Take A Stand
Martin Russ looks at solutions to the perennial problem of where to put all those keyboards that MIDI musicians accumulate.
Martin Russ looks at solutions to the perennial problem of where to put all those keyboards and other hi-tech boxes.
The first keyboard you buy is a major acquisition, and it probably forms the centre of your workspace, be it home studio, pro studio keyboard room, or stage set. But the second keyboard soon follows, then an expander, followed by a rack mounting effects box and then a MIDI patchbay, and before you know it, you have created a major problem — where to put it all. What you need is some way to organise the space around you into a coherent working environment — racks, stands or shelves, perhaps. But what is the best solution? After spending a couple of years monitoring the market and the products, I was unable to find a clear guide to the options, so I decided to write one myself...
It seems to have started with the MiniMoog. Having spent a not-so-small fortune on a nearly-impossible-to-keep-in-tune small wooden box with keys, you were faced with the problem of where to put it. At this point you found that the top of your Fender Rhodes electric piano was curved (and it bent under the weight), which made the precious monosynth precariously unstable. Small wooden wedges and strips of bent steel quickly came to the rescue, and formed the basis of the wide range of supports, racks and stands which are now available.
The church organ is the inspiration for most solutions to the problem of what to do with more than one keyboard. In order to maintain easy access to two or more manuals, organ designers adopted vertical stacking. Even the pedalboard can be though of as a way of providing another set of keys in front of the performer. When stacking is part of the design of the instrument then it is easy to get the ergonomics correct, but when you are doing it yourself the problems can become very complex and there are many things which need to be considered. Try these questions out on yourself: How many tiers of keyboards? Most organs only have two, or perhaps three. I can only recall one band on stage with much more than four tiers, but then the Enid always did break rules!
What angles? The organs which I have seen have always had keyboards on parallel planes, whereas any stage keyboard rig seems to put the higher tiers at steeper angles. Anything above 45 degrees begins to feel strange — you think that the keyboard is going to fall forwards, regardless of how securely it is fastened. For our three or four tiers this still allows angles of about 15 to 20 degrees between each keyboard, which is more or less how people seem to naturally set things up.
What vertical separation is required? Stops and other mechanical switching devices are usually squeezed into a thin strip between the manuals of organs, but for most hi-tech keyboards the top surface needs to be accessible, which increases the necessary spacing. The further back that you have to reach, the wider the separation that is needed.
Sitting down or standing up? Some stands get in the way of your knees or feet, which can make sitting down at them awkward and uncomfortable. Because of the pedalboard and pedals, organs force you to sit down. For stage performance there is a relationship between the type of music and what is permissible in this respect — the more serious the music, the more likely you are to be sitting down. So, classical and jazz will be played seated, whilst popular music almost demands that you stand (unless you are a drummer, and for all-electronic bands even the drummers can stand up). To complicate matters, some genres of performance require both. Many rock keyboard players tend to sit down when providing accompaniment and stand up when soloing.
How far away do you want the keyboards? Related to the angles, vertical separation and playing position is the problem of how far away the keyboard(s) should be. The natural playing position for a keyboard which is just above your knees when you are sat down has your upper arms vertically by your side and your forearms almost at right angles horizontally. If you now try lifting your hands upwards to play an imaginary keyboard at 45 degrees then it feels very awkward — it feels more comfortable to move your elbows forward to about 45 degrees, thereby effectively moving the hands forward. Coincidentally, this forward movement also improves access to the front panel of such a keyboard.
How wide? Organ keyboards tend to be five octaves wide at most, with the 2-manual, 4-octave variety overlapping for three octaves to give the same effective width. Real pianos can be much wider, and custom-built special purpose MIDI controllers can be ridiculously wide (128 notes?). Most synthesizers have a 5-octave keyboard as standard, and seem to have a maximum width of 107cms (42"). Master keyboards tend to run out at about 88 notes.
How many sides? Organs only present one face to the player, whilst a synth player might be surrounded on all four sides. The three sided U-shape was the province of early Rick Wakeman, whilst the 4-sided square and playing with the arms at right angles or on opposite keyboards became the trademark of the progressive rocks bands of the 70s. Master keyboards and MIDI mean that today's stage players need only one or perhaps two tiers of keyboards, and there is no need to hide behind banks of synths. In the studio, the 3-sided U-shape can be used to make best use of available space whilst still allowing easy access via the open side.
