Touring Keyboard Set Up
When we first talked about playing the festivals this summer I decided I wanted to completely overhaul my keyboard set up. It had remained pretty much the same since 1996 and a lot of the components were old and out of date. So I started totally from the beginning and built a whole new system.
There are many ways to go about a keyboard set up for stage but which ever route you take you have to be able to program each song and its set of sounds individually with different levels and effects on the sounds. You then have to be able to change between these set ups immediately. In the past I used hardware samplers, keyboards and modules loaded with all the different sounds and a programmable digital mixer to allow me to set the levels and add effects. As technology progresses so fast the options I had now were much greater than 16 years ago.
I think anyone who knows me knows that I love technology and in particular Apple computers. I use Logic Pro as my computer recording base and I use Macbook Pros and iMacs to run the software. A few years ago Apple introduced Mainstage as a part of the Logic package. It allows you to use certain elements of Logic in a stable live environment. You can program channel strips for each song and add effects like delay, reverb and chorus and you can use all the virtual instruments that come with Logic and any third party ones like my piano sample Ivory. You can also run your live instruments into it and build up patches and groups of sounds using all of those inputs.
It’s very easy for instance to set up layers and splits on the keyboards. In some songs I play up to four different sounds split across the keyboards and it’s very easy to do this in Mainstage.
So in my rack I have a Mac Mini server as the mother computer, it’s got an SSD 256g hard drive and 8gb of ram. I have a MOTU Ultralite as the audio interface, it allows the computer to convert analog to digital and then back to analog to the main outputs. I also have a MOTU Microlite MIDI interface. I have two of everything an A and a B rig in case I have any problems during the set up on stage. I also have a really cool Belkin rack monitor and keyboard that controls the Mac Minis.
On stage I have two keyboards, the main one is a Kurzweil PC3K8 and it has 88 weighted piano type keys. I like to play using a weighted keyboard for most things. This is the mother keyboard and it has all the patch/song names stored in it. I scroll between them in between songs. I use some of the Kurzweil internal sounds as well especially the piano. I also as a back up have the entire set from Bestival programmed using entirely internal sounds so if the computers go down I have a go to… This keeps Robert happy hahah as I think he is a bit wary of computers on stage.. On top of the Kurzweil I have a Yamaha Motif XF6 which has a synth type action keyboard, I like to have one of these for songs where it feels more like I’m playing a synthesizer. It also has a lot of great sounds and I think I’m using about 20 of the internal Yamaha sounds. They have a great JX8P string sound which I use mixed in with some real samples.
So back to Mainstage and its key component for me anyway is the EXS24 sampler. It’s a software virtual instrument but does the same as hardware samplers like the Emulator and Mirage in the past. When I put together my last set up I had an Emulator E4, it cost £4000 and had a tiny 1gb hard drive and about 16mb of ram. The EXS24 comes with Mainstage which costs about £20 to download and has limitless storage and 8gb of ram if it needs it. I don’t want to get too technical about sampling but basically it allows me to play real instruments from my keyboard. I can sample any instrument and then play it on stage. In the past and on every album from KMKMKM onward the Cure have used samples. Obvious examples are the sound of the sitar and shakuhachi flute on If Only Tonight We Could Sleep. They were samples from the infamous Ensoniqs Mirage which was an 8bit sampler, very crude but quite amazing sounds for the time and the price. Other samplers of the time cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, the Mirage maybe one thousand. So I can convert any format of sample to be recognized and played by the EXS24.
I had lost track of a lot of the samples but a friend of mine Darren had set out on a mission to relocate all the sounds of the Cure and his help was invaluable. I ended up with a full set of original samples from the Koto in Disintegration and Fascination Street to the Solina string machine which was used on so many Cure songs like Inbetween Days and Just Like Heaven. In the end we were missing just one sample which was the key string sound from the Disintegration album. I had pretty much given up when I found it one day in a tin box in my garage!
