FEATURE: [MOTU]: Beyoncé At The Top Of Her Game
Beyoncé is on fire. According to Billboard Magazine, she's racked up major milestones in her career over the past 12 months, from appearances at the 2009 presidential inauguration to a worldwide tour grossing $53.5 million with no end in sight. Her latest album "I Am...Sasha Fierce" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 last November with a string of Billboard Hot 100 spin-offs, including "If I Were a Boy," "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and "Sweet Dreams." After bestowing their annual Woman of the Year Award on Beyoncé earlier this month at a gala event in New York City, Billboard's editorial director Bill Werde quipped, "It is theoretically possible that someone on some other planet had a better year than Beyoncé, but I'm not buying it."
We recently caught up with Kevin "Kwiz" Ryan and James "McGoo" McGregor Jr., who handle computer programming duties for Beyoncé's current "I...am" World Tour using a MOTU-based rig featuring Digital Performer and MOTU PCI audio interfaces.
MOTU: McGoo, how long have you been with Beyoncé?
McGoo: I started in 2002 with Destiny's Child and have been a part of every major tour with Destiny's Child and Beyoncé since then.
MOTU: And how did you get started in the business?
McGoo: My story: completely into music since I was three, grew up in the same neighborhood as Prince — that's right, number 28 on Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time! — and other greats like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Made myself useful enough to do everything with Prince, from playing percussion on tour, to two albums, to stage and production management.
James "McGoo" McGregor Jr. and Kevin "Kwiz" Ryan
Of course, in circles like that, you'll meet many great bands, and maybe even get to work with them. People liked my work so they invited me to work with them. I got the chance to work on a tour with a now great and dear friend, Eric Harris, who introduced me to DP and taught me pretty much everything I know, although, Kwiz is slowly releasing some of his DP tips and tricks to me, too, I must say.
MOTU: So one thing led to another and you've since had quite a bit of touring experience, yes?
McGoo: Yes, I've toured with many artists, including Destiny's Child, Boyz II Men, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Primus, Blink-182, Black Street, Beyoncé, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, R. Kelly, Kelly Rowland, Mariah Carey, David Sandborn, Tracy Chapman, Barry White, Maxwell, D'Angelo, Blue Man Group and the list goes on. I still talk with many of the musicians and techs from these tours and tell them what I'm doing, and the latest and greatest equipment I'm doing it on, and one of those is DP, baby......DP!
"While building up my label, Reach 1 Records, I'm discovering and coaching up-and-coming musicians on their sound, their image and their studio gear. Of course, I always recommend DP!"
MOTU: Sounds like you are connected to quite a network.
McGoo: Definitely. Working as a percussionist, backline supervisor and production manager with so many greats means I can share tips and news about equipment trends and breakthroughs with them. And even when we're not working together, I chat with other serious techs and musicians on the most recent gear. I've done programming for various artists (Prince, Maxwell and R.Kelly) and I'm currently working on tracks for several local artists. While building up my label, Reach 1 Records, I'm discovering and coaching up-and-coming musicians on their sound, their image and their studio gear. Of course, I always recommend DP!
MOTU: Kwiz, what is your background?
Kwiz: I started as a musician, first as a drummer for local NY bands, then later I started playing keys. I began producing and did my first record for an artist named Jeff Redd on MCA records and an artist named Tashan on Columbia records back in the early 90's. Later I got a production deal with Capitol Records and produced an R&B album for a group called the Earth Gyrlz. The group was critically acclaimed and did well in Europe, but once Capitol dropped their "Black Music" department, that deal came to a screeching halt [laughs].
McGoo with Beyoncé, Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland, aka Destiny's Child.
Luckily, the studio that I built from my production advances that I got from Capitol and Columbia allowed me to make a living recording and producing for local acts in New York. I ended up producing and engineering projects for MCA/Universal, and also briefly freelanced as an engineer in the now defunct Studio 57 on 57th St. and Broadway in Manhattan.
MOTU: Were you using DP at the time?
Kwiz: In 2000, I was introduced to DP by producer/entrepreneur Mark Hines.
We met on a project that we were both producing for MCA. Mark was using DP, and I was sequencing using an Atari 1040STE and SMPTE Track Platinum. With a degree in Computer Science from Princeton, Mark is a cat that I really respect. He convinced me that DP was much better than other DAWs out there.
Mind you, at that point I still hadn't even seen DP in action, but I loved the sound of his recordings. At the time, I ran four Tascam DA-88's in my studio, and love how those 16 bit converters sound. But DP came so highly recommended that I went ahead and bought a G4 400 MHz, Digital Performer 2.7, a 2408, and a MIDI timepiece AV. Needless to say, I've been hooked ever since.
"With a degree in Computer Science from Princeton, Mark is a cat that I really respect. He convinced me that DP was much better than other DAWs out there."
