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Catch Justin in this Fall's "Runner Runner" and "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Well, kinda sorta. Today’s boy bands are selling CDs by the millions, and packing the world’s largest venues in the process. Their productions are as big as they come, with stages and sound systems that rival those of Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. It’s a spectacle, in other words, but don’t expect to see the boys behind any instruments onstage. Dancing and singing is what the girlies want, so it’s best to leave the playing to pros like Kevin Antunes — a musical director/programmer/keyboardist extraordinaire who has toured with a cavalcade of major pop artists such as Enrique Iglesias, Britney Spears, and New Kids On The Block.
We spent a day with Kevin as he came through town on ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached world tour. With keyboard tech Bongo in tow, we inspected the stage rig, watched the rehearsal, combed the backstage area, then took our seats front and center to witness the show.
And what a show it was. The Oakland Coliseum was packed to the nosebleed seats with screaming teens, as Kevin and his bandmates ripped through a two-hour set with the greatest of ease.
Here’s what we learned about the gig, both onstage and off, from Kevin and Bongo.
Describe the pre-production steps leading up to the tour.
Kevin: I got in contact with the producers, and they provided me with all the sounds from the record, which was great. I had everything put on TASCAM DA-98 tape, which is my standard format. I talked to She’kspere, RipRock ‘n’ Alex G, Diane Warren, Richard Marx . . . they sent me everything. C.J. Vanston, a programmer, sent me the files to “Promise,” so I was able to extract everything I needed for the live performance. A couple of weeks before we started our full-on band rehearsals, I started acquiring all the actual sound sources. This job of being a musical director. . . . I used to think when I got to this kind of gig it would be more associated with just music, but there’s a lot of other responsibilities that happen business-wise that takes up so much of my time. I have to make all the phone calls and emails regarding the tour during the day, and I don’t get started with the music until about 4:00 or 5:00, which kind of throws the whole schedule off.
How did you decide what gear to take on the road with you?
We got a bunch of new gear for this tour. The first record was mostly string pads, pianos, and lead lines as far as keyboards were concerned. But many of the songs on the new record have a lot of electronica-type sounds. It has that digital vibe to it. So what I had to do was figure out how much of the stuff was going to be sequenced and how much was going to be played live, and then what sound sources I was going to use for it. I already had a [Roland] JP-8000, but I wanted that [Novation] Supernova like you can’t believe. I saw it in the studio, and I heard some of the synth sounds and bass patches, and it was, ”I’ve gotta have this piece.” I’m playing this bass patch in ”Space Cowboy,” and it’s perfect ’cause that’s what they used on the record.
Tell us about the keyboard setup.
Bongo: The main controller is a Yamaha EX5 with a Korg Trinity underneath it. To the left is a Roland JP-8000, which is MIDIed into a Novation Supernova. The Yamaha DX100 is used only for the custom talk box. The EX5 and Trinity are both MIDIed back to a Roland JV-2080 and XV-5080. Once I figured out what Kevin wanted to play and how he wanted everything set up, my goal was to have the least amount of power, audio, and MIDI cables. I figured out that 16 channels were our best bet, with two audio and MIDI lines to each instrument, and I made 16-channel snakes cut to custom lengths. We put custom connectors on everything. Everything goes to the Mackie LM3204, but onstage Kevin controls a four-channel mix: main keys left and right, and a “hits/stabs” channel left and right. EQ- and gain-wise, it’s a smart thing, since the hits need to really punch through the mix. On the other side of the stage, keyboardist Dave Cook uses a Yamaha EX5 MIDIed to a Roland JV-2080 and a Korg Trinity underneath it MIDIed to a Roland XV-5080.
The ‘N Sync road racks. Left (top to bottom): utility drawer, MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV, Mackie LM3204, Roland JV-2080 and XV-5080, Novation Supernova, APC power conditioner. Right (top to bottom): Furman PL-8 Power Conditioner and Light Module, Mackie CR1604-VLZ, TASCAM DA-98, unidentified “Joker” module, two MOTU MIDI Timepiece AVs, and TASCAM DA-98. Not pictured: Dell laptop computer on top of the racks.
Do you have duplicates in case of failure?
Bongo: Yeah, I am the king of two [laughs]. The first two months of the tour, my nickname for Kevin was “Two.”
Kevin: We have backup keyboards, modules, mixers, etc. And for data, we used laptops, smart cards, floppies — anything and everything we could back up to, we did it. I’m very paranoid about losing stuff. The first thing I do when I buy a new piece of gear is learn how to save. Even before I learn how to tweak sounds, I go to the menu and learn how to save, ’cause if I come up with something cool, I don’t want to lose it.
