YAMAHA TEST DRIVE
ALAN PARSONS GETS BEHIND THE ULTIMATE YAMAHA RECORDING RIG
Very few people have equal genius as a songwriter and as a recording engineer/producer. Alan Parsons does, and his success at both has made him a living legend. His own songs showcase the same stellar production values that earned him a Grammy nomination for engineering Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon – an album that to this day aspiring record producers study in every detail. His 2006 release, A Valid Path, featured collaborations with cutting-edge electronica stars such as Crystal Method and Überzone (and a voice-over from John Cleese of Monty Python fame), and was Grammy-nominated for best surround album. We also can’t wait for him to share his studio secrets on his upcoming Keyfax DVD series, The Art and Science of Sound Recording.
When it came to sharing how he uses Yamaha Motif series keyboards as cornerstones of his live shows, we didn’t have to wait – he visited Guitar Center in Oxnard, CA to do exactly that. During July, you can test drive the same Yamaha ultimate live rig he did: A Motif XS8 synth workstation, topped with a MO6, both amplified by a Yamaha EMX512SC mixer and 2 S115V cabinets.
“I think the [Motif] XS is a huge development from the ES, which I’ve had a lot of use from as well,” says Alan. “It’s a beautifully laid-out keyboard. It’s very easy to find stuff you want, and there’s not a bad sound in there. I’ve used sounds from just about every category.”
Keyboards and synths have always played a huge role in Alan’s music, and many Motif sounds are essential to performing his classic hits with the Alan Parsons Live Project, as he proceeded to sit at the Motif XS to demonstrate. He punched up the factory patch Nu Phasing, telling us “This is the Clav sound I use on ‘I Robot.’” Switching to Sweet Flute, he said, “Here’s a sort of signature sound from ‘Pyschobabble’ off of Eye in the Sky,” then played the 12-note chiff flute riff that famously answers the vocal. Of course, his biggest hit was that same album’s title track, led off by Wurlizter electric piano chords. “On the record, of course, it was an actual Wurlitzer, but the sound in the Motif is virtually indistinguishable.”
Some Alan Parsons songs are instantly recognizable by the loops that start them off: the delay guitar line on “Sirius,” (The tune immortalized by the Chicago Bulls) the four-note arpeggio that opens “Games People Play,” or the delicate plucked sound (originally created on a Yamaha DX7) that propels “Days Are Numbers.” Though the Motif XS’ internal sounds and Phrase Factory arpeggiator would be more than up to the task of re-creating these, Alan uses the Motif’s integrated sampling to bring the tracks from his original recordings onstage. Since the Motif ES and XS can take up to 1GB of sample RAM – the most of any hardware keyboard currently out there – he has plenty of room, as he showed us by triggering every one of the above loops from the XS. Since you can plug a USB drive directly into either of these Motifs, Alan is essentially able to keep his entire show in his pocket, knowing that he always has what he needs.
“For three or four years now, I’ve been carrying around all my sounds for the live show on a USB thumb drive. We have the promoter or the venue supply the Motifs, I pop in the drive, and all the sounds are present as if I’d been there all day setting it up. It completely replaced a 16-track [standalone hard disk] recorder I’d been carrying. Now, all these loops live in the sample memory of the Motif, so it’s not just my keyboard, it’s my playback machine. That leaves two more channels open to the sound guys, among other things!”
Alan’s Motif settings are stored as an “all” file, and the beauty of this is that it saves absolutely everything in the Motif XS: Voice and Performance settings, Song and Pattern contents in the sequencer, and whatever sounds are in the sample RAM.
“At a gig, there’s a good chance that between sound check and when you go on, the power is going to go down for some of the gear onstage,” explains Alan, “Somebody’s going to trip over something, rearrange plugs in a power strip, or whatever. Again, with everything saved on a USB stick, I can just hit the reload button. I can’t over-emphasize just how great it is to walk into a gig with a thumb drive and complete confidence.”
Fans know that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the Alan Parsons Project was strictly a studio band, never performing live. Why not? And what has changed?