Can you get behind it? Access to the rear of most equipment is almost essential when re-wiring a complex MIDI system, or when trying to trace a possible fault in connections.
Does it bounce? Some keyboard stands develop an alarming tendency to bounce up and down when played hard. In some cases this is merely off-putting, but it can result in instability. The best way to test this is under real conditions, with the support system loaded up with equipment — you may be surprised how weight can affect performance.
Many types of stage keyboard rig have been used over the years. From the large grey instrument-obscuring wooden boxes of Ultravox, to the exposed instruments and black hi-tech metalwork of Depeche Mode, they all aim to satisfy the needs of both stage designer and performer. In the studio environment, the comfort of the player, ease of use and compactness are most important, and appearance is less critical.
Until quite recently, the keyboard stand market was dominated by A-frame and X-frame designs, but the last couple of years has seen the appearance of at least two new and very different types of stand, based upon the results of a lot of work on trying to find out exactly what the user really wants. These Z-frame and tripod support systems offer quite different solutions to the support problem: the first looks good but lacks flexibility; the second may look strange, but it is very versatile.
Before I make any more judgements, let's look at all the possibilities. I have identified eight different methods of supporting hi-tech musical equipment. The eight types of frame are (in no particular order): A-frame; X-frame; Z-frame; Tripod; Tension; Orthogonal Tubes; Shelves; DIY Wooden.
Some commercial systems use a combination of these basic types, and I shall not cover these in any depth, although the 'Others' section below mentions some points to bear in mind about obscure combinations.
A-frame stands always remind me of the roof of a house, with the keyboards as tiles. Two or three tubes at each end form the 'A' shapes, and the horizontal connecting tubes form the supports. A-frames are usually categorised by the number of tiers, which is usually between two and four. Recent innovations include variants with flat table tops for the lowest tier, or side extensions for additional keyboards. Rack mounting equipment requires special adapters, whilst 'table top' devices like expanders and hardware sequencers can easily be placed on flat shelves.
Examples: Stand Innovations.
The basic, cheap'n'nasty keyboard stand is usually an X-frame of some kind: two 'H' shaped pieces of tubing, pivoted in the middle, provided with some sort of locking mechanism. The pose value can be spoiled by the '£20 at Argos' image, especially when you start to add extra tier supports, and stability starts to become marginal. The more upmarket varieties solve some of the problems of adding extra tiers, but the basic problem of hitting your knees on the stand when you are sitting down can restrict this of stand type to standing use only.
Inspired by stage setups which attempted to minimise the visible support mechanism, the innovative Z-frame is best known by the trade name Apex. Although a single central support like this looks unstable, it is actually surprisingly rigid, although I do not recommend leaning on the ends of synthesizers. The 'Z' can lean away from or towards you, depending on the particular design, but all the variations seem to sacrifice versatility for looks — you cannot change the angle of the upper tiers of keyboards, and there is no easy provision for rack mounting or 'table top' units.
Examples: Apex, Deltex, Stealth.
Tripods are the latest attempt to provide supports which do not get in the way, but are strong, light and easy to set up and take down. They combine many of the ideas of the other systems into a composite form. The base of the structure is formed by a tripod (or quadrapod) — three (or four) legs supporting the master keyboard. Two of the legs are at the front, whilst the third is at the back. Connected to this third leg is the single pillar which supports the upper tiers with a combination of the Z-frame and X-frame extra tier systems. The combination is effective and very versatile, coping well with both keyboards and 'table top' devices, although rack mounting equipment might be awkward to incorporate.
Examples: Quik-Lok Transformers.
Most A-frames are made from aluminium alloy tubing, anything from 25 to 50mm (or more) in diameter. This size is necessary to enable the joints to get a good grip, and provide strength and rigidity. Tension stands adopt an alternative approach, using small square-section steel tubing which is held rigid by tensioned steel wires. The end result is a keyboard stand which is almost invisible — hence the trade name Invisible Stands. The major problem with these stands seems to be their inflexibility — the keyboards are always horizontal, and you have little control over their height.
Examples: Invisible Stands (available in US only).
