The Fender Rhodes MKII stage piano’s are getting harder and harder to find. I am very lucky to have one in the Smith Music studio that was gifted to us with the request we give it a good home. One of the great things about a Rhodes is that you can do anything to the signal that you can do to a guitar signal including using pedals and guitar amps with great character.
In this blog I am going to take you through the detailed set up that I used to record Rhodes in this session and how I over come its inherent challenges. To see the session and look inside the Rhodes to see how it mechanically works, please click on the accompanying video.
Setting Up To Record
Recording a Fender Rhodes is much like recording a guitar with a couple exceptions.
The first exception is that a Rhodes is a lower output instrument than an electric guitar. The problem this can cause is that you need to turn up the guitar amp to compensate for the low input which results in more noise. The easiest way to manage the low output of the Rhodes is to buy an acoustic guitar pre amp. The way I’ve chosen to do it is more complex but has some clear advantages.
Goal - High Output Signal Into Amplifier (See Diagram Below)
To achieve our goal we need some sort of “preamp” to boost the signal going from the Fender Rhodes to the amp. In addition to that I want to parallel compress the signal before the amp to drive a more even signal into the amp while maintaining some dynamic range. Fender Amps typically have a high dynamic range meaning that when you strike a note (the note attack) it is very loud and quickly fades (release). Sending the amp a more consistent signal will make the release part of the note much louder and give you more sustain.
One of the problems to over come is that a Rhodes puts out a Hi-Z (High Impedance) signal. Most mixers accept and Low Impedance (line) signal. The D.I in our diagram converts the HI-Z to Low impedance signal for the mixer.
The mixer is used to split the signal so we can have a parallel signal that is compressed. The D.I. goes into channel 1 (see Diagram) of the mixer. It is important that this channel is panned center. This mean the raw signal goes to both the left and right outputs of the mixer. The right output of the mixer is sent to the hardware compressor what a very large amount of compression is applied. The Compressor output is sent to channel 2 in the mixer and it is panned left. Lastly, the left output of the mixer goes into a re-amp unit. I use the little labs redeye 3d. What this achieves is the ability to mix both the uncompressed signal and the compressed signal of channel 1 and 2 in the mixer out of the left output of the mixer.
The re-amp converts the much powerful signal back into Hi-Z and gives the amp the signal it expects to see only now the signal is much louder and a more even signal.
Click the diagram to open it in a new screen.
What you’ll need
2 channel mixer
The second challenge
The Rhodes is very mechanically loud when you play it. The keys clicking and the pedal clanging will be easily picked up by any mic that is close by. Keeping a good distance between the Rhodes and the Amp which is being mic’d is a must. A separate room is optimal. This is not an issue in my commercial facility where I have a great cue system and lots of space but would pose a serious issue for any one in a bedroom setup.
Keeping the Rhodes far away to stop mechanical noise from the amp, poses an issue when you are plugging it directly into an amp. The maximum distance you want a regular patchable to be is 20 ft or you will have serious signal loss. By the time you account for slack you can only get about 12 feet away from the amp. The system I designed fixes this problem as well. After you convert the signal to low impedance from the D.I. you can run these XLR cables as much as 300 feet without losing signal. You can put the D.I. on the Rhodes and run a 2 foot cable to it. You can then run that cable as far as you need to go to get to the amp.
I haven’t had anyone else criticize this system however I have had plenty of internal criticism. The first is why am I using such an inexpensive mixer. Won’t the preamps sound bad? I am planning to try some API preamps in this system but so far these have been fine. My rational is that these preamps handle a much wider frequency response than is produced by a guitar. Secondly guitar pedal preamps that cost about the same amount of dollars are not generally using higher quality components. Lastly the increase in tone from parallel compression and increased output is of more benefit than any possible small loss in quality from these preamps. Finally, to me, it sounds really good and that is all I care about.
This system is far more complex than average. In the studio is solves a multitude of problems. This system is not well suited to a live set up because it requires a bunch of gear sitting on top of an amp. I do plan to rack mount it to make it realistic to use live.