Keyboard tech Will Alexander reveals the some secrets behind the legendary keyboardist's live rack. interview by Tony Di Lorenzo for EQ magazine
When people talk about keyboards and synthesizers, a few names just have to pop up. Moog, Keith Emerson, Hammond, Will Alexander. Wait, who is Will Alexander? He is the man who has been entrusted with the monumental task of caring for a keyboard rig that's brought us such rock and roll classics as "Lucky Man," "Hoedown," "From The Beginning," "Tarkus," "Pictures At An Exhibition," and "Karn Evil 9" - just to name a few. It is Will Alexander who keeps Keith Emerson's keyboard rig alive and well. EQ recently talked to Will about Emerson's legendary rig and believe me, as a fellow keyboard player, I had more than a few questions! While you're surfing cyberspace you'll need to stop in at www.keithemerson.com but since you're here, read on.
(TD)Does someone go to school for a gig like yours?
Will Alexander : If you call work experience "schooling," I worked for Oberheim in 1977 or 1978 building OB-X's, Four Voice systems, and OB-1's. I had a math background from college, so electronics came naturally to me. Then when I first heard the Fairlight, and learned that it was a computer making music, I was really intrigued. It was the first commercially available computer sampling instrument. I had an early Apple IIc with 48K of ram (before Macintosh with a couple of floppies in the days before hard disk)and I thought I was flying. Then there were the Alpha Syntauri voice cards that made little buzzy noises, but this (Fairlight) was a serious instrument.
(TD)What keyboards and samplers are ELP using today?
Will Alexander : For Keith's live rig onstage we're using the General Music Pro2 digital piano, which we both feel has the most realistic digital piano sound, period. The dynamics, the hammer sound, and the dampening modeling on the Pro2 is incredible. We use two Korg Trinity's: a Trinity Plus and a Trinity Pro, an Alesis QS8, and, of course, the modular Moog, along with a set of Elka DMP18 dynamic MIDI pedals for bass notes, effects, and other things - sort of the third-hand things that need to be done. There's also an off-stage station that I operate. During the show I do all the program changes because Keith's hands are way too busy. There are almost no pauses in the music, so things need to be done on the fly. In the rack we have an Alesis QSR and an S4 Plus, a Korg Wavestation SR, and a Studio Electronics SE1. On stage it's necessary to do fast program changes, so rather than doing all the programming on the Moog, I use the SE1 for some of the classic Moog sounds. I get a very authentic representation of the Moog sound from that instrument. We're also using an Ensoniq MR rack that has really great French horns. It's all controlled by an Opcode Studio 5LX MIDI Patchbay that is programed using Opcode Studio Patches, and run from a Power Book 1400cs.
(TD)What controllers is Keith using on stage?
Will Alexander : All of the keyboards except for the Hammond and the Moog are MIDI controllers.
(TD)So at any given time he could reach for any one?
Will Alexander : When he's playing the piano, he'll play either the QS8 or the General Music piano. The only thing that you can count on is that when he's playing the Hammond or the Moog it's really the Hammond or the Moog. If he's playing any of the other controllers on stage, it may be functioning as the instrument or it may just be functioning as a MIDI controller, or it may have a whole bunch of things patched or mapped across the keyboard in order to fit the necessary program for the piece of music that's being played.
(TD)Anyone who has ever seen the band live has noticed that Keith certainly has his hands full on stage. The music is complex and so is the sound design. How active are you during the show in helping out with the sounds and the patches?
Will Alexander : Everything is programmed. I sequence all the program changes, which is fairly easy. It's more like being in a recording studio and having to punch in on time, all the time. It's actually very easy except for the nervous tension that you have in doing the show.
(TD)So you could say that you've become another member of the band. You must need to be as tightly rehearsed as the rest of the band...
Will Alexander : (Laughing.) I'm not gonna go there. All the people in the crew have a lot to do with what happens on stage and the way that it's presented to an audience.
(TD)Do you use any special technique for miking the Leslie?
Will Alexander : This time out we're using these new Sennheiser MD504 clip-on mics. We've also been using them on Carl's drum kit. We just clip them right onto the cabinet and we get an excellent sound. I've done all kinds of things with Leslie miking in the studio - all kinds of very interesting combinations. I think one time we even had eight mics on it at different distances and different angles.
(TD)You mentioned sequencing patch changes. ELP albums have always been beautifully arranged and, in some cases, heavily orchestrated. How much, if any, sequencing is necessary to get that same sound on stage?
Will Alexander : On the past two tours we've used no sequencing at all. It's live. It's the real thing. That's the way ELP likes to do it. In '92 and '93, when we did the Black Moon, tour we used three or four sequences to recreate the lushness of the Black Moon album.
(TD)I seem to remember this huge, light-up metronome at the front of the stage and it seemed like the band would just watch that.
Will Alexander : That was the count off for the sequences.
(TD)Once that was counted off, did they have some kind of feed in the monitors?
