Q&A: Nathan Barlowe and his "Phantom System" on Tour With Keith Urban

Image placeholder title

Keith Urban’s Ripcord tour embraces some of the same modern technology that makes his hit record sound so fresh: drum machines, loops, samples, etc. But instead of increasing the band’s size to cover the many acoustic, electric, and synthetic sounds on the songs, Urban has actually stripped it down, relying on multitasker Nathan Barlowe on guitar, vocals, and electronics to fill out the sound. To fulfill his role and have fun doing it, Barlowe has created a cool-looking controller system called “The Phantom.”

Tell us briefly about your musical background and how you got into the electronic side of things.
My whole family sang and played instruments. I sang in front of crowds at five, picked up drums around 13, and guitar at 15. It was when I discovered New Order and Depeche Mode in high school that I became obsessed with keyboards and drum machines. I put a Boss Dr. Rhythm on layaway around then. I still use sounds from it.

What is The Phantom and how does it work?
It is essentially a MIDI triggering system/sampler using a series of four iPads (running the Lemur app) and an Akai MPD32, all running into Ableton Live. Each button on the Akai pads is assigned to a MIDI note. Both the iPads and the Akai trigger samples in Live. They are linked to the laptop through two iConnect MIDI Modules.

It took me about a month to sample and cut up every sound I wanted to use from Keith’s records. He gave me a lot of freedom to make samples that updated the older songs to match the new ones. Every song has it’s own patch with about 20 new sounds for each. The hard part is remembering where I put everything, because each button does something different on each of the 21 songs.

Is the drummer on a click or playing with loops?
We all hear the click in our ears, but I haven’t tied into the MIDI clock yet. It would be smart for me to do so eventually. [Laughs] As of now I trigger it all live so if I’m late so is the sample. There are lots of rhythmic samples in the show. Since I am not synched up to anything I have to be as close to spot on as possible. It makes the show fun and challenging for me, and I believe it makes us sound more like a band because it’s not exactly perfect.

Is there someone else triggering backing tracks off stage?
Our track operator, Jeff Lindsenmeyer is launching mostly drum loops and percussion parts. I play the more harmonic based parts, and effects like drops and sweeps, but we have each other’s back in case either of our respective worlds goes down during a show.

So, if necessary you can trigger drum loops and he can trigger effects?
I can trigger anything, but I try to stay away from triggering rhythmic loops. I treat The Phantom more like a keyboard—a really complicated keyboard.