Playing the Bee Gees hits on tour with Barry Gibb

The dynamic keyboard duo of Doug Emery (above right) and Ben Stivers (right) began their musical journey studying jazz at the University of Miami and quickly became sought after on the Miami music scene. Stivers met the Gibb brothers in the early 1990s, working with them in their studio and eventually on their live shows and TV performances. For Barry Gibb’s first solo tour, Stivers’ and Emery’s skills were put to the test, and Keyboard got the inside scoop.

The dynamic keyboard duo of Doug Emery (above right) and Ben Stivers (right) began their musical journey studying jazz at the University of Miami and quickly became sought after on the Miami music scene. Stivers met the Gibb brothers in the early 1990s, working with them in their studio and eventually on their live shows and TV performances. Along the way, he and Emery formed a symbiotic partnership that is rare in the keyboard world and has served them well with major Latin acts such as pianist Di Blasio and pop star Chayanne. For Barry Gibb’s first solo tour, Stivers’ and Emery’s skills were put to the test, and Keyboard got the inside scoop.

Blue Weaver was on keyboards for the iconic Bee Gees tunes. In digging back through this music, what did you discover about him?

Ben Stivers: He’s more responsible for the sound of their music than maybe he gets credit for. It’s his harmonic vocabulary, especially on a song like “How Deep Is Your Love,” with its Rhodes part and all those extensions. The way Barry plays the chords on his guitar, he doesn’t have a lot of major sevenths; there’s not a lot of sus chords. It’s much more triadic. So all that color and flavor, that’s all Blue. All that disco stuff—“Night Fever,” “More Than a Woman”—that’s all him.

In accessing the catalog and prepping this tour, how did you guys split the keyboard duties?

Doug Emery: Ben and I have worked together a lot. So, because we’ve done other tours together, we kind of have a system.

BS: It’s a rare thing for a keyboard player to find. I only know maybe one or two other guys that I like playing with, because most of the time you get stepped on. We’re not used to playing with other keyboard players necessarily. And it’s difficult to find a guy like Doug that is both harmonically and texturally aware—sonically aware. On the Di Blasio gig, there were times in the show where he’d be just talking and we’d improvise a background, so we developed a vocabulary between the two of us. I know he’s not going to jump all over what I do and that he’s going to leave me space, and vice versa.

DE: The other thing is, neither one of us is trying to prove anything at this point. We’ve done this together long enough; I don’t need to prove anything to Ben, and that helps.

BS: If we’re out to prove anything at all, it’s how good to make the whole. I don’t want to stick out, but I want people to go, “Holy crap, that was amazing what you guys did!”

What stands out about when you first started working with the Bee Gees?

DE: Interestingly, they weren’t that into retro sounds. It’s been a trend now for 20 years at least. But because they lived through it, it just sounded old to them. So especially when I first started, they weren’t all that interested in having authentic Rhodes or analog synth sounds—they’d done that already. Now that’s kind of changed because the imitations have gotten better. [Barry Gibb] realizes that it doesn’t sound old—it sounds like the song.

BS: Right. One thing that changed in terms of distributing parts is that when I did the gig when Maurice Gibb was still alive, he would play piano and strings on a lot of stuff.

How was Maurice as a piano player?

BS: He was great. He played all the parts. He knew the songs. He was really good because there are a couple of tricky tempos, especially on songs he starts alone. And singers get really particular about the cadence of lyrics. It may feel right to you, but it took me a minute when I first started taking over those duties to really feel where some of the songs need to sit. For example, “Lonely Days” has tempo changes and that’s all me. It used to be all Maurice. He knew what it was supposed to feel like.

Did you try to re-create the rig Maurice used, for this tour?

BS: No. They’d stopped playing together, and Maurice died in 2004. So everything has changed since then. The rigbasically had to be built from scratch, and the way things are these days, it was a pretty easy decision to go virtual. The sounds are just better and it’s so much easier to program. For my rig, I use a Korg NanoKontrol as my MIDI brain. So literally any keyboard can show up in the backline—anything with 88 keys on it and a MIDI out, and I’m cool.

