Paul Eastman: The Verve's Keyboard Tech/Programmer
Published in PM December 2008
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Top keyboard tech Paul Eastman chats to us about touring with the Verve on their comeback tour, triggering their live playbacks on the road, and also how his unique software solution is making things easier for a slew of leading live acts.
Ever since grabbing his BA (Hons) in Popular Music and Recording from Salford uni back in 1993, Paul Eastman has kept himself busy dabbling at the forefront of music technology. The latter part of the '90s were spent as a house recording engineer in Manchester, where he not only steered both in-house and commercial sessions, but also chalked up production and songwriting credits with some of the studio's client base. Then, in 1998, Paul got offered his first job in the live arena, when a keyboard tech mate of his, who was working with Manchester dance act Lionrock, was offered a clashing set of dates with the Chemical Brothers. Paul gratefully took up that initial Lionrock opportunity, and over the past eight years has been able to add teching and programming jobs with Bush, Phil Collins, Doves, Massive Attack, Jeff Beck, Snow Patrol and most recently the Verve to his rapidly expanding CV.
On top of the gigging work, which has tended to dominate his time since about 2000, Paul has continued to write and produce audio beds and samples for CBS and ABC, for shows such as Desperate Housewives and Ghost Whisperer. The latest string to Eastman's bow came in 2005, when he set up his own software company, Fluqe Creative Software, to market his OnStage application, which essentially offers keyboard players, techs and programmers increased speed, flexibility and functionality when using packages such as Apple's Logic Pro and Logic Xpress during live gigs.
Baking the tapes
Up until the end of 2007, Paul Eastman was working as keyboard tech and programmer for Snow Patrol, for whom he had designed and implemented a Mac OS X playback system to sit at the heart of the band's live performances, utilising Logic Pro and OnStage. Then at the end of last year, he was offered similar roles and responsibilities for upcoming US and European tours with the Verve, who were re-forming after their split in April 1999. One added bonus for this tour was the fact that the Verve don't have a keyboard player, meaning Paul would also actively be playing keys — albeit off stage — during some of the actual live performances.
"I was involved in the performance and I was playing a little bit on the keyboards as well," explains Paul. "[The Verve] didn't always want to play to a click, which you have to do for playback. Sometimes, they'd just want stuff fired in, so I'd just be on the side of the stage with a little M-Audio keyboard. I'd just fire samples in here and there when they needed it."
The first job that Paul was charged with, after donning his Verve cap for the very first time, was to take all of the sounds from the band's early records — including the widely revered eight-million-selling Urban Hymns from 1997 — and help push them into the digital domain so he could program the playbacks and sample triggers for the stage.
"They wanted to do a load of stuff from the earlier records, so I had to go up to Air Studios, and they've got an office there with all the old two-inch tapes," says Paul. "But they're like over 10 years old now, those recordings, so what they had to do was to bake them. With some of these old tapes, the glue deteriorates and the tape actually separates, so they can fall apart. But they've found that if they stick them in an oven, it glues the tape back together and they can run it one or a couple of times. Then they transfer it over to Pro Tools. Then we got all those sounds together and formed most of the backing tracks that we've been using this year."
The right rig
After capturing all the sounds from those early Verve records, which the band would sift through at a later point prior to the rehearsals for the tour, it was time for Paul to design the rig that would be capable of delivering what the band required in terms of keyboards and effects. "I had two Intel-based Macs running Logic Pro and my OnStage software," he says. "And initially I had custom-built audio switchers, because you need two computers and no one was doing a switcher unit. You've got the main and the backup running simultaneously. And Marquee Audio spec'd up a switcher unit for me when I was working with Snow Patrol. It had a huge Bakelite dial on the front so that you could switch between the two machines. I bought a few of those custom boxes and a few friends of mine did too, but then Radial started bringing out some switcher units and that's what I'm using now — the Radial SW8, which was on the top of the rig.
Then there were two Glyph hard drives and two MOTU 828 MkIII audio MIDI interfaces — they're rather nice! But all MIDI information would first go into a MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV, which acted as a MIDI patchbay to split the MIDI signal. The signal was then routed to the two MOTU MIDI Express 128 interfaces so each computer got the MIDI messages at exactly the same time. Also, I didn't use Jam Sync to lock the backup machine to the main. As both machines would get the message to start simultaneously via MIDI Timepiece, it was possible to keep the computers completely isolated from each other. I also had an MGE UPS system at the bottom of the rack, just in case we lost power, and the keyboard I was using was an M-Audio Axiom 61 with a small numeric keypad to the right, built by a small company called Forefront Technology, who unfortunately are no longer around. This keypad was used for entering and sending the MIDI program change message to change song."
