Roland Users Group
At a young age, keyboardist Charlie Prince has built an impressive résumé that would make any veteran musician envious. Since getting his start with Justin Timberlake on the FutureSex/LoveSounds tour in 2006, he’s played on stages around the globe backing stars like New Kids On the Block, Backstreet Boys, Ciara, and John Mayer. Currently, he’s holding down the main keyboard gig on a world tour with superstar singer Rihanna.
Like so many of today’s touring players, Charlie counts on Roland gear for top-quality sounds, ease of use, and round-the-clock reliability on the road. His large setup on the Rihanna tour includes two Fantom-Gs, a GAIA®, V-Synth®, and an AX-Synth®. Even with all these great synths, Charlie is simply knocked out by his recently acquired JUPITER-80, and he’s now in the process of making it a centerpiece of his onstage rig.
What’s your impression of the JUPITER-80?
Well, on first glance, it looks awesome. It looks appealing to play. I want to play it when I look at it. The sounds are incredible. I think the fact that there’s an engine per sound makes the possibilities of building multi-layered sounds for performances incredible. It’s amazing how much you can do with it. But initially, it’s just a fun keyboard to play.
How does it compare to your other Roland gear?
In comparison to the other gear, I think it’s more user-friendly. The architecture isn’t as deep, so things are just like having them on the desktop of your computer, or your desktop at home, because you just look and get into things. And it’s not hard to do. It's almost like flipping a page to get into a new sound or get in to edit a patch.
One of the things I like to do [for the tours I play on] is recreate the sounds that are on the [artists’ albums], and sometimes those sounds are very layered. [The JUPITER-80] allows me to take separate sounds and put them together in a way that doesn’t compromise the sound, being that every one of the sounds has its own engine. So, it makes the sound richer when it’s coming through front of house or our [in-ear monitors] or whatever. It’s easy to accomplish the sounds from the record, just to have everything at your fingertips.
When you’re playing live, do you incorporate any soft synths?
I have before, but not recently. I’ve used a couple of things, but for performances I like to keep things more hardware based, because I think it’s more stable. Your computer may crash at any point; [Roland] stuff is just solid. It stays this way, it is this way, it plays this way—all you have to do is plug it in and load up your patches.
What do you think of the versatility of the JUPITER-80?
It brings the essence of the past, the present, and the future. It still gives you the same sounds, the same sample set, from back in the day; but it gives you the stuff that’s current, and then it gives you some things that you may make the next hit record with. So, it’s definitely past, present, and future.
What are some of your favorite JUPITER-80 sounds and textures?
The organ textures—I love the pipe organs. They sound like I’m sitting in a cathedral somewhere. A lot of the synth sounds are very punchy, and the pianos, horn sounds, woodwind sounds, and string sounds are very pure and very natural sounding.
Is there anything else you like about the JUPITER-80?
I think the Part Balance section is a very cool thing for live, because you never know what you may have to bring in, in the middle of a song or transitioning from one song into the next. You may have to do some crazy level sweeps or solo out or something, and that puts everything right here. It’s right at my fingertips.
How do you anticipate integrating the JUPITER-80 into your rig on your current tour with Rihanna?
Since the new album just came out, a lot of the sounds that I’ve heard on that album I can relate to [JUPITER-80] already. Like I said, it’s right there; I just went directly to it, and I said, “Wow. That sounds like this record or this sounds like this record, and I can tweak this out a little bit for that record.” So, I’m already thinking ahead for how I can use this for her performances. It’s going to solve a lot of the digging into the architecture of the keyboard to make it sound how I would like it to sound. Everything is right here on the interface. I love it.
Tell me a little bit about what you’re doing right now on the Rihanna tour. What’s your role in the band?
With the Rihanna tour, my role is Keys 1. There are two keyboard players, but most of the main load of the piano stuff and big synth things go to me. Creating those sounds, those meat and potatoes sounds from the albums, that lays on me. That’s kind of my responsibility.
Describe your rig.
The main piece, what I call the heart of it, is the Fantom-G8. [It has] weighted keys, so if I need to do songs with a heavy piano or a heavy Rhodes or strings or something like that, I usually rely on that one. On top of that there’s a V-Synth, so that’s [for] really cool bass patches and things of that sort. I also have the GAIA to my left. For jumping around on stage and rocking out, it’s the AX-Synth. We have a lot of fun with those.
How would you describe your stage presence?
I would say I’m expressive. I’m extremely animated. I have a good time. I have fun on stage. I like to lose myself and just be a total reflection of what I’m feeling and how I feel about the music at that moment. So, sometimes it gets very animated…it’s always sweat, it’s always working hard, but mostly, it’s just to have fun.
