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On tour with Rick Wakeman and his nine Minimoogs

Erik Jordan is the man in command of Rick Wakeman’s keyboard conundrum

Rick Wakeman owns nine Minimoogs. Not the re-booted Voyager version, synth fans, no: the former Yes keysman owns nine of the original Model Ds. The ones that put Moog (ahem, rhymes with ‘vogue’) on the map, and in the history books. They’re currently selling at three grand a pop, if you can track one down.

Erik Jordan is in charge of Wakeman’s monosynth menagerie. In fact, he’s the Caped Crusader’s engineer, systems tech, programmer and co-producer: “I first met Rick when I was a tape-op at CTS in the mid-90s,” he says. And he’s been with him every since.

Wakeman – keyboard player, raconteur and – is PSNEurope the first to suggest?– national treasure, has been on tour with prog rock’s own Angel Gabriel Jon Anderson and fretboard demon Trevor Rabin. The Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman tour – the “holy trinity of Yes”, according to one classic rock website – has conquered the USA and travelled the length and breadth of the UK. When PSNEurope caught up with when Erik Jordan, was a day away from catching a flight to Japan.

“Everything’s so varied,” he says of working with Wakeman. “We might be touring with the Grumpy Old Picture Show, then with ARW or with the English Rock Ensemble, or a solo classical piano. That’s one of the things I love working with Rick, it covers so many musical styles so you never get stuck in a rut. And he’s such a nice guy!”

Wakeman’s live performance is akin to watching a the back room of a music store get up on stage. He surrounds himself with multiple keyboard and modules. (There are 11 synths for this tour, including two of his nine Minimoogs.)

But, look beyond the ivory-tickling: the biggest change to Wakeman’s keyboard rig (Jordan: “in all the years that I’ve known him”), is the Allen & Heath Qu-32 digital mixer.

Jordan sets the scene:

“The way Rick creates his sounds, he uses multiple keyboards and multiple racks, but layers up sounds, so uses single patches from synths, rather than a multitimbral ‘performance’ sound from one keyboard.

“Once he’s got a sound, it becomes a case of blending the sound from individual instruments. It’s about building up layers. It also has to work where he’ll be within the rig. It takes an awful long time to get the sound palette you’re after by the right instrument in the right position – then you get the overall balance correct with one piece, but then you start again with another song, with different gain structures etc.

“With the old analogue [LEM] desk, we ould be stuck with the old static set-up. It was literally being used to submix. You could do a few things with MIDI Volume, [but that was it].

A demo of the Qu-32 “changed my life” he says.

“When we’re coming up with sounds for instance, Rick is often thinking about tech of the past, like, ‘That’s great but it’s lacking a bit of this or that’. That might just be some FX. I can say, ‘Right Rick, I know what you’re after… I can go to the board and tweak something by using the internal effects, and he’ll say, ‘Oh that’s brilliant!’ So we’re altering the FX using the Qu.

“Before I would keep everything flat all the time, because the sounds would be changing from piece to piece. Now I’m able to go in and EQ every channel as I would like it for that one song. I’m changing the routing if there’s a combination of keyboards that are only being used as solo instruments; I can buss them out separately so FOH has more control of that, but on a different piece there might be another of keys that I want to buss out. So being able to change the routing, the effects the gain structures… and we don’t run out of processing. “

Jordan (pictured) claims he’s never once used the manual, the Qu-32 is “so intuitive” to use. “You touch it, it feels expensive, which gives you confidence.”

“I look at it, it’s a much smaller board than the iLIve and dLive, but in its price bracket, I don’t think there’s anything else that touches it,” he enthuses “It’s powerful, you can use it for so many different things. In rehearsal I’ve used it as a monitor board at the same time as [mixing within] his main keyboard rig. I view it as a really useful bit of toolkit. It’s totally reliable and I’ve never had any issues with it.”

Jordan submixes to two main stereo pairs which go to monitor and FOH positiongs – main stereo keys on one pair, solo lines and “whatever needs to be kept separate – usually the Minimoogs” on the other. In the UK, Chris Fudurich was on FOH duties, with Tour Tech (old mates of Wakeman, of course) doing PA duties. Clair Bros handled the US leg.

“I then take those two pairs and route them at the same time and pass those to his powered monitoring (EV ETX speakers currently) – so when he’s standing in his rig, from behind him he’s hearing his keys, then in front he’ll hear the rest of the band from the stage monitors. He feels completely enclosed in this wall of sound, but he can take the fader and change his own volume within his own monitors without affecting anyone else.”

There’s a moment during the encores – after Long Distance Runaround, Heart of the Sunrise and a stupendous Awaken – that Wakeman jumps on to a keytar and goes wandering off into the audience, with Trevor Rabin in tow.

“That used to be cabled – then after the [Six Wives] Hampton Court gigs in 2009 we went wireless. In the past, it used to a 100-foot MIDI cable, which was useful, because if he wandered off to far, we could reel him back in again! Whereas now there’s no stopping him… and he will wander out and sometimes wander in to the front lobby, sometimes you have go running out and shove him back in again… We use a Kenton Wireless MIDI system – it’s not audio, it’s purely a controller. And it’s been rock solid.”

But what can’t be so dependable are those Minimoogs, right?

“Oh yes!” laughs Jordan. “They are notorious for not liking touring. We need two to be working all the way through the show, one is featured more than the other but Rick has such a big layout, it’s down to geography. Where will he be within the rig at a point where he needs to be playing it? He might be far stage left, but he needs to add a Moog line, so have a Minimoog there. If there’s a mid-show crisis [meaning one fails] he can always jump over to the second.

“But it’s always the first thing I do, after the Minimoogs have warmed up, is make sure they are working properly. Broken keys, retuning, a dry joint – there are lots of things you can fix as you go along to keep things running!”

Photo credits:Lee Wilkinson