Both the main rig and the backup rig were identical, although Paul decided to carry just a single M-Audio keyboard with him for when he was triggering samples live. He also carried a variety of backups of all the files, data and information required to run the MIDI side of a Verve show. "I've got endless backups on separate hard drives and DVDs," explains Paul. "All the info that's on the Glyph drives is stored on drives that I carry and also on DVDs that I carry. One computer goes with the tour gear and I always carry the other computer with me."
As far as Paul's 'work box' goes, he just carried what was needed to get him by. "I just had an orange Peli case with things like a soldering iron, solder for making cables, some MIDI testing devices, spares like cables, computer spares But it's nothing like the guitar boys are like with their work boxes when they have a whole workshop that they carry around with them!"
By the time he got to university, Paul had already been avidly experimenting with music technology and sampling for quite some time — an ongoing passion that would help forge his career as not only a keyboard technician and MIDI programmer, but also as a software entrepreneur. "I was just fascinated by music technology," says Paul, "and sampling was my thing. I bought myself an Akai S1000 back in the day and just sampled everything. I was frantically sampling all the time!"
Indeed, during the three years that he spent touring with Bush, Akai samplers again formed the core of the rig Paul put together. The first time Paul actually become involved in using computers on stage was when he hooked up for a Phil Collins tour in 2004, when he teched for Phil's keys player, Brad Cole, although that setup utilised only a limited amount of Mac technology. The real breakthrough came when he began working with Doves and their Logic Pro rig, at which point he began teaching himself to cut code after personally coming across inefficiencies in the way the system could be utilised for live performance.
The eventual result of these early diagnoses would be the development of the OnStage software application, the initial version of which was released towards the end of 2006. "I began developing it when I was with Doves," explains Paul. "It was just becoming a pain having to switch between the projects on both machines between every song, so I just thought I'd try and learn a bit of software coding to try and automate it. Then when I went to Snow Patrol in 2006, I took the same idea and we were using playback as well as keyboards, so again there were a lot of sounds from the records. I was given all the studio files and the band would decide what they wanted to play and what they wanted to come off the computer. So all the orchestral parts, the strings and the sound effects would all come off the computer. And the keyboard player's sounds would also be off the same machine."
The OnStage software — which is now being used by larger acts such as Muse, the Chemical Brothers, Snow Patrol, Björk, Goldfrapp and the Verve, as well as numerous smaller bands — can offer significant benefits to any performing musicians using computers on stage. "The new version [OnStage Arena] is for all the major packages including Pro Tools and Ableton Live, as well as Logic Pro and Logic Xpress," explains Paul. "You could be using those packages for keyboard players — you could be using the onboard software samplers or the software keyboards — or you could be using those packages for playback for the band to play along to, or to sit behind what they're playing then. It enables you to switch between the songs in the set list a lot quicker and enables you to automate. The keyboard player or anyone can just send out a program change message, and it closes the current project and launches the next project in the set list, and you can swap round if the band say they want to drop a song. The only other way people were doing this before was to have all the songs in one huge project, but that restricts you in the fact that you can't have a different environment for each song, and the environment includes the effects and the different keyboard setups and plug-ins. Using this means you can have a unique environment for each song. There isn't another piece of software for live use that enables you to easily recall a unique environment in your studio DAW application for each song."
Serving the Verve
After the two-inch master tapes of the first three Verve albums had been digitised, the band briefed Paul on what sounds they wanted him to program for their tour rehearsals, and likewise what songs they were anticipating playing when they hit the road. And while the sounds were further tweaked during rehearsals and key decisions were taken, such as which tracks would be played to click, things were changed and refined on pretty much a day-to-day basis during the US and European legs of the tour.
"That's another thing with the computer-based system — you can make edits really quickly!" says Paul. "If you were using a hard disk system that just has the buttons on the front, you'd need to do all the edits on the computer and then spit it into the hard disk recorder, as opposed to our system, where you can just make a change. Because sometimes they were asking to change tempos half an hour before they went on stage, or they'd want to chop two bars out or something like that. It's a lot more versatile with a computer screen in front of you. You'd get a phone call from the dressing room just before they went on, saying, 'Can you knock this one up by 3bpm?' and it wouldn't be a problem!"
