how your playing sounds on the other side of the amplifier), and don't overthink it.
posted by rhizome at 12:24 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

The big change for me between playing classical piano and playing in a band is that I mostly have to learn stuff by listening, instead of by reading.

As a starting point, can you transcribe a simple melody, or play a simple melody by ear? If not those are skills worth working on.

Also, as I listen to music during the day, if I hear something I like, I make a note. "Song X, 2:30, nice synth solo". Then when I have time I'll go back and try to work it out.

If your bandmates have some idea what they'd like to do, it may be worth asking them for examples of similar stuff (artists, albums, youtube videos, whatever).

Nthing the advice to record. I have a Zoom H4n that I take with me to every band rehearsal, then I listen back for what worked and didn't work and sometimes come up with ideas that way. A phone would suffice.

I also record myself at home. Multitrack recording with a keyboard is easy these days--find some basic software, plug your keyboard into your laptop, and go. Doesn't have to be anything you'd want to share with the world, just good enough that you can try out ideas. For example, you can record the basic chord progression for a song and then experiment playing different parts along with it.

Also, some non-musical advice: bands are unpredictable and often short-lived. If this is something you want to do more of: be kind to everyone you play with, don't burn bridges, find ways to network, and keep an ear out for nice people you'd like to play with.

Have fun!
posted by bfields at 12:44 PM on November 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

You want to focus on the areas of the song that seem a bit empty and add parts that help fill in that space. I think real musicians call it counterpoint, and its something missing from a lot of bands. You can also really affect the dynamics of the group by keeping some parts sparse, then building up the intensity and complexity to emphasize other parts or to build tension. Keep in mind that sometimes the best thing to play is nothing at all.

The golden rule of being in a band is that everything you do is in support of the song. When everyone is focused on that the ego issues tend to go away, and the question of what you should be playing has an easy answer. Does it make the song better? Play it!
posted by InfidelZombie at 12:57 PM on November 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

You have to trust your intuition and invent a personal style that fits in with the groove.

I've found that synth is kinda trickier to devise arrangements within a band, because there's a larger palette of voice patches & styles to choose from, so there's more experimentation & elimination in order to get to the groove. Don't get lost in those menus.

General rule of thumb is to try to keep things simple at first, and to downplay traditional classical styles unless arranged for a particular section of a song where it works. If the keyboards get too classical & busy it morphs into Prog, which I like personally, but it's not for everyone.

For listening to as a good rock accomp, Richard Wright from Pink Floyd made simple and restrained arrangements that always fit really well with what the band was doing. It's not exactly indie pop but still applies. (My fave accompanist was Charles Hodges who played organ for Al Green, but that's an unreal level of skill there;)
posted by ovvl at 3:20 PM on November 9, 2018

It's been ages since I've seen/heard a punk(ish) band with a synth, but Spanish Love Songs has been a revelation with this year's release. On most songs, she's mostly just filling in the sound, but on the first track and track 7, she's a little more prevalent. If you're trying to just fill sound, it's not a bad model to follow.

I once played synth in band a couple decades ago, and I was bad and mostly trying to ape George Harrison, so you could also check out what he was doing with the Beatles as well, but that might not track as well. But maybe it would.

One major difference between piano and synth is you got to figure out how to not be scared of the modulation/ pitch bend function. It's super fun.

Actually: My advice is to have fun. Being in a band should be fun. Rock the hell out. In the middle of a rehearsal, just throw in a weird tritone because if sounds fucking cool for no reason. But, when in doubt, just play the chord the rhythm guitarist is playing.
posted by General Malaise at 6:51 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

First things first: Just What I Needed

If I had to bring one patch to hell with me it'd be the electric piano: Stevie Wonder, Muscle Shoals, Steely Dan

For more "architected" parts I like the stuff from Eric Drew Feldman (of Pere Ubu) on Frank Black's early solo albums, for example the keyboard parts in I Heard Ramona Sing are artfully understated (they don't start until a minute or so)

And if you need a signature look, check out Electric Six for making keytars cool again (or maybe not)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:04 AM on November 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Go light on the left hand - very depressing as a bass player when the keyboard/synth player stomps all over the bass.
posted by IncognitoErgoSum at 8:22 AM on November 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Electric Six as a band to check out for integrating keys into a rock band.

Also, (going waaay back), Simple Minds, especially the stuff from before their big hit "Don't You Forget About Me" - like Waterfront, Glittering Prize, New Gold Dream.

And nthing nthing nthing getting some kind of recordings of the songs (even if it's just a crappy cell phone recording done at rehearsal) so you have something you can play along with at home and experiment with parts and sounds and ideas without feeling self-conscious or like you're wasting everyone's time.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:27 AM on November 10, 2018

I think your best bet is to ask the members for songs/bands they like. If their influences don't really include bands with keyboards, hmm.

If their songs are already written, add little fills and play with very basic harmonies to add color and reinforce mood.

The guitarist is probably playing a lot of note+fifth-above, which is called the "power chord" and is foundational for absolutely tons of guitar music after Chuck Berry.

