Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Piano vs other instruments

Most improv musicians use a keyboard for their work. And most keyboards come with a variety of instrument sounds. So there's tremendous scope for creativity in the sounds you use.

What are your choices?

Range of sounds

First up - if you are playing something with a keyboard, it's probably got a piano sound. (Unless you're using a 40 year old synth with knobs and dials and patch panels and stuff. If you're lugging that thing to gigs, more power to you.)

There are good and bad piano sounds, but generally you'll have piano sounds in there. You'll also have a variety of other instruments too. Here's how I tend to break them down, in descending order of piano-like :)

PianoStandard grand piano
Variations on pianoElectric pianos, honkey-tonk pianos, rhodes. (Rhodeses?)
Keyboard instrumentsChurch organs, hammond organs, accordions
Keyboard-like instrumentsXylophones, glockenspiels
Plucked/strummedAcoustic guitar, banjo, harp, bass
Melodic, non percussiveStrings, brass, wind instruments
PercussiveDrum kits, tympanis, bongos
ArtificialPads, synths, weird patches


That last row is all the artificial stuff stitched together with various keyboard samples - pads, synths, all the groovy keyboard sounds awash with reverb designed to make you ooh and ahh when you're shopping for a keyboard, but that you might not really use all that often.

What works?

For most general improv work, I definitely favour a piano sound. Depending on the tools I have at the time, I'll sometimes use some of those other sounds too. The table above is in fact probably arranged in order of most-likely-to-use to least-likely-to-use. I'll use an electric piano now and again for variety in a scene, or perhaps a honkey-tonk piano for a western. I find organs work well sometimes for mime scenes, and accordians seem to fit with a variety of European-based scenes. I'll pull out a guitar occasionally. A harp works an absolute treat in a Shakespearian scene. But I'll rarely use brass or bass or bongos in a scene, not unless there was a specific gag or tag that demanded it.

Perhaps the only exception there is strings; I will often use a strings patch with a fast attack for a dramatic action scene, or with a slower attack for an emotional scene. But that assumes a fast or a slow attack will be suitable for the whole scene, and often a scene will change to the point where you want to swap from one to the other. With a piano sound it seems to me that you have access to a much wider dynamic, so you can respond to a scene more appropriately.

That's not to say that I won't use something unusual when the scene asks for it. I've underscored scenes with just tympani sounds before, for a dark argumentative scene. To me, using those sorts of sounds sparingly makes them worth more when you do end up using them.

My most frequent non-straight-piano sound is a fantastic orchestra patch I use for operas, which I promise (again) to describe in a future post. But even that patch is based around piano.

Supporting the MC in short-form

Although introducing variety so one scene differs from the next, I try and keep a consistent sound and feel for those in-between scene times. I think it would be a bit jarring to use a piano for 90% of the in-between scene time, and occasionally support an MC with an accordion - it seems to me like that would detract from the show and introduce inconsistency.

A short form show to me is a bit like riding an elevator in a department store. As you go up through the floors, the elevator door opens and you get a good view of the stuff on that floor. Every floor is different - cosmetics, clothes, stationery, homewares, toys, audio/visual... The men's clothes floor will have different music to women's clothes. The a/v floor will be darker. Each floor might have different stuff and a different feel, but when the elevator door closes you're back in the elevator again, ready to go to the next floor. The elevator is like the in-between scene times. I guess the MC is like your elevator operator. (And when the elevator breaks down on a floor - you've got long form! OK, the metaphor might be a little flawed. It was fun while it lasted.)

You want that in-between-scene experience to be consistent throughout the show - your stable base to return to before you set off on your next exciting adventure.
Photo by Hudson

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