Keyboards with Bros
Scott Davidson utilises the power of MIDI to provide the instrumental foundation for Bros' music, both on stage and in the studio. Julian Colbeck takes notes...
With his KX88 mother keyboard controlling a vast array of sound modules, Scott Davidson utilises the power of MIDI to provide the instrumental foundation for Bros' music, both on stage and in the studio. Julian Colbeck takes notes...
My guess is that few SOS readers will have heard of Scott Davidson. Ageist I might be, but my guess is that few of you spend much time scrutinising Bros or Brother Beyond. Come to think of it, even if you do, such are the rules and regulations governing the sidemen to teen idols that Scott's existence may still have passed you by.
26 year-old Bristolian Scott Davidson is currently employed as keyboardist for Bros, both on tour and on record. A plum gig you might think. How difficult can that be? The answer to that is: as difficult as you want to make it, and thanks to Scott's inventiveness and enthusiasm he's made it an impressively hi-tech affair.
His rig consists of a pair of Yamaha KX88s (soon to be replaced by Roland A80s), two Roland D550s, a Roland MKS20, MKS80, two MKS70s, MKS50, two Yamaha TX802s, a TX81Z, an Akai S1000 with an Atari 60 Megabyte hard disk, an Emax, and a pair of Yamaha QX3 sequencers. Oh... and a Macintosh SE plus hard disk, Atari ST, and a drawer full of software - not to mention umpteen effects units, drum machines, mixers, amps and, most important of all, two Digital Music Corp MX8 MIDI patchbays.
The astute amongst you may have noticed that Scott is keen on 19" sound modules. Indeed, almost all the above permanently resides in a gigantic flightcased rack, topped with a Studiomaster Series V 24-4-4 mixer - a system that provides hassle-free mobility between live work, routining, and studio sessions.
Scott may look like another Broster, with his twin earrings and cheesecake grin, but he's sharp as a tack when it comes to designing keyboard systems.
Like increasingly few players these days, Scott started piano lessons at the age of eight, and continued right on through school and up into college (Leeds College Of Music), where he attended though failed to complete the Jazz and Light Music course. "Too much on the jazz side for me," he says.
After college Scott started his apprenticeship with synths, as he puts it, writing songs, making demos and haunting record companies, before landing a gig with a Yemenite singer called Ofra Haza, who sings "Traditional Yemenite songs. They're played in such a way that they're turned into dance tracks," he explains, somewhat intriguingly.
Ofra Haza, if nothing else, proved an excellent training ground because Scott's next engagement was with Brother Beyond, where he was using a D50, DX7 and an Emax sampler.
But for Bros, Scott figured a complete re-think was necessary: "I didn't want to turn myself into the sort of player who's surrounded by banks of keyboards. I mean, you've only got two hands. So I started looking at ways of using just one mother keyboard and having all your sounds available in a rack. My ideal was to find a way of being able to access, immediately, any one sound from any one module from either a keyboard or a sequencer."
Putting his idea into practice wasn't at all easy until Scott discovered the MX8 MIDI patchbays from Digital Music Corp, which gave him the necessary MIDI processing power to control his entire line-up from his Yamaha KX88 mother keyboard. "My greatest frustration, having decided on this single keyboard approach, was looking around to see what piano action mother keyboards were available. I couldn't believe it."
On Bros' last UK tour, Scott was still using the KX88, whose action, as a piano player, he's extremely fond of, and whose MIDI capabilities, though leaving plenty to be desired, could be overridden by the pair of MX8s. On tour everything was sent out from the KX88 on MIDI channel 1 to the two MX8 patchbays (one for each side of the rack). These then retransmitted data on specific MIDI channels to the waiting modules.
