A Keyboard Programmer’s Journey to Broadway — Part 2

Continued from Part 1

So, I ended up spending the next few weeks going to class full-time, attending rehearsals for the school’s production of Bat Boy, and working on keyboard programming for the national tour of The Lion King. It was definitely one of the most caffeine-fueled parts of my life. The Lion King gig basically consisted of recreating the existing programming in MainStage. The original work was done on an old Kurzweil keyboard, and I guess an update was due.

The thing is the Lion King score is pretty massive when it comes to mapped string parts in the keyboard books. For those who don’t know that means, here’s the basic concept. Since there aren’t enough live string players to get the desired orchestral sound, a keyboard is used to augment the live players. Since a keyboardist can’t realistically play four registers of string parts with two hands, a technique called mapping is used. By mapping multiple notes to one key, the keyboard player is able to play a full string section’s worth of material with a simplified and playable part.

Up to that point, I had never done any sort of extensive string mapping. I had occasionally mapped sound effects to certain keys when needed and that was it. While the concept was the same, mapping full orchestral string parts proved to be quite the challenge. The keyboard parts only display the actual notes that need to be played, and not the notes that sound. Thus, the process involved referencing the full score and Aviom recordings to pick out what the keyboard was playing in the existing programming. Then, it was a matter of individually mapping different samples and their associated velocity layers to the correct notes. Occasionally, samples had to be tuned due to stretch tuning. The process was hugely exhausting, but tons of fun. In the end, I learned a lot and was able to deliver my portion of the work on time. Funny thing is MainStage 3 came out a short while later, and the Chord Trigger MIDI FX plugin would’ve made the entire mapping process A LOT faster. Sigh.

I played in a few more local productions for the rest of the spring. Come summer, I spent a a few weeks in New York to get a feel for the city and to sit in a few pits. Jeff had a lot on his place at that point, so I helped him out on a few projects. I ended up doing most of the programming for the Muny’s production of Shrek that summer. The orchestration was pretty straightforward and the programming didn’t take too long to finish. What ended up taking up most of my time was troubleshooting with the music staff over the phone. In fact, troubleshooting and keeping people calm is actually a huge part of the gig. I quickly realized when you, as the keyboard programmer freaks out over the technology, everyone else starts freaking out too. Staying calm is super important. Everything ended up working just fine, and I got my first regional theatre credit at a venue that seats 12,000 people! Not bad.

I returned home to Boston to play in a few more community shows over the summer. I spent my days reading about digital audio, old synthesizers, cool recording techniques, clever music production skills, etc. I learned a lot that summer. Early fall I was called to setup keyboards for a promotional recording for the upcoming production of Aladdin. I took a bus to New York and it ended up being a pretty easy gig. I showed up to Avatar Studios the day before the session to set up the keyboard rig and load up the keyboard programming. Next day, I came in early to make sure everything was working alright. During the session, I sat by the Keyboard 2 player in case something went wrong. After the session, I packed up the rig and labeled it for transport. When that was done, I hopped onto a bus back to Boston.

The rest of the fall was pretty between classes and playing rehearsals for a local production of Les Misérables. In late November, I started a blog called Music Tech Review with my friend Colin DeVarney. It was just supposed to be a place where we could occasionally post reviews and tutorials related to music technology. Since then, it’s grown to be quite successful! Fall semester soon ended, and I flew to Hong Kong for a much needed vacation with my family.

Stay tuned for Part 3

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