Roger Joseph Manning Jr. has toured with his own bands—including Jellyfish, Imperial Drag and the synth-geek favorite the Moog Cookbook—but for now he says he’s happy to be playing with Beck. For one thing, legs of Beck’s tour are relatively short, so Manning is able to spend more frequent time at home recording, which is his first musical love.
Another plus: Beck appreciates the sounds that Manning brings. “I’ve got a Jupiter-8 and Prophet-10 out with me,” Manning says. “I warned him from the beginning, ‘These sound fantastic, but they’re old and I don’t have a backup if we run into any trouble on the road.’ He thought about it for a minute and said, ‘Well, I can hear the difference. I want my audience to hear the difference. So let’s bring ’em.’ I thought, Okay. I’m with the right employer.”
Before heading back out on tour, Manning updated us on his stage gear as well as his latest EP, Glamping, a quartet of original songs that bridge many of the ’60s and ’70s vocal harmonies and keyboard sounds that Manning favors.
Are you enjoying this break from touring?
Yes, I prefer to be in town recording. I love the construction aspect. But Beck is such family, and I’m such a fan, and he tours so smartly that I gladly create the time for it.
What else are you carrying with you?
Interestingly enough, we’re in the process of redesigning the keyboard rig, but for the past four years, promoting the last record, Morning Phase, and the new album, Colors, it consisted of an incredible marriage of old and new. I’ve got a Yamaha upright acoustic piano, a Clavinet D6 right next to my Nord Stage 88, which I use both as a controller and to get some good Wurly and electric piano and synth sounds. And then I’ve got the Jupiter-8 and Prophet-10.
What’s the reason for a new rig design?
Beck is working on a new visual concept for his stage show, and he wants to minimize the clutter of gear. We’re still figuring out what that’s going to look like. I’m working with [computer tech] Ian Longwall, who oversees our Ableton software samples. We have several people, including me, triggering samples and Ian masterminds that. We’re still figuring it out, but I think we’ll be sampling a lot of my custom sounds, which might be time-consuming, but it will sound good and the tech crew won’t be shaking their fists at me for having to haul that Yamaha into every venue.”
Tell us about developing the material for Glamping.
The evolution of those songs is similar to my previous two solo records (Land of Pure Imagination and Catnip Dynamite) 10 years ago. After Jellyfish and Imperial Drag broke up, I was sitting on pounds of unfinished material that I was hoping to finish with my collaborators some day, but that didn’t happen. Even as I continued to freelance and go about my business, these songs just wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t stand not to finish them and share them.
So, I just started working on them in Pro Tools. It was a labor of love and I took my time. For example, I could hear a bass part the way I wanted it in my head, but that didn’t mean I could pick up a bass and play it. So, I would sit patiently and try, even though I’m not trained as a bass player. And with the help of the computer, I would nudge the audio around till I got to what the bass part should sound like. Something that might take a properly trained bass player 20 minutes to get to might take me three days to arrive at the same destination, but I just sculpted everything that way, making adjustments until it had the right groove.
The songs on the EP are newer but like the other solo records, there may be a verse that I wrote in college, or a snippet of a melody from three years ago, and I fleshed it out. All that said, music is something I just get up in the morning and create, but lyrics are more work. So this time around, I reached out to a friend, Chris Price, and he helped me write three of the songs.
Once you had the material together, what parts did you lay down first?
I just jumped in and started programming drums, creating a skeleton for the songs. I’ve found that once I complete the drum architecture, I have a tone that the rest of the song can evolve from. It starts to dictate what the guitar sound should be, what the keyboard sound should be.
Then, if the song is keyboard-driven, there will be a piano bed or a synth bed next, or it might be a guitar part—just trying to get a rhythm bed together.
What’s your piano in your studio?
I don’t actually own an acoustic piano. I’ve got every sample library everybody else has: the Ivory piano libraries and Nord, and Cinesamples has some nice upright pianos. Keyscape had just came out when I was making this EP, and I love that.
But there is an acoustic piano on this record. The piano for “I’m Not Your Cowboy” is the baby grand at my parents’ house in northern California. My brother Chris Manning is a talented engineer, and he captured the acoustic piano and vocals on two of the Glamping songs.
In the past several years, I just haven’t been in a home that has space for an acoustic piano. It would be nice to have a big, broad Elton John grand piano sound, but that requires quality miking through a quality board in a quality room, and I’m making a solo record out of my back pocket. Fortunately, technology is such that I have options.
What are the keyboards on the song “Operator”? That song has some vintage-type sounds.
That song is built on top of an eighth-note Wurlitzer electric piano pattern. All of the electric piano coming from the left is my vintage Wurlitzer 200a. The Electric piano that’s right-heavy is from Keyscape; that’s one of their electric pianos that I mutated because I wanted to have a super-rich, chorusy vintage-sounding, Wurlitzer electric-piano sound. So you’ve got old meets new there.
At what point did you start adding vocals?
I put a scratch vocal on almost immediately because I’ve learned that I have to arrange around the lead vocal. Everything else is going to be subservient to that. In the past, I sometimes got so excited about all these wonderful parts, I realized by the time I put the lead vocal on, there were too many things distracting from it. Now I make sure the bass part, a drum fill—everything is paying attention to the lead vocal and helping to build dynamics against what the lead vocal is doing.
And then I go decorating-crazy and at some point—I’d say when a song is about 50 percent fleshed out—I’ll put the background vocals on because they’re usually very thick and are going to demand a lot of space in the arrangement. I don’t have a system, but I do try to make sure everything serves the lead vocal out of the gate.
