Roger Waters' Us + Them Tour

A backstage look at the wall of tech with programmer Mike McKnight
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“That’s a good question!” veteran keyboardist and programmer Mike McKnight says after I ask where he’s currently located. (It was Sacramento, California, incidentally.) Having just helped launch the mammoth Roger Waters Us + Them tour that will take him around the globe for the better part of two years, McKnight made time to give Keyboard and EM an inside look at the technology that makes this immersive, multimedia show possible.

What were you doing before you got involved in the new Roger Waters tour?

I started off playing in bar bands in the 1980s. Later, I moved to California and got with Bo Tomlyn, who was a synth programmer and writer for Keyboard. He turned down a few gigs that I ended up taking. The “big one” that got me started was with Earth, Wind & Fire back in 1987-88. I was the keyboard tech for them, but then they heard me play and had me play behind a curtain from ’87 to ’93. Then, from ’93 to ’97, I was actually onstage with them as the second chair guy, playing string and synth parts. Keyboardist Morris Pleasure played the primary, “hard” stuff! We had a little bit of playback on that tour. Back in those days, we were using an Apple Macintosh IIci and a bunch of samplers. There was no Pro Tools back then. My other big clients were Madonna from 1990 to 2005, and Mariah Carey from 1996 until the present. I’m still working with her, but obviously, I can’t be in two places at once, as I’m working with Roger now. I basically play when it’s necessary. I’ve been a musical director for Paula Abdul, and I played onstage with Madonna as well, but with Roger’s tour, my focus is on playback. I’m basically the programmer and purveyor of timecode and loud, cool sounds!

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I imagine that running playback on a show like The Wall could be quite a challenge.

On that tour, we had a lot of people singing. So, just in case someone got sick, I was able to record their vocals and have them at the ready in case of an emergency. It would be irresponsible of me to not have every element of the show covered. The show must go on, no matter what. But it’s always for emergency backup purposes only.

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What kind of challenges are you dealing with on Waters’ new tour?

With Roger, the situation is extremely complicated because everything goes into the surrounds. I have to control all of that and send timecode to video, audio, and lights as well. Everything is automated down to the second. It’s a very involved show.

I was lucky enough to see the dress rehearsal for the tour and I was astounded at how good the show sounds.

I’m glad to hear that. Our front-of-house guy is awesome. Also, nobody really does surround sound in an arena these days, so I think people are really taken with that experience. We have a couple of speaker arrays in the rear and a couple on each side of the venue. I send things out to those surrounds, like you would hear in a movie theater. For instance, Roger might say, “I want you to take the helicopter and make it go around us, and then go over here, and then have it sound like it’s going over their heads from the rear.” Then I think to myself, “Oh my God. What a great job I have!” So, you actually feel immersed in the sound, instead of just hearing sound from two speakers in the front of the arena bouncing off the walls. It’s fun and it’s an experience. I wish I could go out front and hear it! [Laughs.]

How early were you brought into the process for planning the new show?

The way it happens, typically, is about three months before the first rehearsal, I’ll be sent a list of the tracks that will be in the show. Since everything is locked to timecode, everything has to be to a click. But if you listen to the original Pink Floyd recordings, the time is all over the place because the band was playing live. It’s natural—songs should accelerate and slow down. Music needs to breathe, it shouldn’t just sit at one tempo. For years, we’ve been trying to play to an exact tempo map of the original songs. But doing that can be a train wreck.

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This time I said, “I’m going to build a click that makes sense. For instance, the first eight bars will take 12 seconds to get to the target. Let’s figure out a tempo that doesn’t change every bar. The first eight bars will be one tempo, and the next eight bars will be another tempo. It should gradually speed up.” So, I would build a click track and time compress and expand whatever needed to be done to the guide track, and I’d send those back to the drummer for approval. Then, I’d send them over to the video department so they could render all of the visual effects, because the video component of the show is just massive.

Once the visuals were together, Roger would make comments like, “Ok, this part’s cool, but this section needs to be extended,” etc. Everything keeps building so by the time you get to full band rehearsals, we’re 90 percent there. From that point on, it’s just a matter of figuring out the transitions in the show. But because everything is locked to a timeline, I can’t change any tempos. I end up having to do all sorts of crazy math when changes are made. If you change one element, it throws off the timeline for the rest of the show. It can be a bit of a science project!

So, the click track on a particular song in the show is continuously changing?

Yes. Not as continuously as it once was, but there is a click track going through almost all of the songs. Sometimes at the end it will drop out, and the band is on their own to ritard their own way. Every musician onstage is locked to that click, but it’s the only way to make a show this intricate work. Everything has to connect to the visuals.

In terms of technology, what tools allow you to plan and present a show of this complexity?

I’m using MOTU Digital Performer, which I’ve been using since it was just called Performer. The reason being, for what I do, it’s the best software out there. I can have hundreds of “chunks,” which are like entire Pro Tools sessions in one file, working simultaneously. For instance, if I want something from Roger’s Dark Side of the Moon tour, I can grab a particular chunk and fly it into whatever file I’m working on. It allows me to move fast. I’m using Digital Performer version 8.07. I’m running 48 kHz, 24-bit WAV files that are timestamped, so I can send them back and forth to the video team. I build my timeline in Digital Performer with all of the clicks and extra surround-sound effects. Occasionally, I have to put things into Pro Tools for people to do overdubs, like for the sound effects editor. But when that happens, he just hands me his files and I drop them into my timeline and I’m ready to go.

What kind of computers are running your rig?

I actually have three rigs running. I have two rigs running on Apple Mac Minis—one is from 2011 and one is from 2014. Both are running OSX 10.10.5 because it’s incredibly stable. I also have one laptop that I use primarily to record the band via MADI with the MOTU M64 interfaces. All three of my rigs have MADI, and they all have analog out. Right now, we’re only using the analog out for the show, but at some point, we’ll probably go MADI because it’s an easier way to handle the 24 to 32 outputs that I have to send to the front of house.

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The really cool thing about the new MOTU interfaces—I’m using all of them for audio—is that not only do they sound great, but because of the AVB networking on a USB 2.0 cable, I can run USB 2.0 to a MOTU M64 interface, and then network to one of their 24 Ao or UltraLite AVB interfaces. Very simply, that gives me 64 MADI in and out, and I can mirror 32 analog out. And that’s not even breaking a sweat on USB 2.0. If you put things on a Thunderbolt cable, you can do 128 channels. So, it sounds great and it works. The MOTU hardware is killer, especially for touring. If I had to swear by anything, it would be that.

Years ago, before the advent of the technology you’re using nowadays, how were you able to run playback for the different groups you were working with?

[Laughs.] I think for playback with Earth, Wind & Fire in 1988, I was using a Roland MC-50 and a Roland S-50 sampler that had something like 4 MB of RAM. Then for Madonna in 1990, I had an Atari 1040 ST computer with 8 MB of RAM with eight E-Max II samplers each with 8 MB of RAM. While four were playing, four would be loading for the next song. I would automate the loads with SyQuest 44MB cartridges. If anything went wrong, then a song wouldn’t start. It was nuts! But it worked.