I have a symphonic metal band and I play keyboards. I am playing strings or piano or something else at a time. I have no clue how to get all of those together? How does e.g. Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish manage to do all that?

  • 2
    If you check out live videos from Nightwish, he does not play all the orchestral and synth parts from the record, only what he can do with two hands :)
    – marczellm
    Jan 31 '15 at 19:53

Oh, that's very easy: backing tracks from tape.

That guy basically does not play live anything but synth pads. Not even piano parts.

You can see that clearly at the beginning, here:

The D50-style synth bells are from tape, as are the synth "ooh"s.

The guy plays pads.

HOWEVER, I believe it is entirely possible to play 95% of that stuff (perhaps by sacrificing the headbanging and looking less sexy to girls) with good programming and good playing (and sometimes clever rearranging).

I have little doubt a guy like Jordan Rudess, with good technique and good programming skills, would be able to pull that off without backing tracks with just a couple of samples thrown in.

You need good hand independence, then you split and layer your sounds, transpose what can be transposed and sometimes cheat by using a couple of samples here and there - check this extremely useful video that gives you the general idea of how it's done:

Of course, you need a board that's capable of doing it, but basically any professional or semi-professional workstation keyboard, from the old Korg M1 onwards, allows you to split and layer sounds in an effective matter.

  • 1
    As a rule of thumb, the more "intense" the keyboardist looks, the less he's playing :-) Feb 23 '16 at 11:46

I don't know that specific artist, but the solutions commonly used include:

  • multiple keyboards - many bands use this. It's technically simple; just have each keyboard set with different patches
  • midi - use one keyboard to trigger multiple patches. This can be varied over time so a particular section can gave different patches
  • He is the synth guy from Nightwish.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jan 31 '15 at 12:29
  • 1
    Ah - cool. On checking out his rig, he uses multiple Korg keyboards as a baseline. Often playing one with each hand.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Jan 31 '15 at 12:36
  • So, I should use a laptop and a MIDI interface? I have some old Korg keyboard and a Nord Stage 2. I think that I should use Nord directly and Korg connected to MIDI. What do you think? Thanks for your reply.
    – TheNeosrb
    Jan 31 '15 at 13:31
  • @TheNeosrb What is your Korg keyboard? It may be possible to create layered sounds on it. You can also layer strings with piano on the Nord Stage 2.
    – marczellm
    Jan 31 '15 at 19:52
  • 1
    another bullet point : backing track ;)
    – Julien N
    Feb 6 '15 at 13:11

You could use Ableton Live and trigger MIDI clips in Live for some of the parts while playing the others in real time. If you decide to go this route you might want a foot controller/bass pedals for running Live while you play other parts with your hands.

I find triggering midi clips into synths sounds better than recording the synth sounds and playing them back as backing tracks. Plus it is easier to use tap tempo to match a midi clip to how you are playing at the time.

  • Interesting approach, but if you play in an Enya-metal band with everything up to 11 and no subtlety whatsoever you might as well feed a click track to your drummer, just like Evanescence / Nightwish / you-name-it does :) Mar 20 '15 at 13:14
  • Now that I think about it - screw click tracks. You don't need a backing tape to play that kind of stuff anyway, you just have to be a little less lazy :) Mar 20 '15 at 13:26
  • You could also hook a drum trigger up to the snare or provide a pad next to the hi-hat and the drummer to could tap tempo using those. There are really too many options. Mar 20 '15 at 13:40
  • You're retracting your answer that I upvoted? Mar 20 '15 at 13:40
  • 1
    Not at all: the artist the OP is referring to (and was referring to in the title before it got edited out) makes extensive use of backing tracks, and I mantain that. But after all it's really no Wakeman-esque stuff, if you work just a little bit on it you can surely do without backing tracks :) Mar 20 '15 at 16:00

I am a keyboard player who plays 3 keyboards. Korg N364's. I can emulate pretty much any song as a live performance. The answer to your question is not so much 'how you play' but how you engineer your keyboards for the parts. The answer is Layering and splitting.

What you need to know about your keyboard is how to split the keyboard up. I can layer 8 sounds on top of each other. therefor I can also split/divide the keyboard into 8 individual sections. I can place the split anywhere along the 68 notes and also layer up on 1 note for chords.

This can sound like you have 4 hands rather than 2.

For instance lets say you have a brass section of a song. You can place the main trumpet over a section of your keyboard so that the keys only play where your complete part is. You might have harmonizing trumpets that play over certain notes of your lead trumpet. You place those on the notes where they harmonize the lead. you might need to use a couple of layers for the harmony as the harmony doesn't always follow the lead. it might be a semitone lower or higher somewhere.

Next add the sax where you need it. remember, I am emulating the original song here so you need to have a good ear to pick out all of the parts. So there I may have used 5 out of the 8 parts available to create the brass.

