Running the keyboard rig for one of the UK's biggest bands is always going to be nerve-wracking — especially when it's all centred on a laptop computer...
"It never goes wrong at a small gig!” laughs Roger Lyons, having just described some of the problems he has had to sort out during his time as keyboard tech and programmer for the Kaiser Chiefs. "I find the best way to deal with it is to not look at anybody apart from the guy I'm looking after. It's important that if there's a problem I look at him straight away, so he knows that I'm doing something to sort it, because that puts him at ease. That's very important, because my relationship with the band is built on trust, and they trust that if something goes wrong, I can fix it.”
The Kaiser Chiefs certainly seem to trust Roger, for he has been working with them since 2007, the year that their chart-topping album Yours Truly, Angry Mob, featuring the anthemic and ridiculously catchy track 'Ruby', confirmed their status as one of Britain's biggest rock bands.
When Roger started working for the band, the setup of keyboardist Nick 'Peanut' Baines was still relatively simple, largely because the band had spent years playing support slots and being given a limited number of channels by FOH.
"It was a mono system with fewer inputs,” reveals Roger, "but we made the jump to stereo in 2007 and we've added to it from there. It was mono because they were a smaller band and you only have so much room on the desk. A support band might get 32 channels for their drums, guitars, bass, vocals and so on, so we only had the luxury of four channels for all the keyboards. We had it split so that Peanut's SH101 was on its own, the piano and organ were separate and we had a synths channel for everything else. I've changed that and now the keyboards occupy 11 channels, including the click track.
"I insisted on changing it because, as production values go up on records, mono just doesn't cut it, especially for atmospheric treatments. I remember going out front at the first gig of theirs that I went to and thought, 'Oh, is that it?' So I made it one of my jobs to make it more than that. The keyboards definitely take up a nice chunk of space in the outfield mix now, and you get a sense of depth from them.
"The stuff that we were using when I first came onboard were the last of the hardware Akai samplers and those little half-U Roland modules with JV1080 expansion cards in them. The modules were doing all the pianos and organs, but they just weren't delivering the goods in terms of sonic quality. So we stopped using samplers and modules and started using Macintoshes and plug-ins. I'd already been using Native Instruments stuff for about six years in the studio and really liked their sound, so it seemed logical to get all the sound sources into software. I'd done that with a few other bands, and there's no looking back after you've done it.”
According to Roger, Peanut's current stage setup comprises a Mackie mixer that allows the keyboardist to adjust the balance of his stage monitors, four Novation Remote SL controller keyboards, and a Roland SH101 synthesizer. The four controllers play whatever plug-in instrument is assigned to them, and that is determined by the patch Roger has running in Apple's MainStage plug-in management environment.
"MainStage is a program that has changed the way I work probably more than any other bit of software in the last 10 years,” insists Roger. "It comes free with Logic, so if you've bought Logic 8 or 9, whether you know it or not, it will have installed MainStage on your computer. MainStage is like Logic but without the sequencer, I'd say. I always found Logic a bit unwieldy because I'm a Steinberg and MOTU fella, really, but I can't think of any other program that does the same thing, so there's really no alternative. MainStage is the only practical way of routing all four MIDI controllers to where they are supposed to go, and you can get very complex MIDI setups to work with the minimum of fuss.
"It allows you to run a set of plug-ins that work on different keyboards with different splits, different outputs and different effects. And it allows you to do that on a song-by-song basis, so that you just hit the down arrow on the laptop and it goes to the next song in the list, and everything is there loaded up straight away: all your effects, samples, and plug-ins.
"Before I started using MainStage, I was running a copy of NI's B4 organ and Kontakt, and manually going between them and loading things in the background. That actually worked very well, and we used that method for three years after the Kaisers stopped using hardware. MainStage is a natural extension of that method, but it lets you involve everyone else's plug-ins as well, and in the show at the moment we use plug-ins from NI, Arturia, and G-media. We might, for instance, have a virtual Bechstein grand piano running in Kontakt, NI's B4 organ and the ImpOSCar plug-in, and in MainStage you can get all those different plug-ins running very happily in one song.”
On stage, Peanut's Novation Remote SL controller keyboards are arranged as two banks: one for when he is standing up and the other for when he is seated and performing piano-based songs. In both positions, there are 61-note Remote SLs on the bottom shelf and 25-note versions above, the difference being that the standing-up bank also includes Peanut's much loved Roland SH101, which is positioned at the top, just to the left of the 25-note Novation. Peanut's Mackie monitor mixer also sits nearby, usually just to the right of the 'seated position' keyboards.