"The only problem I did come up against was with Controller information - for sustain pedal. The processor will only process Note-On/Note-Off information. It won't say, 'Take the sustain information from channel 1 and send it to channel 8.' Eventually, I found that by splitting the KX88 on the very top note and setting that to channel 3, I could then send out two sets of Controller information at the same time, which then addressed any module on channel 3. Then, using the channel shift feature on the MX8 to convert from channel 1 to channel 2, it lets me use sustain on any instrument set to MIDI channels 2 and 3. Generally, that gets me by."
"It all comes up on the desk; there's a stereo feed for the keyboards to the PA, and any sequence or drum sample stuff comes up on individual channels. Alternatively, in the studio, all the outputs come up to a normalled patchbay from where individual instruments can be taken and fed into the studio system."
Demonstrating the live system, Scott presses patch 1 on the KX88 and explains what is happening: "The MX8 MIDI patchbays are listening to channel 1 patch change information. They now automatically set up all the instruments, splits, patches for the first song, which was I Owe You Nothing."
"For the intro I needed a heavy, low type of piano, so I used the Roland MKS20 - which is without doubt one of the best piano modules around - coupled with a D550, on the 'Shamus' patch, over the bottom octave and a half. Then you've got the actual hook sound, which is an MKS70 on the 'Stab Brass' sound for another one and a half octaves. At the same time, there's a little sequence triggering the other D550, on a sort of Clavinet sound. Then when we get to the chorus, I've got the other MKS70 on the 'Polysynth Pad' up at the top."
For the next song Scott simply presses the patch 2 button on the KX88 and everything changes, as set by the next patch program on the MX8s. Obviously the system operates just fine, but working on the theory that anything that can go wrong will, I was amazed to see no backup keyboards lying around the place. Have there really been no problems, I venture?
"On the whole Bros tour we only had one fader on the desk go down, one jack plug fall out of one of the units (the doors on the back of his rack were only opened twice on the whole tour), and then right at the end of the tour, during a soundcheck luckily, suddenly notes kept sticking on the KX88. I thought, 'Oh no, what's going on?', and we wheeled in the spare which was fine. And do you know what it was? Pieces of silver paper from the confetti canon! They'd been falling into the keyboard throughout the tour and had now piled up inside the keyboard and had started shorting things out."
We return to song number two and Scott plays me a neat little patch that converts into a massive synth stab sound, thanks to only one of his MKS70s being addressed below a velocity of 85; higher velocities cause both MKS modules to play. It seems an appropriate time to find out what made Scott choose this almost complete catalogue of Roland modules.
"The D550 modules I got because the D50 is a classic synth. My job is to provide keyboard sounds for people. You simply can't not have one - or two. It's got brilliant sounds; instantly recognisable as a D50. Of course, sometimes I have to disguise them on recording work, by adding something else, because you hear the sounds so often. The built-in reverb is excellent for home use but slightly frustrating in the studio, as you have to keep knocking it out. If it's a really ambient sound I want - with a short effect on it or something — I'll leave it on, though."
'Programming?' I ask.
"I don't usually programme sounds from scratch." (Who the hell does these days?) "I'll fiddle, alter EQ or decay or something. But there are so many good sounds around that other people have worked hard to come up with, I'm happy just to flick through them and choose.
"I think people spend too much lime being over critical about having their own sounds. There are so many good sounds already, in all these boxes, you just need to find things you like and use them. Often I'll find a sound quickly, for a demo, then on the master recording I'll spend hours editing because I feel I ought to, and finally everyone says: 'Yeah it's okay, but I preferred the sound you had on the demo.' People seem reluctant to use presets just because they came with the machine. Silly, really...
"I use Steinberg's Synthworks D50 editor, I don't have a PG1000 programmer, and I've got as many banks of sounds as I can get my hands on stored using Hybrid Arts' GenPatch. I can't afford to keep buying memory cards, I'm sure nobody can.
And the MKS80?
