What makes Justin Timberlake tick? Whether it’s the first keyboards in his musical memories, the joys of the Rhodes, or mixing his mind-blowing arena show in surround, it’s all about the sonic details.
Let’s face it: Justin Timberlake can do anything he wants, and that thing will seem cooler for it. This simple truth of the pop landscape should be obvious even to the haters — in fact, it’s the reason they’re haters. So when we saw him play a Rhodes electric piano back in the video for “Señorita,” we raised an approving eyebrow. When we heard his synth-saturated, Timbaland-produced FutureSex/LoveSounds, we raised both. When we saw the FutureSex/LoveShow tour, we dropped our collective jaw — it’s nothing less than a keyboard extravaganza. Far from pulling attention away from keyboards as many major pop stars’ shows try to do, Justin flaunts them, and leaves no doubt that he, musical director Kevin Antunes, and keyboardist Charles Wilson III play their asses off all night. Not only are there at least a dozen keyboards onstage at any moment (most in active use), and not only does Justin spend almost as much time on a Rhodes or acoustic piano as he does on dance moves, but one of the highest energy peaks of the set is when Justin, Kevin, and Charles bring the funk on three Roland AX-7 guitar-style controllers during the bridge to “Sexy Ladies.”
At the San Jose, California show, Justin and Kevin graciously made time for a conversation with Keyboard editors Stephen Fortner and Michael Gallant about Justin’s passion for keyboards and sound quality.
Stephen Fortner: I first saw you playing Rhodes in the “Señorita” video. How did you come to play it so much on this tour?
Justin Timberlake: We were in L.A., and I thought, “Man, I’d like to play some club shows. I’d like to take away all the production and just go in and rip it — just set me up a Rhodes and an acoustic guitar. We tried that, then it just became part of what we do.
Stephen Fortner: Is there a point in your life that you can remember first hearing a vintage keyboard or synth on a record, and then really wanting to make that sound yourself?
Justin Timberlake: Wow . . . probably when I first heard Quincy Jones’ work with Michael Jackson. When I was six or seven, I got this Casio keyboard, and “Billie Jean” was the first song I picked out. You could split the keyboard, so I figured out how to go [hums the bass line] with my left hand, and [hums the string part] with my right. That’s the first time I remember really paying attention to arrangement. Shortly after that, I went apes**t over the Eagles, which to this day is my favorite rock band. Hearing “I Can’t Tell You Why,” where Glenn Frey plays those intro chords on the Rhodes. You know, when you’re that young, you’re like, “What is that?” That was the first time I heard a Rhodes, but the first time I heard a Rhodes sound really funky was “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine” from D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar album.
Stephen Fortner: His Voodoo record, too.
Justin Timberlake: Voodoo is a whole other level! The mix on that album, I feel to this day is one of the best ever done. Anyway, then I started studying where all of it came from — Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway . . . listen to Donny’s Live — that’s Rhodes played like it should be played! What’s also a really cool effect for a Rhodes is patching it through distortion or other guitar boxes. Especially the way that accents the tones you get after you release the keys.
Stephen Fortner: The hammer letting off of the tine?
Justin Timberlake: Yeah, the little noise that almost sounds like a cat — rawr! On Macy Gray’s latest album, I put a Rhodes through Line 6 Amp Farm on the Pro Tools system. I came up with a bass line, and started pounding on the Rhodes like I was playing bass. A great use of distorted wah Rhodes is “Freetime” by Kenna, who’s opening tonight. Chad Hugo of the Neptunes produced it.
Stephen Fortner: How about getting synth sounds together for the tour? How did you duplicate or build on the sounds from the [FutureSex/LoveSounds] album?
Kevin Antunes: One example is that Justin had a cool idea for “LoveStoned,” which was to take a patch called “V-Screamer” from the Roland V-Synth and . . .
Justin Timberlake: Love that, love that. I don’t have the new one yet, [the V-Synth GT]. It’s gonna change every producer up, I’m sure. Roland’s the s**t, man.
Kevin Antunes: You’re gonna want one. . . .
