It is such a thrill to receive so many questions on social media about my music, equipment, and the instruments I use.
To give the best possible response to everybody I decided to make this special Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page. This way I can answer the questions I receive in better detail.
If you have any other questions that are not answered below, feel free to ask on social media & I’ll do my best to answer and add them to the questions below ⚡️✨ and all my social links are on my contact page. Remember to hashtag #AskBelle, so I won't miss the questions!
If gear or tech is involved, I've included an Amazon affiliate link for convenience. By clicking on these links you will be supporting me and helping me to continue making music. Thank you in advance and I hope it helps you in your own journey making music.
Belle Chen: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What instruments do you play?
The instruments in my standard stage set-up are:
• a concert grand piano
• a 2nd piano that I can prepare (if the grand piano cannot be prepared)
• Yamaha Reface CP Electric Piano Emulator
• Yamaha Reface CS Synthesizer
• Yamaha Melodica - or Pianica as it's also called
• Kalimba - There are many inexpensive makes out there but be advised: I've gone through 2 now as both have cracked within a year of owning them due to the poor instrument quality and the effect of changing humidity on the wood. But ,as they are inexpensive and a lot of fun, I'm not too bothered. I'm currently investigating getting a higher quality Kalimba.
What other equipment do you use to make music?
Audio Interface / Mixer:
• Focusrite Clarett4Pre USB - This is the interface I use for both writing and for live work
• Behringer Xenyx Q1002 USB - These little mixers are so handy for setting up for livestreaming or podcasting
• Røde M3 Condensor - This is an inexpensive condenser mic that I only really use if I want to capture specific details, like a certain small range of the piano for example, to have as an option for mixing in later
• Shure MV88 - When livestreaming direct from the phone this iPhone mic and accompanying Shure app work nicely
• Shure Beta 57 - Industry standard stage mic, this becomes my vocal mic if I need for announcing
• GoPro Hero 7 - So useful and great to capture live gigs on
• Nikon D7000 - Workhorse DSLR I've had for about 8 years. With the right lens gets the Bokeh!
• iPhone Camera - Uses a bracket mount on a mic stand
• That's a secret, I will never tell ;)
• I use a MacBook Pro
• Ableton Live
• Logic Pro X (for home recording0
• ProTools (when in the recording studio)
• Novation LaunchControl XL - This is how I trigger soundscapes on Ableton
• Zoom H4N - I've had my Zoom H4 since 2014 and although it's a little battered and worse for wear, it is still going strong
• Zoom H1 - I bought this a year before I upgraded to the H4N. Works ok for vice memo's but if you're serious, just buy the H4N!
Which recording studios do you use to record your albums?
I've been lucky to be able to work with fantastic studios, mix engineers, and mastering engineers in Australia, Taiwan, New York and London. If you are looking for a specific recommendations for a studio for your own project, then please contact me.
How do you make the prepared piano sounds?
Piano preparation, depending on the programme, includes:
• metal screws
• blu tack
• percussion mallets
• horsehair - some salvaged from cheap violin bows, some kindly donated (thank you Charlie!!)
• dulcimer hammers
• wood blocks
• sardine tin (I miss Portugal)
—- The stage essentially becomes my playground!! 🤣
I have included detailed instructions on how I prepared the piano on the album DEPARTURE in the piano score book available in the Greedbag Store.
I want to start exploring new sounds by preparing my piano! Is there a non-intrusive way of doing this?
Yes, I think so!
But, first of all, it is important to share that I use a dedicated piano for anything with intensive preparation (both at home and on-stage). This is because once your skin touches the strings, there’s no going back (you may start to find the strings go out of tune a little bit sooner). As such, even in concert venues they will have a dedicated piano capable for preparation!
Now, if you're looking to prepare your home piano, I’d highly suggest starting out with non-intrusive methods that doesn’t involve direct skin/oil contact with the strings.
Materials that I would recommend for starting out include:
- large pieces of tin foil
- flat wooden blocks
- towel/cloth (which, if stuffed in the lower register of the grand on the side closest to you will also sound similar to blu tac effect)!!
