The world of keyboards is vast and complex, so how do you choose the right one for you? 

 From the classic analog synths of the ’70s to the cutting-edge digital workstations of today, keyboards have been an integral part of music for nearly half a century. Nearly every genre, including pop, rock and jazz, relies on keyboards in the studio and onstage as a mainstay instrument. And scoring and production for TV and film wouldn’t be the same without them.

There’s a wide range of keyboards, from the inexpensive and humble to the expansive and complex with extensive features. What’s more, there are seemingly countless sounds to choose from, ranging from massive sample digital libraries to old-school analog synthesizers. With so many models and technologies hitting the market every year, how can players select the right one for them?

For help, we turned to two masters of modern keyboard technology, Scott Healy and David Rosenthal. Healy is best known as the keyboardist for Conan’s house band, Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band, though he’s also worked with Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green and many others. Rosenthal is a songwriter, producer and longtime keyboardist for Billy Joel, and has also worked with Enrique Iglesias, Robert Palmer, Steve Vai, Red Dawn and Happy the Man.

What do you want in a keyboard?

HEALY: I look for a keyboard that does everything. Yamahas have great sounds in general, Rolands offer great electric pianos, and Nords have amazing Clavinets and organs. If I were absolutely restricted to one keyboard, then I would choose a Yamaha Motif, which has good digital piano, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, organ and synth sounds.

ROSENTHAL: Everyone wants a good keyboard workstation with nice playing action. Whether you prefer a weighted or nonweighted keyboard, it has to put a good pallet of sounds right at your fingertips, and be something you can throw in your car when you’re on the go.

What sounds do you look for?

ROSENTHAL: You want some good orchestral sounds, you want some good pianos—electric and acoustic. And you want a variety of good Clav tones, Rhodes, FM sounds, and analog sounds—the whole gamut.

HEALY: I look for a good piano sound first. A good piano sound is a must, and that’s still pretty hard to find. I want that real rich and deep piano sound. If there’s not a real Steinway grand, I take a Yamaha CP1. If there’s not a B3, I take my Nord Electro 3 or Voce.

How about feel?

ROSENTHAL: The first decision is whether you want a weighted or spring-action keyboard. I love playing a weighted keyboard, but if you’re doing an organ patch or doing glisses, it’s horrible to have a weighted action. Most of the time when I’m playing live, I prefer nonweighted action because I can cover more sounds. It’s only a drawback when you try to play a piano patch—it feels really weird to play that on a nonweighted keyboard.

HEALY: You can’t get a real B3 in a small studio, so I play a Nord. Other keyboards have great-sounding organs too, but they don’t have waterfall keys, and that makes a big difference. I’m fighting a battle on Conan’s show because I’m triggering my Voce organ module from a weighted-action Yamaha. I like the weighted action for the synthesizer sounds, so I have to compromise there. But it would feel weird if I put my Nord up there with its spring action when I want to play another sound.

What’s in your live rig?

HEALY: For live work, you go for the real thing. If that’s not possible, you go with keyboards. So bare bones, it’s a digital piano and an organ. On Conan I’ve got the Yamaha CP1 and the Voce. When I want to have a synthesizer available and other sounds, and I have limited space, I go for a Nord Electro 3.

ROSENTHAL: I use a fairly big setup with Billy Joel, including a Yamaha Motif ES7, Kurzweil K2661, Roland Fantom G and Hammond SK-3, which I run through a 147 Leslie. A lot of the technology’s turned the corner in the last year or so, enabling me to finally use plug-ins reliably in a live environment.

Why use keyboards instead of plug-ins?

HEALY: You just have to play one note and you go, “Ah, this isn’t a plug-in. This is how it’s supposed to be.” You can just hit that high C and tell it’s different. It’s a feel thing. When you have two manuals and drawbars you never have to struggle with anything and you can change sounds on the fly. You just don’t get that with a virtual instrument.

ROSENTHAL: The line between keyboards and plug-ins is blurring, especially with things like Mainstage and the Muse Receptor, which is really just a plug-in host in a two-space rack acting like a sound module. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that over time, where the keyboards may look and function like keyboards, but under the hood, they’re going to be running plug-ins.

When do you use an analog synth?

HEALY: I use it when I need a very specific sound. I once played with Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park, and one of the tunes had a very recognizable Oberheim sound. I had my Matrix-6R in my rack. So I set up the sound, and when I swelled up that first chord, Bruce turned around and said, “Yeah, that’s it—that’s the sound!”

ROSENTHAL: Nothing compares to real analog synths. They each have their own character to them. When I was with Happy the Man and playing tons of Minimoog solos live, I loved playing that keyboard. For that kind of gig you need the real thing.

Is analog coming back?

HEALY: I saw a lot of new analog synthesizers at NAMM, and I think it’s fascinating. I think about the days when we were all trying to keep our Minimoogs in tune and what a nightmare it was. Now we’ve got these digital hybrid synths that stay in tune and let you call up presets. It’s pretty awesome.

ROSENTHAL: It’s interesting that there’s a shift back to modular sounds. Analog sound is amazing—so huge, fat and warm. It really lends itself to so many different genres. We got away from analog synthesis for a while because of the convenience of digital keyboards, but now people are going, “Hey, wait a minute—these things sound great.”

What’s the future for keyboards?

HEALY: Twenty years ago, I remember thinking, “We’re going to have amazing sounds in a keyboard that’s like 20 pounds.” Now you’ve got the Casio Privia—it’s $600, lightweight and sounds great. It’s just going to get better sounding, lighter and more player-friendly from here.

ROSENTHAL: Touchscreen technology has come into its own. The larger screen on the Fantom G allows you to access the sequencer and edit all the different sounds. It gave the whole user interface a huge leap forward. With the power of the processors and speed of the RAM, keyboards can carry analog waveforms, digital waveforms, FM and sampling. That’s going to open up a whole new world of better sound and bigger sample libraries.

—Phil Selman


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