By using the same sort of tubing that is used for A-frames, it is possible to construct the musical equivalent of industrial shelving, with angles and heights adjusted by moving the joints around. The resulting supports look like scaffolding, they are extremely robust, and can be customised to a specific requirement — places like Manny's in New York use this sort of support system for their keyboards. Using a basic kit of parts, it is possible to design some very versatile supports for a wide range of purposes, although the cost of this sort of sophistication can be high. Recommended for consideration by the serious user.
Examples: MCMXCIX stand at exhibitions, Thinker Toys Custom Tubing.
If you have a solid wall available, then a shelving system might solve your keyboard support problems. A trip to any DIY store should provide lots of information about a wide range of types, but only a few are suitable for our needs. All modular shelving systems are based around the idea of fixed vertical supports with slot-in horizontal shelf mounts, but the weight of most keyboards means that the aluminium varieties will bend under the strain, leaving the more industrial-looking steel variety as the only sensible choice. The vertical supports come with either with one or two sets of slots for the horizontal shelf mounts. For most purposes, the stronger 2-slot version is the one to buy, especially since the lowest parts of a typical keyboard system can be some distance from the wall.
Because the shelf mounts are always horizontal, you need to arrange triangular shaped pieces of wood to angle the keyboards themselves, and devise some way of preventing the keyboards sliding forwards. Often, putting wooden shelves with lips at the front can help to provide the stability and security you need. The necessity of all this fiddling with bits of wood leads to the major problem with this type of support system — it can be difficult to alter angles and heights once you have set it all up, since you will need to pull most of it apart to get at the supports.
The need to angle the keyboards also limits the minimum height between keyboards, which can be a nuisance. Access to the rear panels of equipment may be non-existent, so bear this in mind in your design — groping about behind synthesizers in the confined spaces between shelves is not pleasant.
Even further down the DIY trail, we come to the fully hand crafted solution. If you are good at metalwork and welding, then designing and building a steel or perhaps aluminium support system might be possible (scaffolding looks too much like scaffolding, and the steel tubing is very heavy!), but for the rest of us, it's time to think back to school woodwork lessons. Two materials lend themselves to our purpose: chipboard and MDF.
Chipboard is coarse flakes of wood compressed into 15 to 30mm thick boards and, although strong, it is prone to losing bits off corners with use. MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard) is rather like grown-up hardboard. Until recently it was mainly used by the furniture trade, although you can now find sheets of it in most DIY stores. MDF has a fine texture, it's a joy to work with, and seems much more robust at the edges. However, it is not available in the same thicknesses and sizes as chipboard.
The key to success with this approach is careful planning, caution, and hard work. Exactly the same principles apply to this as to any other system, but a notable feature of it is a loss of visibility — you really can hide behind (inside?) a keyboard rig made of wood.
There are a few other support systems which use complex combinations of the above types. Often the result of such ingenuity is a loss of flexibility, although the tripod stands show that sometimes the unusual can work. It really depends on what suits you, but look very carefully at exactly how these other systems limit your choices — often the neatness and ease of assembly will severely restrict actual use. Ask yourself the questions outlined above, and see if you can work out what the trade-offs are.
Whilst on the subject of stands I should mention that there are stands for things other than keyboards and hi-tech equipment. A strategically placed guitar stand or saxophone stand (or even a music stand) can also help to organise a musical working space. Computer workstations designed to support a computer, QWERTY keyboard, monitor and printer can also help to keep things neat and tidy.
No single solution to supporting hi-tech musical instruments will be suitable for all occasions. The perfect studio solution will probably not be suitable for setting up and taking down every night on a world tour. The important thing to remember is that you are trying to produce a working environment, and the more efficient and pleasing it is, then the better the music you will produce. If you get frustrated because you can't reach everything easily, then you will not consistently perform at your best, so how you choose to support your equipment may be vitally important.
With such a wide range of products, finding the approach that suits you is not going to be quick or easy. Consider your needs carefully, and if possible, try out some of the different types to see how appropriate they are. Don't forget the irresistible urge to acquire more MIDI equipment which seems to afflict most users, and make provision for expansion in your plans.
Which system did I eventually choose? For my money, the optimum solution just has to be the full custom orthogonal tubing, although getting the design right is a story all by itself. Make your choice carefully — a bit of support could be just what you need.
Feature by Martin Russ
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