[A couple of weeks ago The Ocean’s Robin Staps took the piss out of us with a mock gear column… and now he’s back to take you on a step-by-step walk-through of his actual live rig. Gear nerds, you’re gonna love this one; Robin’s got a very, very interesting setup. Check out our recent Rigged columns with Between the Buried and Me guitarists Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring and BTBAM drummer Blake Richardson. Between the Buried and Me, The Ocean, Job For A Cowboy (and on select dates Cephalic Carnage) are on tour through May 15th; get dates here.]

My tone obviously starts with my guitars, two Paul Reed Smith Custom 24s.

I have always loved these guitars but simply couldn’t afford them until we got an endorsement with them 2 years ago. The elegance of their design is really just the surface-level: beyond lies unrivaled playability, perfect craftsmanship, a comparably light weight and yet endless sustain. And yes, these guitars are not just pretty, they are also more sturdy than any other guitar I’ve ever had: I have had to deal with 5 broken headstocks in my career as a musician with this band, but to date my PRS guitars have remained in good order. I guess you are naturally taking better care when you are playing such a classy and precious instrument.

From my guitar’s output jack, I go directly into a Morpheus drop-tune pedal. I only use this for the Precambrian songs, which are tuned in open A, while most Aeolian, Fluxion, Heliocentric and Anthropocentric songs are tuned in C. I’ve only been using this pedal for a few weeks but it works great; there IS a slight loss of quality when you go 3 steps down, but I am still happier with the tone of my PRS going through the Morpheus then with the “original” tone of my Schecter or Fender Baritone guitars tuned in A — simply because the pickups on the PRS are so awesome that they more than make up for the slight loss of quality.

I’m using a Mesa Boogie Triaxis preamp. This amp is awesome and is the end result of a long search process for me. My first good amp was an Engl Savage 120, but it sounded too cold and undynamic to me somehow. Then I went for a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, the old version, but the 2 channels weren’t giving me enough versatility of sound. I then bought a Diezel VH4 and I still have it and use it in the studio; I love its warm mids and full tone. I wouldn’t be able to say which amp I like better, the Triaxis with a 2:90 or the Diezel VH4, without doing one of the two injustice — they are both great amps, and in the end, the Triaxis was mainly a choice of convenience for me. I wanted to have a rack system where everything — preamp, power amps, effects, tuner — was in one place and where I would only need to plug the minimum amount of cables every night. I’m lazy. Another reason was that the Triaxis is by far the most versatile amp I have ever played: it basically gives you the tone of almost the entire history of Mesa Boogie, compressed in just one amp. I’m using the Mark I for clean and crunch sounds, the Mark IV for crunch sounds and the Mark IIC/Mark IV and Rectifier for heavy rhythm and lead sounds.

My power amp is a Mesa Boogie 2:90 SimulClass stereo power amp. It’s a beast. I have tried the 20:20 power amp and it works as well. Sometimes we use that for fly-in shows because it’s much lighter, but the 2:90 is just heaps more powerful, and together with the Triaxis it’s the perfect match. It has unlimited reserves of volume that I never even get close to using, because we usually try to keep stage volume down. Fat but defined low frequencies and amazing tube saturation when you switch to half-drive. Love it.

As for effects, I’m using a Boss GT-Pro rack effects unit. It’s really nothing spectacular, but then again I don’t need anything spectacular in terms of guitar effects —  good reverb and stereo delays, a few standard modulation effects and an octaver every now and then, that’s all I use. What’s important is that almost any parameter of any effect can be MIDI-controlled with the GT-Pro. I used a TC Electronics G-Force before which sounded great, but there was a MIDI latency when you switched effect parameters, so it was useless for my setup.

I’m using a Mesa Boogie slanted Recto cabinet, in stereo. We use lots of stereo and ping-pong delays so we split the cabinet and mic both sides. During the heavy parts it’s the same sound coming out of both sides of the cabinets, during the epic delay parts we have different signals on both sides.

So this is the end of my live setup, but there is actually quite a lot happening before any of these pieces of gear come into play. My live guitar setup is rather complicated, so let me start at the very beginning.