"Nothing else sounds like it. Like the D50, people will always have one because it's unique. I only bought it recently. It's great for bass lines, you know - great big fat analogue bass sounds when the oscillators start to drift... it's really the business. I tried to sample it but it didn't sound quite the same. I even tried to recreate some of its sounds on the MKS70, using unison mode 2, but that didn't work either.
"Because it was an early synth, there's not a massive sound library available for it; you're kind of on your own. Apparently, this was the last new one anywhere in this country. I had terrible trouble getting hold of an MPG80 programmer for it. Neither Roland in the UK nor in Japan had one. Finally, I tracked one down at the Guitar Centre in Chicago.
"The thing I do hate about modern instruments, modules especially, is their lack of knobs and switches - you only get these wretched multi function switches.
"The MKS70 is my workhorse. I use it whenever I need 'polysynth' or brass sounds. Even though it's an analogue module, it's digitally controlled and it's not as fat-sounding as the MKS80. I've got two or three very good Roland factory cartridges for the MKS70. I've also got things dumped into GenPatch. And I've got a Mac editor for it as well, made up from their HyperCard stacks."
The MKS50 Juno module Scott also uses for general 'synth' sounds. "They're being used a lot on House music, bass sounds, pads." The MKS20 is evidently very dear to Scott's heart. "The best piano module ever produced," he proclaims. "I'm a piano player, that's where my roots are, and with a weighted keyboard and the MKS20 I feel totally at home."
'Do you do much tweaking on it?' I ask.
"Yes," he says straightaway. "I find the presets quite round and rather uninteresting. But with all the EQ and stuff, it's quite superb. The Boy Is Dropped (a vocal and piano only track) sounded great on record. We originally talked about using an Emax sample plus an S900 sample, but it just didn't work. Finally, we went to the MKS20 and it has been brilliant. So many people have commented on how good the song sounded live, and it was just the MKS20 with some nice 'wet' on it - some nice reverb."
We talk about what makes a good keyboard player these days, whether you need to be a sound programmer ("No"), whether you need manual skills ("Not necessarily"), whether you need to know about MIDI and systems ("Yes").
"MIDI is there to be used," he says. True, naturally, but how many people really do have the courage to trust (using more than 50 feet of cabling, too!) 15 modules worth of sound to a single MIDI Out from a five year-old mother keyboard?
Currently Scott is working in a West London studio on pre-production for the upcoming Bros album with drummer Luke. The pair are organising samples, developing rhythm tracks, and generally fleshing out what is sent to them by Matt Goss and producer Nicky Graham from another London studio, on disk, using the C-Lab Notator package.
Aside from the fact that he wishes it could run on the Macintosh, Scott is very pleased with his Notator. "I was using Steinberg's Pro24, Version 3," he says. "But I think they've tried to be too clever. It just got too complicated." In the interests of diplomacy I make a big play for Steinberg's new sequencer Cubase, but if any moves look like being made, Scott seems quite keen on Opcode's Vision as a dedicated Mac program.
The only cloud on Scott's horizon continues to be hard disk problems with his Akai S1000 sampler. Having bought the regular S1000 and not the HD version, he finds it impossible to find a suitably stable external hard disk system, having been through several permutations using units from Third Coast Technologies and Mass Micro Systems. The S1000, it seems, remains unimpressed.
Aside from mass storage compatibility problems, Scott is still pleased with the Akai machine, although he like most pros - doesn't have much time for many feats of serious user-sampling. "I did sample a superb dripping tap the other day, by dangling an AKG Tube mic over the edge of this huge vat of water!"
Mostly Scott makes use of in-store facilities from companies like Project Music, in Hounslow, working on the samples himself in terms of fine tuning and set-ups.
An inherently modest (or perhaps just sensible!) man, Scott strongly denies in-depth involvement with the writing of the new Bros album. But I suspect that anyone who can play as well as he does and figure out, as he did, pretty well all there is to know about the Roland A80 mother keyboard in half an hour - without a manual - will not remain a sideman for very long.
Interview by Julian Colbeck
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