Monday, July 9, 2012

Left Hand / Right Hand

I've been thinking through a way to get better sounds out of our piano. We use a keyboard, so I'm looking forward to having a shiny red Nord in a few months. But even with better sounds on hand there's an issue with the playing that needs addressing.

When things get a little too thick sonically the worship director or myself will ask the pianist to shift their playing a little. Usually it's something simple like, "Don't play the left hand the first time through and move the right hand part up an octave." But on some weeks things are dense from start to finish and it can be kind of a blow to a volunteer musician to hear, "We don't need your left hand this week." So in short of firing half of each player I got to thinking. It's not so much that we flat out don't need the left hand parts at a given time. Often it would be nice to have them there but it's no easy task to play softly with one hand and normal with the other. But here's where the tech can save us.  
Most keyboards have a split function. That lets you play strings with the left hand and piano with the right for instance. But if you split it and put the same piano sound on each half, and pan them hard left and right internally, you've now got left hand and right hand outputs on your instrument! Add another DI and there they are at the console. Mix wise, a lot of the time they'll be equal, just straight up piano sound coming out. But at times when things get dense you can pull the left hand down a little or a lot as needed. Or you can feature a melodic line without pumping up the low end information. 
The tricky thing about a piano is that it's really a percussion instrument and a lot of the time it can be considered part of the back section (rhythm section). But it's also fully capable as a melodic instrument and fits perfectly in a lead role. It's the Jekyll and Hyde of instruments in that it can do both at the same time. But if you've just got one feed you have to mix it as one thing. With the hands split you can round off the rhythm and make the melody sparkle. The abilities extend way past just the channel EQs into compression and even effects.

The only reason I haven't implemented it yet is because it's not a purely audio trick I can employ without disturbing the players, like double micing a guitar cab for instance. Running the piano keyboard in split is going to make some work for my musicians, even if it's as simple as punching different user presets. Granted it's probably easier than shifting when and where they play their parts, but I don't want to go charging in to find out that there are ramifications that I hadn't thought through. 

So Brethren of the Knob and Fader, I'm sure there's other instances where a technique like this could come in handy. Let us know what you think and what you do. Stay tuned for another post when I finally get this idea up and running.


  1. Scotty to Kirk -

    I think you have come up with a good technical solution to cover up the problem. I am guessing the pianists typically accompany singers and dancers on their own (if at all) and do not have a ton of experience in editing their playing for group arrangements. So they are used to having to carry the whole shebang of rhythm and melody all the time. Not doing that is a very foreign feeling for those players and they feel inadequate because of it. It seems like a great teaching opportunity for the musical director to show them the beneficial results of editing their contribution to better serve the group arrangement. In general, I think the lesson is that keeping the arrangement clear and powerful requires compromise from each of the musicians; the more instruments that are contributing, the less each can play. It's true regardless of the instrument, and becomes a hunt for sonic real estate among each of the players. However, I also realize that a lot of piano players are sight readers, and just play the notes that are in front of them. Many sight readers struggle to improvise away from the page. So a big part of your problem may be that the sheet music is arranged for solo performance rather than large group collaboration. In that case, investing in a few bottles of white out may be the best technical solution of all!

    - Scotty out

  2. Our pianists do tend to be sheet readers and yes they are used to leading a high school chorus or some similar situation. The issue is more one of time than of skill. With just two rehearsals before we go live, there's not a ton of time to analyze and determine where we need more or less. If I have the option to choose that from the mix I can go deeper than, "Don't play the left hand at this point" and just pull it back slightly in the mix when I need some space.

    That said, we already do a bit of shaping when we rehearse. There have been many times that we say something like I wrote in the post and it works out great. But it would be difficult to do that for a whole service with the amount of time we have.


You're the Scotty to our Kirk