Justin Timberlake: [Laughs.] I always want one! If there’s a new synth, bing, I want it! Especially the V-Synth — the way you can mess with so many aspects of the sound at once. So this thing we did on “LoveStoned” was with the delay that the V-Screamer patch already had on it. . . .
Kevin Antunes: “We” didn’t do it, he did it, and everybody should know that. This is why I wanted you to hear directly from Justin, because so many of the interviews he does are so based on other parts of his life that people don’t see this side. They don’t know the extent to which he gets involved in the music — for example, he’s the one who asked me, “What’s the bpm of ‘LoveStoned,’ so I can set the delay in the V-Synth?”
Justin Timberlake: I took the bpm, which is around 120, then I doubled the delay time on the V-Synth to 240, so it almost sounds like something [U2 guitarist] the Edge would play. It made it a little more drone-y, which live, sounds like what’s on the record.
Kevin Antunes: A lot of artists don’t think about how sounds from their records are going to translate into an arena setting, which is something we’ve been doing for years. We try to explain it to musicians — it’s like, the more you play, the less the audience is going to hear. Because they can’t hear all this and all that [gestures to represent different instruments] over screams, and within a mix that’s loud enough out of the PA to be heard over screams. That’s why we have so many unison lines, parts where we stop in sync with each other, sound effects, all that stuff — we need sonic moments that’ll grab people.
Stephen Fortner: I’ve heard a lot of bands, major pop acts even, deal with that “live factor” by taking a tight, recognizable hit in kind of a “jam band” direction.
Justin Timberlake: Then everybody kind of loses the feeling — everybody’s like, “Huh?” I have a really cool, broad audience, and they deserve to come in and — you know, if you go to the movie American Gangster, you want to see Denzel kickin’ somebody’s ass! If you go to my show, you don’t want to hear “remix” versions of my songs. You want the versions from the record. Especially in this day and age when we have all this technology we use on the record. With a song like “Sexyback,” or “FutureSex/LoveSound,” or “My Love,” the synths and their arrangement is such a part of the character of the song, that when a beat drops, and that opening synth pad or line cuts in, the audience recognizes that.
Stephen Fortner: So do you duplicate the sounds from the record exactly? Same keyboards, same patches, same samples?
Justin Timberlake: The thing is, when you’re playing arenas, the sound’s swirled around and mashed together by the room itself. So you have to think, is the patch gonna cut through and give people the experience they remember from the record? Kevin’s so amazing at making sure this happens. Before we started rehearsals for this tour, I asked [producer] Timbaland, “Give me the sounds so I can get ’em to Kevin,” then Kevin re-programmed those sounds into his rig and Charles’ rig. Everything has to start out as close to the record as possible, then we ask ourselves what we can add to what the fan’s ear already knows as the song. What can we add to give it more —balls, basically. That’s where the “V-Screamer” patch came in on “LoveStoned.” I thought, “This guitar sound on the V-Synth cuts through, and it cuts through in an arena.”
Kevin Antunes: That one patch led to the whole transition from “LoveStoned” to “SexyBack,” to the creation of a whole live arrangement. It moves from Justin’s keyboard solo, where he uses the D-beam and X-Y pad to modulate the patch, to a sort of pulsed surround sound. This uses two sounds I programmed in MOTU Mach Five and tracked in Digital Performer — one moves clockwise, the other counterclockwise. At that point, the arrangement borrows from an ’80s rock vibe for the intro to “SexyBack.” Throughout the show, I love using opposites for dramatic impact: from nose-bleed volume to a complete stop where you can feel your heartbeat in “Like I Love You;” tempo maps to seamlessly make transitions from songs of various tempos for “Summer Love” going into “Losing My Way” with its ticking clock transition; morphing several styles into one song like in “My Love” where the song goes from an acoustic guitar/string intro, to the extended dance break, to the heavy rock unison line towards the end.
Justin Timberlake: I played Kevin a lot of the record as it was being mixed. We put it in the car and drove around Mulholland in Los Angeles, thinking about the upcoming tour, saying things like, “Okay, this will have to be a such-and-such kind of synth.”