- wooden tuning fork
Be mindful to choose large pieces of material to avoid it falling between the strings (it will be really hard to retrieve...). Before experimenting with preparing the piano, also do make sure that all materials are dry, and that your hands are clean.
If you're playing on an upright piano, you can attached materials like paper and tin foil to the piano frame with scotch magic tape. These tapes are easy to remove and won't leave marks on the frame. Be careful not to tape to the strings.
If you're playing on a grand piano, experiment with where you place the materials - placements close/far from the bridge create different textures. Also, materials like paper can be weaving between the strings of the same note for textural effect.
You can also explore new textures and sounds through extended techniques: for example, striking the piano strings with soft percussion mallets, or yanqin/dulcimer hammers. You can also try manually dampening the string by hand (if you wish to be really safe, perhaps wearing a glove or with a clean cloth!),
To start out, I would avoid using anything metallic all together.
How do you capture the sound from the little keyboard on the train?
The keyboards I use in my social media videos are the awesome Yamaha Reface series which emulate a set of classic keyboards from the 80s and beyond. They can be powered by an adapter or AA batteries (I use a rechargeable set to reduce waste) they have a stereo and a midi output.
I record the audio output from the keyboards into my trusty Zoom H4N, and by capturing the ambient sounds with the inbuilt stereo mics as well as the keyboard using the stereo line input I can then mix the whole piece later.
I want to get a keyboard; how do I choose?
Purchasing a new keyboard/instrument can be both exciting and daunting - there are so many different options out there, across multiple budget ranges...!
Whilst I can't recommend particular instruments, I can talk through my thought process when deciding which instrument I am looking to acquire.
If we break it down into simple steps:
1. Know what type of music you're looking to make
The needs of a soloist, jazz session musician, composer, producer etc. are very different, and this will impact what kind of keyboard is needed. The first step I always take is to find musicians who are making the type of music/sounds that I'm aiming to create on social media, and analyse what type of instruments they are using and how they are making these sounds. Take time to observe and analyse, and list the instruments down for further research!
2. Does the instrument stay at home/ in the studio, or does it need to be portable?
Personally for me, 88-key instruments are always preferred. However, an 88-key instrument is also hard to move around and tends to be heavy.
If you are someone who likes to take an instrument when travelling to continue working (like me!), portability of an instrument becomes very important. Portability include: whether the instrument can be battery-powered, whether the instrument can be recorded directly onto a portable audio interface (like zoom h4n, using stereo out) WITHOUT needing a laptop, and the weight and robustness of the instrument.
Keyboard instruments are available in 88-key, 73-key, 61-key, 49-key, 37-key etc. ranges. So be sure to consider whether these the range will suit the type of music you make, how you play, and also where you intend to make music too.
3. Polyphonic vs Monophonic
There are some great monophonic synthesizers out there with really amazing textures and sounds, but for anyone who wishes to make music where both hands are playing on the keyboard, be sure to choose a polyphonic instrument!
4. MIDI In/Out
For those who compose and notate their compositions on softwares such as Dorico/Sibelius/Finale, or those who compose by using MIDI on Logic/Ableton, a MIDI-out from keyboard is extremely useful for inputting notation.
In addition, a MIDI-in/out allows for you to daisy-chain the keyboards (i.e. allowing you to play the sound of the 2nd keyboard by using the 1st keyboard).
Note that there are differences between midi keyboards (controller), synthesizers, and stage pianos (electronic instruments). This links back to the above-mentioned points - be clear on what type of music you're looking at making & where/how you'll make the music!
This is linked to point #1. Depending on what type of music you're wanting to make, a sustain pedal may be necessary as accessory.
Personally, with the type of music I make, I absolutely need sustain pedal!
Note that for some instruments, the pedal is not just a sustain pedal but a foot controller (its behaviour can be for adjusting volume too).
6. Additional Notes
I always recommend spending time in an instrument store to try out the instruments. Take a good 30-minutes to play, explore, and experiment in the store.
Understand your budget and also very importantly, what you wish to achieve with the instrument. Sometimes a more expensive keyboard may not necessarily be better, as it may not serve your needs. Do chat to the staff in-store, they are often very helpful and can offer insights.