Are you just using one keyboard?

BS: Yeah. I’ve got all the splits mapped and all the controller information on the NanoKontrol. So I show up with the Nano, laptop, interface, and that’s it. Since we’ve been doing these different set lists, just cataloging sounds and stuff, I’ve got a folder of Bee Gees patches and I can pull them in and out of my concert in [Apple] MainStage as needed.

DE: There’s an [M-Audio] Axiom that I run. It’s triggering two systems that are both running in tandem, but they’re not synced in any way, other than the fact that I’ve started them at the same time. I have one of those Radial SW8 audio switchers. So I have a footswitch by me. If I need to switch to the B rig, I press a footswitch.

BS: There’s a separate computer running Ableton Live—actually two. Doug has two computers and I have one. We each have a laptop running MainStage and he has two Mac Minis running Ableton.

Aside from the Axiom, are your rigs identical?

DE: Mine’s the same. The only difference between his rig and my rig is I’m also using a Nord Stage. I’m a Nord guy.

Are you using the Nord’s internal sounds or are you using it as a controller?

DE: I’m using it primarily as a controller.

BS: But he plays organ and Wurly.

DE: And Clav, and that’s coming from the Nord. I do a lot of orchestral stuff on this gig, which is all coming from MainStage.

Most Bee Gees hits are known for their great string arrangements. What are you using for strings on this gig?

DE: It’s a bunch of stuff: some Kontakt, some Omnisphere, and that new Logic analog Retro Synth. I’ve done this a lot, the string thing, so I know what I need to build. One part of that is always to have some sort of analog sound underneath it all.

It’s amazing that for the breadth of sounds and styles over those decades of music that you can pair everything down to the laptop, MainStage, and the controller.

BS: We’re using a pretty wide range of plug-ins, though. Doug’s rig has Omnisphere and I have the Arturia stuff that he doesn’t. Everything else is the same. We both have the Native Instruments [Komplete] bundle as well.

Do you have a backup rig running like Doug does?

BS: I haven’t needed it. That’s the fear, but mine’s never failed. I had more problems when I started the gig using dedicated hardware. My rig was a Kurzweil K2500 and a rack with a Roland D550 and JV-1080, a Korg M1R, two Akai S3000s, and a MIDI router. That thing was a nightmare. I’m much more stable now with MainStage and a small PreSonus audio interface.

How do you ensure you’re not overtaxing the system?

BS: You have to think about what you need to accomplish and programming it efficiently. I’ll set up an effects bus with one reverb for the whole concert. It doesn’t have to be in every track. I love [Logic’s convolution reverb] Space Designer, but I don’t need it for the glockenspiel on “Words.” I can use a simpler reverb for that. You have to think about what you’re trying to build.

Let’s say you have a specific sound on a song that needs a certain slapback . . .

BS: I have a delay on the Rhodes, and I’ve assigned enough controllers to it where I can tap in tempos, change the delay time, or just turn it off. So I don’t need 15 instances of that for different songs. I can open up the delay and twiddle knobs as if I had a delay pedal on the floor.

DE: What helps is the fact that in MainStage every patch can have its own tempo. There’s so much you can do within the pre-programming to take care of a lot of things where normally you would have to have multiple versions. The other thing is, since the [Intel] Core i-series processors came out, things have been a lot more stable. That, and 64-bit [processing] have made a huge difference.

What would you like to see as your next-level gig rig?

BS: I’d like a hardware-based synth with a brand-new sample library because they’ve got to be able to fit more on to a chip now. And I think, more self-contained units. Right now, this is a cool rig, but I live in New York and do a lot of work there. I don’t always like bringing the laptop because there are still a lot of connections to make. Usually I’m bringing a keyboard and a laptop and the interface, and plugging it all up and getting all my sounds out of the laptop. So, something along the lines of what Muse Research is doing—boxes that have a built-in processor, plug-host, and audio and MIDI interface—but small. It wouldn’t take much to throw a decent processor inside a keyboard so you could hook up a monitor and look at MainStage. That could be something for Apple. Somebody’s got to be able to design a host that can stably run everything. Right now MainStage is probably the best at that—or the Muse Receptor.

