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 sound right.
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 musical director?
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 successful MD?
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 host software.