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KeyBoard Magazine 2008

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.

Final thoughts?

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.


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.

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