“What gear do you have in your setup?”
It’s a question I get asked a lot by students and other pianists/keyboardists. I understand the curiosity. I, too, love exploring the bells, whistles, and sound samples of the newest, trendiest keyboards and pedals. One of the reasons I’m so drawn to pop/rock music is because so much of the pop/rock production is done on keyboards. I get pretty excited when I hear a new sound or effect on a song (especially in a live setting) and start wondering “What gear are they using and how did they get that sound?” There was a time when I was constantly trying out new keyboards, selling old ones, purchasing vintage gear, selling vintage gear, buying pedals, buying software… and then, of course, there were the amplifiers. After many (M-A-N-Y) permutations, my current setup is my favorite. It also represents the longest amount of time that I gone without purchasing something new and expensive (though that could be a product of me growing more focused on practical need and efficiency than flashy new toys… a sign of my maturity perhaps? Nah, probably not). At present I have the following gear in my arsenal:
  1. Nord Stage 2, 88-key;
  2. Yamaha Motif ES-7;
  3. Two QSC K10 powered-speakers;
  4. 1977 Fender Rhodes, Stage model;
  5. 1979 Fender Rhodes, Stage model (Yes, I have two. Completely unnecessary, I realize);
  6. An old tube-amp that sounds great when it works… but doesn’t work.
When I get called to do a GB gig (an outdated acronym that stands for “general business” - meaning any corporate, wedding, or club dates), I bring my Nord, Motif, and my speakers. For as long as I can remember I have not been a fan of any of the keyboard amps I’ve used. I won’t name any brands here, but suffice to say I never played any that sounded good to me. The main problem, obviously, is that keyboards are meant to be heard in stereo in order to give you the full spectrum of sound. Keyboard amps are simply one speaker, so you’re only hearing one channel (either left or right). Guitar Center know this, which is why when you go into one of their stores to try out a keyboard it’s heard through a nice set of studio monitors in full stereo sound. A couple years ago I decided I’d had enough. I bought a pair of QSC K10s, just one of which sounds better and is easier to transport than any of the keyboard amps I’ve owned over the years. When I use both K10s in stereo my keyboards sound killer - just a night and day difference, so I don’t mind bringing both speakers to most gigs when I’m supplying my own gear. If you’ve been unhappy with the sound of keyboard amps, too, try a pair of quality studio monitors or powered speakers. Oftentimes, the price difference isn’t even that big a deal (depending on your gigging or home-use needs). As for the keyboards, I have to say that I really, really love the Nord Stage 2. It’s fun to play, it has a million different things that it can do (most of which I don’t understand), but the important, most-used features are so intuitive and readily-available that it makes sound-exploration exciting (no need to toggle through endless banks of commands on a small little screen). Plus, Nord really does have some of the best “real” keyboard sounds. What I mean is, the Nord pianos, Rhodes, Wurlitzers, and electric pianos sound very close to the real thing (and the organs are getting pretty close to the real thing, too). And of course, they have oodles of sound samples and banks that can be downloaded. I also still like the Yamaha Motif keyboards. The weighted keyboards feel great (Yamaha has the real “piano feel” and touch all figured out). The Motif ES7 is a synth, however, with non-weighted waterfall keys. I use that for a lot of my synth samples and creating some of the sounds you would hear on Top 40 dance tracks. My first synth experiences were on a Motif, so I have that format well-learned at this point, and if it ain’t broke… As for my two Fender Rhodes electric pianos, I hardly ever gig with them or even move them at all. I do play them, but I find that the Nord sounds so close by comparison that it’s not worth the effort for me to take a Rhodes on a gig (for those unfamiliar, they’re big, and heavy).  I’ve thought about selling them and probably will, simply because at this point in my musician-development I’m trying to focus more on being a better player and not getting so distracted with gear. It’s easy to get caught up in the myth that you need to have the best gear in order to sound good - but in reality, it’s still about the simple and basic things, like practice. So, what kind of gear do you use? Or a better question is, what kind of keyboard would you love to own?
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