That same year I composed my first theme for ESPN "March Madness". I was called to do it and they needed a quick turnaround. The original piece that they wanted to use couldn't get cleared, so their backs were against the wall and needed an original piece for the theme. I had two days to do it. I did it in one day and have been composing for ESPN, HBO, and ABC ever since!
MOTU: When did you first start touring with Beyoncé, and how did that come about?
Kwiz: One day I got a call from Kim Burse, Beyoncé's creative director. I'd worked with Kim in the past on a programming gig for Ciara (using DP of course). I told her that I recently saw her on TV with Beyoncé and she said, "Yeah, that's what I'm calling you about. Do you want to program her next tour?" After I picked my mouth up off the floor I said, "Hell yeah!!!" They needed me to start in New York on a Wednesday, but I was in Chicago and wasn't going to be back in New York until Thursday. Kim told me that they'd wait for me, so I literally flew in on Thursday and went straight to the rehearsal from the airport.
Kwiz and Beyoncé. Photo by Jennette Everett.
MOTU: Talk about a pressure situation!
Kwiz: I met Beyoncé about an hour into the rehearsal and overheard her tell Kim that she wanted to do her song "Crazy in love" a half step lower than the original key. Well, the band could always transpose down on the fly, so while they were discussing the arrangement, I dropped the backing tracks down a half step using DP's Spectral Effects feature. Kim turned around and told me what they wanted to do and I said, "done", played the tracks back in the new key and Beyoncé and Kim gave me a huge smile. I responded with a Bruce Lee "wahhhhhhh!!!"
The whole room cracked up and that's how I broke the ice. After that, the band started to call me "Kwiz knows" and "kwizard the wizard".
That was in July of 2006 and I'm still here.
MOTU: McGoo, as crew chief, what are your duties on the tour?
McGoo: My duties include overseeing all the instruments on stage to make sure they are in great working condition, so that the musicians can just walk on stage and do their thing. Beyoncé has a thirteen piece all-female band that includes two Keyboard players, two drummers, a bass player, a guitar player, a percussion player, a three-piece horn section, and — last but not least — three background singers. I have a keyboard tech, Cody Orrell, and my guitar/bass tech is Sean O'Brain. I maintain the drums, percussion and brass section. I'm also the back-up programmer. Duties include: making sure I'm up to date on how Kwiz has things laid out on the show rig, just in case I have to fill in for him.
"I used my new DP system to compose my first theme for ESPN "March Madness"...their backs were against the wall and they needed an original piece for the theme. I had two days to do it. I did it in one day and have been composing for ESPN, HBO, and ABC ever since!"
MOTU: Kwiz, as DP programmer, tell us about your current rig for the tour.
Kwiz: Right now my main rig has (2) MacPro 2.66, 8 core machines, (2) MOTU 24 I/O clocked by an Apogee Big Ben, (2) MIDI Express 128, a custom live sequencer switcher made by Paul Cox, (2) Glyph 1TB drives for backing up audio data, and (2) Apple 20 inch displays.
Each Mac has (1) 10K RPM Raptor drive for playback as well as (2) additional 7200 RPM drives for backing up data, as well as miscellaneous file storage.
MOTU: Why did you choose a MOTU-based system?
Kwiz: When I came on board, the system was already MOTU and Digidesign based. Eric Harris (now with the Black Eyed Peas) put that system together, so I inherited that initial setup and ran it for Beyoncé's 2006-07 B'day tour. In fact, I was called for that gig because they needed a programmer that knew DP.
That rig went around the world a couple of times, so when it was time to do Beyoncé's current tour (I Am), I updated everything and customized the rig to my specifications.
MOTU: What is your project setup in DP for this tour?
Kwiz: I literally am a huge fan/user of the chunks feature, which enables me to have at this point about 40 songs available to me in one project.
This is one of the main reasons why DP is so important to use in a live show. No other DAW comes close to having that kind of flexibility.
You can sort of do that in other DAWs, but the songs have to be laid out in a linear fashion. If you need to edit a song, let's say, 35 minutes into your show, and the next three songs segue into each other, you have to do a bunch of shifting and editing to realign everything. Now, if all of those songs are sending out time code for video playback as well, that complicates things even further. Multiply by 40 songs, and a linear layout like this is a complete nightmare.
"I met Beyoncé about an hour into the rehearsal and overheard her tell Kim that she wanted to do her song "Crazy in love" a half step lower than the original key...I dropped the backing tracks down a half step using DP's Spectral Effects feature. Kim turned around and told me what they wanted to do and I said, "done", played the tracks back in the new key and Beyoncé and Kim gave me a huge smile."
With the chunks function, I'm able to pull each song up individually in the same session, edit it, and save it as a different chunk, just in case I need to go back to the original version. This is an incredible time saver.