Kevin Antunes: From that day, I can remember hearing “SexyBack, “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” and “Sexy Ladies.”
Justin Timberlake: The production around those three songs is, like, new age meets Morris Day and the Time! [Laughs.]
Kevin Antunes: That’s why we resurrected the “keytars!”
Stephen Fortner: I was going to ask about those, actually. When the three of you are going at once on “Sexy Ladies,” wearing those Roland AX-7s, it’s such an old-school, P-Funk vibe.
Justin Timberlake: That’s what we were going for!
Kevin Antunes: Straight-up Morris Day, or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. That’s where it came from.
Stephen Fortner: What sounds and parts are each of you playing at that point? I’ll stop short of asking for patch numbers.
Kevin Antunes: I’m controlling the V-Synth at that moment. Justin is triggering a Triton Studio, and Charles is playing a Clav sound, a rhythm part that’s sort of inside of what we’re playing, from one of his Fantoms.
Justin Timberlake: Kev plays a fuzzy bass patch. When we’re all syncing together, I’m playing a synth lead off the V-Synth, Charles has the Clav, and Kevin has the fuzzy sound. It’s perfect, too, because I’m on the high range, Charles has the midrange, and Kevin’s kicking the low end. So you hear ’em all together, and it’s so thick.
Michael Gallant: When it comes to the acoustic piano, which is a really rich sound with lots of overtones, how do you get that to work in the arena setting?
Justin Timberlake: Out of everything I play onstage, the piano is the biggest challenge as far as mixing goes. I give a lot of credit to Andy Meyer. He’s awesome.
Kevin Antunes: Andy’s our front-of-house engineer.
MG: Do you have to keep your playing sparse, or do you just sort of play what you feel?
Justin Timberlake: Well, we spent so much time in rehearsals working out the parts that would mix well. Our setup at Center Staging [a rehearsal complex in Burbank, California] was that we had a huge band room, and in the next room, Andy was there with his computer, his Digidesign Venue console, and four speakers, because I wanted to mix in quad surround.
Kevin Antunes: When Justin first said he wanted to do this concert “theater-in-the-round” style, I thought about the guys from MOTU. I thought, “Digital Performer can mix in surround,” but wondered what the speakers would be like in a large, live setting. Justin simply said, “Make them go around in a circle.” Roger Waters did surround in a more traditional sense, where the audience is facing the stage in the usual way, and he put surround speakers in the back. But I’m not sure who else has put the stage in the center and four speakers pointing outward at the audience in a circle. The last time you saw us [’06 in San Jose], you heard the words “future,” “sex,” “love,” and “sounds” each coming out of a different speaker stack as the show opened. The acoustics in some arenas can really destroy that sense of direction. So this time, I gave time code for each word to our lighting director Nick Whitehouse, so he could hit each quadrant of the crowd with lights right when each word comes at them — a visual element that reinforces where the audio is.
Justin Timberlake: There’s a real north-south-east-west component to the mixing of our show. We started mixing like that at rehearsals, and again, it was a matter of, “How do we make this song pop?” How do we give it, like I said before, the balls? For every sound effect, every patch we layered on, I said, “Use the surround panning to the maximum of its ability at certain spots.”
Stephen Fortner: Speaking of Digital Performer, I saw the Macs and MOTU rigs under the stage earlier. With all the fuss about backing tracks these days, especially when something goes wrong, why use them? From what I heard at rehearsal, including the backup singers a capella, this is one band that doesn’t need them.
Kevin Antunes: The MOTU rig mainly provides SMPTE time code for the entire production and adds extra audio support. The stage has several moving sections — a circular center lift, four band pods, two outside lifts, and several scrims for video. Justin, [choreographer] Marty Kudelka, and I programmed these to elevate, slide, and rotate throughout the show using the time code from Digital Performer as the master clock source. On the audio side, DP playback does the surround effects, the orchestral strings on several songs, and the gospel choir in “Losing My Way” and “Cry Me a River.”
