Keyboard Sessions – then and now.
Around the mid-late 90’s, I was fortunate enough to work with some of the leading lights of the UK underground house scene. Apart from my day job, which was as keyboard player and programmer for Banana Republic (the production name for my self and Gavin ‘DJ Face’ Mills) and all the other duties of running the high flying Catch Productions / Records, I would have a secondary role (normally in the evenings) as a session keyboard player.
I worked on all the Tuff Jam productions during the 96-98 period including remixes of tracks by Usher, Tina Moore, En Vogue and Kristine Blonde to mention but a few.
Many of these productions were produced at our studio, where I would be completely familiar with the equipment. Editing of sequencing as well as sounds would be much easier.
We would get a call to book the studio and upon confirmation, the vocal parts would be sent to us on a DAT by courier from the record company. The first job would be to get all the vocals into the sampler. For this purpose we would use our Kurzweil K2000. The vocals would then be cut up into each phrase and mapped across the keyboard, sometimes as many as 70 different cuts. As many of the remix projects were originally R&B tracks, the tempo would be anywhere between 70 – 110 bpm and would need significant time stretching. It was indeed very common during this period for club mixes to have that ‘Mickey Mouse’ sounding vocal, but that seemed to be acceptable.. after all it was predominantly about the beats and bass line.
The vocals would be arranged in the format of the song and the music elements would be programmed in. First, I would start with a piano/rhodes sound and jam around the chorus on a loop. This would be firstly to work out the key of the original and then to find a patten which would suit the sort of remix that we were trying to achieve. We’d generally work outwards from here, adding layer upon layer of musical elements, including orchestrated string parts, arppegiated riffs, stabby synth chords and filtered pads. Back then an average project studio would include mostly hardware modules such as an Akai S3000, Roland JV 1080, Korg M1 etc. We had a Soundcraft Spirit Studio 24 channel mixer running thru JBL control 5’s.. this was pretty much the mainstay of the Catch Productions sound. One quirky effect that we used was a Morley ‘wah-wah’ pedal (usually used by guitarists) on the Rhodes sound (from our Roland A-90 Mother keyboard). This sound was used on the Tuff Jam mix of Krisitine Blond’s ‘Loveshy’ .
The studio would normally be booked for 3 days to achieve a main vocal mix and a dub mix.
If I was hired to do a session elsewhere, I would normally travel to a studio somewhere in London to meet up with Karl and Matt from Tuff Jam for example along with their engineer.
Usually the pre-production had been done by the time I arrived. So I’d walk into the room filled with the inimitable Tuff Jam drums with the vocal running over the top. I’d have a quick look round the studio and after consultation with the engineer, we’d work out what the palette of sounds would be. I’d spend maybe 3 hours laying down as many keyboard parts as possible, so that the guys could complete their mix.
Wow, how times have changed. I now use Logic 9 with a whole host of software synths and processing plugins. It basically streamlines the process. When I do an online session from my studio, I have preset templates set up with all the sounds set out ready to go. A rhodes track, piano, various strings, synth stabs and bleeps. This enables me to get and enormous amount of layers down in a short space of time.
If I’m doing a remix, I can work out the tempo of the vocal and with Flex editing quickly change the tempo accordingly. I usually work with a simple drum loop to start with (I have about 15000 at my disposal) just to get the groove going. Because I know where all my choice sounds are, I don’t need to go trawling for hours looking for the right patch. I then re-build the drums from scratch.
I’m really into ‘Fab Fiter’ eq plugin. Along with the H-compressor and delay in the Waves plugins, I’ve got it pretty much nailed now. In fact an averages online keyboard session takes no longer than 2 hours to get all the parts programmed. It’s sometimes a chore to archive all the keyboard pattens as audio, but this does then give a personalised groove contraction kit tailored to your particular track.
On a final note, I am a complete fan of technological advances and truly believe that with a certain amount of musical knowledge, the possibilities for production are endless.