Postcards From the Edge

Hitting Manhattan for a nearly sold-out performance at Central Park's SummerStage this past September, Underworld brought not only music but live digicams,
Author:
Publish date:

Hitting Manhattan for a nearly sold-out performance at Central Park's SummerStage this past September, Underworld brought not only music but live digicams, projected visuals resembling dead Moonscapes, audience interaction and gigantic inflatable pods that looked like Tylenol tablets floating over center stage. Performing classics like “Born Slippy” and “Mona,” as well as new material from Oblivion With Bells (Side One, 2007), Underworld proved why they continue to be vital to the health of what is loosely called dance music.

But what makes a stage show such as Underworld's tick? How does the band draw from its vast 20-year-old catalog to create a mesmerizing 3-D audio/visual experience using light rigs, live cameras, video screens and front-of-house mixes? As with any large-scale venture, Underworld's live show begins with a small idea. Before every tour, Rick Smith, Karl Hyde and Darren Price (a member of Underworld's live band) gather with their crew to formulate a game plan. Haydn Cruickshank (lights), John Newsham (front-of-house sound) and Toby Vogel (visuals) have been with Underworld collectively since the late-'80s and work hand-in-glove with the band members to achieve their vision.

“Preparation is a weird thing,” Smith says. “It's like preparing your instrument for the jam. It's not to prepare something so that it flows like you expect. You try to find this balance where you are preparing things so you have some idea of what is going to happen. And yet it has all the potential to go askew and make you think about what you are doing. The danger with too much preparation is that it becomes a routine. Then it's dead.”

Underworld's live setup is primed for improvisation. “Over the years, Rick has developed an instrument onstage, which is as live as the guitar or a violin,” Hyde adds. “The fact that it is electronic disturbs some people's minds, like it is an inanimate object, and when you press ‘Go,’ it repeats itself the same way every night. Without Rick playing his instrument, it won't do anything. It will be just a bunch of noise, a sound clash. His instrument is the mixing desk and the computer and those electronic things that are often looked down upon as being repetitive sound generators. It takes months of preparation, then us getting together in a room remembering how everything goes. That element of disaster is important to our work.”

MASTERS OF DISASTER

Smith's live “instruments” — including a Midas Heritage 1000 console, two Apple iMac G5s (running Logic Pro 7 and Ableton Live 6), three PowerBook G4s, a Roland VP-330 Vocoder and a Clavia Nord Lead 2 — enable him to re-create and remix any Underworld track live on the fly. It's a whole lot of processing power that requires a lot of audacity to use.

“Every performer is really fearful of messing up and yet, that is often what we are aiming for,” Smith admits. “It's not to mess up and spoil things; it's to be able to deal with it and encourage us to get over that fear. If we screw up, it just puts us in another phase: ‘Okay, this is new; what do we do here, hold or drop or raise the ante?’”

Watching Underworld perform at Central Park, what leaps out — besides the music and Hyde's gold lamé suit — are the dual Apple laptops positioned stage right next to the large Midas board. Cloaked from view are three more Macs, all forming what they hope is a foolproof sonic chain.

“Five Macs onstage,” Smith says with a laugh. “It looks ridiculous, doesn't it? But they all get worked. It's all to do with trying to get 'round problems of electronics and sequencers, and having a predictable, linear presentation. In the early days when we used to use one computer, an Atari 1040ST, you would prepare this open jam, a series of loops and options that could come up on the console but, of course, it still hung around this spine. What we tried to do was take two different pieces and run them in parallel, just as a DJ would, but not just overlap them. The five Macs really come from the need to run things in parallel; very largely, it's to keep us guessing.”

Native Instruments Kore lies at the heart of Underworld's ability to work comfortably onstage today. Running inside Ableton and Logic, Kore is holy manna as far as Smith is concerned.

