Kyle Petersen sports a very impressive CV. Apart from working with Danny K, Toya Delazy, Blackbyrd, Elvis Blue, Zahara, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Kahn and Karin Zoid (among others) he is the official South African ambassador for Roland Keyboards. He was selected as a member of the prestigious Berklee All Stars 2014 fraternity in Boston USA and has performed in more than 15 countries. We discussed his relationship with Roland, what he expects from musicians in his role as musical director and how one should approach a potential endorsement deal.
You are equally adept at performing and producing. Do you have a preference?
Kyle Petersen: At this stage performing still. I’ve been doing it since I’ve been 9 years old professionally, so for me, it’s kind of still home.
So performing is still your first love?
Kyle Petersen: Yes, not that production isn’t a close second in terms of songwriting and anything that’s creative. I love both sides but performing is the thing.
When you produce do you also engineer or is that separate from producing for you?
Kyle Petersen: I have an understanding of engineering that obviously comes from the musical directing side and just years and years of being involved with it. A proper engineer though is a different thing. Yes, there are some people who wear all the hats and some of them generally do. For me though, engineering is completely different from production. It’s almost hardcore to a degree you know, especially something like the console we are using here at Melpro Studios. It is a beast.
The engineer has to know everything. You have to know all the outboard gear intimately. You have to know the strengths and weaknesses of the Focusrite compressor versus a Shadow Hills or something like an Avalon or whatever you need to know. Cause this one thing doesn’t work really well on a vocal so I’m rather gonna run it through and Avalon or a Universal Audio you know? You just have to know these things as an engineer.
Do you leave that up to the engineer usually or do you get involved in that?
Kyle Petersen: I’m getting involved but it’s more from a listening perspective. I can give my opinion in saying there’s too much compression happening, or the gate time is not right, or there’s something sitting at about 1.6 kHz not working. I get involved to an extent but like I said a true engineer is a whole art form. It’s a job on its own.
From your producing perspective, you focus a lot more on song structure, arrangement, tone and sound. How do you choose which artist to work with? Is there a specific genre that you feel more comfortable with or do you take anything that interests you?
Kyle Petersen: It’s been up to this point a time thing in terms of when I’ve been available to get really stuck into it. The timing of this one (Kyle is referring to the latest single of Amy Jones that he was busy producing at the time of the interview) was great. I am however leaning towards pop and rock as the two genres where I can contribute most at present from a production perspective.
What do you expect from the musicians you work with, in your role as music director?
Kyle Petersen: The main thing is if you are a professional musician and you get booked, the first thing is – and it’s got nothing to do with music at all – that you have to be on time. If rehearsals start at 6 o’clock you cannot get there at 6 o’clock only. Any pro musician will be there at 5:45 so that you are plugged in, set up and levels are balanced by 6 o’clock. At 6 o’clock you play the first song.
The other thing is obviously that you have to know your parts. The thing that freaks me out the most is watching a show or you go to rehearsal and someone is like ‘what is this called?’ or ‘how do you play this again?’ I want to die because it’s like you’re supposed to do your homework so that when you walk into rehearsal space you can nail it. It’s about execution to get at the highest possible level of professionalism all of the time consistently.
Your sound choice is also super important. If you were gonna be a keyboard player you have to know about oscillators for example and how they work. You have to know about decay time and envelopes. You have to know about how to program in order to get the sound that you want because if you are working for major artists they are going to want a specific sound. After you’ve done that you can suggest a more practical sound for a live environment if necessary. They will take a listen and go through it and you can find the right sound that way. But you have to know about patch design.
In other words, know your gear?
Kyle Petersen: Yes, you have to know your gear, but knowing your gear is more like knowing which menu to get into to access this sound or which buttons to push in order to get into a specific spot. But then there is the whole inside. As a keyboard player, you have to understand synthesis. I’ve been lucky enough in my long history with Roland keyboards to actually play prototype units before they were released internationally and give my feedback as a performer.
On the System 8 I actually got to play the prototype and the JD XA I got to play the hand-built prototype and give feedback. So even with all of that involvement I still only know 60% of what’s involved in terms of synthesis. I know a lot about it but I don’t know everything. But I know enough in terms of what I need to create a specific sound.
You can have a R75000 US Fender Custom Shop Telecaster with noiseless pickups or special humbucker configurations but if you don’t understand how to extract the sounds you need in terms of what each thing does, there’s no point in having that. I see it with keyboard players as well. “Ok, so I’ve got the latest Nord Stage you know? Or I’ve got the Roland RD2000, or the Yamaha Montage 8”. That does not actually mean anything. That saying that “It’s not about the gear, it’s about the ear” is true, but I also cannot take a Casio and make it sound amazing.
Is learning it like that part of practising, like figuring it out as part of working out a song for an upcoming gig, or do you actually devote time on this specifically to learn your instrument to the point that you know how to get the sounds that you want from it?
Kyle Petersen: You absolutely have to dedicate time for it specifically and do it with that intention in mind. So what you want to do is recreate a specific sound but the time that you spend doing that is not necessarily just because there is a project coming up. It’s so that you can understand your gear. Maintenance of gear is another super important thing, like updates.
Do you know what’s really cool about Roland? I know this is a punt for Roland keyboards but I’ll do it shamelessly because they are the only brand that actually gives a s**t. With every other keyboard brand (for me) you have to sell your current model and buy a new one just to get the upgraded features. You will never be able to recoup the cost. When the Roland Jupiter 80 came into the country I got the first one cause I’m the ambassador for Roland Keyboards Africa and Roland Keyboards Europe.
