Gary Numan on Touring with Vintage and Modern Gear

This year at Moogfest, Gary Numan received the Moog Innovation Award in recognition of his work as an electronic music pioneer. The fest included a three-night residency by Numan, who performed what many consider to be his masterwork triptych: Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, and Telekon. The first of the three was performed at a small-capacity club, which complemented its more punk aesthetic. The latter two were presented over the next two nights in the grand Carolina Theatre, which gave fans the opportunity to experience a larger-scale stage production.

For synth-obsessed festival attendees, Numan's renown as a trailblazer in electronic pop music is nothing new, and circulating videos, imagery, and concert footage from early in his career have only made this more apparent. His legendary performance in the cult film Urgh! A Music War, for example, shows the lonely alien navigating through a sea of futuristic light columns, stacks of synths, and Synares. The “Cars” video is practically an ad for Moog.

Gary Numan - "Down In The Park" from Urgh! A Music War

Gary Numan - "Cars"

With four decades of touring behind him, Numan's seen a lot of changes in the technology required to put on a show. As he explained: “You still need a band with guitars and amps, but a lot less gear is needed these days. It helps in almost every way. Traveling is cheaper, production costs much less, and you can work with a smaller team of people.”

But what has been the biggest change? “Believe it or not, lighting is the first thing that comes to mind," Numan explained. "Back when we were playing huge arenas, we used to have 200-300 lamps with individually color gels, aimed in a variety of different angles for different washes and scenes. Every single one had to be focused by hand. I’ve had crew hospitalized after falling out of their rigging while doing this. Now we accomplish it with 10-20 lamps. They can move, change color and focus. It’s phenomenal, and they are so reliable. ”

Numan tells a similar story about PA systems: “We used to travel with massive towers of cabinets. Every show, it would all have to be wired together and aimed. Even after all that, depending on where you were seated in the audience, it would sound very different. Modern cabinets are so well-designed, and beautifully balanced … any dead spots you encounter are inherent in the design of the building, not the gear. Everything is recallable from a small, neatly arranged desk. You no longer need a huge one with zillions of faders.”

Gary Numan at Moogfest

Gary Numan performing live at Moogfest 2016 (Photo by Camilo Fuentealba)

As for managing the array of synths and sounds that underlie Numan's music, laptops have changed everything. Gary’s keyboard player, David Books, runs everything from Logic Mainstage. With the push of a key, all of the sounds, levels, and effects are called up.

“Back in the day, we would have stacks of keyboards set to certain sounds. There was no time between songs to change patches, and there were no presets. Often we’d change settings for the next song while playing another. Preset synths and split keyboards changed all that. You could change sounds drastically with the push of a button.”

Being able to do more with less has had an impact on every single aspect of touring, but Numan is unsure how much it actually puts his mind at ease: “I’m tempted to say it’s less stressful, but I’m not so sure. There are different types of stresses now. If Mainstage goes down, you lose everything. I’m backup obsessed, though, so we carry four laptops on tour.”

It’s a far cry from what used to qualify as a “backup,” though. “On the first couple of tours, the Minimoog was a big part of our sound,” Numan said. “Each player had two or three. I had two. The guitar player had one. The bass player had one. Even the drummer had one. Effectively, we had backups on stage with us. If one went down, we could reappropriate one of the others. Minimoogs weren’t terribly unreliable, but we always had a person on the crew with the single job of keeping the synths up and running for the entire tour."

At their peak, Numan’s band was touring with three Arp Odysseys, three Polymoogs, a battalion of Minimoogs, and other miscellaneous synths, for a total of 22 keyboards, scattered in five different locations on stage.

Polymoogs, on the other hand, were both delicate and complicated to fix. “If the crew was heavy-handed with those, it would almost guarantee a failure,” Numan recounted.

At their peak, Numan’s band was touring with three Arp Odysseys, three Polymoogs, a battalion of Minimoogs, and other miscellaneous synths, for a total of 22 keyboards, scattered across five different locations on stage. “We carried a spare one of each, but if something happened during the performance, you would just have to adapt on the spot.”

It’s easy to forget just how expensive and out-of-reach instruments like these were for most musicians. In 1975, a new Minimoog would set you back $1600 - about half of the cost of a new VW Bug, or approximately $7500 in today’s money. The Polymoog was a whopping $5200 - about $24,000 in 2016 dollars.

“They were horrifically expensive, but I owned all of them," Numan explained. "I didn’t want people showing up with their own gear and sounds, introducing an unknown quantity, and of course I couldn’t expect anyone to go out and buy a Polymoog. I’d find the right person and then supply the gear."

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Now, any touring keyboardist is expected to come to the audition with a certain knowledge of how the equipment works. However, when Numan was arranging his first tour, synthesizers were as rare as they were expensive, and finding a backing band presented some real challenges.

“There were plenty of accomplished Fender Rhodes players around. Many people auditioned thinking it was for a more traditional keyboardist role, so I ended up not using them. I’m not sure how the ad read, so that could have been my fault [laughs] ... I was extremely lucky to meet Chris Payne, who came along early in the auditions. Just a lovely guy, who was funny and fun to be around. He didn’t own a Moog, but was already into synths. They weren’t terribly complicated machines, by comparison, so he could easily transfer his knowledge to what I was using. I wasn’t even that demanding. Most of my stuff is just low end growl or high end strings, really. I had figured out the sound I wanted: Minimoog, Polymoog, Arp Odyssey."

Gary Numan on tour 2016

Gary Numan on tour 2016 (Photo by Eric Draper)

Those trademark high-end sounds were usually courtesy of the Polymoog. Heard on many of Numan’s best known songs, the “Vox Humana” patch is so associated with his music that fans who are familiar with Moog’s infamous instrument refer to it as “Vox Numana.” Some aficionados insist owning a Polymoog is the only way to get that sound, but modern gear gets Numan close enough for live use. Modern innovations like tuning stability, however, have not put his mind totally at ease:

“On the first tour, the Minis would have to warm up, but by the third song they be out of tune and we’d have to readjust. The first Moogs had oscillator drift, but they fixed that early in my career. I never really suffered from fear of a breakdown back then, though. It happened regularly, but it wasn’t such a calamity that it would stop the set. In a lot of ways I probably worry more these days, because fewer machines do so much more work - it’s all concentrated into fewer devices.”

In other words, if a piece of gear fails, it’s not like breaking a string. “It means losing a significant amount of our show. Even with the lights, if one goes down, an entire area of the stage is unlit. You wouldn’t have even noticed it in 1980 when there were hundreds above you."

Fewer instruments and a less cluttered stage can be liberating, though, especially considering the man many people associate as a synth pioneer usually has a Les Paul hanging from his shoulder. “Replicas actually had very little keyboard on it, which is slightly ironic since it’s considered one of the records that started the whole synth thing. I love the freedom of playing guitar. You can go anywhere. Keys are the least desirable thing for me to do in a live context. I feel more static and trapped. I’m up there moving around, bashing the keys and flicking about, but you actually have to be quite careful [laughs]. The only thing better than playing guitar is just being up there with a mic.”

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