(Alt-J)with KeyLab MkII
& V Collection
Gus Unger-Hamilton (Alt-J)with KeyLab MkII
& V Collection
As a founding member of Mercury Prize-winning UK trio Alt-J, Gus Unger-Hamilton is no stranger to defying genres. We caught up with him before going on stage at the O2 Brixton Academy in London to talk KeyLab MkII, V Collection, and exploring outside the lines.
Hailing from Leeds and now based in London, UK’s Alt-J have been called indie, art rock, folktronica, and progressive pop, among many other labels. In reality, the band simultaneously excels at dodging genre conformity while constantly evolving.
Even if you’re not a fan of the band, there’s a likelihood you’ve heard their music one way or another; they frequently feature in film, TV, and media, from Sons of Anarchy to Marvel movies to countless ads and online content.
Their sound is driven by any combination of grinding bass riffs, delicate glockenspiel melodies, haunting harmonized vocals, playful synth textures, and whatever else. Their signature formula certainly has its merits; as of 2022, they’ve collected a Mercury Prize, an Ivor Novello award, a Grammy nomination, and platinum certification for their debut record ‘An Awesome Wave’.
For resident keyboardistGus Unger-Hamilton - exactly 1/3 of the band’s sound - the challenge of bringing this formula to life in a live context requires a tactile, ergonomic solution. Read on to hear how the combination of KeyLab MkII and V Collection ticks that box.
A pianist’s perspective
In a perfect world, Gus’ setup might include numerous classic synths and characterful hardware, but that isn’t practical or realistic. When the band is in the studio, they’ve got plenty to play with, including these classic instruments and hands-on gear for inspiration - but when it’s live, they need something more streamlined.
I love the idea of touring with vintage synths and stuff, I think it looks really cool when you see bands who do that - but ultimately the stress of worrying if some 40-year-old synthesizer is going to conk out in the middle of a set would not be worth it for me.
Despite his multi-instrumentalist skills, regular choir practice, and knack for composing universally-lauded music, Gus considers himself a pianist before anything else. He makes the gear work for him, not the other way around.
I mainly trigger samples using keys on the actual keyboard. I find it works better just to use the keys, maybe it’s just because I’m a pianist - I’m more at home with black and white keys rather than pads and stuff.
On KeyLab MkII & V Collection
Before taking the stage, Gus kindly took the time to give us the lowdown on how he brings KeyLab MkII and V Collection into his touring workflow.
I decided to use the KeyLab MkII when I was looking for a new MIDI controller keyboard, and it came highly recommended to me. I loved the look of it as well, I love the white finish. To be honest it’s sometimes hard to see what’s going to differentiate one from another when I’m using MainStage anyway. I’m not using sounds that come from the keyboard, so for me it’s just got a lovely feel, it’s extremely tactile, the buttons are exactly where I want them, like I said I love the way it looks on stage. I think it’s a really stylish piece.
Not only did KeyLab MkII come recommended, but it suits Gus’ setup perfectly - aesthetically, ergonomically, and practically. Its tactile nature, responsive features, and customization flexibility puts maximum control at his fingertips.
These faders I use for volume, I have one here labeled ‘Girth’ which is for when I want a synth sound to kind of fatten up in a song. Then you know, patch changes, changing from song to song on MainStage as well.
One of KeyLab MkII’s notable talents is the ability to create custom Multi and Split presets - multiple sounds in a single preset split across the keyboard. Gus takes it a step further with MainStage, ensuring not only that he can switch sounds in an instant, but that he can easily perform with multiple sounds at once.
Down here I’ll have my bass sounds, then up here I’ve got a kind of glockenspiel sound, then in the middle here I’ve got violins - so it’s extremely handy to be able to play multiple sounds for one song without having a Genesis-style bank of keyboards, but also without having to constantly select different sounds.
The KeyLab range offers fluid control over virtual instruments, DAWs, and external MIDI gear - but it comes into its own when paired up with V Collection. Gus notes that while they use vintage equipment in the studio, using V Collection on stage isn’t just the next best thing - it’s indistinguishable.
I’m using the V Collection of software synthesizers, in particular the Juno one - I use that a lot for bass sounds on stage. We use a real early ‘80s Roland Juno in the studio. It’s more or less indistinguishable for me, between that and the V Collection when I’m playing it live.
Having both that on-stage reliability and the sonic flexibility of KeyLab & V Collection lets Gus focus on immersing himself in his performance and giving Alt-J’s unique sound the attention and expressivity that it deserves.
When you’re on stage, there’s a lot to think about anyway - you just want to know that your gear is just going to do exactly what it needs to do at the right time. I certainly have that with this keyboard, it’s great… I’m much happier using gear that I can rely on, that works the same every night.
He also maintains that you don’t have to be a musician, or have experience, or know your way around an instrument to enjoy creativity and express yourself. When gear like KeyLab MkII is this easy to use, anything is possible.
" I think everybody’s creative, I think if you're willing to put in a bit of time, anybody can come up with something pretty amazing. Particularly given how easy it is to use this kind of gear too."
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