Playing keyboard strings sounds is very common. To do it well, it’s best to consider what you are aiming for.
Are you trying to add texture, add high end energy, or make the song sound orchestral?
Your answer will affect not only how you play, but how you prepare your sounds as well. In this post and video (scroll down), we’ll cover both playing style and adjusting your sounds sounds to fit different keyboard strings approaches.
Using keyboard strings to add texture
The first approach is the easiest: using keyboard strings to add texture. This simply requires adding strings as a layer to your main sound, e.g. piano.
You don’t have to change your playing approach. The strings add flavor and texture to the piano sound.
This approach often works better with a slight sound adjustment. It’s an easy one to make, but check your keyboard or your synth software for a setting called Cutoff. Turning this setting down cuts out some of the higher frequencies. This helps your strings fit better and not overwhelm your overall sound.
Using keyboard strings to add high end energy
The next way to use strings is one that I use most often. I can be playing the primary keyboard parts, and I add a strings layer to my sound, just like before, but I change my playing approach. I will typically switch this on for a louder part of a song, for added energy. I tend to play up a little higher on the keyboard, and I choose what I play based more on the strings than on my piano.
I pay attention to three things. For one, I make sure the strings don’t build up and overwhelm things. It’s really important to clear the sustain pedal more frequently.
Second, I really listen for the melodic movement I’m creating with my strings, particularly the top notes of my chords. If I’m hanging out on one or two notes, it gets boring. But moving the chords and notes around creates a lot of interest and dynamic energy in the song. It makes for a great soloistic or lead type of sound.
Third, I pay close attention to note spacing. I try to spread out notes a little more than when I am playing just piano. It gives more clarity to the string part.
Octave spacing works really well with string layers. If you use Mainstage, you can set the MIDI plugin Chord Trigger to automatically double notes as octaves. See the video for a quick Chord Trigger setup demonstration.
The last approach is definitely the most challenging, and that is when you try to give the song an orchestral sound.
Opt for a natural-sounding string patch, but also change your playing approach. You want to consider the different stringed instruments: violin, viola, cello, and bass. Consider the playing range of each instrument and how they might move from chord to chord.
It’s helpful to think of a four-part string approach with two parts per hand. Though since you’re the one playing all four parts, you can fudge it a bit.
This approach sounds best when you create melodies with the top notes as well as movement with the interior parts. This is where you want to pay attention to what we call voice leading – how one note of a chord leads to a note in another chord.
String patches for Mainstage
To help you out with this process, I want to send you some Mainstage string patches that I use. If you go to this page and enter your email address, I will send you my favorite natural-sounding strings patch, synth strings patch, and the octave patch I set up in the video.