Another great feature is the ability to call up chunks using MIDI commands! I have a 49-key MIDI controller that I use to call up songs on both computers simultaneously. If one computer happens to go down, the other kicks in without missing a beat.
MOTU: How do things work during the show? I noticed the microphone in your touring rig. Do you give audible cues, feed time code and stuff like that?
Kwiz at work, stage right. Photo by June Grayson.
Kwiz: Yes, occasionally when Beyoncé goes off stage for a quick change, she might tell me to drop a song from the set or give her extra time to get back on stage. In those situations, I'll get on my talkback mic that is piped to the band's monitoring system and tell them about the changes.
It works both ways, too, because sometimes the musical director might need to tell me about changes as well.
As far as time code goes, I send out 30 non-drop frame MIDI timecode to (2) Hippotizer media servers that live at the front of house position with the video control system operator. Time code also goes to a backup standalone video system backstage. We currently have the largest LED wall out on the road right now, as well as two side screens that all show video content during the show, so it's crucial that everything stays in sync. 90% of the video content is locked to DP and it all works rock solid.
MOTU: Do you have a lot of changes to the set list from show to show, and if so, how do you deal with that?
Kwiz: Not necessarily show to show, but definitely market to market. The US show is slightly different from the European show, and in Vegas we had an entirely different show altogether. Once again, because of the ability to manipulate chunks, it makes changing the set list very quick and easy for me.
"I literally am a huge fan/user of the chunks feature, which enables me to have at this point about 40 songs available to me in one project. This is one of the main reasons why DP is so important to use in a live show. No other DAW comes close to having that kind of flexibility."
MOTU: Is there anything about this show that you consider to be unique, or a technically challenging, from a programming standpoint?
Kwiz: Probably the most difficult editing tasks come when I have to string together multiple songs in one chunk to create a medley.
This requires high track counts, multiple mixes, constant tempo changes and sometimes hundreds of edits.
This would be a nightmare if I had to do this in another DAW. With DP, each song gets a track folder, allowing me to collapse the folder to clearly see the song tracks I want to focus on. Last tour, I had a medley with 14 songs in it, and it was a bitch to put together because of constant changes. DP made it all manageable and workable.
MOTU: What are your favorite features in DP or the 24I/O rack units that really help you out in what you do on the tour?
McGoo and Kwiz at the Great Wall of China.
Kwiz: As I mentioned before, I really love the chunks function, but I also like the fact that I can correct pitch problems using the pencil tool.
During production rehearsals, Beyoncé wanted me to alter a backing vocal part by applying Auto-Tune to it. She wanted it to sound like a T-Pain effect. Well, I didn't have Auto-Tune installed on the system at the time, so I used DP's built-in pitch correction, drew in the corrected pitch using DP's pencil tool and voila: T-Pain effect! Also, the MasterWorks Leveler and MasterWorks EQ are my go-to plug-ins. I start all my projects with them. Although the new guitar pedal effects and cabinet emulations aren't used in the live show, I'll be making good use of them in my upcoming production work.
MOTU: Are there any shows that come to mind where your MOTU stuff "saved the day"?
Kwiz: When we do promo performances like GMA, The View, Oprah, etc., sometimes they can't accommodate the larger show rig that I use. On those occasions I bring my laptop, two Glyph drives, and a MOTU 828mkII, all loaded in a flight case. Then, I break down the sequences to just 10 outputs (outs 1-8 plus master L-R). All I need is a place to plug in and I'm ready to roll. I recently upgraded to an 896mk3 for my small rig, which is even cooler because of the onboard effects processing!
MOTU: What is it like working with Beyoncé?
Kwiz: Honestly, there are days when its grueling.
"We currently have the largest LED wall out on the road right now, as well as two side screens that all show video content during the show, so it's crucial that everything stays in sync. 90% of the video content is locked to DP and it all works rock solid."
We have an intense touring schedule as well as intense rehearsals for the tour and upcoming tour changes. She's probably the hardest working artist in the game right now and that is why she's number one!
With all that said, she's a sweet person and a pleasure to work for. I wouldn't trade my experience with her, the band and my crew family for anything. That's real...
MOTU: Are there any other projects you're currently working on?
Kwiz: Yes! I'm currently writing and producing for Tiffany Riddick, one of Beyoncé's background singers, for her solo release slated for late 2010 on 252 Records.
Also, along with my partners Marly Smith and Tony Carter, I started a music production company called Digital Khaoss. We're releasing a compilation album that will feature multiple artists, including Neycha, Tiffany Riddick, Atlanta's own Divinity Roxx, an artist by the name of Dr. Ama, and others.
I'm trying to get Beyoncé to do something on it as well, she just doesn't know it yet....[laughs]!