Generally, Paul would avoid trying to make any changes after soundcheck, and instead would while away the spare time he had running up to soundcheck by checking everything was exactly as it should be. "Before the band came on stage, everything was checked again," Paul explains. "And I went through the whole set checking the playback tracks were running, checking all the keyboards were working, and just running through every song to monitors and FOH. We'd do all that as the previous band's gear was being taken off."
Cue the click
When the Verve were playing to a click, Paul — who was off stage left — would work in tandem with drummer, Peter Salisbury, who would be responsible for giving Paul the cue to kick off the playback. "Pete would just look over and give me a nod, and we'd start the first song," says Paul. "He would also have a mirrored computer display next to him on stage so he could see the structure of the song that I was seeing. And so he could see when the playback was going to end, I put little markers on there for him. I changed the colours of the parts so he knew when changes in the structure were coming up. I'd be monitoring the computers during each song, and when they got to the end I'd key in the program changes for the next song on the set list, which triggered my software to close the current song and launch the next song. Then I'd just sit there looking at the drummer, waiting for him to give me the nod for the next song."
After two years of heavy touring with first Snow Patrol and latterly the Verve, Paul is actually pretty pleased to be able to take a little time off from the road so that he can concentrate on the beta testing and consequent release of the OnStage Arena software at the end of 2008 or possibly early 2009. However, he has been offered a rather intriguing stadium tour for next year, although unfortunately he has been sworn to absolute secrecy. "I have got something lined up that I've just been offered, but I can't tell you what it is, and that's only because they haven't announced it yet," enthuses Paul. "They're getting a crew together and it's not until next year, but it's another big tour. It's a stadium band that's going to be touring next year, and hopefully they'll be using my playback rack and software!" 0
'The Drugs Don't Work'
When we ask Paul Eastman about his gigging highlights during the Verve's 2007 and 2008 re-formation tour, it doesn't take him long to start talking about 'The Drugs Don't Work', a track in which he was able to play a key part in certain orchestral aspects of the live performance.
"I really enjoyed that one," he says, "because I had to chop up all of the original strings from the Urban Hymns files that were taken off the two-inch tapes. It's just a little quartet, beautifully arranged, with Richard Ashcroft on his acoustic guitar, but he didn't want to be tied down to a click for that one. He just wanted to start whenever he wanted and play whatever tempo he chose, and then I'd play the strings. I wasn't playing as a keyboard player, I was playing the sample, because they were all chopped up and looped, and that was really quite interesting. Obviously, you've got a string section — they're making chords and the melodies — but then they were all chopped up, and I would trigger each little section, and sometimes I'd be triggering each note along with them. If you watch them playing that at Glastonbury, for example, it's as if they're using playback, because it is the strings from the record, but I'm playing it so that Richard doesn't have to use a click and so he wasn't controlled by the tempo of the computer. We did the same with Bush as well — that wasn't playback, that was just sample triggering!"
Again, this highlights another benefit of the OnStage software. "That's the other thing about having the ability to switch between projects. On some, it would be sample triggering, some it would be playing, and some it would be playback with click. It was quite different for every song. You could do that with a big rack of gear, but you couldn't do it on the computer without my software."
Automation for the people
One key feature of the upcoming release of Paul Eastman's OnStage Arena is the fact that it can be fully automated for live performance, meaning that an extra pair of hands is not needed to physically switch between projects on the computer. Enter Thoughts Collide, a Brighton-based rock band who've been guinea-pigging the new version during a low-key UK tour.
"Initially, the software was just aimed at bigger touring bands with big productions," explains Paul, "but a friend of mine who runs a studio in Brighton has just recorded a young band who are just starting out called Thoughts Collide, and they're incorporating playback into their gigs. They've just gone off and done a little tour and they've taken the new version to test. Smaller bands are realising now that they can have such a bigger sound using playback and computers, and it's becoming possible with not a lot of money. You can buy a Macbook with a small audio interface and you're away really! They're just a bunch of lads that've got a Mac between them and they've got all their album files. We helped them put their playbacks together, helped them put a click on it, and they're just setting it up each day for themselves.
The new version is completely automated, whereas before somebody was having to go up to the computer to switch the songs. Thoughts Collide obviously haven't got any crew — they're just a bunch of lads — but the new version is great for young bands that want to incorporate playback into their live sets. It allows you to select the MIDI port and channel of the incoming message to change song, meaning the process can be fully automated by switching on the internal IAC MIDI driver, selecting that port in both your studio DAW application and OnStage, and then incorporating the program change message into a track in your playback."
Check out Paul Eastman's software company web site www.fluqe.com where you can learn more about the OnStage application.
Published in PM December 2008
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