There are a lot of synths onstage, but what about samplers?
There are a lot of samples being used on this tour. There’s one section in “Promise,” for example, where the saxophonist/percussionist [Paul Howards] uses a drumKat and an [Akai] S5000 to trigger sound effects, whooshes, and that sort of thing. Also, I went into my personal library of samples to get the drummer [Billy Ashbaugh] some customized snare sounds and effects for his ddrum3 — all the snare sounds that come with the units themselves aren’t edgy enough for live purposes. I have this one clap/snare sound that I’ve used for years now. Our front-of-house engineer Tim Miller and I spent a lot of time testing how the sounds translate into the front of house speakers during rehearsals.
Akai samplers are my main choice and have been very, very reliable for me. I’ve been using them since the S950 days, and I’ve never had a problem. The only thing that’s ever gone wrong was my fault. I bought this 4.5GB hard drive that I wanted to put into my S6000, and I unscrewed it. I didn’t know the specifics. I just figured I could take it apart and plug it in. Man, I ended up unscrewing almost everything in there. I had to yell for Bongo: “Help!” He walked in and I had everything spread across the floor . . . the motherboards, everything [laughs]. But my samplers and my [Akai] MPC have never failed me.
With so many synchronized videos and pyro cues during the show, are you playing to a click track from start to finish?
Not the entire show. There are a lot of live elements. We have a couple of gags in the show that have to be unclicked, because if for some reason something doesn’t work right one night, I have to be able to be liquid with the band. This structure proved to be extremely valuable when ‘N Sync performed live on HBO back in July. We didn’t have anything go wrong, but we were ready to adjust to almost any situation.
What music software apps do you use, and why?
Kevin: I use MOTU Digital Performer 2.7, because I was looking for a solid platform for touring applications. I also needed a versatile system that had proven itself in regards to video synchronization in a live touring situation. DP came highly recommended from friends and seasoned tour professionals Terry Lawless and Dirk Vanoucek, who also praised MOTU for their valuable support staff. I know some of the guys in ‘N Sync just got [Emagic] Logic, and I like Logic, but I feel more comfortable using Digital Performer for doing stage production and live concert stuff. I haven’t fully gotten into Logic yet, but from what everybody’s telling me, it’s a great tool for writing songs. I’ve been using Performer since my first Apple Mac, though: a Mac Plus with 1MB of memory in it.
You carry a portable studio rig on tour with you, right?
Everywhere. My traveling rig is a 390-pound case, designed by Bongo and Matt Larson of Anvil. It’s built so you can open the top up, flip the lid, and take the front off. It’s double-column and tabletop design, and on the tabletop I put the Akai MPC2000 on the right, a Yamaha 01V digital mixer on the left, and two Yamaha MSP5 powered speakers behind. Then I have a built-in racks with an Apple flat-screen 15″ monitor, a Marathon racked 450mHz blue-and-white G3 with and a 9GB hard drive, (2) Glyph 18GB hot-swappable hard drives, a Yamaha CD-RW, a MOTU 2408 and USB MIDI Timepiece AV, TASCAM DA98, Akai S6000, and a 20GB Firewire drive. The Firewire drive has been working out well, because I hate backing up to CDs; it takes too long. I get into a project and I don’t have a lot of time. Working for Enrique or Britney while the ‘N Sync tour is going on, I don’t have a lot of time for things to go wrong. What I need is to be able to back things up quickly and know it’s going to be there.
Left: Keyboard tech Bob “Bongo” Longo and the backstage racks. ”Once I figured out what Kevin wanted to play and how he wanted everything set up, my goal was to have the least amount of power, audio, and MIDI cables.” Right: Kevin’s portable studio rig, which he wheels into his hotel rooms while on tour. Contents include Akai MPC2000, Yamaha 01V digital mixer, Yamaha MSP5 powered speakers, Apple flat-screen 15″ monitor, Marathon racked blue-and-white G3 (450MHz and a 9GB hard drive), MOTU Digital Performer, Glyph 18GB hot-swappable hard drive, Yamaha CD-R, MOTU 2408 and USB MIDI Timepiece AV, TASCAM DA-98, Akai S6000, and 20GB Firewire drive.
Describe a typical day on tour.
I usually arrive at the venue for soundcheck around 3:00 P.M. and stay there until the show is done, which is usually about 10:30 or 11:00 P.M. Then we get on the bus, drive eight or 10 hours to the next gig, get to the hotel, I grab the bellman, drag my studio case into my room, set it up, work until about 2:00 P.M., then break it all down, get it back on the bus by 2:30 P.M., and head to soundcheck.