What are you using for piano sounds on this gig?

BS: I’m using Ivory for acoustic piano. I’m playing piano and Rhodes and brass; Doug is playing strings and synths.

Which songs are your favorites to perform?

BS: “How Deep Is Your Love” is a great song. I get to play the Rhodes part. Back in the day I could get decent phasey tremolo Rhodes. The sound that I have now is pretty darned close. I really dig it.

Is it an internal sound, or are you using effects pedals?

BS: No, the effects are all internal. I’m using a plug-in phaser and a plug-in tremolo. It just works.

DE: Ben is really good with that stuff in his hands. I think some guys using the plug-in thing, it would be like you’re making some sort of compromise. Ben’s really good at dialing in sounds.

BS: Right back at you. It’s fun, and with the NanoKontrol, I have one button that turns the phaser on and off and one button that turns the tremolo panner on and off. And then I have control over the panner from two knobs. So it’s a lot like having a stompbox . . . There are other songs I like just because the parts are so rhythmic: I really like “Guilty.” That’s a killer Richard Tee Rhodes part on that. And I like playing “One.” It’s a little more mechanical. It almost sounds like Scritti Politti.

DE: I think for me, because it’s a killer tune and I just think it’s beautiful, we do a song called “With the Sun in Your Eyes.” It’s just me and Ben and Barry, and it’s just gorgeous.

BS: On the record it was Mellotron, I think. But Doug does it on real strings and he’s kind of elaborated the part into some really pretty orchestral stuff. There’s a lot of moving lines. It’s pretty amazing what he’s done with it.

DE: And Ben brings in the horn stuff so it’s really nice. It’s a really beautiful moment of the show.

What about of the funkier side of things?

DE: I love “Jive Talkin’.” I’m playing the Wurly on it. And I’m playing the synth line, and I love that sound.

BS: I get to play the bass.

Since there’s a bass player for the show, what happens during the parts when you play synth bass?

BS: On that tune, the gig existed before I got it, and we actually double the part—we play the same thing, leaving space for each other to play fills. There’s another song in the set, one we hadn’t been playing: “Nights on Broadway.” In the 20 years I played with Barry, he’d never done it. It’s very high, very taxing on his voice. We decided to pull it out because Fallon and Timberlake had been parodying it. So it’s back and that also has synth bass. I started goofing around with that but the bass player got that Electro-Harmonix pedal, the bass synthesizer. It’s not really a synthesizer; it’s an envelope filter and an octaver. But he was able to get really close to the sound on the record.

And what do you do during that song?

BS: I do piano. There’s a fairly busy piano part. If you listen to the record of that, the piano on it is hard-compressed and bright. So I have a compressor when I call up my piano sound. Once again, one of the buttons on my NanoKontrol kicks in a compressor and a bit of EQ to make it that bright kind of rock aggressive sound. It’s subtle but it makes a huge difference.

DE: I think that’s been another discussion in the band: It’s easy to make some of the stuff a little too pretty. So that’s been a big point of discussion. How do we make this a little less “soft rock”?

BS: The old records are not that quantized and not that slick. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s rock music.

What is it like working with Barry Gibb?

BS: He’s the best cat ever.

DE: I’ve really come to care for the guy, and I have to say, it’s been really great to see him accepted. There’s a resurgence of respect for what he has done.

He must feel amazing, seeing the response.

DE: He’s gotten overwhelmed sometimes.

BS: It’s been more than any other gigs that I’ve ever done with him or anybody else: just the emotion of it. He’s able to be really vulnerable. It’s really raw. I’ve played with acts that were bigger at the moment or maybe had hits at the moment and crowds that were maybe more crazy or nuts, but I’ve never felt this level of empathy and emotion. It’s pretty amazing.