“Our main reason [for not playing live] was the use of orchestra,” explains Alan, “The first six albums were heavily orchestrated, and there was no technology at the time that was anywhere near what we would’ve needed to reproduce that live. There was the Fairlight, which could give you, what, 11-bit scratchy strings and vocal samples?” [Laughs.]
As his fingers danced over the Motif XS control panel, he continued, “Now, to show you that we don’t just use the Motif for synth sounds, here’s the intro to ‘Old and Wise.’ Originally, this was an 80-piece orchestra and the whole intro is stored as a sample.” As the orchestral part plays back in stunning detail, he reflects, “I never thought I’d see the day when we’d truly be able to reproduce an orchestra using samples. We’re still not quite there in terms of, say, playing a full Beethoven symphony, but for orchestral support for a rock band, we certainly are.”
Motifs have always featured an extra pair of assignable outputs in addition to the main stereo ones, and these also help Alan use the Motif ES, and now the XS, as the nerve center of his live rig. “Not many keyboards are capable of outputting something else at the same time as the stereo mix, but on the Motif, we have just a click track coming out of one of the assignable outs and going to the drummer.”
Since the click track, keyboard sounds, and sampled loops are all coming from the Motif, there’s no chance of multiple machines falling out of sync, which was always a worry in the past. To show us, Alan switched one of the audio cables running to the EMX512SC powered mixer over to “Assignable Out L” on the Motif XS, and we heard a cowbell (drummer Steve Murphy’s preferred metronome sound) counting perfect time with the arpeggiated loop on “Games People Play.” Thanks to the separate output, the live engineer can mix the click so it’s only in the drummer’s in-ear monitors, not heard by the audience.
Alan is quick to point out that he doesn’t abuse the considerable power the Motif series offers: “The thing you won’t hear coming from the Motif or anywhere else at my shows is backing vocal tracks,” notes Alan, “I feel that’s cheating. I use only the loops and sounds that drive a track along. But even ten years ago, to be able to call up such a large number of great sounds in a live context would have been quite a different matter. Manny Focarazzo, our main keyboard player, carries three keyboards, and also loads all his sounds from thumb drives and memory cards. So the Motif has played a big part in our ability to sound consistent from venue to venue.”
Though the full-on Motif XS workstation is one of the best values on the market, your gig may require its great sounds, beats, Phrase Factory, and sequencing at an even more affordable price. That’s why our Yamaha ultimate live rig includes the MO6. It has most of the power of its big brother, but with 64 voices of polyphony instead of 128 and no sampling – in other words, Yamaha trimmed the stuff you’re least likely to miss for live gigging.
Since most Motif XS and MO sounds have a lot going on in stereo, that’s how you’ll want to amp them live. The Yamaha EMX512SC powered mixer provides four stereo input channels – two with 1/4" jacks and two with RCA jacks – plenty for all your keyboards, DJ gear, and even an MP3 player for your break music. An additional four XLR mono mic input channels incorporate Yamaha’s innovative “one-knob compression.” Bringing vocals forward in the mix while reducing the chances of feedback is just one of the uses you’ll find for this unique feature. Of course, the EMX’s twin 500W amps are going to want to push some beefy speakers, and with 15" woofers and 2" horn-loaded compression tweeters, a pair of Yamaha’s S115V Club series are the ideal partners. Bottom line: The EMX512SC and S115V speakers aren’t just the ultimate live keyboard amp, but on smaller gigs, can be the PA for your entire band… and for once, the guitar player will be asking you to turn down!
If you’re working on your own tunes, you’ll appreciate Alan’s parting advice about songwriting: “Know when it’s done. There’s a saying that a song is never finished, only abandoned. There were stories in the ’80s of this or that record creeping its way up the top ten, while the producer was still in the studio redoing the mix!” [Laughs.]
The entire catalog of The Alan Parsons Project will soon be available in remastered form and includes previously unreleased bonus material. Five albums have already been released. For more information, tour dates and more, be sure to check out Alan’s official website at alanparsonsmusic.com.