Stephen Fortner: So, do the live inputs get mixed through DP to be in surround?
Kevin Antunes: For those, Andy has subgroups on the front-of-house console, which is a Digidesign Venue. He pans from one subgroup to another to achieve the same effect, but it’s a different routing system that what we have coming off the MOTU rigs underneath the stage.
MG: During this show, you play “What Goes Around” on piano. That’s the song that stuck with me the most from previous shows. Could you talk a little about developing the piano part?
Justin Timberlake: I was at my house one day on my piano, and was just messing around with it, as though I was doing it “unplugged.” I played these chords, and then I came to Kevin and said, “Listen to this. This sounds cool to me, and I think it might translate well live.” Even with the guitars playing the line they usually play.
Kevin Antunes: It’s a cool-ass part of the show. It just stops the entire audience. Then they realize that he’s playing, and they get caught up in it. That part has become so fluid for him that now he’s changing it night after night. It’s not usually until the little eight-bar groove before the verse that I come in. My keyboard riser is facing somewhere else at that moment, so if he’s playing something that’s real cool then, I kind of wait an extra eight bars, look over my shoulder, and I can see he’s smiling!
Stephen Fortner: The finale, “Another Song,” also focuses on Justin at the piano.
Justin Timberlake: I always wanted to end the show by just sitting down and playing, with everything stripped away. Especially after giving such a . . . specific production with so many visual elements. At rehearsals, we started jamming on “Another Song” with the acoustic piano, and it became the obvious choice.
Kevin Antunes: I think that’s one of the best parts in terms of a focal point in the concert. Before that, we’ve built up the show so hot, then it gets so quiet in the arena, and everybody is watching him play that one part. Then that little line turns into the entire arrangement of the song. All from one piano.
Stephen Fortner: When you and Timbaland were working on FutureSex/LoveSounds, what were the major influences and inspirations?
Justin Timberlake: Timbaland had mainly made hip-hop before we worked together, with Aaliyah being an obvious exception. So what I’m about to say may sound out of left field, but seriously, go back and listen to the record and it’ll make more sense. We were listening to a lot of Pink Floyd and David Bowie! I was digging on early Talking Heads and was like, “What drugs was that guy doing? I don’t want the drugs but I want the high!” For “SexyBack,” Tim and I were thinking, “What if I was Bowie, and you were David Byrne, and we did a duet? But let’s be the 2007 versions of that.” Of course there was the hip-hop influence, but I always wonder what Elvis or Sinatra or anyone else might have sounded like if they’d had the influence of hip-hop, or of a Quincy Jones.
Stephen Fortner: How do you feel about people seeing you as a hip-hop or R&B artist, which they tend to because of your work with Timbaland?
Justin Timberlake: Frankly, that’s a consequence of my putting out two records in six years — only 25 songs or so for people to reference to me. I think, though, if you listen to FutureSex/LoveSounds compared to Justified, you hear a drastic change in the sonics. “SexyBack,” “My Love,” and “What Goes Around” are my favorite singles because I think we’ve managed not to sound quite like hip-hop, not quite like pop, not quite like rock ’n’ roll. I just sound like me. What I really love about FutureSex/LoveSounds, though, is the synths. I love the staccato synths, the big, wide, ambient synths, the leads, all of it. And the next one’ll be even more different.
Stephen Fortner: Sonically and musically, do you have a vision for the next one you want to talk about yet?
Justin Timberlake: I do want a lot of guitars on it, but keyboards will always be a huge element of what I do. They sound so big, and there are so many things you can do with them. And I don’t have any rules. I think the mission is to keep taking what you loved about what you just did, and bring a little of that forward into something new.
THE MD IS IN
Kevin Antunes’ operating room is equipped with (see bottom photo to the right, clockwise from lower left) a Roland AX-7 controller, a Minimoog Voyager atop a Hammond B-3 organ, a Yamaha EX5 above a Korg Triton Studio 76, and a Roland V-Synth above a Fantom-X7.
