Eugene “Man-Man” Roberts: Producing John Legend Live with MainStage

The albums of R&B singer-songwriter John Legend — Get Lifted (2004), Once Again (2006) and Evolver (2008) — have yielded 14 Grammy nominations and 6 wins, fast-tracked Legend’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and incalculably raised expectations among his fans for any future recordings.

Those expectations carry over to Legend’s live performances, where his singular baritone and virtuoso keyboard skills transfer brilliantly from the studio to the stage. “My vision is that the show is entertaining from beginning to end, with great energy, soul and musicianship,” says Legend. “I want the crowd to leave feeling inspired and uplifted, like they really connected with me and the band.”

For Legend, cinching that connection on the current tour involves working his songs on every level to meet and exceed the high bar set by the massively popular recordings.

Photo credit: Denise Truscello

“My set list is 95% the same every night because I have a good idea of what songs people definitely want to hear, but I always allow room to be spontaneous to a certain degree,” he says. “I don’t want the live show to be a replica of the record. I want to take the record to new places with new interpretations, medleys, remixes, and the energy that live performance brings.”

To reach those new places, Legend plays with a killer lineup of all-star musicians who can deliver onstage as precisely as they do in the studio. To keep his sets fresh, he features regular guest vocalists like Estelle, Kanye West, Buju Banton, India.Arie and Rick Ross. And to keep the songs balanced — delivering the best sounds from the studio along with the freshest riffs from the stage — Legend’s band performs using MainStage, running on several MacBook Pro laptops that look as natural in their live rigs as the keyboards, axes and amps.

MainStage, the live-performance application in Logic Studio, allows the band to play software instruments and effects through a stage-friendly interface on a MacBook Pro. So while Legend sings and plays piano out front, keyboardist and musical director Eugene “Man-Man” Roberts delivers many of his own sounds through MainStage, which seamlessly complements and infinitely extends what he can generate from his multiple live keyboard setups.

Consistently Better Sound

Roberts says that the band’s adoption of MainStage was based on three virtues critical for live performance: consistency, flexibility and convenience.

“As a music director, my goal is to change some songs each tour,” says Roberts. “John is three albums in now, so songs from the first album are going to sound a lot different anyway. But I start with the original sounds to get as close to the album as possible.”

While creating his song arrangements for the current tour, Roberts sampled tracks directly from the album using the EXS24 sampler in Logic Pro. Starting in Logic made for an easy transition to triggering his keyboard parts in MainStage, because all the same Logic Pro factory sounds, customised sounds and even third-party instruments are also available in MainStage. And when he opened the sampled instruments in MainStage, Roberts could take advantage of its infinite layering possibilities to extend the original sound design.

“John’s sounds live are not what’s on the record,” says Roberts. “Things are layered and doubled all the time live. So I generally layer the sampled record sound with something else out of MainStage, just to make it fuller. I do lots of edits, lots of layers, and I definitely put my own spin on things.”

Because the band can’t be sure which keyboards they’ll have as they travel worldwide, they get another benefit from MainStage by being able to carry to each concert venue rich, layered sounds on a laptop that can be reliably triggered from any keyboard controller, or from multiple controllers, as in Roberts’ current MainStage setup.

Incredibly Flexible Sets

As well as audio fidelity and control, MainStage gives Roberts the flexibility he needs to quickly reorganise their 50-plus set list when guest artists appear. This helps the band meet the challenge of consistently responding with the right sounds.

Although he currently runs the show’s backing tracks in Logic, Roberts is moving them over to MainStage to take advantage of the new Playback feature, which allows seamless jumping to song markers in real time. “Playback is a really important feature for me,” he says. “On quite a few songs we don’t use our backing tracks because it’s impossible to know how much John will talk to the audience between songs, so I can never time the intro. Will it be 16 bars or 8? Will he come in late or early? But with the new MainStage Playback feature, I can just say, ‘All right, verse.’ Or, ‘All right, chorus.’ And I’m good to start there.”