Some distance away, hidden behind the bass rig, is Roger's rack of MIDI and audio I/O interfaces, which connect to two laptop computers, each running an identical copy of the MainStage set.
"I have two setups, labelled Main and Spare, and the system is one button-press away from running either one,” explains Roger. "The I/O for the computers comes via two MOTU Ultralites and two MOTU Fastlanes. The Ultralites deal with one set of MIDI Ins and Outs, and the Fastlanes give us another two. And all those Ins and Outs are connected to a MOTU MIDI Timepiece, which I use as a master MIDI patcher. The Timepiece is an eight-in/eight-out patchbay, router and filter. I've been using them since they came out and used to use them to sync to tape machines! That takes the inputs from the four MIDI keyboards and spits them out as three outputs, one going to the Ultralites and the other two to the Fastlanes. So the four MIDI keyboards are condensed down to three MIDI inputs. I do that because we only have three MIDI inputs per Mac, and the two 25SLs always have the same sound.
"The audio outputs from the computers exit via the MOTU Ultralites, and each of those channels goes into an analogue Dbx compressor, just to keep a lid on it in case something goes crazy. Then the outputs of those go straight into Radial DIs. I'm very particular about using Radial DIs. If you get a synth with a particularly hot output, like the Roland Phantom, for instance, the output is so hot that whatever you do on the DI box, you can't stop it distorting. But I've never been able to make a Radial DI sound like it's being overloaded.
"Then the XLR outputs of the DIs go to the monitors and FOH, so they aren't treated any more by me, but the thru outputs go back up to the stage and turn up as inputs on Peanut's Mackie desk, so he gets the processed, compressed sound. But that's only for him, so he can balance what he plays against the rest of the band, and so it goes straight into his monitors. On his mixer, he has four stereo inputs from the Novation-triggered plug-ins, a mono input for his SH101 and one other mono input for whatever additional analogue keyboard he's using that day.”
When on tour, Roger is regularly modifying his MainStage set lists and programming new song patches, according to whatever changes the band decide to make, and any changes have to be swiftly duplicated onto the backup system in case there is a problem.
"There are always bits of programming to do,” he says, "especially when they are in a new songwriting phase and want to try things at gigs, so I'm often making plug-in patches. Once I'm done I run [backup program] SuperDuper to clone the hard drive of the laptop onto an external drive, and then I clone from the external drive to the backup computer.
"It's actually difficult to keep the computers synchronised in any other way, because MainStage puts its data in different places. The file that deals with the set of songs, for instance, lives in one folder, but if you save a patch out for a song that's within that set, which I do as a matter of course so I can rebuild things easily, that lives in another folder!
"But if I use SuperDuper, I don't have to worry because it synchronises all the patches and clones the file path too. The only thing it doesn't clone is the authorisations, so I open up NI Service Centre to re-authorise the Native Instrument plug-ins.
"I don't synchronise every day, because if I don't have a guaranteed Internet connection it can stop my show, but I do it whenever I can. Obviously, the Kaisers don't add new songs every day, so we get periods of stability where I don't have to do any programming apart from making a copy of last night's set, and I can do that on each computer individually without the cloning process.
"I also save copies of the sets, so we can go back to any show if we need to. For instance, if they are recording a gig for a release and someone says, 'That keyboard sounds different now,' I can look at the plug-ins and see if any changes have been made. So it's almost like a forensic trail.”
As well as programming and running the MainStage system and its I/O, Roger also acts as keyboard tech, ensuring that all the equipment is properly set up and in full working order. Of course, the controller keyboards simply play whatever is assigned to them in the MainStage song patch at any given moment so, quite logically, it falls to Roger to maintain them and troubleshoot if anything is amiss. Like the keyboards, Peanut's footpedals are also fully assignable, which enables Roger to remotely control them from MainStage and have them perform a number of different tasks.
"We use quite a few sustain and modulator pedals, which plug into the back of the keyboards,” explains Roger, "but MainStage routes all the pedal information to where I want it to go. So, for instance, there's a song called 'Kinda Girl', which has a Hammond sound with a fast and slow Leslie effect. The Native Instruments B4 plug-in that we use for that is normally set up so that if you hit the modulation wheel of the keyboard it makes the Leslie go fast and slow, but if you are playing a two-handed part it's difficult to get to your hand to the modulation wheel, so within MainStage I have the sustain pedal for the 25-note keyboard routed to the speed of the Leslie!