The first piece of gear is a Macbook Pro connected to a MIDI interface and an audio interface and running Logic Audio Pro. This is the ‘digital heart’ of our show, so to speak, which beats behind its analog skin: the sequencer runs our backing tracks and controls/switches our guitar effects, preamp channels, the light show and, via a 2nd Macbook Pro, our live visuals as well.

We have a total of 7 MIDI tracks run by the sequencer, one for each guitarist’s preamp channels, one for each guitarists effects units, one for our own custom lighting fixtures (via MIDI to DMX converter box), one for the house lights, and a last one which triggers our videos.

Obviously, this is only possible because we play entirely to a click. It is just our drummer who actually gets the click on his headphones though; he’s getting the CD sum on his left ear and a click on his right ear, plus his actual live drum mix of course.

The sequencer software is also playing our sample tracks, unless we have extra live musicians playing the piano and string parts live.

This setup has its upsides and downsides. The good thing is that it is possible to achieve unreal tightness, not just in terms of playing but also in terms of lighting and visuals – strobes flashing exactly in time with the music, short drum breaks where everything cuts to black, even the most complicated time signatures and tempo changes being immediately and perfectly reflected by the lighting – no human lighting engineer could possibly achieve that. Or at least I haven’t met him yet, not even Mick Thornton who’s doing lights for Opeth, and he knows their songs in and out and is literally playing keyboards on his lighting console…

Unfortunately we couldn’t bring our lighting gear over to the U.S. on this tour with Between the Buried and Me, as this would have cost another couple of thousand bucks extra for overweight charges on the plane. It’s a shame, as I consider this to be an integral part of our show. Our lighting is brutal and very dynamic – the quieter passages are almost entirely backlit and very much dimmed down, creating impressions of silhouettes in front of a blue and green background. Some parts are simply black — we are used to playing entirely in the dark and we have fluorescent tape on the back of our guitar necks marking the frets so that even with very low lighting we can still play well. The heavy passages are bright and brutal, we have an array of LED floors, bars, strobes spread out over the stage. Some of them are compiled in 2 big “fridges” that I built myself, placed to the left and right of the drum riser.

Another good thing is that the sequencer-controlled guitar effects and amp channel switching means that I don’t have to perform a step-dance on a guitar effects pedalboard. I was never a big fan of a zillion floor effects and cables and all the problems that come with it. I want to be able to focus on playing. I go into the crowd a lot and I don’t wanna run back to the stage because I have to press a button somewhere. With my setup, I plug in my guitar cable, start the sequencer and then all I do is play.

One of the downsides is that obviously, the more gear you have, the more likely fuckups are. Sometimes we still get MIDI hang-ups, then I have to use a reset keyboard shortcut and things are going back to normal without needing to stop the sequencer…

In the beginning though we had lots of trouble with an unreliable setup — especially in the days when we still had a PC laptop as a sequencer. Lights failing in the middle of the show with no house lights available to chip in for example. And my amp channel switching failed on me so many times… you look like an idiot when you’re jumping into the crowd at the first note of a heavy part and all that comes out of your cabinet is a lousy crunch sound, because the amp switching didn’t work out.

Another downside is that this setup completely eliminates spontaneity. We have to stick to the grid from the very beginning to very end of the show. This requires a lot of discipline and confidence. If our drummer gets lost by just one 4th note, the whole band is behind, but the lighting and guitar effect changes will still be right in time – which can fuck up everything, obviously. We all depend on Luc, so to speak. But Luc is a machine and he almost never fucks up.

So spontaneity is lost, but then again: how much spontaneity is there in rock n’ roll? I would say close to zero. Most bands play a well-rehearsed set of select songs these days where the only thing that is subject to change may be the daily song choice and order, and sometimes not even that. A lot of bands play the exact same set every night of the tour. Improvisation within the songs is typically limited to the “guided randomness” of guitar solos — we can do that with our setup, we just can’t play a solo longer than previously agreed upon. And who wants endless guitar solos anyway? So what we lose by our sequencer-based setup is of no importance to us — what we gain, however, is a lot. You really gotta see the whole show with lighting in order to understand the effects and results that I am talking about here.

– Robin Staps / The Ocean

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