“I really do think Kore is the most amazing musical invention for a long time,” Smith exclaims. “It saves us fortunes because of the interfaces and options it makes available to us. We generate so many random ideas that when archiving those ideas, it is a bit like a library that is not organized. You need something to alphabetize all that. Kore allows you to access information in a very quick fashion. A file that is made in Logic or Ableton can be played back in the finder, copied across and played on a different computer with no problems, and you can still know where it is and what it is from.”

The multiple Macs store the elements of Underworld's original mixes, so no need for absolute pre-tour preparation or extracting single elements for eventual mixdown. Underworld creates new mixes at every show. But with Oblivion With Bells, there was mental preparation.

“As with all the previous albums, the translation of the studio versions becomes an extension of the original writing,” Smith says. “The final mastering and printing of the studio version is absolutely not the end of the writing process, just a semicolon. When we prepare for our live work, we look at each track in isolation and approach its particular problems in whatever way is appropriate — to somehow maintain essences of the album version and yet be flexible enough to fuse into our live jams. [Smith admits to occasionally stripping excess reverb, for example]. In that context, this album, even with its more filmic nature and many acoustic recordings, was no different than any of the previous ones. Our tendency in recent years to play tracks live before they are finished or released also helps immensely.”

RABBIT IN A HAT

Underworld's live flexibility aids its pursuit of “the humongously long jam,” which now happens in real time, a real high-wire act. And until recently, there was no actual setlist, just a first song title thrown up 10 minutes before showtime.

“What changed this year,” Hyde asserts, “is that the light, sound and visuals guys weren't getting a fair chance to improvise. On this tour, we got cards with titles that we'd lay out in the dressing room, and then all the team got together and Rick would start moving the titles around. Anything that worked the night before, we'd avoid. If you start thinking from experience, you're not responding to the moment. So five or 10 minutes before the show, Rick will put together a setlist, but with the idea that we might change it. If the crowd takes it to another direction and Rick responds to that, then off we go.”

Between Smith, Hyde and Price (whose role is apparently of a supportive, technical nature), hand signals are still used, along with body movements, eye gestures and occasionally, Smith's taking control of the vocals, with or without Hyde's consent.

“It is not always a good feeling between us,” Smith reveals. “Oftentimes it is, ‘What was that? Why did you do that?’”

“Sometimes you miss the direction,” Hyde acknowledges, “or maybe it was a better direction but it cut across your initial idea. One of the best things that ever happened to me was the mute button. Rick might take me out because he doesn't think what I am doing is appropriate. Maybe the music needs a break. You learn so much from that. In the same way when we are writing, Rick might mute one of my parts. You have to stay open enough that you don't get upset.”

SOUND FUNKTIONING

As for getting down to business at the preshow crew meetings, Smith and Hyde shy away from specifics, but front-of-house engineer John Newsham (of Surrey's Funktion-One) fills in the blanks.

“We talk about the new music that we haven't done live, about what each tune is trying to do musically and what Rick considers the important aspects of the tune. Rick does most of the mixing onstage, so I have to make sure it sounds good in the house. If we are using a house or rental system, I have to present the band's music through that system. In our rider, I ask for a Midas analog mixer, as digital mixers aren't quick enough. I have 12 channels of submixes of Rick's main mix; one of those channels can have several mixes coming down it. I have to EQ this stuff on the fly.”

Meanwhile, Smith is also working up a sweat on the fly. “Rick is running 99 percent of sounds in Pro Tools,” Newsham says, “running two separate systems of Logic Audio sewn together at the Heritage mixer. He can remix from all the original samples and loops, creating new remixes every night; he can also remix another tune at the same time and overlay the two. Like a DJ mixing vinyl, Rick can crossfade between ‘Born Slippy’ and ‘Skyscraper,’ for example, between two complete 40-channel remixes. Added to that is live vocal and guitar, Karl's spoken word mixing on a Pioneer CDJ, a Vocoder with a keyboard or guitar and Darren Price's Ableton system.”