“I’ve never been a fan of just one platform for everything, hardware or software,” he says. “Something always breaks, especially when you’re pounding on it night after night all over the globe. When that happens, I want to reach for another instrument and play a similar sound.” Kevin uses a software sampler — MOTU Mach Five (see page 36 of this issue) hosted in Digital Performer — for surround effects during song transitions.
He runs his B-3 through a Leslie 122 that’s isolated underneath the stage, with a standard three-mic setup: two on the top rotor and one on the bottom. Those mics go directly to the front-of-house and monitor consoles, as does a stereo line from the Roland V-Synth. All other keyboards are submixed through a Midas Venice mixer, which sends a couple of stems to the front-of-house.
STAGE OF THE ART
One keyboardist isn’t enough for this gig. Charles Wilson III’s station includes (see top photo, clockwise from foreground) a Roland AX-7 controller, a Roland V-Synth above a Fantom-X7, a second Roland Fantom-X7 atop a Rhodes Suitcase Mk. II, and a Yamaha Motif ES7 above a Korg Triton Studio 76.
Each station is on a circular riser, both of which sit on a large, football-shaped lift. When the football is at the same level as adjoining stage sections, the risers actually move onto them via tracks, tightly coordinating with the moves of Justin and his dancers. A single snake carries all the cabling from each riser to mission control beneath the stage, where ace keyboard tech Robert Longo lurks poised to pounce on any problem.
Note the circular trap door at the photo’s upper right. This marks the dead center of the stage, from which Justin arises playing either a Rhodes Suitcase Mk. II or a Yamaha acoustic upright piano. For the intermission DJ set, Timbaland occupies this spot, kicking beats and jamming live on a Korg OASYS and Nord Lead 3.
MORE FROM KEVIN ANTUNES
Kevin Antunes shared a few more great stories for us that we didn’t have room for in the printed version of January’s story on Justin Timberlake. Here they are.
Stephen Fortner: Okay, every journalist asks this in an interview at some point, but how did you discover music in the first place?
Kevin Antunes: In a word, family. My background is Cape Verdean, and my ancestors migrated with the whaling industry, concentrating in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Some other well known musicians from Cape Verde include Tavares, Cesària Évora, and my dad. I was immersed in all that music before I could play, before the whole rock ’n’ roll influence.
Stephen Fortner: Did that cause you to want to study music formally?
Kevin Antunes: Partially. I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and majored in “music industry” at Northeastern University in Boston. A huge influence and mentor was Dr. Bruce Ronkin, who I think is a dean now. I graduated summa cum laude.
Stephen Fortner: You’d said to me at another time that the detail-oriented attitude that created is a point of connection between Justin and yourself.
Kevin Antunes: Absolutely. Justin’ll come in and sit in the studio with me, sometimes until, like, 5AM, to ensure that the overall vocal blend is just right. He doesn’t want his vocals too far out front; he wants them to mix just right with the background. He doesn’t want it 4dB or 5dB out front. Justin’s mother told me he was born that way. He’s from Memphis, and like every cat from Memphis I’ve met, you begin to understand the role of family in making them so solid.
Stephen Fortner: How did you get into playing keyboards professionally? How about the pop-star touring circuit?
Kevin Antunes: Well, you may know that my dad, Michael “Tunes” Antunes, was the sax player with John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. The keyboardist in that band, the late Bobby Cotoia, single-handedly was the inspiration that got me into playing keyboards. He showed me how much fun you can have onstage, whether you’re in front of 20 people or 200,000. You try to draw the audience into that sense that you’re having fun. Because of he and my dad, my brother and I always wanted to hang at sound check and be extra hands. We were pushing road cases around at, oh 14 or 15 years old. I remember buying a 45rpm record of Booker T’s “Green Onions” so I could sit in with Beaver Brown on a cover of it.
Stephen Fortner: How did that lead to your first really big tour as a keyboard player? I believe that was with New Kids on the Block.