Will Alexander : Carl (Palmer, drummer) would wear headphones at that time. Once Carl picked it up, the band would follow Carl and Carl would be listening to the metronome.
(TD)Keith's Hammond has been modified by the Goff Professional Organs. Could you tell us a little about the modifications?
Will Alexander : The one that we're using now is the original C3 that Keith bought around 1967 or so. It was the organ that he played on all the ELP tours from the '70s. Technology has come a long way from where it was in the '60s. Parts like capacitors have a much greater shelf life or active life. Eventually it becomes necessary to take all the old parts out. Capacitors leak or break down, leads break off, and you need to upgrade tone generators. We've had modified percussion and modified vibratos put in. There's an EQ circuit that you can change in a Hammond to beef up the percussion. Al Geoff put in new electronics, a custom interface out to the Leslies, and improved the gain structure on the preamps.
(TD)Has the C3 been MIDIfied at all?
Will Alexander : We have a MIDIfied C3 that we used on the Black Moon Tour. It's a whole other can of worms to deal with, especially in a live performance, especially the way Keith plays because there's a whole new bus bar with dual-touch contacts. Then you have a J-wire type system. It's like having a whole MIDI keyboard inside the keyboard of the Hammond.
(TD)Is the band using any samples?
Will Alexander : Yes, we do use samples. In the Alesis QS8 you can burn samples onto PCMCIA cards and plug them in the back. So all the samples we're using are stored on PCMCIA cards and plugged into the back of the QS8 or the QSR.
(TD)What type of samples?
Will Alexander : We use choirs, and we've done some custom sampling. For instance, in the tune "Iconoclast," there is a downward moving line at the beginning of the piece. We worked with Erik Norlander at Alesis and recorded this line with all kinds of special effects, so when it comes to that point all Keith has to do it stomp on the DMP18 bass pedals and this really complex line comes out. It's really great-sounding, with this barber pole-kind of thing happening plus the downward moving scale.
(TD)The Modular Moog was in pretty bad shape a few years ago, and you restored it.
Will Alexander : I received the Moog in 1990, and that's when I started working on it. It's kind of like working on an old car - there is always something to do on it. It hadn't been operational in almost ten years when I first received it.
(TD)So the Moog was retired for ten years. What brought it out of retirement?
Will Alexander : Keith feels it's an icon in the keyboard world. Even today it has a sense of mystery. People come up and look at it and they don't care about the technology. They could care less about samplers and synths, but they look at that Moog and say, "Wow!" When I got the Moog it was in pretty bad shape. It hadn't been used. There was lots of corrosion on all the contacts and modules didn't work. I have a friend named Gene Stopp who is also a Moog enthusiast, so we brought it into my living room for eight months.
(TD)Big living room?
Will Alexander : Not really. It was pretty dominant - a great conversation piece, I must say. Our first goal was to get it working as well as possible, as it stood. That meant repairing all the modules and going through it. Obviously there are a lot of 1/4-inch jacks on the thing and a large number of them were in pretty bad shape. The plating on the contacts is a lot better today than it was in '69 or the 70s. We cleaned all the contacts, fixed the power supplies - they were in awful shape. All the pots on the sequencers were dirty and those are really difficult to clean because they're sealed pots. Just getting everything working electronically was the first thing. There's a programming system that can be used on it to control the filters, oscillator frequencies, mixers, and time constants on the envelope generators. That was in incredible disarray. It's a huge bank of pots that need to be adjusted and they also have voltage followers on them to drive the bus. Those go to the appropriate parameter that needs to be controlled.
(TD)So it seems like there was calibration after calibration.
Will Alexander : Oh yeah, and the thing is that you'll get everything working, turn the programmer, and the load to the programmer changes the tuning of everything so you'd have to go back and retune it. As you plugged more things into the keyboard control voltage, the tuning changed so we ended up building power supplies in the keyboard so that the keyboard wasn't driven off the power supply of the synth.
(TD)So there was no drain on the synth itself?
Will Alexander : Exactly. The keyboard is no load on the synth.
(TD)Why didn't Bob Moog think of that?
Will Alexander : You can design something and then a third party can look at it and make improvements. Bob Moog told Keith that it would never work live and that he was out of his mind for trying to take it out on the road.
(TD)And here we are over 25 years later...
Will Alexander : ...And it's still out on the road. That's the same synth that was on all the early recordings - it's just been expanded upon. It originally started out as a Moog IC console with the one slanted console. Now it's the equivalent of a Moog IIIC with an extra tier at the top with a few extra modules and the preset programmer.
(TD)And that 'scope?
Will Alexander : Well the 'scope it just sort of a visual effect at this point in time.
(TD)Some of our readers may want to know: Why cart around a modular Moog? Why not just sample it or possibly trigger one or two MIDI'd miniMoogs. After all, the Modular wasn't on the ELP/Tull tour? So why cart around something that requires so much extra labor?
