Interview with keyboardist and programmer, Marcus Byrne (Take That)
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Interview with keyboardist and programmer, Marcus Byrne (Take That)

At the end of 2018, Take That released 'Odyssey', a 're-imagining' of the band's Greatest Hits, spanning three decades of the band’s history. The world tour to support the album brought the boys back to the UK this month and gave us the perfect opportunity to catch up with keyboardist and programmer, Marcus Byrne. We spoke to Marcus just before soundcheck at the O2 Arena in London. We started by asking about his musical background and how he got to be playing in the scale of show he is today ...


My music teacher at school clocked onto the fact that I was interested in synthesis, and we had the first Roland MT32 and an Atari system, I think in the country. I was hooked, I think I was 13 or 14 then, around ’87, but my music teacher said look you should try and start to meet some other like minded young people and so, she managed to get me to go to Walsall Youth Jazz Orchestra. I was in that until about 17 or 18, and actually I was playing synthesisers because they had a great piano player there already. I was always into Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre and Kraftwerk so for me it was ideal. I was playing pads and synths and we were doing a lot of Pat Metheny numbers and I was playing all the little bits Lyle Mays plays. 

So for me that was great, that’s were I started and from that I met a lot of musicians in the Midlands that were already much older than me and gigging, over time they asked me to cover a gig or come play second keys.


What would you say was your breakthrough? 

I got a job with an artist called Lou Dalglish, a singer-songwriter. She was doing residencies at Ronnie Scotts which was a major up, you know it was a serious thing. I met a lot of people there, different touring artists which were coming through, I’d have piano lessons from their piano guys, met a real good friend of mine, Jason Rebello who’s a dear friend to this day, he gave me some lessons. And I then spent years playing in every function band I could - driving back from, say, Norwich at 4am every Saturday and Sunday night, just to get my chops together and just to work on stuff, earn a living!

I was always interested because of the synthesis in programming and studio stuff, so on the side of all of that I was getting asked to go to the studio and do programming, keys and Emagic, Notator in the late 80’s early 90’s. So I got involved quite heavily in the dance music scene, which played to my synthesis strengths. I absolutely loved record production so I then just hibernated in the studio and stopped gigging entirely. I just thought this is an easy life for me, I don’t have to lug a keyboard around, and I can be in my comfort zone.


From there then, how did you get into doing what you're doing now? 

I did that for a long time, most of my 20’s. Had a family and preferred life at home, going to work in my studio rather than out on the road. But the itch never went away, and I’d be recording and producing other musicians that I was working with, but not involved with the band anymore, so I kinda had this itch that I wanted to get back into live performance.

I was working with a good friend of mine, Mark Stevens, who’s the brother of MD extraordinaire Mike Stevens. He just happened to be looking for a keyboard player on the 2009 Anastasia Heavy Rotation tour. I just got very lucky, they needed someone and I was available. I went and met Mike, played a little bit for him and we got on straight away, so I got that gig and for the last 10 years I’ve not stopped working and touring. I've worked with all my favourite artists with Mike: Anastasia, Taio Cruz, The Saturdays, Cheryl Cole, Annie Lennox, we did the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Mika, Gary Barlow, Take That. 


What are your responsibilities on this particular gig?

On this Take That gig, I’m the Keyboard player. I also do some programming for the tour interludes, also any show interludes I stop and start so they segway into what we’re doing, but mainly the piano player on this.

When you come and do a show like this, you quickly realise you're a cog in a whole machine, a whole show. It changes the way you do everything. You can’t be up and down the piano, you need to stay in your lane. There’s so much more going on that you have to find a place you can occupy where you still sing through but don’t get in the way of anything else because it’s just not about you. It’s about the artist and the show, the experience the crowd has.

Can you talk a bit about the challenges of working on gigs of this scale?  