The next thing is to find where the chords are going on a keyboard. You might have piano or synth with a sting backing which follows the piano. Layer the piano and place the layers where you can play them. Remember that your keyboard can also transpose the notes of each layer or sound to where you need them.

Sometimes I might have to place a sound played on octave 7 or 8 onto octave 1. The sound might not transpose that deep so then I have to edit the patch itself and make the patch higher in octave and save it as a separate patch so that when it is placed on octave 1 it is correct.

Sometimes the song might have piano and string layers as mentioned but further on it might not have the strings. I then have to create a new layer somewhere just for the piano. It might have bells overlayed on a certain note. Just layer them and fit the bells to the note where it is to be played.

so what you end up with is 3 keyboards completely split and layered with each part that will be played throughout the song.

All you have to do now is memorize everything and play the song. Good Luck!


The answer to the original question is quite simple - someone else provides orchestrations to go with the basic song, and then records real musicians and choirs (there's a video on YouTube that shows this happening for "Endless Forms...."). It's then simple to strip out the band parts from the final mix and play the orchestrations back for performance from a PC with a click only the drummer can hear. Done it myself with Cubase (also controlling lighting via MIDI) but it's VERY hard on drummers!!

  • If your drummer can't play straight 4/4 parts to a click either your IEM system or your drummer is broken. Then again, you don't really need Hollywood-sized orchestras to play Enya metal in the first place, especially if you do it live in a pub. It can be nice as an added coating of sugar on the album, but depending on which kind of musician you are I really think you can either play everything live or aid yourself with a basic backing track using orchestral samples. But why would someone want to see a cover band that uses backing tracks extensively eludes me. May 27 '15 at 11:07
  • Now that I pay attention to it, how is it "simple to strip out the band parts from the final mix"? This kind of puzzles me, if we are talking about the regular stereo mix from the CD and not some multitrack. May 27 '15 at 21:51
  • This is a viable answer. Stripping the band parts out apparently means to isolate the non-band tracks, relying then on a sync track to keep them together live. This isn't performing multiple keyboard parts, but it is very much a means by which bands can and do provide more voices in a live performances.
    – Epanoui
    Aug 19 '15 at 21:06

I read the question; Should I use a lap top with Midi Clips. I have done this before where I required sample voices and also realistic sliding strings such as the ones used in Jamiroqui's music.

What I did here was use fruity loops and a sample player within fruity loops connected via midi. I then assigned one note to trigger the sample on my keyboard.

To do this you need to split the keyboard so that the note assigned doesn't play anything. No sound from your keyboard. This works well until you change songs and forget to turn off the sampler in the computer.

The key will still trigger the sample even after you have changed sounds on your keyboard. another way around this would be to set up songs in your computer software specifically for the song you are going to play. You can set up patch change triggers that change your keyboard patches automatically and load the samples to be played without touching your keyboards at all.

This will also save you the embarrassment of forgetting to change your keyboard but not your computer.

There are 2 problems with using laptops as either virtual synth drivers or sample players. I'm not saying don't do it as it might open up a whole new world, however, problem 1 being the buzz from the power adapter in your laptop. This can come through your audio output and through front of house.
If this happens to you, you might need to buy another power adapter.

Problem 2 is a what if problem. What if you are playing on stage and your laptop crashes, or your memory is over run and your laptop stutters and freezes?

That, will be the longest 5 minutes of your life rebooting, while your band is looking at you.. and the crowd is looking at you... red faced, sweating and screaming at your laptop to hurry the *&%# up!


Nightwish are Using a N364 keyboard. The keyboards architecture allows you to record sequenced patterns for however long you want them to play and then assign them to any note on your keyboard.

The keyboard can have up to 10 pre loaded songs before having to load the next set.

The guy is playing in sequencer mode. In sequencer mode you can trigger any one or all of the 16 channels of sequences to play at any time. the sequences won't overlap one another as even if you are pressing the trigger out of time it will start when the previous pattern has finished. so he can either play all 16 channels off one trigger and act, or he assigns the trigger to the lowest c using any channel other than channel 1, and uses channel 1 as a sound which he can play over the keyboard as a live performance OR he can set patch change triggers on channel 1 to play piano for instance from bar 1-10 and then change to another sound from bar 10 to whatever.

The drummer will be playing to a click track unless he's played it so many times that he can keep time while listening through his monitors.

short answer is... he's not playing live. just triggering. and getting paid a shed load for it.

  • You are probably wrong with this, for three good reasons: 1. Only the stereo out pair is connected and there is nothing connected to the midi in for clock 2. Why would he bother doing that when he's got a backing tape going for the choirs and orchestral parts already? 3. The performer in question is well known to avoid all programming, going so far as to switch between preset patches with the keypad on stage. May 13 '16 at 16:37

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