My memory of a lot of these samples was colored by time and when I got back to them they were noisy, a lot of them really short and badly looped and generally not as great as I thought. So I ended up doing quite a lot of editing and cleaning up and then in Mainstage for each song I could EQ and filter the sounds to make them sound better. I also added in some modern sounds. I also had access to the multi track recordings of the albums and was able to compare the sounds I had programmed to the originals. Over the years we had drifted away from the original sounds quite a bit and I have tried this time wherever possible to recreate the original sounds. I even found parts I hadn’t been playing and keyboard parts on songs none of us knew existed!
Certain new/old songs were a lot of fun to work out, Bananafishbones for example has a lot of keyboards on it and they are pretty funny sounds.
So overall I spent about 3 months working on the whole project and programmed about 80 songs. I’m really happy with the way it has worked out, the sound is amazing and stability has been very good apart from some problems we had in Barcelona. Jeff Cross at Apple has been amazingly helpful, I had a three hour conference with him where he was able to access my Mac and see what I was doing right and wrong and make suggestions. I sent him the whole project in the end and he looked over it all.
On stage everything is set up and looked over by Steve Whitfield who has been a friend of the band since he engineered the Hello I Love You sessions in 1990. It’s really nice to have him around, he hasn’t keyboard tech-ed before so he’s learning as we are going along….
There is one component I have left out and that’s a volume pedal that the final mix from Mainstage goes through on stage. It allows me to do swells and fades and of course a sustain pedal for playing the piano. If anyone has any questions please email and I will be happy to talk shop!
I, as you may have notice use what are called “In Ear Monitors” they are pretty fancy headphones really. I have moulds taken of the inside of my ears then they are custom made to fit me, they provide sound insulation of about -24db and then I can feed in anything I want from the monitor desk via the monitor engineer Rob Elliott who I have to say is probably the best engineer I have ever worked with. I also have an ambient stereo mic set up on stage behind me which I have fed into my ears, it makes it all sound more real. I use a brand called Ultimate Ears and I have to say the pair I am using right now are the best fit and most amazing sound I have ever worked with. The volume on stage is pretty high and now standing next to Simon isolation is more important than ever, I don’t think I could continue to play live without IEMs..
I also use a water bottle by Camelbak hahahah but now we are getting way too detailed!
Wait I forgot a very important component and it’s been with me since the Swing Tour in 1996, designed by old friend and genius lighting designer Roy Bennett.. My keyboard stand! Keyboard stands are always an after thought, you usually end up with one of those awful scissor stands or worse still some kind of sci-fi leaning back contraption. In its first incarnation my stand had swirly bits around it to fall into the broken fair ground theme of that tour but when the tour was finished we took that bit off and that’s how it has remained ever since. It’s a two tier stand with a single supporting pole that leans towards the audience to counter balance the weight. The floor part of the stand was originally designed to fit my MIDI Step keyboard pedal which I had used since 1989 but I no longer use that so we have a simple board with the MIDI line drivers volume pedal and sustain pedal attached. I’ve had many requests for info about the stand and it even appeared in Keyboard magazine but it’s custom built and can’t be replaced. I’m sure it was pretty expensive at the time and even more now but with a quick spray of matt black paint before each show it still looks and works great.
QUESTIONS + ANSWERS
Q: What organ did you use in “Lovesong”. I remember I asked you years ago, but can’t remember what you said. Was it a Kurzweil?
A: It was an organ sample from the Emulator E3 a Vox organ
Q: What sounds do you use from the xp Roland ? I have a xp-80 and love it also a juno -g but I find the best strings out of the Roland has to be from the U-20 . Beaux . “the Chamberlains “
A: I don’t use the XP50 any more but on the last few tours I used quite a lot of the sounds
Q: Any chance you could talk about the process you go through when “creating” a sound on, say, a Moog Voyager?
A: Creating sounds on the Voyager is a unique experience and one I compare to mixing colours in a paint palette
Q: What are your favourite effects to use on your keyboards, generally? Reverb, delay, etc? Also, what’s been the most enjoyable keyboard to play, the most fun?
A: For live I never use Reverb only delays and chorus and flangers. I like playing all different keyboards as long as they have a nice feel
Q: Kit-wise, name your three ‘Must Haves’, three ‘Would Likes’ and three ‘Why Did I Buy Those???
