Live Music For The Hi-Tech Musician
This month in Live End I'm taking a look at how one of the 1970s' progressive rock leaders have returned, after a 15 year absence, to the international touring scene. Emerson Lake & Palmer, the supergroup the critics loved to hate, are currently midway through a world tour, packing houses across Europe and the States. After a decade of solo projects and other partnerships, 1992 sees the original ELP trio reunited with a new album, Black Moon, and a tour which has been eagerly attended by long-term fans. On October 26 they played a third sold-out show at London's Royal Albert Hall, where I talked to sound engineer Eddie Richardson, Keith Emerson's technical assistant/programmer Will Alexander, and Steve Sunderland, boss of the European shows' PA hire company AudioLease.
ELP, with keyboardist Keith Emerson's fast, fiery technique and jazz-and-classics influenced compositions, were superstars between 1969-74. Emerson's uncompromising concept wasn't to everyone's liking, and the group aroused more critical ire than anyone else of the period (John Peel famously trashed their debut as "a waste of talent and electricity"). In pre-tour interviews this year the band still seemed bemused by the vitriol they attracted in their prime: collecting savage reviews apparently lost its fun when punk stiffed on the whole prog-rock genre. Emerson, the original creative maverick and a brilliant musician, must have taken it harder than his cohorts Greg Lake (bass/vocals/guitar) and Carl Palmer (drums).
The Royal Albert Hall is a notorious venue among live sound engineers. It was designed in an age when classical orchestras were the loudest performers, and its high oval-shaped tiers and galleries were pretty hostile to rock bands' early, uncouth loudspeaker arrays. In the past decade, however, new speaker technology — bringing smaller and more directional cabinets to the fore — has greatly eased the problem.
AudioLease used a PA system for ELP that's firmly of that newer generation. 14 Meyer MSL3 full range speakers were flown either side in small curved clusters as the main PA. 12 Meyer 650 R2 subwoofers provided low bass from the stage front, along with Apogee A5 full-range units for fill-in sound to the front rows of floor seating — an essential addition here, where the hall's height and short stage dictates a PA location right over the up-front audience's heads.
Sound engineer Eddie Richardson, whose credits include the Thompson Twins, mixed the front-of-house PA through a 40-channel Yamaha PM3000 desk and a split Midas PRO 40 console. The latter has been out of production for many years, but still enjoys wide respect among the pros for its simple layout and excellent EQ section.
With constantly-changing blend of live vocals, drum mics, mic'd organ and piano, bass and keyboards — plus samplers augmenting all three musicians' sounds — there was plenty to keep Richardson busy. Emerson's keyboards and expanders were pre-mixed by Will Alexander on a Soundcraft Spirit Studio console (side-stage), simplifying the FOH and monitor engineers' tasks with a 4-group stereo send to both positions.
On stage, AudioLease had 16 of their own custom-built bi-amped wedge monitors, based around JBL drivers and, like the FOH system, powered by Crest 4801 amplifiers with BSS crossovers. Mike Mule mixed the band's sound on a Midas XL3 console, augmented by a Soundcraft 200 desk as a 'stretch' board for extra inputs.
Eddie explained AudioLease's approach to the difficult acoustics. "The biggest challenge in the Albert Hall," he says, "is getting good coverage across the height and 270-degree width without blocking the audience's sightlines." The compact Meyer system was as much a part of their solution as the engineer's skills.
Will Alexander's involvement in the tour began in January with four months of synth programming and rehearsals before the live action kicked off. "Now I hardly know what month it is," he says.
It looks like Greg is very much the leader... "Yeah, he's the conductor, and I like working with him a lot. He worked very closely with me on the programming — we spent a lot of time meticulously going over all the sounds with a magnifying glass to get them right.
"I've been a serious fan of the band for over 20 years, so I had a great hand in helping them remember how it used to be. Then they'd go 'that sounds so old, let's take it up from there'. We would work for hours on one sound; work on a piece of music for two or three days refining all the parts. There's a lot of MIDI programming for zoning, scaling and overlaps — in between actual synthesizers, not just on one particular synth module — plus timpani that only play when you hit the note as hard as possible; all kinds of little hidden things that take a lot of time and effort."
Beside programming, Will also undertook the task of restoring and updating Emerson's modular Moog — "We re-built it module by module and added a lot of 1990s technology." First to go was the original power supply, responsible for the machine's notorious tuning instability ('70s music mags were fond of highlighting Emerson's ability to re-tune it with one hand while continuing a Hammond solo with the other).
