Ask Mike Way Whack Playback

Hey Mike, What are some of the more bizarre playback and programming requests you’ve had from artists on tour? I know a lot of them have strange and elaborate requirements on their dressing room riders, and was just wondering if any of that trickles down to you? Steve
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Hey Mike,
What are some of the more bizarre playback and programming requests you’ve had from artists on tour? I know a lot of them have strange and elaborate requirements on their dressing room riders, and was just wondering if any of that trickles down to you?

Steve

Steve,
I have to sign non-disclosure agreements about this kind of stuff, but if I don’t name names, I can share some of what you might be in for as an offstage keyboardist, programmer, or playback engineer on a major tour.

Do these pants make my loop fat?

One pop star I worked for had a very long costume change, and I had to loop a section of music until they were ready. When I’d go out of loop mode in MOTU Digital Perfomer 4.5, there was an audio glitch, so I had to work around that. (MOTU has long since fixed this; there’s no glitch in DP7.1.) I always run two playback systems as a failsafe, and when the star was ready, I’d switch to the B system, take the A system out of loop mode, then switch back to the A system and take the B system out of loop mode. On top of that, I had to cue the stage crew that it was time to send the star up! I did all of this in ten seconds with no margin for error, every night of the tour.

Just one more little change . . . Another pop star liked to show up at the last minute with a list of edits — sometimes as the house lights were going down and the show was starting. As the first song played, I’d do the edit on the B system (without hearing my edit), then put the B system online to play the backing tracks for the newly-edited song. Then I’d use the (nowoffline) A system to edit the next song, and so on, always remembering which system I did which edit on. I had a talkback mic to tell the guys in the band what was cut, transposed, lengthened, and so on, and we did our best to make the changes without the show falling apart in front of thousands of people. Crazy!

Karaoke from hell. Another artist refused to use a teleprompter, but regularly forgot the words to one song, so I had to read the next line, or enough of it to jog their memory. Through the in-ear monitors, the only people that heard me were the artist and the band — who would giggle uncontrollably. One screw-up, and I’d hear about it after the show. “Just learn the damned words” came to mind as a comeback, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have gone over well.

Human AutoTune. A programmer friend works for an aging rock star whose voice has seen better days, with a band that won’t play to a click. He has to trigger vocal samples from his keyboard manually, and if the band plays faster, he adjusts the tempo of the vocals using the pitchbend wheel in real time — no pressure there!

Human metronome. A request I find totally bizarre is that an artist will want the intro to be to a click, then drop the click out for a verse, then come back in on the chorus. What could possibly go wrong there? Musicians expect us programmers to anticipate the hit just before the downbeat and nail it every time. If the band stays close to the correct tempo, it’s not too bad, but if they speed up or slow down, it’s my fault. “Just play to a click” would be a good comeback, but again, that wouldn’t go over well.

Son of human metronome. With one band, we took that to another level. We’d be grooving along and the singer would cue me to stop the computer so we could vamp for as long as he wanted to. I was playing keys on this gig, too. With one hand I’d cue the computer ahead to where we’d rejoin the backing tracks, while playing with the other hand. The drummer on this gig was really solid and would always adjust to the click when we punched back in. That was actually fun!

The trick these days is to make the computer a seamless member of the band so the artist has more freedom without anyone in the audience noticing. That’s no small feat, but it can be done, and is done a lot more than the public is aware.