One album I've been listening to lately is Child Bite's Living Breathing Organ Summer, which, you guessed it! has lots of organ in it. Give the song Odd Inn a listen; neat musical conversations between keyboard & guitar.

At The Drive In's album Relationship of Command doesn't have much if any keyboard, But there's some lessons to be learned from the two guitars. The usual schtick is both guitarists playing at the same time, one playing a riff that lasts two or three bars before repeating, the other playing a riff that lasts anything from a repeated chord or note, or a short repeated riff that repeats every beat or evey bar. Neither of the riffs are terribly interesting by themselves, but how they intertwine is usually very interesting. Maybe you could work out a harmony to a guitar bit, and maybe the guitarist would let you play some of the notes that were originally his and vice-versa?
posted by wires at 10:10 AM on November 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd imagine your biggest transition here is going from a polyphonic playing style to a monophonic. As a classically trained pianist, you're going to be used to, essentially, being the lead and your own accompaniment - but in a band, you need to learn to not do either of these. Huge generalisation and it'll depend on the sound of the band but a handy rule of thumb is that there should only ever be one instrument playing a chords at any one time - so if there's already a rhythm guitarist playing chords (and based on the fact they're adding you to an existing band, I'd guess this is the case), your role will be to sit in the melodic space with contrast/counter-melody lines, rather than filling harmonic space. Bounce off the melody, sit back from it, augment it.
posted by parm at 3:48 PM on November 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

They may be simple, but your keyboard parts don't have to be simple. You are a member of the band now - act like it. (unless of course they are simply paying you to play and someone else is writing your parts).

Loud Family - Aerodeleria - dominating classical piano that is a programmed synth.
Spoon Who Makes Your Money really simple subltle keyboards
Zumpano - Rosecrans Blvd simple piano chords

Mike and the Moon Pies- Smoke Em if You Got Em really subtle piano isn't even noticeable at first and then it counter-melodies inside the guitars

James McMurtry - Valley RoadAnother really simple but dominating piano line inside the guitars

INXS Don't Change This one is synth - droning through power chords
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:41 PM on November 10, 2018

Another note is don't limit yourself to just 'synth sounds'. Use them all. Harpischord, piano, even drum machine.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:53 PM on November 10, 2018

I'd imagine your biggest transition here is going from a polyphonic playing style to a monophonic.

This. People have a hell of a time with this. In any good mix, great pains have been taken to make sure that instruments don't walk all over each other.

IncognitoErgoSum points out that you need to try to stay out of the bassist's way. A normal piano already has enough tonal and dynamic range to be in everybody's space at the same time, and synths just multiply the possibilities for weird transients, magnitude boosts, echoes and mud.

Building a chord along with multiple instruments often does mean choosing simpler chords or melodic lines than you ever would with solo piano, or e.g. having to find a different chord variation because the thumb-fingered guitarist is accidentally hitting a harmonic every time they slide up to that chunky barre chord on the seventh fret.

The other big thing I've encountered is that classically-trained musicians often learn to think about rhythm and syncopation a little differently than jazz or pop musicians, so it's very much worth practicing to a drum loop or ideally a full backing track instead of a metronome.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:12 PM on November 11, 2018

Thank you all for the thorough (and slightly terrifying) responses. I’m overwhelmed with this whole thing but have been going through recordings figuring out keys and chords and writing everything on manuscript paper because I can’t help it. I’m sure I will get a handle on this as we go but right now my main goal is to play a few notes and get input on what they really want my role to be.

Thanks also for the band recommendations - I discovered great artists I’d never heard of (Superorganism!) and definitely find myself listening to music in a different way than I have before.
posted by something something at 1:34 PM on November 11, 2018

Don't be terrified, if you feel self-conscious then just play single note strings tonic drones with your right hand in the top octave often, and nobody will complain. This keyboard style is everywhere in various genres of music, and it's funny how ubiquitous it is when you listen for it.
posted by ovvl at 3:06 PM on November 11, 2018

What I find especially overwhelming about keyboard playing is that there's *so many* different skills that you might be expected to have as the keyboard player in a band. You might want to know your way around a Hammond B3, or know some blues piano licks, or how to play horn-section-like parts. Or you might want to learn more about MIDI or subtractive synthesis--the list goes on.

The way I stay sane is by remembering, yes, I'd like to learn all that eventually, but right *now* all I have to do is find a few bits to make these particular songs sound good. And when that gives me an opportunity to work on some long-term skill-building project, I take it, but if time's short I know it's also OK just to find one simple part that works for the song and play it the same way every time.
posted by bfields at 10:13 AM on November 12, 2018

All right, dudes, I went to my first practice where I played all the songs and I'm feeling a lot more confident. I played mostly just the main chords and it turns out they're thrilled with even the smallest series of notes transitioning between chords - I'm quickly learning the playing music part of being in a band is a lot easier than the playing music part of being a solo pianist, and the collaboration is the main thing. That's going to be fun! I don't know why I haven't been doing this for the past 20 years.

Thanks for all the help!
posted by something something at 7:33 AM on November 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

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