Who are your influences in terms of vocal sounds and arrangements?
I really enjoy the art of background vocal arranging. If you listen to the kind of pop arrangements they had with Jeff Lynne and ELO or The Carpenters or Fleetwood Mac or Queen, it all evolved from the folk trends from the early ’60s. I grew up really appreciating that and trying to develop that skill, and I continue to do that because I love it so much.
Every song on this EP provided a different vocal jigsaw puzzle both in terms of how you voice the chords and write them out compositionally, and how you record them sonically: how many people you put on each note and how you multitrack it. Some things I really wanted the sound to be thick and juicy, and other times I wanted things more intimate, with fewer voices, and each poses its own challenges.
How did you record vocal parts?
For the most part, all the singing was into my Audio-Technica 4050 microphone, into an Avalon mic pre, into Pro Tools. I have no real training as an engineer, though, so I work with a great mixer named John Paterno. If we got into complex chorusing or delays on vocals, I let John take care of that. Frankly, when I’m constructing a keyboard sound or a vocal arrangement, if I go down the engineering rabbit hole, the idea can get lost very quickly. Musically, I’ve got to be impulsive with my idea or I might lose it.
Considering you don’t have deep engineering skills, it takes courage to work alone as much as you do, inching toward each sound.
There’s an era of Todd Rundgren solo albums that absolutely inspires me to do what I do: that period when he made A Wizard, a True Star and Todd. By his own admission, he was very much a one-man show at that point. He had a hit song [“Hello It’s Me”] and enough money to buy some gear, and he shoved everything into his apartment and he didn’t have any rules, just songs that he loved.
When I listen to those recordings, I completely get lost in the environment that he created, not just of the tunes but of him saying, “This is me, just raw, stumbling around the equipment.” Sonically his songs were breaking every recording rule in the book. Stuff is distorting. Parts are panned all crazy; there’s so much nuttiness going on, but it ends up enhancing his songs because it adds that much more charm and character.
This might be like asking someone which is their favorite child, but do you have a favorite keyboard right now?
To choose one, obviously, is challenging, but it pretty much always come back to the Clavinet for me. It’s such a joy to play because it’s highly percussive, and I grew up playing drums so I enjoy that. It allows me to be much more rock and heavy if I choose. You can put a Clavinet through a Marshall stack and guitar amps and pedals. That’s what I did in Imperial Drag; I had my Clavinet and Wurlitzer going through guitar amps and pedals, and I was basically the second guitar player.
The Clavinet has what is basically a giant guitar pick-up underneath it, so if you put some delay on it—particularly an analog delay—you can bend the delay time, I’ve gotten some crazy almost pedal steel-like sounds out of it. It’s a highly expressive instrument that many people only know from Stevie Wonder on “Superstition.” I’ve really enjoyed presenting what it can do to an audience. So if I had to be on a desert island with a piece of gear, I guess that would probably be it, even though I’ve got a lot of cool synthesizers.
Roger Manning’s Collectable Keyboards
Most of Manning’s keyboards are housed in Velveteen Laboratory, the studio of his friend Taylor Locke. This way, the instruments can live outside of storage, giving Manning and Locke access to a wealth of rare sounds.
“I was lucky because I started looking for these instruments in the early ’90s,” Manning says. “My partner Brian Kehew, who was in the Moog Cookbook with me, and I first ran into each other collecting vintage keyboards.
“The whole game changed in about 2000 after the advent of eBay and craigslist. I’m very happy that I was aware of it back then and ran into some friends. We were like a little treasure-hunting team.”
That was made in the early ’70s by an Italian manufacturer known for accordions. The Italians never spared any moment creating decorative, fashionable, mod stuff, whether it was furniture or automobiles or organs. It’s basically a glorified but unique-sounding combo organ, and it’s actually got lights in it underneath the rim. It has a really nice glissando lever where you can run your finger up and down to make sweeping harp-like sounds (see Figure 1).
I’m a big fan of auto accompaniment organs where you press a key with the left hand and a drum machine will generate a little artificial bass line and a beat. When they first came out, they were futuristic sounding, but through the lens of history, they became more groovy in a funny way. In the Moog Cookbook, we used these as a theme, sonically. We wanted people to smile when they heard them. The Discoverer is a very small auto-accompaniment organ that has a great section for unique lead sounds or solo sounds (see Figure 2).
Hohner Clavinet C5
This is a very common keyboard, but you don’t see this version often. The common version, the Clavinet D6, is typically brown and black. This is the model right before it. It sounds similar, but it has a different pick-up configuration. On the underside of that keyboard is a 10-inch-long pickup, and the strings are electrified. After Stevie Wonder used it, everybody wanted one, but by that time, Hohner had the D6 available and had discontinued this model.
Vox Continental Baroque
Vox combo organs are very common, but this was their top of the line. It has all the bells and whistles. They added a lot of lead tones to help the organ player stand out more. You have much more sound-color variety, and I’ve found over the years, that these are the sounds of some of my favorite ’60s garage-band organs.
This is, perhaps, one of the most unique items I own. The original Gleeman Pentaphonic had black plastic housing, but they did a promotional run of about 20 in the clear Plexiglas with clear Plexiglas knobs. It doesn’t sound like any other keyboard I own. It is a polyphonic five-note synth which, obviously, Sequential Circuits had already been having great success with in the Prophet-5 model for years, but its synth engine sounds nothing like that of any of the other typical polyphonic synths of the day. I’ve played it on Beck albums and my solo albums. And it just looks so damn cool.