You certainly didn’t spend your hard-earned cash on a quality keyboard and put in all that practice for your keyboard to sound bad. Buzzes, hums, and regular old noise can be our worst enemies, but you can conquer them. Use these four tips to ensure your keyboard sounds its best!
Gain staging for keyboard rigs
The idea behind gain staging is fairly simple: achieve clean sound by setting an appropriate volume (gain) at each step (or stage) in the audio chain. This is a critical component of maximizing your sound quality.
Figure 1 illustrates poor gain staging. This audio chain begins with a low signal, is boosted in the next step, then is lowered and raised in subsequent steps. At each yellow bar, noise and distortion is added to the signal, as the audio gear works harder to make up for the low gain of the previous stage.
To achieve proper gain staging, start with a healthy level and maintain it every step of the way (figure 2).
For keyboard players, this means a few things (watch this video to see the demonstrations):
1. Check your internal patch volume settings. Each sound has a MIDI volume level ranging from 0-127. There’s no great reason to set the MIDI volume below 100, so keep it in triple digits.
2. Back your keyboard’s master volume slider off to 80%. If it’s all the way up, you are pushing your keyboard’s output stage to the max. At that point, it’s bound to be distorting. The goal is to not overwork any part of the signal chain, so back the main volume slider down a bit.
3. If you are using a mixer to combine different keyboard/synth sources, aim to get each channel’s input, as well as the mixer output, to 0 db, or unity. Again, watch this video to see these techniques demonstrated.
Know your keyboard’s output options
Keyboards have have different numbers and types of output plugs. Your keyboard is most likely to have either one output or three. If your board has three outputs, two will be mono outputs, and the other a stereo headphone output. If you are sending your signal to a mixer, you ideally want to use the mono outputs. One will send the left side of the stereo signal, the other will send the right side. If your mixer has enough channels, send both of the mono outputs to the board. If there is only one mixer channel available, use just the left output with the right output unconnected. This way, both right and left channels will be mixed internally to one mono signal.
If your keyboard has only a stereo headphone output, you need to break out the signal into two mono signals. This is because whether you’re connecting to an amp or a mixer, you’re highly unlikely to find a single stereo connection to plug into. The solution is to use a splitter, like this one.
Use a DI box
The need for a $50-or-more DI box can be a tough pill to swallow for keyboardists. You look at the connections on your keyboard and the connections on your mixer and think, “Why can’t I just plug straight in with an instrument cable?” Technically, you can. But a good DI will improve your sound in three ways:
1. It reduces interference by converting your unbalanced keyboard signal to balanced. A balanced signal will have two wires conducting the signal. They work together to greatly reduce the possibility of interference to the signal. If you’ve ever heard a radio signal coming through a piece of electronic gear, you know about interference. Balanced signals virtually eliminate this possibility.
2. It maintains the integrity of the sound through your cables by converting your high-impedance keyboard signal to low-impedance. High-impedance signals will gradually lose more high frequencies with longer cable runs.
3. Another major advantage of using a DI is that the balancing transformer inside will fight ground‑loop problems and potential electrical safety issues. So that’s big for protecting your keyboard and yourself, but preventing ground loops also cuts out that low-level hum you sometimes hear from your board.
You can spend a little or a lot for DI’s; just don’t go too cheap. I recommend nothing less than the Whirlwind IMP.
Upgrade your keyboard cables
This is another area where it can be tough to fork over extra money, but please don’t run your $2000 keyboard through the flimsy cable that came with your first starter keyboard. Quality cables, with good connectors and wire, will help your keyboard sound its best – and do it reliably. Examples of brands to look for include Mogami, Canare, ProCo, Monster, and Planet Waves. If you’re up for assembling your own cables, check out Redco.com.
Consider a power conditioner
Noisy electricity can be another detriment to keyboard sound quality. Unlike basic power strips, power conditioners will actually filter out noise. If you’re after that last little bit of improvement to signal purity, a good power conditioner is worth a look.