So I got the first one and it was great but there was no wireless connectivity. So instead of Roland bringing out a new Jupiter 90 they just released an update free of charge. I got this little dongle with a software update and then my Jupiter could connect wireless to my iPhone and I could record 24 bit 96 khz wireless. I could record my rehearsals and play it back wireless. So while I was doing workshops and educational things, which I do often, it’s handy because I can walk out to the students and be like this is what I just played. After that more and more features came out and every time my Jupiter just got updated for free. It’s like 5 or 6 years old and is as current as any of the other synths that are out there but I haven’t had to go and spend money.
Roland also cares about getting you the best sound they possibly can and they are anal about it. I have been to their conferences in Berlin and things like that. They look after you and now with the Roland Axial thing it is ridiculous. If you’ve got a Jupiter or Juno DS or any of the Roland keyboards that have come out you log on to axial.roland.com, add the serial number of your unit and then they open up their whole sound library of all their sounds from the 70’s up until now.
You don’t pay for any of that stuff. You literally select what you want to download into your machine and you’ve got it. That’s what musicians need because being a musician and buying good gear is expensive. So to be able to avoid the cost of having to upgrade just because one or two new features have been released which you can get for free now because the brand that you’re playing looks after you in that way is a huge difference.
So as an artist how did you get the role and sponsorship from Roland Keyboards? Also, what do you feel a musician needs to bring to the table to be able to be endorsed? The misconception is that let’s say you are playing X they will give you free gear because you’re going to give them a few tweets or exposure, whatever that means.
Kyle Petersen: My journey was a little bit different than that. When I was like 9 or 10 I got a weekend job as a keyboard demonstrator for Casio. When I was 14 I got a phone call from Peter Hunt at Paul Bothner’s in Claremont. They asked me if I could come and do the launch of a new series of Roland keyboards. So I did that and that’s how my relationship with the brand started. I became more and more involved with Roland over the years as a product specialist. I was very involved with the keyboard and piano division working directly with Japan.
In terms of the endorsement and sponsorship side, there’s one thing I don’t understand. That is the tendency to come to any brand, tell them what you do and then ask for free stuff. I saw that during my time at Roland where a proposal would come through to Roland but by mistake the person also copied it (didn’t blind copy, just normal CC) to Yamaha, Korg, Kurzweil and Nord. What people don’t realise is the whole point of being sponsored and being an ambassador is that you are playing gear which you love to play.
By the time I became an official Roland keyboards ambassador at 21 I’d already bought, paid for and owned 5 of my own Roland keyboards. I knew I loved the brand, the way they think, the way they do stuff, the way they put their sound together, how much time they put into getting it just right and also how reliable their stuff is. The mistake that people make is that if you’re going to approach Yamaha as wanting to become sponsored by them you need to already love playing Yamaha. Same with Korg or any other brand.
Sometimes people are just after the free gear but what they don’t understand is that it’s got nothing to do with free gifts. It’s about the passion for whoever you are approaching. If they can see that you are passionate about their product then your chances of getting something is very high cause most people would rather have someone that truly loves their gear. In the land of endorsements, it’s a relationship that should reciprocate.
Roland has sold a lot of keyboards because I play them because I used them with Toya and Karen and on Republiek van Zoid Afrika and Queen Experience. I’ve had everything that I ever asked for at any level of a show like no questions asked. Every time I’ve gone over to perform in Europe my rig is waiting there for me delivered by Roland Europe with a keyboard tech to set it up for me. I walk on stage and my stands are set at the height that I play cause they’ve already measured it. I literally walk on the stage, put my in-years in and play. It’s a mutually beneficial thing because you are also then able to give a kick-ass performance.
For performances, I use hardware exclusively. I do not and will not ever rely on any sort of plugins, doesn’t matter how good it is. It’s never gonna be as good as the hardware. You can chop up samples and yes it’s an original recording of a Jupiter 8, but it’s not actually the same thing as a Jupiter 8. The guy at Roland who designed the Fantom G explained it to me. If you take a 4K or like the highest possible resolution photograph of something and put it on one side and then we take the same quality image of someone else and we put it next to it and imagine they represent 2 notes on a synth. There is no way for those two photographs to interact with each other organically because it’s two completely separate photographs.
On a hardware synth, however, when you are playing those two notes simultaneously they are both running through the actual analogue circuitry and coming out of the outputs together. They are affecting one another and yes, plugins have got things to compensate for that and I’m not saying that really expensive plugins are not good, but I’m definitely a hardware guy like 110%. Just the thought of relying on laptops and plugins for my keyboard sound and having the faith of them being decided by a USB cable is unthinkable. I can’t think of anything worse.
I have done maybe like 400 – 500 major shows with my Roland gear and I’ve never had a Roland keyboard drop me. Not once. There was one time when we flew out to do a show in Durban. When we got off the plane we walked on that Sky run and I saw them taking out the Fantom in its Gator flight case. As they took it out it slipped and fell more than 3 meters to the tarmac. I really like Gator cases but when I open the case it was just sawdust everywhere. The wood inside the plywood that lies inside of the fibreglass had just been ripped open cause the keyboard was strapped in and those straps are tied to the plywood. The whole inside of the case was just completely in pieces. I just thought there is no way that this keyboard is gonna work but an hour later I put the Fantom on and we did the show and it was no problem.
Read part two of the interview HERE.