Something I find truly intriguing, is when a keyboard player sounds completely different in each song they play. The band ∆ (Alt-J) is a good example of this.

I'm a one-man recording band myself, and looking to make my music more interesting by trying this as well. Which is why I am wondering how people usually do this. Do they simply use the Midi signal from their keyboard and feed it through a laptop? Do they use keyboards that have the necessary software and hardware (sliders, buttons, etc) to alter their sound to their liking? Or do the keyboards simply have a wide array of pre-defined sounds that can be used?

I'll take the freedom to anticipate the "all of those things you mentioned" answer, by also asking which of these options would be easiest to start out with for somebody who has never played keyboards or synthesizers. I do play the piano well enough to make the switch technically, but I'm absolutely uneducated about how to get the sound I'd want.

  • By the way, I have nothing against downvotes, but it would be nice if you could leave a comment when downvoting, so that I'll know how to edit and improve this question
    – Lee White
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 12:49
  • 1
    This is sort of like asking how to make spiced chicken taste different. Yes, different spices are different. I don't think it's much of a question.
    – user28
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 3:37
  • 1
    Updated the headline to reflect the actual question you are asking. I agree with Matthew that this is not really a good question here, as there are an infinite number of ways to do this, but the edit may at least help stop people downvoting just for the headline.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 23:36

4 Answers 4


First of all, yes you anticipated correctly: all those things you mentioned are used to control the program/patch/timbre of the instrument. Hardware synths, software synths, DAWs, etc, have a way to program, save, and change their settings. Once saved, you can recall these settings at will. This set of settings is called a patch. Some instruments will also have a bank of pre-defined patches. You just tell your platform "I want this patch", and load it, then play it.

Non-digital instruments without some kind of setting recall feature will need their patches to be set manually between songs and/or as needed. I've seen this being done in a live setting, with modular synths.

I think that as a beginner the easiest option is to use a DAW and a software synth. In particular, a non-linear DAW tailored for live performance specifically, like Ableton Live or Bitwig Studio.

With this setup, you can switch between patches using the tools provided by your software synth, or you can set one patch per MIDI track, and just arm the MIDI track that you want to play (which means that you can move between patches with just one click).

All these can be achieved with any DAW, but Ableton Live offers some fun tools that will help you go crazy patch-wise, like Instrument Rack (where you can group many synths, audio effects, and MIDI effects together into one single patch) and clip view (non-linear playback of MIDI and audio tracks).


Playing for recording is not necessarily the same as playing live, sound-wise. In a studio situation, you can mess about with all sorts of sounds and the mixes you can achieve with them.

Live, you could just use a piano sound - if you only had a piano, then that's what would happen. However, keyboards now have a plethora of different sounds, so players will tend to use them.When I'm out on keys, I'll use maybe half a dozen main sounds : piano, electric piano, vibes, several (Hammond) organ sounds, strings and a couple of 'synth' sounds. Let alone the occasional horn sound - trumpet, sax, flute.

Listen carefully to lots of recordings and you'll hear these coming and going throughout the song. So, given the opportunity to emulate this sort of variety, we do.

Often, I'll listen to the sound palette of what's going on in a song, and try to fill it with the 'missing bits'.Obviously, it's not clever to fill up all the spaces, but complementing the existing sound is easier when one has a big choice of noises to use. So we do.


The existing answers are very good, and I'd like to add that in some genres, the role of the keyboardist is not only to compose and/or play the keyboard part, but also to create the synth sounds (patches) that actually define the band's sound. This is true not only for synth pop, but often in rock music as well (Bon Jovi, Toto etc.) and other genres.

Sometimes the keyboardist is not that much a synth geek, and others help them in the synth programming; in Toto there is one keyboardist for the piano parts, and another for all the synths and organs.

If you get a relatively better (=more expensive) hardware keyboard, it will probably have thousands of factory patches, and hopefully an easy way to start editing them.


In your question you talk about differing sounds of bands like alt-j, so I believe we need to talk about keyboards and synths. A common misconception is that keyboards are the same thing as a synth. Keyboards are often shipped out with permanent patches and that's it, some will have recordings of a sound that are played back when you press the key.

A synth is an actual sound generator. It has oscillators that generate waves that are then mixed and put through FX and other tools to create an enormous palate of sounds (a bit like mixing paints for new colours). A good synth is specifically designed to shape the sound quickly and easily with lots of relevant knobs to access the parameters.

A synth is a sound creating tool that you can program for the perfect sound. Creating a perfect sound is an art in itself and can take many hours, weeks even for each patch. Music with defining synth sounds will usually have been designed by someone with a lot of thought, care and attention.

To get the sound you want, you need to go through some tutorials. Google "Synth ADSR tutorial" or something similar to get you started. Be careful with software synths as a lot can be weak sounding but there are some good ones. What you need to look for is something that allows you to EDIT the sound dramatically and not be confined to the parameters of a patch. (you will probably need a midi keyboard for this but some let you use your computer keyboard)

Next up from software is a hardware synth. Depending on your style, you need to pick the right synth for your sound as there are substantial differences between makes and models.

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