Roland Users Group
As a keyboardist, programmer, musical director, and arranger, Eugene “Man-Man” Roberts is one of the most sought-after musicians in the business. Since his early years as a church drummer in Philadelphia, Eugene has gone on to work with an impressive list of star performers, including Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Jeremih, J. Cole, and many more. Right now, he’s on the road as musical director and keyboard player for John Legend, performing in sold-out arenas across the United States.
From the very start, Eugene has been a devotee of Roland gear, so much so that his bandmates affectionately refer to him as “Mr. Roland.” He owns and regularly uses many different generations of Roland instruments—some dating back to the 1980s—and his current touring rig features no less than eight Roland keyboards and modules.
Prior to beginning a three-night stand at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with John Legend, Eugene enjoyed a rare day off, and he was excited to visit a Roland clinic on the JUPITER-80 at a local music store. Shortly before the clinic, I had a chance to sit down with him and talk about his favorite musical gear and more.
What do you do for John Legend?
With John Legend, I am the music director, I program the shows, I teach the band. Overall, I worry about the live performance of John Legend.
Tell me about your keyboard rig.
What’s the most important keyboard in that rig for you?
I’d say it’s definitely two at this point—the G8 is my overall main keyboard, but the VR Combo is playing a major part, because there’s a lot of organ and soulful things going on right about now. So, with the VR Combo, I play a lot of my major organ, as well as using the VK-8M organ module for a top-level organ, just to give me a tone with a different EQ on it from the VR.
Are there any specific sounds in the VR that you use?
I program all of my sounds. On the VR, I use it basically in place of a B3; I use it manually, just because of the whole soulful feel. And, I have a volume pedal on it, just to give it that real B3 feel. I used to have a B3 with a 122. The VR-700 sounds as rich and clean, and I have the same consistency of sound.
As musical director, do you work with John on the arrangements and help him put together the show? What’s your role?
Typically, with the shows, I’ll take the band into rehearsal, and I will come up with a lot of arrangements, and do all the programming around it. [John will] come into rehearsal for a day or two when we’re working on arrangements, and he’ll give his input. A lot of things I come up with, he goes, “I love it. It’s great.” It’s very rare that he says he doesn’t like anything. And if he doesn’t, it’ll be just little things that he’ll touch up. Never will he say, “That’s terrible.” [Laughs.]
What’s coming up for you in the next few months?
Right now, John Legend’s on tour with Sade through mid-September. Then I have a couple days off, and then I’m going back out with J. Cole, who is Jay-Z’s artist with Roc Nation. His album comes out in September. It’s a really great gig—great artist, great music. It’s a little bit different, because I don’t have to worry about a lot of foundation things. I’m playing a lot of synth bass with the V-Synth®, and at times I use the SH-01. Sometimes I use both. I’ve used the SH-01 with the V-Synth XT rack, you know, depending on the venue we’re playing or the song or what type of sound I’m trying to get. The SH-01 is hands down my favorite right now, until I really dig into the JUPITER-80.
So, the SH-01 is your personal favorite of all your Roland keyboards?
Well, it depends on if you’re talking new generation or old generation. At this point, when I program at home and I do a lot of arrangements and recording, I know exactly what I want to hear. So, it depends on the gig, and what I need to do.
A lot of people ask me why I choose Roland for my sound. It’s because, no matter what, I get the tone and the sound I’m looking for, whether it’s a vocoder, an organ, an amp, even down to a VS-1880, SPD-S, V-Drums®, everything, I know what I need. I have a JUNO-106. I have a JUNO-60. But I also have an XP-50. I have XP-80s. So, it depends on what I need. I would say, overall, if I had to choose one keyboard to do a gig, I would use a Fantom-X7.
I heard that your goal is to become the Yngwie Malmsteen of the keytar. Is that true?
Yes! Yes, yes, yes. I got hooked on keytars with the AX-7. Well, before that actually, but the AX-7 I just kind of fell in love with, to the point where I saved all my money and bought two. I knew I just wanted to have two. At that point, it was like how can I play two? [It’s] kind of difficult, but I’m gonna figure it out. That’s my goal. I wanna play two AXs all the time, if possible. That’s the goal.
So, you’re going to get rid of your entire keyboard rig and just play two AXs?
It depends on the gig. If I can do it, I will do it. Who wants to be behind the keyboard rig? That’s why I like playing for different people—it challenges me to play different roles. With Kanye West, I was playing more talk box and vocoder, which pushed me to be a totally different musician from playing for like a J. Cole, which is more hip hop, so I’m playing a lot of synth bass. And then, John Legend is kind of well-rounded. You know, if the bass player is sick, which has happened, I have to cover all grounds: bass, run the track, play all the parts. As an artist, John expects it to be correct. He wants it to be right, regardless. If the bass player’s not here, he’s not gonna say, “What are we gonna do?” He’s like, “All right. Cool. See ya on stage.” That’s my job—to make sure it happens.
What are you using for vocoder sounds?
Right now, I’m using the VP-7, which is phenomenal. I love it, because it gives me the same exact tone that I love out of the VP-550. The VP-770 is also amazing. I love the [vocal tuning] feature and different things inside of that, as well as the strings and [the ability to] do layers and bring in different sounds. Right now, I’m using the VP-7, “cause it’s handheld, it’s small, and I can travel with it. We do a lot of fly-in spot dates, and I want to have my same sounds no matter where I’m at. That’s my goal, to be able to deliver, and with Roland keyboards, no matter what generation, you know you’re going to get the same sound. [Whether it’s your] personal [keyboard] or [rented from] a backline company, they deliver.
Where do you think music’s headed in the next couple of years?
I think music in the next couple of years will continue to do what it’s doing now, and what it has done. It will evolve, and it will go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. I don’t think music will ever get to the point where they’ll never have a band on stage, or that everything will be software. I don’t think it will be that way. Me, I’m anti-software. If I have to carry six keyboards, I’ll do it, versus using software, just because nothing can really ever duplicate the real tone of a keyboard.
It seems that there’s a real trend toward large ensembles of live musicians back on stage. Do you see that?
I think it depends on the gig. I personally believe a lot of people didn’t use bands because they didn’t have the gear or the technology to produce [the sound of their records] live. But now that you have the right things to produce [the sound] live, you overall win. To me, there’s not one gig [that] you don’t see a Fantom on, especially the X series. There’s not one, because everyone uses them in the studio, everyone uses them live, and vice versa. So, if you’re using it in the studio, you have to use it live, “cause that’s the sound you’re going for, that’s what it is. And me, I know a lot of even the stock sounds inside of a Fantom, I can listen to the radio and say, hey, I know what sound that is. [I might] have to tweak it a little bit, but I know it’s a great starting point.
So, you feel that Roland has really found its place as far as being the de facto standard keyboards for live performance?
Definitely, because [they’re] user friendly. Not only user friendly, but all the products pull their own weight in every situation. If you need a great organ and you use the VK, it’s gonna work. If you need a vocoder, you use the VP, whether it’s the 550, 770, any of the vocoders. You can even go back to the old 350. But all of those vocoders sound great, and they deliver. [Editor’s note: The SVC-350 is a classic Roland vocoder from the late “70s.]
Anything you want to say to wrap up?
I’ll say that if you don’t own any Roland gear, you might want to get [some]. By the end of the day, there’s nothing as consistent.