"Peanut has one sustain pedal for the 61-note keyboard and one for the 25, so if he hits the 61-note one, it will sustain, which is good for building up organ chords, but he just needs to tap his foot on the other pedal to the right to change the speed of the Leslie. On the next song, however, that small keyboard plays an organ sound, so on that one the sustain pedal is a sustain pedal! It's quite complex, but in MainStage I can do strange setups quite easily.”
"Another example is the song 'Good Days Bad Days' which has a very analogue sounding MS20 multisample that I made. When it is playing in the verses, Peanut wants the sound to be dry and have portamento on it, but on the bridge and choruses he likes a delay. So I have it so that when he presses the sustain pedal, it turns off the portamento and adds a delay. So on that song I am using the sustain pedal to do four different things in different parts in the song, but it's not doing any sustaining.”
Of course, Roger and Peanut have the option of simply using a large bank of pedals, but Roger believes that it is better to have complexity in the programming and simplicity in the hardware.
"It is a lot easier in terms of trying to track a problem down,” he insists. "If you have a problem with a pedal, it normally travels from song to song, and if that pedal is not doing what it is supposed to, it becomes obvious quite quickly. In that situation, I grab another one and stick it onto the piece of board that's underneath the keyboard. It has Velcro on it, as do the pedals, so they are in the same place every night.
"Also, if you had one pedal per function you'd have a bewildering array of pedals and not enough places to plug them in. So, this way, the pedals take up the minimum amount of space and you get the maximum amount of functionality out of them.
"But Peanut keeps coming up with challenges for me! I'll mull over what he wants, work out the signal path and then start setting it up on the backup Mac while he's playing on the main system. You have to get on with it, because time is restricted, and I've become good at using the backup system to do programming during the soundcheck. Obviously, there's no sound coming out of it at that time, but I can do routing and make new patches. When I'm done I say, 'How about this?' and then press the A/B switch on the MIDI Timepiece. It flicks to the backup Mac and he can try it.”
Aside from routing plug-ins to keyboards and pedals to controller functions, while setting up patches Roger has to use his programming expertise to edit sounds and find effects settings that match those that were added to the recorded versions of the tracks, so that the live set delivers the album sound that the audience knows and loves.
"A lot of the songs that are being written at the moment have a piano and a synth, because that's the setup Peanut writes with in the studio,” explains Roger. "Or he might have an organ sound and a synth, like a Minimoog, ImpOSCar, or the Oddity. I know the kind of thing he's looking for, so I get that going and work on the sound within that particular plug-in. Then we'll refine it. At its simplest, he might just want a bit of reverb on the piano, or it might need a little bit of delay. 'Ruby', for instance, is a nice bright piano with a short slap-back of about 75 milliseconds, no feedback and a little bit of reverb. If he starts playing that sound, you know straight away that it's the 'Ruby' piano, because it just sounds like the record.”
Although the Kaiser Chiefs do not play to backing tracks, they occasionally have to use a click track as a guide so that certain key sound effects appear in the right place. As with the plug-in setups, the click and sound effects are MainStage-based files prepared by Roger.
"At the beginning of the song, Peanut presses a key and up to three tracks of audio come out of different outputs on the back of the keyboard rig,” explains Roger. "One will be a click or rhythm track that goes to the drummer. Then there might be a stereo track with some related sound effects, and they get incorporated into the rest of the keyboard world. It's like a one-shot thing that plays to the end of the song, and by that time I've called up the next track.”
"Peanut is very au fait with Logic and Pro Tools, so sometimes he generates a click track and then gives me a Pro Tools session to extract the bits that they want to use on the track. Or Peanut will just say, 'Here's a stereo track and a click that I've done, can you make that work?' So a lot of the time we'll do that in Pro Tools or Logic and export the files. They are loaded into a sampler within MainStage and triggered like a long sample. It's actually a multisample with different things coming out of different outputs, some that the audience hears, and some they don't! The only thing that doesn't go to FOH is the click. I think it's only used on three songs, just in tiny bits, just to keep the drumming in time with specific cues.”
