Hardware overwhelm: a girl’s guide to buying a new stage piano

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Hardware overwhelm: a girl's guide to buying a new stage piano • CharlotteBax.nl

Good morning my creative friends!

Last month I sold my monstrously heavy, ginormous Yamaha S90SE stage piano with a million features that I never used, to replace it with something simpler, and more importantly: lighter – a Yamaha P115B.

I don’t really know if it is because I am a woman, or just because I am “me”, but I always get a bit overwhelmed when I have to buy a new piece of hardware. Most equipment doesn’t come with practical, easy to use names but some kind of model number, what always seems to be a pretty random bunch of digits, but apparently makes perfect sense to the manufacturer.

This blog post is meant to be a guide to help you buy a new stage piano, but I guess you could use it for basically any piece of hardware you need!

1 – Why do you need something new?

First you want to make clear why you need a new piece of hardware. Is it because you don’t have this kind of gear yet, or does your old equipment need replacement? Are you dissatisfied with what you have now?

I really loved my Yamaha S90SE. It felt like a real piano and the piano samples that I used regularly sounded really good. The only problem was that the instrument was so incredibly heavy, that I couldn’t lift it on my own, let alone take it with me to play gigs! Plus it had a ton of features I never used, which was quite a waste.

2 – What specs are important to you?

Make a list of all the important characteristics of your instrument. Think of what you need based on the previous question (why you need something new) and what you need the instrument for.

For example, I needed it to be a light instrument for playing gigs, but I also wanted to use it at home for rehearsing AND as a MIDI controller for easy part recording. I needed it to have its own speakers, so I wouldn’t have to plug it into my audio interface to actually produce some sound, but it also needed to have L/R jack outputs, so I could rig it to whatever sound system available at a venue.

This is the list I came up with:

  • Light enough to handle on my own (max 15 kg)
  • Speakers
  • Jack outputs
  • 88 keys, weighted or hammer action
  • MIDI / USB
  • Input for sustain pedal
  • Needs to have a way to transpose by half steps

Don’t get scared by very detailed specs such as the wattage of the speakers (yeah it’s nice to know but I just need it to have its own speakers) or specs with difficult words that you weren’t specifically looking for. Usually if you don’t know a word, you weren’t looking for it 😉

3 – Ask around

Because different brands can have very different quality instruments, I recommend asking some piano-geeky friends what they would recommend based on your most important demands.

I asked a former teacher if he could recommend some stage piano that is light enough for me to handle, 88 keys, and with MIDI output. I also sent some links to instruments that were within my budget and that had the specs I needed.

This way I learned that Casio is more of a cheap brand for beginners with not really spectacular sounds and that Yamaha always has a great realistic piano sound. He sent me links to 2 instruments which might be right for me. TWO instruments. Much better than the overwhelming amount you find in webshops!

If you’re entirely on your own and don’t have geeky friends like this, don’t hesitate to email the customer service of some large webshop you will probably buy at! They are happy to help you.

4 – Check your specs

When you think you have collected some nice options, you just have to check the specs. Usually the specs ar listed in the webshop, but for some very specific things, just google for the instrument user manual and use the search function to look up what you need. For example the transposing function is not commonly listed in webshop specs, it’s not important to them. I had to look that one up in the user manual.

Sometimes really simple things such as audio outputs are not listed because they are so common, but it wise to always double check this in the manual! One of the two instruments I compared actually DIDN’T have two jack outputs for audio, only one jack for headphones. Of course I immediately crossed this one off the list! The other instrument had all the features I needed.

5 – Time to buy!

Well, at least you know what instrument you want now! Before buying, you could check if you can sell your old piece of gear online. It’s really great if selling your old instrument covers the costs of a new one.

Also make sure you are buying from a legit company, such as Thomann (or in The Netherlands Bax-Shop). This makes returning or repairing the instrument (if needed) so much easier.

Do you get overwhelmed by hardware specs and names? How do you deal with it?

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My 5 favourite ways of writing backing vocals

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My 5 favourite ways of writing backing vocals • CharlotteBax.nl

Hey guys,

Since I’m working on a new song, I thought it would be nice to talk a bit about how I create them. As I am very focused on the vocals in my songs, I usually have more than just a simple melody. Today I have listed my favourite ways to add some nice backing vocals!

1 – Double in thirds or sixths

Doubling the melody in thirds or sixth is super easy and will instantly add some body to the part. I usually do this in the second and third chorus. You can keep this going for quite some phrases without getting boring.