You have to think differently with the production. The challenges you have as a keyboard or piano player with a show this size is when your sat at your instrument you're always framing your thought just in terms of music and your whole syntax and thought process is all musical, whereas when you come and do a show like this, you quickly realise you're a cog in a whole machine, a whole show. It changes the way you do everything. You can’t be up and down the piano, you need to stay in your lane. There’s so much more going on that you have to find a place you can occupy where you still sing through but don’t get in the way of anything else because it’s just not about you. It’s about the artist and the show, the experience the crowd has. That brings some challenges, it’s a really huge production and sometimes you can play the record perfectly in rehearsals and when you get somewhere like here, you have to change the arrangement instantly because the artist needs to walk from one side of the stage to the other and there’s not enough time in that verse and chorus. So yeah, it has it’s own challenges, but we have a big team here to work around them.


What attracted you to Nord keyboards originally? 

I’ve been using Nord on tours since about 2010, the first time was on the Cheryl Cole/Black Eyed Peas tour. We were doing a Radio 1 live lounge, I think it’s the Petrof piano sample, it’s really intimate and the guy behind the SSL said that sounds great. I ended up using it for the whole tour and I've never not used it you know?

I originally had a Nord Modular a long time a go, my friend had one, I got the mini one and then a Nord Lead 2 which I used on every house record I ever made. I don’t think it had any effects on it so it used to just sit really dry and up front in the mix. I wasn’t using them the first time they came out with the original Stage, but as soon as I got the Stage 2 I never stopped using it. I’ve been using them a long time now, but they just feel great to play, that’s the thing.


What does your rig consist of on this tour?

For this tour, the 2019 Odyssey tour, I’ve decided to go for the Nord Piano 4. Normally I use the Nord Stage 3 but this is mainly a Piano gig that’s kinda augmented with a little bit of synthesis, so I thought I’d try something different and the Piano 4 covers everything that I need to. It’s got the sample synth layer on it, which means any of those I do need to layer I can get at it.

Between what’s on the site and already loaded in there I can pretty much do everything I need for piano duty. If I’m not using the 'Studio Grand' I’ll use the 'Black Upright', I can sit and play it all day. I use it on 'Said it All', also for the intro of 'Rule the World', it’s got a sort of intimacy you know? Just sounds great.

Which sounds are being used and for which songs? Did it require a lot of programming? 

So say something like 'Greatest Day' for example, I don’t know why but, I love the Studio Grand 1, so I use that as my go-to piano for the show really.

Something like ‘Only Takes a Minute Girl’, I think that was originally a Korg M1, and of course the waveforms are in here if you go to the sample section. I’ve also got some compression on there to give it that kind of 90’s house sound.

We’ve got a couple of songs in the set that are like Rhodes. For 'Love Aint Here', I’m using the Hybrid EP for the intro.

With all of these I tend to use the stage or the hall reverb and just a little bit of compression in case I get a little bit excited and start really digging into it!

We’ve got a song called ‘Spin' which has a lot of filters on it so what I’ve done is taken a lot of the EQ off so it’s quite a compressed, muffled sound.

I find that with what comes loaded in and that's available on the website, you can customise it and wether you need a big piano sound, for example the Royal Grand 3DXL for any solo piano, it’s got a great image and fills an arena or stadium.

If I’m not using the Studio Grand I’ll use the Black Upright, I can sit and play it all day. I use it on 'Said it All', also for the intro of 'Rule the World', it’s got a sort of intimacy you know? Just sounds great.

Between that and the Studio Grand 1, you don’t always want an upright sound for everything, but I kinda tend to base most stuff around there, there’s not too much change in the programming and levels.



What gear do you use for gigs outside of Take That?

If I’ve got a Jazz gig, this [Piano 4] goes in the car with the case and that’s it. 

I come in here every day, sit down for half an hour each day and just play it. It’s just a great instrument to play, feels great to play and responds well to what you do.

Thanks to Marcus for taking the time out to speak to us and answer our questions. Take That's Odyssey 2019 tour runs until June. You can find out more at the band's official website.

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