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On Tour with Gwen Stefani

On Tour with Gwen Stefani
Multi-instrumentalist Gabriel McNair and keyboardist Kristopher Pooley explore innovative performance possibilities with their M-Audio stage rig

It takes an exceptional team and rock-solid gear to meet the demands of a 28-country, 100-city world tour. Multi-instrumentalist Gabriel McNair (No Doubt, Green Day, Goldfinger) and veteran keyboardist Kristopher Pooley (Jane’s Addiction, Liz Phair) recently spent seven months on the road with singer Gwen Stefani in support of The Sweet Escape, packing large-scale venues on a nightly basis. McNair and Pooley anchored Stefani’s backup band with their elaborate keyboard rig—relying on M-Audio gear to explore innovative performance possibilities and recreate much-loved studio productions.

In the spotlight

The versatile McNair has been collaborating with Stefani since the early years of alt-punk band No Doubt, playing live keyboards, trombone, tenor saxophone and electric guitar. McNair handled keyboard duties for the Sweet Escape tour in his dynamic fashion, selecting Keystation Pro 88 for live performance and MIDI control. “When I started using M-Audio keyboards, it was love at first sight,” says McNair. “The Keystation Pro 88 gives me assignable knobs, faders and buttons—perfect for controlling my MIDI gear during performance. I use the buttons to change patches on my DAW, while the knobs are assigned to different parameters on synths and effects, controlling delay time, feedback and filters.”

Like McNair, Pooley utilizes nearly every feature of his M-Audio Axiom 25 MIDI controller during live performances—from the semi-weighted velocity-sensitive keys to the trigger pads, rotary encoders and assignable transport buttons. “I use the Axiom 25 mostly as a synth controller, triggering patches in Reason and scrolling through patch banks,” explains Pooley. “I’ve assigned the two right trigger pads to scroll through my Reason rack on a Mac G4 laptop. Sometimes I even pick up the Axiom 25 and move around stage with it!”

Bridging the gap between studio and stage

Artists like Gwen Stefani often incorporate electronic production elements into their studio recordings, creating a challenge for the backup band that performs the songs live. By using laptop computers on stage, McNair and Pooley are able to reproduce sounds that are difficult—or even impossible—to generate with standard synth modules. “We prefer to use computer-based synth sounds in performance situations,” relates McNair. “The sound quality has come a long way the past few years and even the vintage and acoustic keyboard emulations sound amazing. We can tweak soft-synth parameters and apply effects to replicate the studio tracks. While on tour with Gwen Stefani, we performed 100 shows without a laptop ever crashing. They’re reliable.”

When working on a Sweet Escape concert DVD, Pooley used an M-Audio FireWire 1814 recording interface to take Stefani’s vocal performance from the stage to the studio. “Because Gwen’s vocals are all recorded live, we wanted a few extra takes from other shows,” explains Pooley. “Using a bus-powered FireWire 1814 we patched into the soundboard and recorded her vocal onto my laptop for later editing.”

Problem solving under pressure

The Sweet Escape tour presented several production challenges that tested Pooley’s creative resourcefulness. The seasoned keyboardist relied on his arsenal of M-Audio gear to execute dramatic performance elements under difficult circumstances. “During rehearsals we ran into problems because the stage splits apart and moves during the show, pinching and abusing our cables,” recalls Pooley. “Using the MidAir 25 wireless MIDI controller, we eliminated cable mess and fired patch changes to (drummer) Zach Alford’s drums and (keyboardist) Stephen Bradley’s Korg MS2000 from my onstage rig.”

“What initially drew me towards M-Audio gear was portability and affordability,” concludes Pooley. “But after several years, I’m still using my M-Audio gear on stage in high-pressure situations because it’s reliable and intuitively designed for live use.”