We go behind the scenes to see how the Cutting Crew pull together their live performances
Rob Neal on the road with Cutting Crew
Just as you thought the band that brought you Died in your arms tonight had disappeared into obscurity, Cutting Crew return triumphant with a new album The Scattering and a European tour.
What follows is a report on the careful planning of a tour that would recreate the sound of a highly complex album.
'The Scattering' took over a year to make and was produced by the highly renowned keyboard player Peter-John Vetesse. As technician to Peter, I was asked to help prepare the keyboards for the tour as Peter was unavailable and I had an intimate knowledge of the way the keyboard parts were created on the album.
It was decided from the outset that the use of backing tapes was a bad idea for a number of reasons, mainly because it was considered cheating, and that sequencers allowed more control over the overall sound. The resultant problem was that Peter owns a huge arsenal of equipment, and it would be impractical, (not to mention expensive), to copy his setup.
Sequencers were used heavily on the album, using a Roland MC-500 and occasionally an Atari Mega-4 running C-Lab's package. These were set up to drive anything up to eight different instruments at a time, so Peter and I adjusted the sequences to play the vital sounds and deleted parts that would be played by the keyboard player to be brought in for the tour. It had been decided at an early stage to use the MC-500 not only because of its ease of use, but mainly its amazing reliability, being able to withstand things that a computer would have shrivelled up and died with long ago.
The extensive amounts of special effects and sounds that would be difficult to synthesise meant that a sampler would be required to 'fire-off' samples on cue from an MC-500. The only natural choice was the Akai S-1000 due to its large memory and superb quality stereo sampling capabilities.
Cutting Crew's engineer, Curtis Schwarz, had had the foresight to record every unusual sound and effect onto DAT (Digital Audio Tape) from the master tapes, and so between Peter, Martin 'Frosty' Beedle, (Cutting Crew's drummer and techno-man), and myself, we decided which sounds would be required.
Thus came the next problem: after assessing what samples were needed, we were looking at about fifty separate sounds, some being up to twenty seconds long! Two more 2Mb RAM boards were fitted to the S-1000 along with a SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) board. This was to allow connection to the latest thing in data storage media, the removable hard disk. The drive mechanics are manufactured by Syquest in the States and contain a removable cartridge-like package that holds 44Mb of formatted data. A number of manufacturers install the units into cases with their electronics, and the one we went for was manufactured by Peripheral Land Inc. and was primarily designed to work with the Macintosh SE. It has, as the Americans like to call it, the same 'footprint', which means that it sits underneath a Mac, but in our case, everything was to fit into a 19" rack case, so a rack-mount kit was ordered.
Over the next two days I slaved over a hot Akai S-1000, sampling every conceivable sound on the DAT, including eagles, dropped hubcaps, chimpanzees and screaming professors, as well as numerous chants to be used as backing vocals. Various bits of percussion were sampled as well as an entire Yamaha RX-5 drum machine, as it was used extensively throughout the album for percussion riffs.
Other samples needed a little 'doctoring' such as holding on notes at the end of a vocal line, this was achieved by looping the end of the sample and extending the release portion of the envelope to fade out the sound gradually, so that when a number of samples were triggered off in succession they would all 'merge' and not end abruptly.
Another trick was the intro to the song Between a rock and a hard place. On the album there is a repeating chorus of 'hard place... hard place' ... à la digital delay, (although it was actually a looped sample), and there was no recording of it on DAT and no sample disks. The only way around it was to resample the entire intro off a CD and loop the end as on the original, adjust the envelope decay time to fit in with song, and, voila!, it works!
The organisation of the hard disk is laid out in 'volumes' that can be loaded into the sampler automatically via a MIDI program change command.
Each song was assigned a volume so that on a master program change command at the beginning of a song the S-1000 would be ready along with the synths, but more on this later.
All the samples were then set up to trigger in the correct places by working out 'bar charts' showing the song spread out on paper, indicating which bars had what in them. The points for the sample were then added live to the sequencer and advanced or retarded in step time so the timing was correct, as the samples often came in at odd times so quantisation wasn't of any use.
The RX-5 parts were ported across to the sequencer via MIDI and the S-1000 samples were adjusted to trigger on the right notes, and additional percussion parts from sampled congas and shakers etc. were added by Frosty.
Most of the sequences were relatively small and were written entirely on MC-500 but a couple of the songs contained huge amounts of musical sequences as well as percussion and effects, so these were set up using Notator as its editing capabilities are far superior to the MC-500 and once everything was complete the whole sequence was copied across via MIDI to the MC-500. This initially created a problem, the data stream coming from the Atari was so large the MC-500 couldn't cope and data started getting lost, and the timing went awry, resulting in the whole song sounding really sloppy. To cure it, we filtered any MIDI data that wasn't needed (such as poly-pressure and system exclusive messages), and ran the song at about 25 beats per minute so the data would come through a little slower and after that everything ran fine.
Enter stage left the newest addition to the Cutting Crew fold, session musician Terry Devine-King, who was brought in to play keyboards for the tour, and with him a number of useful pieces of equipment, notably the Roland D-50, Korg M-1R, Roland Super JX-10, Akai S-900 and, oh, deep joy!, a Roland MC-500.
The equipment Terry had provided covered a lot of areas used by Peter, (particularly as Peter used all those machines except the JX on the album). The only things we still lacked were a master keyboard, something to play a good piano sound, a general purpose sample player, and a Yamaha TX-802 as this was used throughout the album and was impossible to recreate any other way. So armed with large amounts of folding stuff we purchased a Roland A-80, P-330 and U-110 along with the TX-802.