Fun thing in my current project is that I actually double the bass part in the backing vocals… In fifths, which creates quite a rich sound. Something to remember!

2 – Counterpoint

Sometimes doubling a melody just doesn’t work. It sound dull, second-hand or old-fashioned. Falling back on some good ole’ counterpoint (how ironic) could really step up your backing vocal game. You basically have two separate, equally interesting melodies. You can even mix them equally instead of using it as a backing vocal.

3 – Pedal tone

My favourite for verses. By using a pedal tone as a backing vocal, you keep things mysterious and add a lot of suspension. Most of the time I wil use the tonic, but sometimes the dominant can be appropriate too.

4 – Full harmonization

Yes, yes! Full four part harmonizations in the choruses please! I love to add a lot of vocals in the third (and, if applicable, fourth) chorus. I love the rich sound it gives. On the other side, four part a capella works very nice as a bridge when the rest of your song is fully orchestrated. Remember to use counterpoint to totally nail it.

5 – Canon

I’m doing this at some point in my upcoming song as we speak and it works magic. The effect of the same part being started over and over again is very… *mesmerizing*. This is totally not a hint at the lyrics.

Not every melody can be used for this though. Sometimes you’re lucky that it happens by chance (I didn’t intend for it but the phrase just *asked* for it), but you could also be a very calculating songwriter and think it through.

What are your favourite ways to spice up your vocal parts?

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5 activities to help you overcome stage fright

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5 activities to help you overcome stage fright • CharlotteBax.nl

Hey guys,

It’s been a while!

I’ve been spending more and more time writing and rehearsing songs, which is a good thing: the fact that my creative juices are flowing again means that I’m on the right track with my burnout recovery. I may still nap sometimes, and I still can’t work full time, but this is a great development.

However, writing and playing songs means I have to perform in public. Solo. I never felt the need to do this when I still focused on writing music for films and games, and come on, how hard could it be?

Well, singing songs is not difficult at all.

What’s far more crippling, is stage fright.

I never experienced this, until the moment I had to perform all on my onesies, without the safety of a choir. Funny thing is, when I’m just playing the piano, everything is fine. Add singing to that, and I almost pee my pants.

Why do you have stage fright anyway?

Everyone may encounter stage fright in a slighter or more severe form. If it’s just a little, it might even help you perform better, because you are more focused. However, too much stage fright can really affect your performance in a bad way.

There are a number of reasons you might have stage fright:

1 – You have practiced poorly

When this is the case, you know exactly where your weak points are and what could go wrong. With the added stress of an audience, you are bound to forget that chord progression or lyrics you haven’t studied as hard as the other parts.

2 – You are inexperienced

I mean, who isn’t frightened at least a little for something new?

3 – You are insecure

Not because of poor practising, but because you are not self-confident enough. Is my song interesting enough? Will people like my voice? Is my genre of music to their taste?

 

The first reason you can take care of by proper practising, and only performing a certain song if you can play it with the utmost ease at home. The other way to overcome your stag fright is by gaining experience, so you get more familiar with how everything works and the reactions of others. Positive feedback means the next time you perform will be a little less scary!

But how can you get more experience in a relatively safe way? Experiences that will most likely turn out positive, without the risk of people thinking too bad of you when you accidentally fuck up? Try this:

1 – Perform for family and trusted friends

This is the safest thing you can do. You family will think you are amazing, even if you fuck up and have to search for your notes or restart your song in the middle. Grandparents will always enjoy their grandchildren playing, and the positive reactions will teach you the valuable lesson that it doesn’t rally matter when you make a mistake.

2 – Perform at a public piano

In the Netherlands, we have public pianos at quite a number of train stations. Playing one or two songs in such a place can be a great start to performing for a public consisting of people you don’t know. You can start by playing at quiet hours, and work your way up to peak hours, when more people will pass. Most people will just walk by, but soms may stop to listen for a while.

This is a great way to play anonymously to train your confidence, but also to get more publicity when you are more secure of yourself and want people to follow you on Youtube or SoundCloud.

3 – Record videos

Recording videos is a great way to experience feedback from strangers from the comfort and safety of your own home. Make it a one-shot video, but you can do as many takes as you wish and choose the best one. Especially when it’s an auditioning video (for a part in musical theatre for example) you can experience the stress of performance, but if it gets too much, you are still in the comfort of your own home.

