The keyboard surely ranks as on the most drastic leaps forward in musical technology. And though the keyboard has been attached to various instruments for centuries now, it continues to utilised to great effect in all kinds of music today. The instruments have changed (I’m pretty sure most of us don’t have a harpsichord in the living room), yet the design of the keyboard has seldom been altered throughout its glorious history.
The invention of the piano – the first ‘keyboard’ instrument to be controlled dynamically – was such an evolutionary leap that it became the central composition tool and performance instrument throughout the late classical, romantic and early twentieth century in the western tradition.
Across the sonic landscape there is perhaps no instrument more versatile than the keyboard, and each of its different incarnations play a role in musical composition – from the subtle glue that holds a mix together, to a commanding synthetic voice
The advent of rock and roll in the 1950s meant that the pendulum swung heavily toward the electric guitar. A raucous and brash new sound had taken the world by storm and the new heroes of the musical world slung Les Pauls and Strats over their shoulders.
Though relegated to a smaller part in the brave new world of rock, keyboard instruments definitely did not disappear. Indeed the evolution continued, and now modern studios enjoy a whole new palette of keyboard sounds that were birthed in the twentieth century. Let’s take a look at the role of keyboard in creating character in a mixing situation.
Hammond was the company that brought electric organs to the mainstream. The first models appeared in the mid 1930s with the culmination of the design represented by the B3 model. The Hammond is often partnered with the Leslie speaker, whose rotary design produces its unmistakable choppy chorus-vibrato hybrid.
The organ works with an additive synthesis principle, meaning that you can add extra “voices” by manipulating its various drawbars. The offer endless sustain and continues to be used as an incredibly tasteful way to ‘glue’ a mix together. Check out Richard Wright’s wonderful use of his classic Hammond M-102 ‘Spinet’ and Leslie 145 combo on Pink Floyd‘s Live At Pompeii recordings, particularly the way it paves the way between Gilmour’s and Waters’ rather disparate tonal palettes.
The two giants in this field are undoubtedly the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer models. Though they use slightly different methods of sound production, with varied sonic results (the Rhodes is more bell-like, while the Wurlitzer tends to a darker tone, but with more capacity for bite), both have tended to occupy similar territory in modern recording – a sound inextricably linked with Americana: soul, funk, blues and country. Think The Doors‘ Riders on The Storm – Fender Rhodes all the way.
The now ubiquitous synth has possibly enjoyed the most progression from the middle part of the twentieth century until today. This can be attributed to the fact that it is a highly competitive field with many manufacturers competing to outdo each other on innovation and cost. The earlier analog systems were behemoths festooned with hundreds of patch cables.
The Minimoog combined the elegance of keyboard playability with a non-modular system and suddenly synthesiser were much more musically accessible and hence, hugely popular. Being able to create completely original sounds is the principle that underpins synth parameters. Synthesisers have enjoyed a renaissance, spawning entirely musical genres and are often featured front and centre in a modern mix.
As mentioned earlier, the keyboard hasn’t disappeared from modern music, it has simply evolved. The design of the keyboard puts an entire world of music at your fingertips and has not been superseded in the last few centuries. As technology continues to improve, musicians can look forward to having even more sonic territories available, at the touch of a humble black or white key.