As the amount of sequencing was so large we decided to use two MC-500's as one machine didn't contain enough memory to hold the entire song set. As it took nearly a minute to load a disk it would be better to have two machines with everything resident in memory rather than having to have long pauses between numbers on stage.
Secondary MIDI outs containing only clock information were sent via a MIDI switch box to a Sequential Studio 440 by the drum kit, this was programmed with simple drum patterns to act as a click track for Frosty to play along to and get his cues from the MC-500's. Due to the long physical distance between the keyboards and drums, an active thru box was fitted half way down the cable so as to alleviate MIDI delays.
The audio side was conventionally linked to a Hill 16 channel rack-mount mixer which sent a stereo pair to the PA desk. All the levels were fixed and the sliders were virtually nailed down. This was because all the levels were preprogrammed into the instruments, that way, the ability to recreate the same balances every night was possible. The S-1000 was slightly different due to the fact that the PA engineer needed more control over the various sounds. Three channels were sent from the individual outputs of the S-1000, and assigned 'Effects', 'Back Vocals' and 'Percussion'.
Each sample was programmed to appear on its respective individual output, as well as a mix coming from the main left and right of the sampler. The mix out was sent directly to Terry's monitor amplifier, so as not to get mixed in with the keyboards mix coming from the Hill.
Two more keyboards belonging to the band were added to complement Terrys setup, a Korg M-1 and a Roland S-50, played by the band's bassist, Colin Farley.
The final link in the chain came with an MX-8 MIDI patchbay from Digital Music Corp., this I consider to be the only acceptable patchbay available, allowing the user to merge, filter, zone and mix 'n' match the inputs and outputs as desired.
Full rehearsals began with the band in the middle of July in a sweltering heatwave, in which you could almost fry an egg on some of the gear. In addition to this came a number of major hardware faults. Firstly the A-80 had decided to transpose all its internal settings up by 36 semitones. When we checked the backup RAM card, we found that to be the same, this took quite a while to reprogram but it was eventually back the way it was, after talking to Roland, they were at a loss to explain it, but suggested that we check what revision the internal software of the machine was. After pressing a secret combination of buttons the keyboard divulged that it was a Rev 1.01; "Ah-ha!" said the man at Roland, "You need Rev 1.02". And so with that we swapped ROM chips and inserted the new software in place, problem solved. (Well, maybe.) The second problem was that the PLI drive had a habit of once every ten or so loads, of hanging up and the S-1000 displaying "Hard disk not present". I tried using alternative SCSI boards and even different RAM's, but in the end I sourced another similar machine from Digital Audio Concepts, this one was purpose built for the job and a rack mount to boot!
The MIDI configuration for the system consisted primarily of the A-80 and the MX-8. The A-80 is a superb 88 note master keyboard with sophisticated control options, particularly its ability to 'layer' up to four MIDI channels on top or next to each other. The only thing is, that it has a few weird idiosyncrasies that I don't like, one is that whenever you change from one patch to another you lose all the MIDI volume. This resulted in some machines appearing not to receive MIDI, when all the indications were that everything was OK. Only the S-900 was immune to this as it doesn't respond to MIDI volume messages. The only way to overcome this was to assign one of the A-80's footpedals to MIDI volume (controller 7) on all channels, and whack the pedal up and down every time you changed patches. This was a poor solution to a problem which lies in product design, (ahem!, Roland?). The other thing is that the A-80's programming can be fiddly to say the least, and after trying to set up MIDI program changes within each patch, and finding it could only do the four channels that it played, an alternative route had to be found. Along with its own changes, the A-80 has an 'effects' page, this is to allow the user to send program changes to his reverb or DDL etc., so having decided on fixed channels for all the instruments, channel 13, (gulp!), became the command channel for the MX-8, and the only machine to be directly reassigned from the A-80.
The MX-8 can send out program changes to up to eight instruments as well as rerouting the incoming keyboards. This allowed us to do such things as play the D-50's sounds, (in local mode), from the top half of the A-80, while the bottom half played a combination of P-330 and TX-802, and the D50's keyboard played the U-110. Sometimes it was very difficult trying to figure out what was coming from where, but the MX-8 had no problem routing it.
After a week we moved to the Music Farm, a residential rehearsal studio, to continue for another week. The A-80 did it again. This time after trying to reboot the machine it died altogether. After a frantic phone call to Roland they offered to swap it for another. Since it arrived everything to date has worked fine, but I was interested to see if they had fitted the new software, and upon examination, I found that they were now on Rev 1.03! It amazes me that a company with such a reputation can release three software updates only two months after its launch.
After the equipment was flight cased and wired-up, Cutting Crew went out on the road for five warmup shows in small clubs, and everything went to plan, (bar the odd hiccup like the S-1000 loading), and so starting in the middle of October the band went on the road. If you didn't catch them this time - make sure you don't miss them next time, at least you know they don't use backing tapes!
The final line up was as follows:
Roland D-50 Synthesiser
Roland Super JX-10 Synthesiser
Korg M1R PCM/Synth Module
Akai S-900 Sampler
Akai S-1000 Sampler w/6Mb RAM
DAC Removable Hard Disk Drive
Roland A-80 Master Keyboard
Roland P-330 Piano Module
Roland U-110 PCM Module
Yamaha TX-802 FM Synth Module
Korg M1 PCM/Synth Keyboard
Roland S-50 Sampler Keyboard
Roland MC-500 Sequencer (2 Off)
Sequential Studio 440
Digital Music MX-8 MIDI Patchbay
Hill 16 Channel Rack Mixer