A: Moog Voyager, Macbook Pro, Kurzweil mother keyboard… Buchla 200e, New Fender Rhodes, Monome…. Hahah Ive sold all those stupid things…
Q: Disintegration. Full gear list?
A: I think its on my page that I wrote about Disintegration… Check it out..
Q: have you used any modular stuff over the years? Fave analogsynths?
A: No but at the end to the Summer I am going to order a Buchla 200E system. My favourite Analog synth are my Voyagers.
Q: Would be fascinated to hear about all the various permutations, particularly anything to do with the basement studio at Porl’s house on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall (20′odd+ years ago?)…
A: I don’t know anything about Pauls studio, never went there and we never recorded there.
Q: Hello there Roger! I play synths for the Cure tribute band The Cureheads – I would be enormously interested to know what you used on Kiss Me… and Disintegration, as well as your current set up of course! I’m a big EMU Systems fan, did you use much of their gear? In order to attempt to replicate your sounds, and those for earlier Cure songs too, I use Emax II and ESi4000 samplers inc. library sounds from the Emax II and the E3, and also I use an EMU Proteus 2000 for a lot of sounds :)
A: Ive used a lot of Emu gear over the years, we used E2 and E3 samplers on Disintegration. I used to have all their modules in my rack but now its all software based so I no longer use them…
Q: Hello Roger, I would love to ask you: which synths did you use in “Closedown”? Pure curiosity. I always thought you used a Solina and a JX-8P for that song, but probably I’m wrong. Have a nice day.
A: Definitely a Solina and probably string samples from the Prophet 2000
Q: Do you plan on incorporating your Voyager again with The Cure like you did for the self-titled album? Also, lots of interesting synths have hit the market since your last departure, are there any you’re exited about in particular? For instance, the Roland Gaia SH-01 is quite nice and the latest Yamaha Motif models are superb. Lastly, when the time comes to start writing, how do you plan on going about writing the synth parts, i.e. disintegration/kiss me era stuff, or perhaps just tackling the songs as they come?
A: I don’t plan on incorporating any instrument, I simply use what is needed. I usually bring all my keyboards to the studio and set them up just in case a specific sound is called for.
Q: Do you ever think a sound you used in a recording doesn’t sound good played live and you have to tweak it a lot or change it altogether to blend in? If so, any examples? Any piece of gear prone to this effect?
A: No usually if it works on the record it works live, so I usually don’t edit them much…
Q: I have another question for you now… What is the process for you when adapting your live keyboard parts for songs that were recorded/written when you weren’t a part of The Cure? Do you try and replicate what is exactly on the recording, or do you add your own touch to it? Also for songs such as from the TIB era when keyboards weren’t a part of the band lineup? Would love you to answer this one!!
A: I always think its most important to replicate exactly what is on the record. I think people come to concerts and expect to hear what they heard on the record. To that end I take a lot of time programming the exact sounds and learning all the parts and making sure it sounds just right. Then Robert listens and we may change a few things and add or take off effects but thats it.. There are usually keys on everything even if you can’t hear them, for example we discovered a keyboard part on Primary that nobody knew about.
Q: Roger, on the Kiss me and Disintegration tours the sounds you used were sampled or synthesized? Do you remember your keyboard rigs from those periods? Thank you.
A: Mostly samples, yes my keyboard set up is outlined in the page about Disintegration
Q: Have you ever recorded anything on a pipe organ? I saw a movie called Troubled Water where the main character plays one and I really fell in love with the sound.
A: No NEVER!
Q: You have used MIDI pedals before but they don’t seem to be part of your setup lately. I have Roland PK5 pedals myself and they work great when 2 hands aren’t enough or for adding parts while I’m playing guitar or bass. What songs and sounds have you used your pedals for live? I seem to recall reading one instance was during Homesick on the Prayer Tour, but by Trilogy Perry was playing one of the parts…
A: No I stopped using them around the time of the Trilogy concerts, I used to use them in Plainsong, Homesick, SDWAY and Pictures of You for either triggering things like the Ahhh sounds in SDWAY or the Glowing Crystals in Pictures. I played the string ling in Homesick and some sampled chords in Plainsong.