Emerson's sonic trademarks were the bludgeoning, guttural, wailing chords that characterised Tarkus, wringing feeling and percussive aggression from his raw Hammond organ/modular Moog/MiniMoog setup. Now he has a battery of contemporary synths and samplers to augment his old — though re-built and MIDI'd — Hammonds and modular Moog on the road.
Listening to those early albums again before this show raised a question: why replace the raging macaw with a digital nightingale? After all, attempting digitally to replicate the MiniMoog flute sound from 'Lucky Man' — probably ELP's most famous synth sound — when the original was so perfect seems a trifle self-defeating. On 'Pictures', however, modern digital-type sounds were very much in evidence. How were they arrived at?
"I started out to re-create things the way they used to be," says Will, "and we re-orchestrated from there. Once the band was playing as a unit, we built onto those sounds to achieve a big, rich orchestral feel — big thick lush horns and strings — making an orchestra out of three people. Greg has a custom made Wal MIDI bass with a scanning fretboard — the first one, very fast — so we get more timbral things out of that, like brass..."
Keith has a Yamaha C7 MIDI grand piano which, like the other poly keyboards in his rig, is configured to provide master keyboard functions.
"There's also MIDI on the Hammond, on both manuals," continues Will, "and on top of the piano are two MIDI controllers, one made by Fatar in Italy which I use because of its low profile, and a Peavey DPM-C8. They both have the same action — Peavey buy theirs from Fatar — so they have an identical real piano 'feel', which Keith loves. On top of the Hammond there's an Elka MK76 master keyboard; down below are two sets of Elka DMP-18 foot pedals for triggering samples.
"For the Hammond we have a Leslie mic'd downstairs; the piano is mic'd with two AKG 414s on the mid and high, and a PZM mic on the low end.
"Every keyboard on stage is a MIDI controller, including the Moog, and they feed two racks. In one rack there's an Akai S1100 with a removable hard drive, three Korg 01/RWs, a Korg Wavestation A/D, and three Korg M1s.
"In the other are two MidiMinis, a Roland D550, and my Korg effects — two A1s and an A2. Plus two Roland JD800s, which I use to emulate a lot of analogue sounds and Moog brass sounds, and to mimic the Yamaha GX-1." (The latter starred on 'Fanfare for the Common Man' and 'Pirates'; nowadays it simply can't justify its sheer bulk.) Last are two Hammonds, divided by over 20 years, a digital XB-2 and the ancient, battered L100 which Keith continues to abuse horribly with knives and violent wrestling.
"MIDI processors on stage and in the racks are Lone Wolf MIDI Taps, which I'm a big fan of, interconnected through a big 'umbilical' cord because of the rotation of Keith's riser — I only need one fibre optic cable instead of a whole bunch of MIDI lines. The MIDI Taps contain all the program changes for all the instruments, and I change the programs on them for the whole set-up. I just scroll through and select the appropriate program; they make doing a show much like doing the laundry!"
On the road, however, reliability is as important as flexibility and power, but the keyboard setup has proved itself quite robust. "I've had very few failures," confirms Will. "The other night we had a kind of 'goof' thing, notes hang on occasionally and the contacts in the Hammond need lots of maintenance. I often have the thing apart 30 minutes before the doors open.'
One significant difference from the early '70s is that every recent keyboard in the rig is polyphonic, though monophonic sounds still have their place according to Will. "I find it interesting to put monophonic sounds on top of polyphonic sounds and make them follow the highest notes, like the solo in 'Stones Of Years' has a MidiMini doing the high notes and following a Korg which has all the swirly chords."
A Soundcraft 24/8/2 Spirit Studio console's group out channels send Keith's mix to the front-of-house and monitor desks. Will: "It sounds real good; if we were playing arenas I'd go to something big with full automation."
As the keyboard riser turned through 180 degrees, Keith wrestled and stabbed his L100 in time-honoured fashion, then lept into the pressing crowd with Will poised like Seb Coe on the starting blocks, waiting to see where the guv'nor and his battered organ would end up. A wedge monitor, a PAR can and a couple of front-row chins took flying knocks from Keith's heels.
I closed my eyes, and suddenly, with a whiff of patchouli oil in the air, it was 1972 all over again...
Feature by Mike Lethby
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