It's clear that technology has greatly expanded the options a performer has on stage. Nevertheless, the more complex the system, the more resources it takes to keep everything running from tour to tour. Roger says that his box of spares now includes quite a bit of software, hard drives, power sockets and pots for the MIDI controllers, whereas his tool kit comprises a soldering kit, pointy-nose pliers and enough screwdrivers to allow him to take anything apart and put it back together again.
"So much of it is software related, now,” says Roger. "I have to have backups of the hard drives, system discs and installation discs for the software that I'm using. When I've not seen the band for a bit and am just about to go on tour again, I need to get all the gear out of storage and set up somewhere to make sure it's still working. After you have done a summer of festivals, keyboards, especially, get sticky keys, so you have to give them a clean-out.
"I've had issues on stage where a MIDI controller has started throwing out rogue data because an encoder has gone faulty on one of the Novations. If it starts to chuck out MIDI controller 22, for instance, when it's routed to a drawbar on an organ plug-in you get this weird harmonic thing coming through on every sound, or even worse is if it triggers LFO pitch modulation on a sound! I've had things like that happen. Normally it's just a case of turning off and resetting, but I have spare keyboards just in case.
"Last year at the Coachella Festival in Palm Springs, all the notes started holding on Peanut's keyboard. Luckily, it was a sustain pedal rather than a key problem, so after I'd pressed the 'panic button' in MainStage, which sends a MIDI 'Note Off' message to everything, I ran up to his gear, put a new pedal in, and that fixed it.
"You just have to hope that the rest of the guys are sympathetic to what's going on!”
When Roger isn't working as a keyboard tech and MainStage programmer for bands like the Kaiser Chiefs, New Order and Ultravox (with whom he toured in 2012), he runs his own studio, producing music for other people and doing a little of his own. In the late 1990s, Roger was half of the big-beat band Lionrock, but it's a band project called the Circus Girls, featuring his friends Louis Gordon and Allan Owens, which he'd most like to be doing. "I'd like nothing more than to be playing in a band again, because I enjoy it so much,” Roger admits. "I've still got all my instruments and have been waiting to use them!
"But I've started turning my laptop on while I'm on tour and writing a few melodic techno tracks, because I still listen to a lot of dance music. There's some really good stuff about at the moment, and that's inspired me to start doing music again. Dance music is easy to do while you are on tour, because all you need is a MIDI keyboard plugged into your computer. Most of the old synths that I love are available as plug-ins now. I've got my ARP 2600 and Minimoog plug-ins, and they are so convincing that I am happy to use them 90 percent of the time.
"The music I was doing in the '90s can now be done live with things like Ableton, where you can remix on the fly. You don't need racks of Akai samplers. It is great that I can get it all in my laptop and the fidelity has gone up.
"Justin from Lionrock was at my wedding recently and we were chatting about how much we enjoyed doing Lionrock. We had such a blast, so we might do Lionrock again!”
Roger's first stint as a keyboard technician was way back in 1991, when he was working for Simply Red on their Stars tour, so he is experienced enough to be able to sort out most problems that arise. Nevertheless, at a recent Kaiser Chiefs gig in Melbourne, Australia, he met his match. "I just had to go, 'That's it lads, sorry, I can't do anything about it!' he admits.
"They had just done the first song of the encore when I changed the patch to go to the next song and this incredible noise came out of the keyboard rig. I could see that the MIDI Timepiece was the problem — it is in the middle of the chain, so all the Ins and Outs go through it — and it was squirting random MIDI messages out of every output, and both computers were trying to play every sample from every song at the same time! It was bizarre because through this cacophony of noises, you could hear key samples from certain songs in there.
"Peanut was looking at me in stunned amazement, and I was turning things off and pulling leads out of things. It got to the stage where I'd pulled every lead out and at least that made the noise stop... Then I had to rip the MIDI Timepiece out and start re-booting the computers.
"Unless it is just keyboards and vocal, I think they'd prefer to busk their way through it rather than stop the song, so I shouted at Peanut to just use the SH101, and they carried on while I tried for two songs to get the rig working. But the fault had temporarily fried the Ultralites and I couldn't get the MIDI setups to see them on either computer. Also, all the rogue MIDI stuff had scrambled the MainStage file and I must have hit save in the panic as I was closing it. So at the next gig I had to start off with the set from the show before the Melbourne show, and rebuild from there.
"As it turned out, all that had happened was the internal battery of the Timepiece had gone. I put a new battery in, reset the box and it has been absolutely fine since. But obviously it toasted that part of the gig, and you don't get second chances live.”