However, this method will not help you with actual fright for live performing – it is only a way of getting used to performance stress when you have never ever done such a thing before and are just starting out.

4 – Pupil concerts

If you take lessons, whether private or at a music school, your teacher will probably organize one or two concerts in a year, for all pupils to get some performing experience. I can highly recommend participating in this! The audience will be a very safe group of people, mostly parents and maybe some other friends and family. Because a lot of pupils are performing during such an evening, you can also learn from how they behave on the stage and manage their stress.

5 – Open mic nights

A step further is an Open Mic Night, usually at a small pop music venue or a pub. Here you find all sorts of folks: from newbie songwriters to the more experienced artists that look for some exposure. There will probably be someone to tell you how it works and answer questions, for example how many songs you can play, if they allow for cover songs, etc.

 

Do you know any other performance situations that could help to overcome stage fright? List them in the comments below!

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New cover song online: I’ll make a man out of you

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Hey all,

I’ve uploaded a new cover song!

This one is a bit special – I fell in love with this song because of Peter Hollens’ cover (check it out here). After watching the actual movie with my boyfriend, this became sort of “our” song. (Yup – not your regular romantic love song!) So this one is for you, Paul!

 

Cover of “I’ll make a man out of you” from the Disney film Mulan.

Music and lyrics by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel.
Original song performed by Donny Osmond.
Cover performance and production by Charlotte Bax.

Special thanks:
• Peter Hollens for inspiring me to do this cover;
• My love Paul for infinitely humming this at home and making me laugh every single time you scream “moon”;
• Friedemann Findeisen for giving me some mixing tips on my previous cover, that I could immediately put to use in this song 🙂

I’m open for musical collaborations, just shoot me a message 🙂

Photo by Marije Leferink.

How I record and edit my piano parts

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How I record and edit my piano parts • CharlotteBax.nl

Hey guys,

Today I’d like to show you how I record my MIDI piano parts! Basically, this is one of the most important steps in my entire production process. If it’s not an all-piano song, then it will be a dynamic and expressive guide for the orchestration.

You ready?

1 – Prep your lead sheet

Print it and not down the intensity of each section from 1-10. Until quite recently I never used to to this, but the fun thing is that The Addiction Formula and my vocal teacher both say this is important.

And indeed, it helps so much with figuring out where your song comes from and where it goes! You can adapt your playing style to the intensity of the section, instead of just playing the same thing over and over just because it feels comfortable.

2 – Hook up your MIDI piano to your audio setup

Well, first things first: I actually never record piano audio. Virtual piano instruments are so advanced right now, you can make it sound like the real deal. So having some extra room to edit and perfect your takes is quite nice!

In my case, I just leave the cables on permanently because they all run pretty much along the wall. Perks of a small home studio 😉 I use a Yamaha S90ES, an Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56 and Logic Pro.

Don’t forget to choose the right External MIDI source in your DAW! When I was a beginner I totally didn’t get why I couldn’t record MIDI parts. I mean, the cabls were in the right ins and outs! Took me a while to understand I had to actually select the MIDI source. Ah well, you can’t be a pro in everything right from the beginning!

3 – Record all sections

Sometimes I record the whole thing at once, but most of the time I record all sections separately. Especially when it’s a totally new song and I haven’t practiced much, mistakes happen quite easily. It’s so much easier to just record sections in such a case!

When you turn on recording mode, don’t forget the clicktrack and TAKE YOUR TIME. You don’t have to start playing after one bar already. Especially when recording section by section, you can just glue them together afterwards. No stress!

After recording I put all the right takes in a track with East West’s Steinway piano (from Gold Symphony Orchestra).

4 – Timing

Check your timing and nudge everything that sounds off. Mind you, SOUNDS off. Sometimes stuff looks off, but it sounds perfectly fine. It’s natural to have slight tempo changes in every musical phrase.

Usually I move entire chords, to not damage the human element too much. Remember that nobody plays perfectly on time like a robot! Only on rare occasions I move a single note.

5 – Velocity

One of the things I love about recording MIDI parts, is that I can edit everything afterwards. Not only timing but also velocity is very important to fix before you start recording vocals. Usually I make the softer parts a bit softer and the louder parts a bit louder. This is very helpful for expression and dynamics in your vocal recordings. In music it’s hard to overdo it!

6 – Playback

Don’t forget to play back the whole thing to check if it’s exactly as you want it to be!

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