Tonderick ‘TW’ Watkins’ list of clients includes the Fugees, Beyonce, Mary J Blige, 50-Cent, Wycleff Jean and Outkast.
The need to sync all those tracks to the rapper and a band has led to a subset of one of the new job categories that digital audio has created. The programming specialist has become a fixture in the studio but in rap has also migrated to the live stage. Or at least, just off-stage, and stage right, which is where Kevin ‘Kwiz’ Ryan lives for performances on Beyoncé’s concerts. Prior to the tours, he will edit and remix tracks from the singer’s recordings, creating backing tracks that conform to their new live arrangements. These then reside on a pair of Apple MacBook Pro computers with 4GB each of RAM and 2TB of hard disk space for the tracks, and loaded with MOTU’s Digital Performer software. The computer rigs and their associated hardware, such as the MOTU 24 I/O and MIDI Timepiece, are configured as a redundant pair, since failure in a live concert setting would be far more disastrous than in the studio.
The computers converge on a custom-made Live Audio Changeover unit built by Paul J Cox Studio Systems in Los Angeles. The system can take up to 32 tracks from each of as many as three sound output sources and synchronise them, using Time Code or any constant audio source, to act as back-up sources in the event the primary source fails for any reason. In Kwiz’s case, the Cox unit is used to synchronise the 16 channels of audio on each of the two MacBook Pros he uses via a constant sine wave tone from a 17th channel on the primary computer.
In the event that the lead computer should fail, the Cox unit seamlessly defaults to the other computer. That’s happened only once, but in such a way as to not give the Cox unit a fighting chance. At a concert in Lagos, Nigeria, on Beyoncé’s last tour, when the country’s chronically fragile power grid hiccupped and caused the primary MacBook Pro to fail, a rapid second fluctuation interrupted the audio from the second computer and Kwiz had to reboot the entire system while the singer bantered with the audience.
Regardless of how accurate and robust the backing-track playback system might be, it still relies on the human element: Kwiz starts both computers manually, hitting the space bars on both computers simultaneously. “I practice the moves in rehearsal and sometimes I might be off by a couple of frames, but not enough to notice,” he says.
“Digital Performer is the better software choice for sequencing live work, I think,” he continues. “Pro Tools is great but it’s really designed to be a recording and editing DAW; Digital Performer lets you have as many sessions as you want open via the Chunks function and lets them run simultaneously. I can trigger each song with a MIDI keyboard, assigning a key to each song, and because Performer is as stable as it is, I can jump around the sequence [of songs] if I need to.”
Kwiz’s role is as active as that of the musicians on stage. As he puts it, “I don’t just press ‘start.’” He’ll start and stop the sequencer for musical improvisations by the band or to keep pace with the singer’s patter in between songs. He is also sending out Time Code for video sync and providing a click for the drummers.