Alan Pollard has been a keyboard technician for over 20 years working with major artists such as Björk, Queen, The Human League, Goldfrapp, The Cure, Stevie Wonder, Paul Weller, Annie Lennox, Emerson Lake & Palmer to name a few. These days, he specializes in programming and running Mac based sequencing software for touring live shows. He also designs and builds reliable installation, live and studio keyboard / computer systems.
Alan was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his work and offer some insights for those who want to purse projects of this nature.
Mark Mosher: Your website mentions you “specialize in programming and running Mac based sequencing software for touring live shows.” What is your “go to” software for sequencing live shows and why?
Alan Pollard: Most tours I work on I use Apple’s Logic mainly because I tend to end up syncing various instruments and sending program changes etc. So Logic’s integration of audio and midi tracks makes most sense to me.
Mark Mosher: How did you first get started in this line work?
Alan Pollard: I worked in a music shop when MIDI was first introduced and set up some early sequencing set-ups for studios. When I left I pretty much went straight onto a tour doing the same thing as I had been doing in the store.
Mark Mosher: How has performance and stability improvements in laptop technology changed your strategy for live performance rig design and what new challenges have laptops introduced?
Alan Pollard: Using laptops makes a smaller set-up than having a racked up desktop and is also easier to have back-ups; I often set up the show on my personal Macbook Pro to use in emergencies. I still think that if a tour set list is pretty much set in stone and the band are not likely to change much then a hard drive playback system is more stable. But you often still need the computers with you in case songs get added or changed. The ability to work on a track back in the hotel room with just a laptop makes some things a lot easier, as trying to sync up drum parts at the side of a noisy stage at a muddy festival site is not always the best way :-)
Mark Mosher: You are currently touring with Goldfrapp. Their latest album “Head First” is loaded with synth including some classic analog sounds. What is your role on this tour and what approaches will you be taking to reproduce these sounds live?
Alan Pollard: I worked closely with Will Gregory for a couple months before the tour getting all the sounds we needed from the album stems and sampling other original parts. Angie Pollock plays all her keyboard sounds from within Logic. We are using a mixture of ESX samples and soft synths (eg FM8 and Surge) to reproduce the parts needed. I have backing parts on hard drives but also run Logic to send program changes to Angie and the electronic drums (Akai’s) as well as start the 2 hard disk recorders in sync.
Mark Mosher: I read that on the Björk tour that you were using Reactable. How do you think tangible interfaces such as Reactable change the way you perform music and connect with audiences?
Alan Pollard: That particular Björk tour was about having the electronic aspect controlled in a very tactile way so that the audience could see things were happening and not just faced with someone hunched over a laptop. The reactable was obviously a big visual synth. But we also used Tenori-ons, Lemurs, korg kaos pads and various fader banks, which all meant that there wasn’t too much mousing and you could see that the guys on stage were performing.
Mark Mosher: Do you have any tips for musicians performing with laptops on how to harden or “crash proof” their rigs?
Alan Pollard: As I mentioned before, I always start by saying do you really need it running from a laptop or could it be played back from another source, ie hard disc etc.
Then I would say you need backup; lots of backups. And not all in the same place, leave a drive with a clone of your machine at home, and carry one with you away from the rest of the gear.
Next test your show in order all the way through. You never can be sure that one song may throw up a problem for another when played back to back. And if anything ever goes wrong, don’t say it was “just one of those things”, find the problem or reason, there almost always is one. Also if you can have a clean laptop just for music and don’t go over board with every plug-in and soft synth, just have the ones you need for the show.
Mark Mosher: Are there hardware synths or controllers that you tend to bring out on every tour and do you bring a backup for each hardware synth?
Alan Pollard: Yes I always try and have a spare of everything, but I have to work with the band and their budget :-) My off stage rack tend to have similar things in it but it depends on the tour.
Mark Mosher: How much time do you usually have to create a rig and program a live show?
Alan Pollard: It really varies, usually you know and can start planning a month or so before, i.e. order equipment and locate masters etc. Sometimes you might just come in at the start of rehearsals, a couple of weeks before the first show, and you just have to make do with the bands equipment and get it in a road worthy state as best you can.
Mark Mosher: You’ve worked with the likes of Bjork, Queen, The Human League, The Cure, Stevie Wonder, Annie Lennox to name a few. What was the most technically complex and challenging show you’ve worked?
Alan Pollard: They all have their own challenges, but I guess that the last Björk tour had the most going on for me. My playback rig off stage, Damian Taylor with laptop & keys, tactile interfaces and mixer with feeds from other players. Mark Bell running Abelton live and various effects. The reactable, a real harpsichord, all synced together with MIDI metronomes for the brass section!
Mark Mosher: Do you have any words of advice you can give to Modulate This readers who might want to pursue a career in programming for touring live shows?
Alan Pollard: Tricky one...listen to people, everyone's got something they can teach you and a valid opinion. I’ve learned a lot from touring with some very accomplished players and crew. Also it should be fun, remember its for people’s entertainment and that’s the bottom line.
For more information see Alan’s web site - www.alanpollard.co.uk.