When first entering a venue, Newsham plays a collection of personal CDs to gauge the room sound, followed by an automated female voice program (in Logic), which tests individual channels. Depending on the room, he will use a dbx 160 or a Yamaha SPX2000 to compress/effect vocals, his smaller Midas mixer running 12 channels assigned to three kick drums, two Roland TR-909s, an Electro-Voice vocal mic, Gibson Les Paul, percussion, effects and backing vocals, keyboards, vocoder and bass lines.

“Rick might be in his own world with a flat mix,” Newsham conjectures, “and I am out in the room with a system that sounds bright and maybe with glass walls or slapback. I need to pull the reverbs and effects right back just in order to be able to hear the main parts of the music. Occasionally, I might add reverb using a Lexicon PCM or another Yamaha SPX2000 to brighten the room if it needs it.

“We have very rarely had crashes,” he adds. “We are running two complete setups onstage so one can always take over. And Darren's Ableton setup can also cover a glitch.”

LIGHTS UP, UNDERWORLD DOWN

Lighting engineer Haydn Cruickshank's company, Coloursound Experiment, was born as an outgrowth of his Underworld work, which he has enjoyed for 14 years. Like Smith and Newsham, Cruickshank runs everything in real time, no automation, no audio syncing. Cruickshank uses a Flying Pig Whole Hog 3 board employing 20 faders and “many buttons.” The 60-plus lights Cruickshank used at Central Park are mostly Robe 700s, joined by Molefay, ACL and Par Can strobes.

“Nothing is timecoded or anything like that,” Cruickshank says. “I guess I am old-school. One fader will control a group of similar lights or a sequence of similar lights. In a big festival where the stage is far away, I have to be fairly crude in the effects I use. For the new songs, I generally don't hear them until they play them live. The first few times they play a new song, I stumble my way through it; then after a while, I get a vibe on what I want to do with it. There is no choreographed plan — it just evolves into something, and once I've found a format, it tends to stay that way forever.”

In addition to the massive white pills that popped up for a couple songs at Central Park, Karl Hyde's gold lamé coat caught the lights and the audience's attention. “Karl is very aware of the lighting, and he tries to complement that in his clothing and actions,” Cruickshank says. “One thing we use that is unique is a follow-spot, someone in the pit with a handheld Par Can with different gels. I brief whoever is operating it to up-light and follow Karl around and change colors at will. When he gets really into it — running and changing gels — that is fun.”

Midway through the SummerStage concert, Underworld's tubular fixation appeared: multiple 20-foot inflatables that dwarfed the band and perplexed the audience. “We use twelve 20-by-2-inch tubes,” Cruickshank explains. “Each one has an internal fan so they inflate and two internal LED fixtures [iPix Satellites] which light up the tubes. The tubes are white but made of a thin material, so when lit from within, the light glows through the material. It was the band's idea to create the tubes; we just added the lighting fixtures. We assumed they would be stood upright around the stage like columns, but once Underworld had them made, they decided to throw them around at random. It gets the crew involved. It is not what people expect. They usually come out in the same song, then stick around for a couple tracks. They light really well from within. The band wants to be engulfed by them completely.”

As for the potential of lighting breakdowns and how to handle them, Cruickshank is matter of fact: He doesn't sweat the small stuff. “When stuff goes wrong, we just deal,” he says. “If we turn up and only two lights work, that will be the show. It wouldn't be a problem. When we tour in the UK, we carry the same rig every day; in the states, we pick up a different rig in each town. Nothing is programmed, and there is no setlist. You have to go with the flow of the show.”

TRIPPING THE SIGHT FANTASTIC

A veteran of tours with Gorillaz, Paul Oakenfold and various IMAC festivals, Toby Vogel operates the insane visuals that are projected behind Underworld on a massive screen. The thousands of images are a combination of Rick Smith's photos and the work of their long-term art collective/organization, Tomato. Again, there is no automation or music syncing, but rather a live mix, night after night. Using an 8-channel Panasonic MX70 and 4-channel Edirol V-4 mixer, Vogel uses the two to layer multiple images on the screen. Two 80 GB Doremi Labs hard drives store the images, and visuals also run off an Apple MacBook Pro using Apple's Final Cut Pro to enable recall and create loops.

