There are limits to everything. When it comes to keyboard gear unless you have boatloads of cash, one of those will be money. That means you’ll need to make the best choice possible because the next upgrade could be a long way off.
Some of you reading this will be asking this reasonable question, “Why would you start with the amp? Why not the keyboard itself?” Honestly, having played dozens of different electronic keyboards, the amp/speaker combo is so crucial. In some ways, it may be more important than the ax. Plus, these days, you can replace the sounds with computer-based sounds such as a Native Instruments’ Kontakt instance on your computer.
Of course, if you can drag a full sound system to each gig, you’ll get the best sound. But these are expensive and bulky, so quite impractical for many performances. You’re going to want something compact, versatile, and with enough inputs to allow you or — let’s say — a duo play and sing.
This is why my favorite portable amp is the Roland BA-330. Besides being compact (about 30 pounds), the speakers are stereo, it has a minimal mixer, reverb, anti-feedback, and battery-powered option. The minor downsides to this mini-sound system are that the highs (upper frequencies) could be carried better by the speakers, the EQ (equalizer) may be inadequate for some, and there is no BlueTooth.
There are plenty of inputs and outputs (including the ability to have external active speakers from the line outs or stereo links) for solo or duo acts and the standard AA battery operation allows you to play those outdoor gigs. Of course, there are not very many battery-operated keyboards, so that will be another challenge. For very small venues, I use just the BA-330. For medium-sized halls, I use the BA-330 as my monitor and bring a set of active speakers to plug into the line outs.
I've been annoyed by a few of the amplification options I’ve used over the years because of their lack of stereo sound. This is one of the selling points of the BA-330. Even though it’s size will limit the stereo spread, this is a big boon to keyboardists. Many piano or other keyboard sounds are significantly enhanced when heard on both sides of the stereo image. It also gives options for panning other sounds plugged in via an external mixer. (The internal mixer does not have pan or balance controls.)
The first two channels on the built-in mixer are mono channels with mic or line inputs. The inputs for channels 3/4 and 5/6 are stereo line inputs. You’ll want to use one of these stereo channels for your keyboard. Remember to turn off the built-in effects on the channels where you plug in the keyboard. The reverb, delay, chorus, and other effects in most digital keys will be dozens of times higher quality and controllability than the very simple delay/reverb on-board the BA-330.
Most keyboards have sounds that are already equalized (the frequencies of the sound are balanced or tweaked) enough to be workable on most sound systems. However, not every venue has the same acoustics, so being able to have some EQ controls is very helpful.
Some keyboards include very intricate abilities to adapt the tone of the sounds. But this can be time-consuming especially if you use multiple sounds — maybe a piano sound for most songs, but an eclectic piano or an organ for just a few. This means that having EQ on your amp will be a faster cure when you need to tune the sound for the room. While many amps including the BA-330 have limited tone controls, a little something is better than nothing.
I can't outline everything you need to consider when picking your actual keyboard. You can find every sort of digital piano or synthesizer in nearly all the price ranges you can imagine. To make it even more tricky, what's important to one performer will be completely extraneous to another. So, I'll just mention a few things you'll want to consider when finding your first or next keyboard:
- Do you want or need built-in sounds or do you already know that you'll use computer-generated patches for your gigs?
- If you decide on built-in sounds, make sure to audition all of the sounds you'll need for your material.
- And especially if you are using the computer for your sounds, ensure that the keyboard has at least one MIDI output.
- Check out the action of the keys. Piano players will want weighted keys. If possible, compare it with other keyboard instruments or a real piano (if that's your main instrument).
- Other things to consider:
- Do you need battery operation? These keyboards are fairly rare.
- Does the unit require a special power adapter? Is it included? Does it have a “wall wart” that will take extra space on your power strip?
- How heavy is it? Can you carry it?
- Does the price include a protective case? If you're gigging, this will be essential.
- What other accessories do you need to go with this keyboard? Are they included?
Speaking of accessories, you're at least going to need a sustain pedal and audio cables (to go from the keyboard to your amp). My advice: get the best you can afford. If possible, bring a spare pedal and cables to each gig. Even with decent quality in these accessories, they can fail over time.
If you play lots of places with slick floors, you may also want to consider a way to keep the sustain pedal from slipping. There are several solutions for this including gaffer tape or some reasonably priced commercial solutions like Pedal-Lock.
Unless you have every part memorized for every song you will ever play, you will need to display your music scores. Due to the portability and backlighting (essential for some underlit clubs and if you play in pit bands), my favorite approach is using an iPad. (You can use alternative software on an Android tablet, but I have no experience with that. Sorry.)
Personally, I use the ForScore app for PDF files and Songbook ChordPro for song (chordpro) files. Among the great features of these are the collaboration tools (link with your bandmates, share files via DropBox, and so on). Both of these apps also accept BlueTooth input for page turns. I'm really happy with my AirTurn Duo which I have programmed for forward one page with the right foot pedal and backward one page with the left.
In order to hold your tablet, you'll need a stand. Of course, you could just set your iPad on a traditional music stand. But the better (lower profile and better range of sight) approach is to attach a tablet holder to your mic stand. Some of the best iPad cradles I've found are by Hercules. I currently use their DG300B which works great.
What Else in Your Keyboard Rig?
As I've been writing this post, it's become clear to me that I'm barely scratching the surface of what you'll want to know in order to get your keyboard rig set up. Still, I hope that these pointers provide a starting point for gigging with a digital keyboard. As always, please keep the conversation going by offering your pointers or questions in the comments here. Thank you for reading.