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“Madonna’s Drowned World Tour” : Keyboard

Madonna - Keyboard / January 2002

Record an album, go on tour … that’s usually the way things work in the music biz. But when Madonna released Ray of Light in 1997 and chose not to take her show on the road, the fans cried foul. Turns out Madonna had other things on her mind, as we later learned — namely, movies to make, a man to marry, and another baby to have. In 2001 she released Music, and this time she gave the public what it was hungry for: a full-scale world tour.

The 2001 Drowned World tour, as it was called, was a smashing success. It sold out everywhere it played during its four-month run. No matter the city, it was the hottest ticket in town. Fans starved for seats were paying hundreds of dollars for tickets on the second-hand market.

Keyboard has covered Madonna’s studio work extensively in the past (see the William Orbit and Mirwais features in our July ’98 and Feb. ’01 issues, respectively). This time we’ve turned our attention to the live show, and specifically Madonna’s two new keyboardists: Marcus Brown and Stuart Price (a.k.a. Jacques Lu Cont). We also rolled up our sleeves and weaseled our way under the stage, literally, for a technology tour with programmer Mike McKnight and tech Don Goldstein. McKnight described the Drowned World crew as a “dream team” of sorts. Not surprisingly, Madonna hired the best of the best for this mega outing. “I have no horror stories to tell you about this tour,” says McKnight. “Everything has gone like clockwork.”

Here’s a firsthand account of how it all came together, and ran so smoothly from continent to continent.

How did you get the gig?

Stuart: I was on a press tour in Germany, staying in one of the worst hotels I think I’d ever been in (laughs). I came back to my room and there was Mirwais calling, asking if I’d be interested in coming to do this gig. The timing was good. I’d just finished all the promotion for my record (Les Rythmes Digitales’ Darkdancer on Astralwerks) and everything fit into place.

What role was described to you? Did it involve preparing files, sounds, sequences, and so on, for the tour?

Stuart: No file preparation… Originally I was to be an onstage guitarist, but my role didn’t really materialize until about halfway through the rehearsal.

Marcus, how did you get the gig?

Stuart: He was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.

Marcus: This much is true (laughs). I was actually in Kent, outside of London, working with Squeeze; I was doing some writing with Chris Differ. I think it was about a month into Madonna rehearsals when I got a call saying they needed another pair of hands. It wasn’t going to work with only four players, so they needed another person to handle all the bells and whistles, that sort of thing. I had two days’ notice.

Where were rehearsals held?

Stuart: There were two places: Sony Studios in L.A. for a month, which was mostly about getting the music together in one room and the dances together in another, then the two worlds met for 30 days at the L.A. Forum.

During rehearsals, how did you determine who would play what, and which parts would be delegated to sequences or backing audio tracks?

Mike: We always try to arrange it where everybody’s playing as much as they possibly can. If there’s a specific sound that we can’t quite nail, or if there’s a boring part, we’ll keep that in the computer. But for the most part, everyone is playing as much as they can and the computer is just there for orchestral backing, sixteenth-note things, auxiliary loops, that kind of thing.

Stuart: What’s played is generally the stuff that can be expressive, visual, or something that lends itself to be played onstage. But no one here is going to kid themselves into thinking they can recreate tight, mechanical, electronic patterns live. And there’s not a lot of point trying to do that. It compromises the music, especially when the music is so heavily electronic-based.

How did you assemble the backing material?

Mike: Basically what I had done was … we did a promo tour, and Madonna’s manager asked me to archive everything she’d ever recorded into Digital Performer. I had a few weeks off, and I had about a hundred songs to do. It was insane.

What did that entail — transferring individual parts from the original multitracks?

Mike: Exactly, plus I combined different versions from different tours. Some of the William Orbit stuff was on two 48-track digital machines, and I had to go through all the tracks and figure out what was used on the final version. The Music record was a lot easier — straight-ahead files, two- and eight-track stems. The older stuff was on analog tape that had to be baked. It was an enormous project. When I was done, I was told, “Don’t worry, she’s not going to tour. This is just for future use.” So I went off and joined the U2 tour. About five weeks later I get this panicky phone call asking me to come back. “She’s going to tour.” And after I said no four times, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. But I really hated leaving U2, besides being a great band they’re really great people.

Can you tell us a bit more about how you prepared the archival material?

Mike: It took about three or four weeks to archive and record everything. I went into a studio equipped with 24-track analog and 48-track digital. Wherever possible I went digital directly to ADAT. For the analog recordings I pulled up all the tracks directly to a patchbay going into the analog inputs on my ADATs. Then I took the ADAT tapes home and recorded the parts from ADAT to the computer via my MOTU 2408 Mark II. Then when I showed up for rehearsal, I had all 24, 48, and sometimes 96 tracks available to me, and we figured out who would play what parts and what would be played off the computer.
Also, track mutes weren’t part of the original recordings I used, so I had to A/B the original tracks with the final versions to figure out, “Okay, this part comes in here, then it’s out for the rest of the song.” That was a little hard. There was a lot to go through.

How did you go about recreating the keyboard sounds for this tour – did you sample sounds from the source files or did you program synth patches from scratch?

Mike: These guys (Marcus and Stuart) are excellent programmers. They did the programming themselves.

Marcus: The ones that we did sample were sounds that were sampled in the first place.

Stuart: We got some sounds from Mirwais, but in other cases we found it was better to take the spirit of the sound and come up with something else. As long as you keep the spirit of the part. … If it’s a lead part or a solo part in a track, you might not want to use the exact same patch that was on the record.

Marcus: Give the audience something new. It enhances the live aspect of the show.