Will Alexander : The reason the Moog wasn't on the ELP/Tull tour was because ELP was the opening act for the Tull tour. We had sixty minutes to do the set and get off the stage. To go through all the trouble to set the Moog up for that short period of time wasn't worth the effort. Now that we're doing a full two-hour set, it becomes worth the effort. You can program or sample, and Cameo International has a Keith Emerson CD of Moog and his Hammond sounds. ....And, yes, you can use the SE1 for convenience because it's programmable by MIDI, you can send program changes and you can capture the essence of the Moog. But the Moog in itself is a musical instrument with it's own sound quality. As I've said, it's an icon. People want to see it. People love seeing it. It's not, "Why is he dragging that thing around?" The amount of people who criticize us for dragging the Moog around are far outnumbered by the amount of people who love seeing it. It's history. Aside from the excitement of "will It work?" That instrument makes it more of a live show. One of the things that makes ELP exciting is the fact that things do screw up. For instance, in Boston on this last tour, an L100 that we've been using since 1992 caught fire on stage right in the middle of "Tarkus." This organ now resides at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. We dropped it off there and said, "Here's part of your ELP exhibit."
(TD)Now what is Keith beating up during "Fanfare?"
Will Alexander : It is now a T100. The only difference is the cabinet style. And we have other L100's in the locker waiting in line. Everybody thinks that there is only one L100, but there have been quite a few. Eventually they go. Mostly the cabinetry can't take it.
(TD)I've seen ELP several times, and I know about the standing on the organ, and the pushing, the swinging, and the knives into the keyboard.
Will Alexander : When it stops working, he usually throws it down and I'm thinking, "Don't do that, I'm the one that has to make it work the next day".
(TD)Look at it as job security.
Will Alexander : I'm absolutely confident of that. (Laughs.)
(TD)It seems that a synth like the Modular Moog needs so much attention on the road. Just how much maintenance does it need?
Will Alexander : It depends. When we have our own truck, we treat the gear very well and it's been extremely reliable. When we were in South America, they were flying the gear everywhere. In that case, we're not in control. It goes on and off trucks and planes and more trucks - then it's a different situation. There are around 300 screws in the front panel. Those screws are always working themselves loose and modules are falling out, so I'm always having to tighten everything up.
(TD)Do you have a daily check list for keeping the Moog in line?
Will Alexander : Yes, it's kind of like a preflight check on a plane. After a while you know where all the vulnerable parts of the instrument are, and you can go check those out. It's kind of a routine now. All the things that could have gone wrong have gone wrong, and I know where those things are. On this last tour we set up the Moog and there were five things that didn't work. And when you have an hour-and-a-half till show time and the synth has five things wrong with it, you have to go in and fix it quickly.
(TD)What if you couldn't solve those problems within the hour-and-a-half.
Will Alexander : Then we couldn't use the Moog. I have a "Plan B" for most everything. All the sounds that the Moog makes are online ready through other systems.
(TD)In the worst-case scenario, you could dial up an SE1.
Will Alexander : Exactly.
(TD)Have any of the other synths been modified by you?
Will Alexander : It's hard to customize digital signal processors these days. It's not like the old days where I used to do a lot of analog modifications. The only thing that's been modified is our Voce module, which has more gain coming out of it.
(TD)Could you describe your roll in this team when ELP is in the studio?
Will Alexander : I'm involved in sound design and sequencing. I'm looked upon as an archivist of what they've done in the past. Because I know the music so well, if they come to me and say, "There is a sound we used on..." I can pretty much re-create the sound. Whether it came from the (Yamaha) GX-1 or the Moog or a Moog prototype.
(TD)There was a Moog polyphonic prototype that was used on the "Brain Salad Surgery" album. Did that give birth to the Polymoog that we all know?
Will Alexander : There were two Moog prototypes that were fitted together as one unit on a rolling stand. There was a polyphonic keyboard called the Apollo that was the prototype for the Polymoog and then on top of that was an instrument that was called the Lyra, sort of a miniMoog on steroids,- which we still have. This was a super miniMoog. It had an extensive modulation section and it had pressure sensitivity on the keyboard.
(TD)Sort of a prototype to the MultiMoog?
Will Alexander : Sort of, but it definitely is a miniMoog. It's all hand wired.
(TD)And Keith still has the Lyra?
Will Alexander : Yes, and it still is working perfectly. The Lyra and the Apollo were Moog prototypes - along with Tarus Pedals. Together they all became the Moog Polyphonic Ensemble or Constellation. That's what he used on Cal Jam or if you've seen any of the "Brain Salad" shows. He played "Benny The Bouncer" and "Jerusalem" on it and he also used it in "Third Impression" for the horn lines. So the Polyphonic Ensemble was really three units. The top was the Lyra, the polyphonic Apollo on the bottom, and the Tarus pedals on the floor.
"Reprinted with permission from the March 1998 issue of EQ Magazine." * Tony Di Lorenzo has been involved with synthesizers and keyboards for the last 20 years. He has produced his own CD-ROM for the Kurzweil K2000 and K2500 called "Producer Series Vol.1." He runs his own company called Front Room Productions. You can e-mail Tony at email@example.com.
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