By Shane Cadman
The second annual Keyz ’n Beats took place at Musicians Institute (MI) in Los Angeles on April 24th, and it was a great way to spend a music-centered Saturday. What is Keyz ’n Beats? It’s an event held at MI and sponsored by Roland, Keyboard magazine, and MI to showcase the latest keyboards, synthesizers, and electronic percussion instruments available from Roland.
MI is one of the top contemporary music schools in the country, and it happens to be located on Hollywood Blvd.—right in the center of the action! MI’s history goes all the way back to the Guitar Institute of Technology’s inception in 1977, and it has grown from a guitar school to a school with programs for guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, vocals, audio engineering, and even film, all designed to produce working professionals.
While Keyz ’n Beats is held at a music school, it’s not just for the students there. It’s open to the public, and it’s free! All anyone had to do to attend was sign up for the event online, and they were set to go. Needless to say, the word got out and the people showed up! In fact, the attendance increased threefold since last year’s event. There was an interesting mix of attendees—young to old, and novice to experienced musicians, etc.—but they were all there for the same reasons: to learn and have fun!
This wasn’t just about getting to see the latest and greatest Roland products. They were actually set up all throughout the school and ready to be played. When you walked into the lobby, the first thing you noticed was the sound of...well, how do you describe the sound of multiple V-Drums sets being played at the same time, except that you can’t really hear the drum sounds because the players were all wearing headphones? One person described it as sounding as though you were walking into a boxing gym. From there you could walk the halls to find a room set up with different Roland synthesizers (all with headphones), a dedicated room for the V-Piano, and a classroom set up with a GAIA SH-01 at every seat (more about that later). But it wasn’t just about having instruments available. To take it one step further, Roland had product specialists in all areas to help out and answer any questions the attendees may have had.
In addition to having instruments available to try out, there were also sound-synthesis classes featuring the brand new, not-even-available-yet, GAIA SH-01 synthesizer. The classes, taught by Roland Artist Relations Manager / Product Management Coordinator, Dan Krisher, focused on the basics of sound synthesis, and used the GAIA SH-01 as the teaching tool. The brand new GAIA synth—following in the tradition of naming synthesizers after mythological deities like Jupiter and Juno—continues the SH line of synthesizers started by Roland back in 1973, though packed full of modern-day features. What makes this synth perfect for the classroom is its ease of use, with everything visible and accessible from the front panel via buttons, sliders, and knobs. There were two class sessions during the day, and in each class students wore headphones and worked on their synths, while watching, listening to, and communicating with the instructor, either by microphone or by playing on their keyboard. There was a lot of valuable information packed into the 50-minute sessions as students were taught how to create amazing sounds, starting with a simple sound wave and building from there. Students who paid careful attention were rewarded with prizes, and everybody walked away with a deeper understanding of the basics of sound synthesis.
What kind of music event would it be without live music? Fortunately, MI has two performance spaces and both of them were used well throughout the day.
The first space is known as “The Garage,” and it’s right on Hollywood Blvd. Throughout most of the event, there were live performances going on in The Garage. These performances featured Mike Bennett and Scott Tibbs, DJ Michael Trance, and the “Ed Show,” performing on Roland products such as the SP-555 Creative Sampler, the Fantom-G Workstation, V-Drums, and the GAIA SH-01 Synthesizer.
The second performance area is the theater inside MI, which actually looks more like a rock club than a theater. During the first part of the event, there was a Q&A session with artist/sound designer Richard Devine, and moderated by Keyboard magazine editor Stephen Fortner. Richard Devine is known for his many music-related endeavors, including remixing Aphex Twin, programming for Trent Reznor, designing commercials for Nike, and doing sound design for Native Instruments, Sony, BMW, XBOX, among others. On top of that, he finds the time to put out sound-effect libraries and his own music.
As he explained to the audience that while the extent of his formal training was eight years of piano lessons as a child, his practical experience goes back to his teen years as a DJ. He told the attentive audience that after spending countless hours spinning other peoples’ music, he decided it was time to see if he could make his own. Seeing as it was not possible to learn what he wanted to know in school, he started buying gear—including his first synthesizer, a used Roland SH-101—and then figured out how to use it. In addition to making music, he also started field recording and sound design. “Most sound designers have no music background,” he told the crowd, which would explain the unusual degree of musicality in his work as a designer, composer, and performer. When asked about equipment, he directed the attention of the audience to the GAIA SH-01 sitting next to him. “The GAIA is the SH-101 of today,” he said, going on to explain that it is a great way to learn the basics of synthesis. He said that while it has the same simplicity of design as the SH-101, it is a synthesizer with lots of power. He ended his session with a demonstration of some sounds he created with the GAIA and showed how he went about creating those sounds, mostly by sliding and twisting things until he ends up with the sound he wants.
Later in the theater, there was a second Q&A session, again moderated by Stephen Fortner, with keyboard virtuoso Jordan Rudess. While Rudess is known for his work with Steve Morse/Dixie Dregs, David Bowie, and Richard Lainhart, as well as his own solo work, he is most well-known as a member of Liquid Tension Experiment and Dream Theater. Aside from being one of rock’s top keyboardists, he is also an important figure when it comes to synthesizers and alternate controllers.
After a short introduction by Fortner—as if an introduction was needed for a room seemingly full of Dream Theater fans—Rudess took questions from the audience. When asked about the use of technically demanding keyboard parts in pop music, he said that the main genre for this level of playing seems to be, oddly enough, metal. He’d started playing piano as a child, beginning his studies at Juilliard at the age of nine, and he never made the switch to guitar as so many young musicians do. His reason for this: “Keyboards are really fun.” He did follow this comment up with the analogy that playing keyboards is like becoming good at a sport: There are countless hours of practice and hard work involved, but at the end of the day, it’s all worth it. As one would expect, there were many questions related to Dream Theater. When asked about their writing process, Rudess delivered one of his most telling and inspiring answers to the audience full of young musicians: “We don’t second-guess ourselves. We have faith that what we do is cool.” After the Q&A was over, he performed a blazingly technical piece written for, and played on, his GAIA. When asked afterward about the inspiration for the piece, he said it started with the sounds that came from the GAIA, and then he took it from there.
After Rudess finished performing his piece, he answered a few more questions and was joined onstage by Roland’s own Vince LaDuca. LaDuca was there to raffle off a brand-new GAIA SH-01. Everybody who came to the event was eligible to win—all they had to do was pick up a free raffle ticket as they checked in at the registration table. When it came time to call a number, LaDuca had Jordan Rudess do the honors and pull a ticket from a bowl. The lucky winner got to take home a GAIA, even before the instrument has been released to the general public. On top of that, it was autographed by Jordan Rudess on the spot.
While the raffle drawing was taking place, Richard Devine and Scott Tibbs took the stage and started setting up and sound-checking equipment. Once the excitement and photo-ops from the drawing had settled down, and Devine had set up and sound-checked his laptop, an impromptu three-keyboard jam started, featuring the V-Piano, Fantom-G, GAIA SH-01, and beats from Devine’s laptop, which was sitting atop his GAIA. While no one, including the musicians, had any idea of what exactly was going to happen onstage ahead of time, with the convergence of jazz, rock, classical, and electronic music performed by these powerhouse musicians, everybody knew it was going to be something to remember. It was, and it rocked the house. There were more notes, layers, colors, sounds, and beats than one could imagine taking place in one jam. It was an amazing set of high-level musicianship, and a perfect way to end the evening. The bar has been raised for the next Keyz ’n Beats event, so don’t miss it!