Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran's New Road-Ready Keyboard Rig

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The Duran Duran Founding Father’s New Road Ready Keyboard Rig
Roland Keyboard Rig Photo Credit: Oswald L. Henderson

“Isn’t that bizarre,” Nick Rhodes tells me of his band Duran Duran’s latest album Paper Gods scoring their highest chart position in decades. “It’s a nice surprise, though. You never know when these things will or won’t happen. I think the charts are obviously very different than they were before—not many people even buy music, and when they do they buy downloads. Most people stream music, so in reality it’s a very different world out there nowadays. Nonetheless, whatever it was that drove that record up the Billboard charts, it was a very welcome surprise.”

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When last we spoke with Rhodes (9/2015), he was beta-testing a new live rig that was to be built entirely around Apple’s MainStage platform. Now as the band takes to the road for a nearly year-long tour in 2016, the technology behind band-hits old and new has changed slightly. “We’ve made the change,” Rhodes confirms, “and we’ve gone with four Roland JD-XA keyboards as controllers, and I’ve got one of the smaller, JD-Xi’s as well, which has replaced the Korg microKorg as my vocoder. And it’s surprisingly powerful too—I’ve only used it for a few little things in the set, but it’s great.”

Rhodes delves deeper into his new keyboard collection. “There’s something I rather like about having the uniformity of the Roland keyboards. I was going to keep one of my [Roland] V-Synths, because I particularly like the controls on it for live performance. But Ozzie, my keyboard tech extraordinaire, persuaded me to make the change, saying, ‘Look, I can program whatever parameters you want into the wheels or faders on the JD-XAs.’ It’s kind of a bizarre way we’ve done things, because I change sounds literally from button to button. Some songs have multiple buttons for me to click through, and because I’ve got four keyboards, there are enough buttons on two of them for me to get through the whole set!”

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Rhodes’ revamped rig does not, however, use Apple’s MainStage as originally planned. “That’s the other big change,” Rhodes tells me. “We were going for MainStage as the platform, but we encountered some glitches early on when Ozzie was testing it, particularly with how fast it was changing my sounds and samples that were loaded in. It became kind of impractical, because I do need to change sounds very quickly. It was fine with most of them, but it didn’t like some of my samples. Maybe it had to do with how big they were. We used it in rehearsals and we were in discussion with the guys at MainStage who were great, but we ran out of time before we were able to get to the bottom of the problem. So we swapped over to Ableton. Everything’s running through it now—all five keyboards, my samples and all of my sound effects.”

Rhodes is adjusting well to his new rig. “I have to say, so far it’s been amazing,” he says. “It also enables us to do a lot more with the parameters of the sounds, from what I understand. I’m lucky enough to be in a position at this point where I find and go through all of the old sounds and provide them to Ozzie, and he then samples them all and gets them to the highest possible quality. And then he asks me what I want to be able to do with them. For example, one of the things I was at pains to lose were my pedals, because I have loads of flangers, phasers and delays. But Ozzie said, ‘Please, let’s try the internal effects along with effects we can load internally, because you can really do almost anything you want.’ So I started playing around with the flanger, and I soon realized that for the live performance, I can get things so accurate that we’ve gone with the internal effects entirely. So now I have two dedicated sliders on all of my JD-XA’s, where one is a flanger and one is a phaser. I have the flanger set within the parameters needed for each song, and when I want, I can just push it up and put it on precisely the right speed and all the right settings.”

How does this legendary keyboardist (whose pursuit of sonic purity led him to drag a warehouse worth of vintage keyboards around on tour for decades) like the digital re-creation of his sound library? “I’m as happy as I can be at the moment,” Rhodes replies. “I’d be the first one to say to you that every time you sample something, even at the highest possible quality—sampling every key individually at the keyboard—it’s never going to be exactly the same as the original. There’s something about analog keyboards and the way the chips work within them, and the fact they’re a little quirkier that makes them sound slightly different every time. But when you sample something, it’s the same every time. So in reality, I would much prefer to be using all the big, analog beasts on stage still, because I feel they have something magical. That’s why I still use them in the studio. But for the stage I particularly like these new Roland keyboards. They’re incredibly lightweight, the analog component within them in very, very good, and the effects in them are extremely good too. So for where we’ve come over the last few decades, we’re definitely in a different stratosphere now.”

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A Few Words with… Nick Rhodes’ Keyboard Tech Ozzie Henderson
“We have four Roland JD-XA’s triggering samples in Ableton Live,” keyboard tech Oswald “Ozzie” Henderson tells me while on-tour with Duran Duran. “We also have a Roland JD-Xi acting as a vocoder. The setup was designed to replicate Nick’s previous keyboard rig. Essentially, each keyboard triggers samples from Nick’s classic keyboard collection—keyboards that are just too valuable to have on tour. So in Ableton, each MIDI input is assigned a keyboard/MIDI channel with a keyboard instrument/rack. We spent many weeks in the studio sampling the original keyboard patches created by Nick, recreating the original sounds used on the records. We also recreated the effects that we used live on the previous rig using Native Instruments plug-ins.” 

“As far as gear, Nick’s rig is quite light in terms of the number of units,” Henderson continues. “The rig has complete redundancy, so we have an A and B system. Each system is based on an Apple Mac Mini into a MOTU MIDI interface and a MOTU audio interface. Outside of a UPS and a Radial SW8 switcher, that is essentially all of the gear we are using.”

Catch Duran Duran On-Tour in 2016!

04/07 Uncasville, CT Mohegan Sun Arena*+
04/08 Washington, DC Verizon Center*+
04/11 Montreal, QC Bell Centre*+
04/12 Brooklyn, NY Barclays Center*+
04/15 Atlanta, GA Philips Arena*
04/16 Charlotte, NC PNC Music Pavilion*
04/19 Dallas, TX American Airlines Arena*
04/22 Austin, TX Austin360 Amphitheater*
04/23 The Woodlands, TX The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion*
04/24 New Orleans, LA Smoothie King Center*
04/27 Jupiter, FL Sunfest
04/29 San Juan, Puerto Rico Coliseo De Puerto Rico Jose M. Agrelot
05/28 Oxford, UK Common People Oxford
05/29 Southampton, UK Common People Southampton
06/19 Aarhus, Denmark Northside Festival
07/06 Nashville, TN Ascend Amphitheater*
07/08 Highland Park, IL Ravinia
07/09 Highland Park, IL Ravinia
07/11 Clarkston, MI DTE Energy Music Theatre*
07/13 Toronto, ON Molson Canadian Amphitheater*
07/15 Quebec City, QC The Festival D’ete De Quebec
07/16 Lebreton Flats, ON Ottawa Bluesfest
07/17 Mansfield, MA Xfinity Center*
07/21 Camden, NJ BB&T Pavilion*
07/23 St. Paul, MN Xcel Energy Center*
07/24 Kansas City, MO Starlight Theatre*
07/27 Paso Robles, CA California Mid-State Fair*
07/29 Las Vegas, NV Mandalay Bay Events Center*
07/30 Irvine, CA Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre*
07/31 Chula Vista, CA Sleep Train Amphitheatre*
08/03 Glendale, AZ Gila River Arena*
09/04 Snowmass Village, CO Aspen Jazz Fest Snowmass

* w/ Special guest CHIC FEAT. NILE RODGERS
+ w/ SHAMIR as support

Duran Duran – Paper Gods Album Trailer