“I use low-res infrared night vision cameras for the grainy images that we like,” he explains, “and pencil-size Sony minicams that go around the equipment and a handheld remote for audience shots that also pan around the band. We also have a Toshiba pencil camera on a mic stand above the mixing console, and I have cameras left and right of that, which can be programmed before the show as well as operated live.”

Why this obsession with the manual control that seems to infest every aspect of Underworld's live performance? With improvisation seeming to be Underworld's raison d'être — from the stage and the lights to the audience — the band's music breathes as a live organism rather than a stagnant reproduction.

“Every show is different.” Vogel says, “It's not like a cue-to-cue with MIDI controls that run through the track. This is a lot more live because of how Underworld works. They might decide to jam in between the tracks, or they might spend 10 minutes going off before the next track begins. Every night is different; you never get the same show twice. Certain visuals run with certain tracks, but if I feel the vibe, I can change it.”

HAPPINESS IS?

With their relatively small and familiar crew, a happy Underworld family would seem to ensure successful shows. But as is often the case, one person's success is another person's ultimate meltdown.

“Coming offstage really happy doesn't necessarily mean the best show,” Rick Smith implies. “It just means you're happy. Karl might come offstage happy and pleased with his performance. We've rocked the house. But how relevant is that? For the people in the audience, I don't know how to measure success. It is an unpredictable thing to do with time and place.”

“During the show, Rick might have been fighting the machines the whole way through, lashing it together while the shit was falling to bits and the crowd didn't know,” Hyde says. “I have walked offstage 'cause I was crap and it was all shit, and people still loved it. So I know nothing.”

“The fight is about overcoming adversity,” Smith adds. “One of our most deeply moving concerts was at Giants Stadium, which on paper should have been a disaster. The show was moved at the last minute, it was raining, we played to 10,000 people, which is small for that venue. [But] the backstage crews pulled together, lost all ego and did their best. It was soaking wet. But that was one of the most deeply moving gigs we ever played; it was about the spirit of that night. Maybe we weren't rocking that great, but we connected. It was not a big grand gesture, but something happened that night.”

UNDERWORLD LIVE

Computers, DAW/recording software, consoles

(2) Apple iMac G5s running Logic Pro 7 and Ableton Live 6, (3) Apple PowerBook G4s running Logic Pro 7 and Ableton Live 6: “The main G5 iMac sends clock to all the other Macs so everything is locked up, which is great for jamming,” Smith says.

Liebert UPS battery backup

Midas Heritage 1000 Console

MOTU 896HD FireWire Audio Interface

Native Instruments Kore

Mics, mic preamps, effects

Electro-Voice N/D757b mic

Focusrite Liquid4Pre

(2) Korg DL8000 delays

Prosoniq Orange Vocoder

Roland VP-330 Vocoder

Sennheiser (2) e 935 mics with EM 550 G2 receiver, SKM 500 G2 radio mic

Sony DPS-V77 reverb, HR-MP5 multi-effects processor

Synths, modules, software, instruments

Apple Logic Audio ES2 and EFM plug-ins

Arturia ARP 2600V soft synth

Gibson Les Paul guitar

Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth

Korg 03R/W rackmount synth

M-Audio GForce impOSCar soft synth

Quasimidi Technox rack synth

Rob Papen Blue soft synth

Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, Trilogy and Atmosphere virtual instruments

Drum machine, turntable, DJ mixer

Funktion-One DJ Mixer

(3) Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable

Roland TR-909 drum machine

Monitors

(2) Funktion-One Stage Monitors and Resolution 2 self-powered speakers, (2) F-218 Infrabass subs

Sennheiser EW 300 IEM G2 radio monitor system

XTA DP226 Speaker Management System