Kevin Antunes: You know, so many guys play so fantastically, but I literally walked right into that gig from playing in this little cover band with my brother, which was called “Tunes, Inc.” I was able to get ahold of a bootleg tape of a New Kids on the Block concert, and I studied it for days and learned all the keyboard parts, programming the Roland D-50 I had at the time the best I could. When I got the audition, I nailed it. I still know some of the guys who were at that audition. I won’t name names, but some of them were top cats. I got the gig not because I was the most accomplished or knowledgable or fastest player, but because it showed that I’d made a study of everyone’s parts. I still take that lesson with me everywhere I go — to approach every gig like it’s my first gig.
Stephen Fortner: What’s a good example of a song during the show where you and Charles are both maxed out, and your hands have to be everywhere? Which of you is playing what parts, and on what patches?
Kevin Antunes: That’d be “My Love.” The reason is that particular song starts off with acoustic guitar, and I’m playing a string patch on my Fantom-X7 for the intro. The way I arranged the song, there are several major components. The first is played on the Korg Triton — it’s a low synth that complements the bass, which is a single-note line. Above that, I’m playing a higher-pitched single-note line on the Yamaha EX5, which mirrors the lead vocal melody. Then the band does a freeze, Justin does a dance routine, then I go onto the Hammond B-3. The rest of the band is playing unison hits and runs at that point, and I’m doing a lot of slides and a syncopated comping part. At the end of the song, when we do the final hold, I go over to the Moog Voyager, which is playing a Gap Band kind of sound.
Stephen Fortner: How about Charles’ parts?
Kevin Antunes: Usually, I pick up the main parts, the stuff I want to stick out from the mix. In “What Goes Around,” another song with a lot of different parts, Charles and Justin are playing similar parts on Rhodes, then when it changes after the big rock section, he adds distortion, then after that, it moves into a hip-hop section, which is when Charles goes on to playing the Fantom, triggering samples. That way, it blends with the live strings I have coming off of backing tracks.
Stephen Fortner: In the print version the interview, I didn’t have room to ask about “Rock Your Body,” which was the first tune that made me really get into Justin’s work. What are you playing live on that?
Kevin Antunes: I’m playing the underlying pad on “Rock Your Body” on the Fantom, then doubling it on the EX5 with sort of a mellow brass sound, which I can swell up with a volume pedal. On the bridge, I go to the B-3.
Stephen Fortner: Suppose a beginning musician sees Justin playing Rhodes, and wants to play like him. What would you recommend to start?
Kevin Antunes: If anyone wants to play “like Justin,” I’d recommend a tune like “Señorita.” On the record and in the video, he’s playing simple chords on the Rhodes. Live, we have Charles Wilson and Justin both playing the same Rhodes line, only an octave apart. I added B-3, which really gives it teeth. Andy has an enhancer plug-in on the B-3 mics, so the treble can cut through the dense arena mix.
Stephen Fortner: What was your worst gear nightmare?
Kevin Antunes: I don’t know if I’d call this a nightmare, but the B-3, being a vintage instrument, can be delicate on the inside, even though it’s built like a tank. When it stops working, it just stops. Let’s say the motor that drives the tonewheels goes down, which I’ve had happen. I You have to go to a synth keyboard for B-3 sounds, and that’s the point where you realize just how great the real thing sounds.
Stephen Fortner: What’s your main workhorse for storing sounds you’ve sampled directly from the records?
Kevin Antunes: That’s a tossup between the Fantom and Triton. I’ve had the Triton longer, so I’m really fast on it, but it’s easier to map samples across the keyboard on the Roland stuff.
Stephen Fortner: Keyboard last interviewed you in the XXXX issue when you were musical director for N’Sync, in which Justin was a member of course. In that article, the rig on which you’d prepare parts in your hotel room was in a big road case, contained a couple of Mac G3s, and weighted, like, 400 pounds. Have advances in technology changed your offstage work style at all?
Kevin Antunes: [Laughs.] That case is completely empty and in mothballs in my storage space in Orlando! Now, I travel with my MacBook Pro, an M-Audio USB controller, and MOTU Digital Performer software. That’s all I need.
Stephen Fortner (Keyboard Magazine)
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