What type of work do you usually do on your portable rig?
Songwriting, production, and a lot of preparation work for this and other tours. When they asked me to put the tour together for Britney [Spears] I was out with ‘N Sync at the time, so I sequenced all the drum sounds, I got all the samples for the drummer, and any keyboard parts that aren’t the types of things you’d want to play onstage, like some sixteenth-note organ patch. So I spent all my time preparing that stuff for her. Then I send CD-Rs and D-98 tapes to Skip Dorsey, her MD, and I emailed him all my notes. Modern technology; that’s how you can be in two places at once.
You co-wrote the song “I’ll Be Good For You” on the No Strings Attached CD. How did that come together?
The MPC2000 is the piece of gear responsible for the whole thing, ’cause Justin [Timberlake, 'N Sync singer] loves that box. So he used to ride on my bus and ask me how to program a beat on it. I’m always working on tracks with it, and I played him one of the tracks once, and it evolved into us writing ”I’ll Be Good For You.” It took us a year to finish that song, but when we finally got to a point where we could demo it — with all the keyboard parts added, and so on — we played it for Johnny Wright ['N Sync's manager], who thought it was cool. Justin and I felt that we really wanted live instruments on it, though, since it had an old-school flavor to it. So I had the ‘N Sync band play it at sound check and I recorded it. From that point on, everybody was really feeling it, which I was happy about. So we went into the Hit Factory in New York with engineer Carl Nappa and we recorded the band live in Studio A through the Neve console straight into [Digidesign] Pro Tools. What we did was, we had the band play eight takes, and that was that. Then we comped together the best performances of each. It really came out nice.
What advice would you give our readers who aspire to do touring work like this?
One of the things that I think is most important is your work ethic. It doesn’t really matter how much gear you have or whatever. What matters most is how much you want to be a part of a major production tour and how you’ll challenge yourself every minute in rehearsals. I’ll tell you . . . I don’t sleep much when prepping for a tour.
I would also suggest that you find some sort of entertainment outside of the music business, because once you’re on the road you have a lot of down time. You’d be surprised how many people on the road golf!
I have to say, the hardest thing about this gig, though, is being away from my wife and daughter. At the beginning of the tour, I had them fly down and spend a week with me, which was great, but it can be a long, lonely road.
The cool thing about working with ‘N Sync is that if everything up onstage failed, if all the band gear shut off, the core is those five guys singing. They really sing, and that’s that. We’ve done so many television shows where they come out and sing a cappella, and everybody’s jaws drop. So we have an easy job, ’cause they’ve already sold everybody. We’re just backing it up.
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: EXTENDED INTERVIEW
Getting The Gig
How did Kevin get his start in the business? “I’m a fifth generation musician,” he explains. “The bass player Troy and I are cousins [Troy is also on the 'N Sync tour]. My dad’s a sax player with John Cafferty And The Beaver Brown Band, so I grew up in that environment. The first song I learned to play was ’Green Onions.’”
One day Kevin’s father met producer Maurice Starr, who was in the process of launching New Kids On The Block. “My dad told Maurice, ‘Look, I’ve got all these kids who play instruments, and I know you’re putting together that group. Why don’t we get together?’ So we went and auditioned. At the time they had the full band except the drummer. My brother plays drums, so he got the gig. Eight months later they had a switch-up, and I got in. That was my first major gig, ten years ago. I worked with them for 3-1/2 years, and during that period I became the MD for Marky Mark.”
How did Kevin get the ‘N Sync gig? “Myself, Bongo, Tim Miller, and Johnny Wright, who’s the manager of ‘NSync — we all worked together on the New Kids tour ten years ago. I kept in touch with Johnny ever since, and a few years ago Johnny called saying that ‘N Sync’s record had just hit big in Germany, and they were starting to cross over in the states. He needed somebody to be the musical director — somebody to put it all together for them. So I went down to the MTV studios where they first did their TRL live performance, and I’ve been with them ever since.”
As for keyboard tech Bongo Bob, he got his first break back in the late ’80s when he was working as a stage manager at the Channel club in Boston. “Actually, the production manager on this ‘N Sync tour, Tim Miller, was working at the Channel. He was about to go out on tour with New Kids On The Block, and I jokingly asked him, ‘Who’s going out with you on tour?’ I meant the opening act, but he asked me if I wanted to join. So I went out as the backline tech for that tour, and just kept going after that.” Since then, Bongo has toured with Marky Mark, Blackstreet, Patti LaBelle, and many others.