On Crafting Piano Sounds for the Grammy-Sweeping Songstress
By MICHAEL GALLANT
ADELE’S TIMELESS VOCAL STYLE HAS WON CHEERS AND TEARS FROM FANS ACROSS THE GLOBE, not to mention six Grammys in 2012. Supporting the superstar’s touring
efforts are the powerful chops of Miles Robertson, who plays keyboards, directs
the band, triggers backing tracks, and breaks hearts with the wistful arpeggios of
“Someone Like You” night after night. Here’s what Miles had to say about tweaking the
right piano sounds from twin Yamaha Motif XFs, keeping tunes fresh after months on
tour, and growing into stardom with one of the biggest acts in the world.
How has working with Adele evolved since
you started playing with her?
With Adele, what you see is what you get. I’ve been
working with her since 2008, before her megastardom,
and in my mind, she hasn’t changed. The
band is still a very cohesive unit and everyone is
still very down to earth. Both her first album 
and this new one  are just reflections of who
she is and what she’s feeling—not every artist is
able to fearlessly express him- or herself like that,
and it’s very cool to work with someone who can.
Did you use stock piano sounds on the Motif
XF or program your own?
I worked with a great programmer, Paul Stoney.
Early in the tour we used stock sounds, but I’d go
on YouTube and look at footage shot by the audience
or listen to recordings taken from the mixing
board. I quickly heard that the piano needed to be
a lot meatier, especially when we were performing
in theaters and amphitheatres, so when we
had a break between the U.K. and U.S. tours, we
went in and tried to customize piano sounds for
each song in detail. Each song needed a different
piano sound, so we started with stock sounds and
tweaked EQs and reverbs, trying to make them as
perfect as possible within the rig, as opposed to
leaving it to the front-of-house mixer to get the
Did you tweak the sounds from show to show?
Depending on the type of show, sure. I was always
checking in with the sound engineer to see if
there was too much or too little reverb, and the
same for low end. It was a lot of trial and error.
The biggest thing is that I didn’t want anything
to sound digital or sterile. I’m borderline anal
about things like this. [Laughs.]
How do you approach playing “Someone
Like You” night after night?
I play very lightly on that song and don’t dig in
much, attack-wise—after watching past performances
on YouTube, I learned that I could just lay
it out there and go with the feeling of the song.
I don’t know how many times I’ve played it live,
but the vibe is always different and it never gets
boring. The tempo may vary slightly — we do that
one completely live with no backing tracks. That
song is the most exposed and puts the most pressure
on me to execute my parts well, but it helps
to just think about giving Adele a great foundation
for her singing without being intrusive.
What were some of your pre-tour duties as
I worked on choosing which stems from the
album to incorporate as backing tracks—very
minimal elements like strings, percussion, and
backing vocals—and helped edit, mix, and EQ
them for live performance. I also communicated
with Adele to see how best to execute her ideas
and build a set list. She and everyone in the
band had a wealth of experience, so it was never
“my way or the highway.” Every musician had a
lot to bring to the table.
What advice can you offer to keyboardists
who want to tour with superstar acts?
Practice is one thing, but the actual dynamic of
performing is another, and it’s equally important.
It’s easy to play something at your house
by yourself. When you’re onstage trying to execute
it in front of people, it’s a different thing.
Nothing beats connecting with an audience,
whether it’s 20 people or 200,000, so playing out
as much as possible is really important. There
are so many intangibles that it can’t really be
taught, and you only really learn to connect with
people onstage by doing it. It bleeds into recording
as well—if you understand how to connect
with people live, you’ll have a lot to draw upon
in the studio.
What’s the most important aspect of being a
Once you grasp that it’s not about you, but
instead all about supporting the artist’s songs,
you’ve already won half the battle.
Miles’ Stage Rig
“When I toured with Adele for 19, I used a
Wurlitzer 200A and a Roland Fantom-G,”
says Miles, who replaced the Fantom with a
Yamaha Motif XS8 mid-tour. “We also had a
second keyboard player who used a Fender
Rhodes and a Yamaha Motif. Now, 21 is a completely different album with completely different sounds.”
To take 21’s piano- and Hammond-heavy palette on the road, Miles chose a Yamaha Motif XF7 and XF8, both
tucked inside an upright piano shell. “A real piano would’ve been a nightmare to maintain, and the Motif is awesome
at acoustic pianos,” he says. “Just for Adele’s performance at the Grammys, I used the Yamaha U1 silent
piano triggering an off-stage XF7.” Miles also plays Hohner melodicas on tour. He uses an M-Audio Axiom Pro 25
to trigger backing tracks, which reside on a MacBook Pro running Logic Pro 9 and Fluqe’s OnStage instrument