Does Rihanna encourage that?
Oh yeah. She encourages the rock star in everyone.
You mentioned you play a lot of keytar. How has the AX-Synth added to your performances?
It’s allowed me to jump in the air vertically. [Laughs.] A lot of [keyboard players] don’t do things like that, but I like to do all the things that rock music or big pop music require. And if it’s jumping in the air or doing a power slide or something, I want to be able to do it and still be able to play my parts. The AX-Synth gives me that freedom to be very expressive and very animated.
Do you get a reaction from the audience when you put it on?
Oh, yeah. The audience thinks it’s the coolest thing ever. And for me, it’s the coolest thing to play it for them.
Do you think the keytar is a fad? Or is it necessary for a pro to have it as part of their rig?
I think, as a pro, you have to have it as part of your rig, because pop music has become more demanding. It’s become more of a visual thing. You have to entertain. I always tell people half your audience is blind and half your audience is deaf. For those people who aren’t really listening but want to see a show, you have to be appealing to that. The AX-Synth gives you the freedom to just kind of walk around stage and just rock out.
Is there a specific gig that you’ve done that really stands out in your mind?
I think the FutureSex/LoveSounds tour with Justin Timberlake always stands out first in my mind. What can you say? This guy’s incredible—the stage movement, the scrims, the audio, and the songs, everything was just incredible. It was a fun time. Also, John Mayer sticks out in my mind, because it was back to my roots, back to just playing and jamming. It was just a great band, [with] some legendary guys in the band as well. That was really fun.
You’re from Detroit?
Yes. Born and raised.
How did you first get involved in music?
My mother: her rule was, if you don’t practice, you don’t eat. So, I don’t really think I had a choice with music. [Laughs.] I think the choice was more hers, and she made sure my sister and I stayed in it. It was classical music for the first 18 years, and she wouldn’t let us change. I begged and pleaded and cried to learn jazz, and that came along. And then pop music and hip-hop and all these other genres came along, and it developed into this. I think it was a very good beginning, being in Detroit and having a mom that was pretty much a slave driver.
How does having that classical foundation help you with the music you’re doing now?
The classical foundation contributes to your facility. You don’t have any playing barriers. Everything that you need to play, it may take a little minute, but you get there, because you know the technique and how to maneuver your way around. If there’s something you don’t know, you know how to fix it. If it’s a fingering that’s real crazy, you know how to fix the fingering. So, the technique of classical music has helped much in the pop world.
Did you go to music school?
No. It was pretty much private lessons. In Detroit, most of the Motown musicians are there, so there was a lot of sitting in old guys’ houses and learning stuff at jazz clubs. You know, a lot of street learning, and also private lessons.
What was your big break into being able to do what you do?
It was one of the weirdest big breaks. I don’t even know how it happened. I was in college and just graduated. My first thought out of school was I want to go on tour. And three months later, I got a call from the great music director Kevin Antunes about doing Justin Timberlake. I took the gig, of course, and the rest is history.
Kevin’s had a lot of influence on a lot of people.
He’s influenced me greatly. He gave me my start, and to this day we still work together and still have a great relationship. It’s a cool thing.
Who are some of your influences?
One of my biggest influences is Thelonious Monk. I think that harmonic and melodic freedom is what he represented. I think that a lot of what I do, how my ear turns, is sometimes very diatonic and it’s very off. But to watch someone like that, it lets you know that off is actually on. So, he was a major influence. Of course, Herbie Hancock is everyone’s influence. But more often I find myself being more influenced by film writers like John Williams and Howard Shore. As I get older, I think my ears are expanding to more of the orchestral side of things.
Do you do any of your own projects?
Well, I’m also a solo artist, so I work on that stuff as well. But, I’m getting into doing more film scoring and things of that sort.
Creatively, where do you get your inspiration?
Sights, sounds…anything and everything. Sometimes it’s a song, sometimes it's looking in the sky, sometimes it’s being on plane. I’m inspired by everything. I think that everything has its value, and if you can sit back and look at its value then you can appreciate it and get something from it.
What kind of advice can you give to younger players that want to do what you do?
I would say go where it’s hot. Go where the sun is. If it’s hot in L.A. right now, go there and involve yourself in the music community. Learn about the people who are doing certain things in certain jobs. Learn about the techs. Learn about the people who are the music directors, the people who are the chorographers. Just meet everybody that you can, so when that moment comes, everybody knows who you are, they know what you represent, and they know you for good work.
What’s the hot place right now?
Los Angeles, California. [Laughs.] It doesn’t get any hotter than this one.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I can’t wait to get [the JUPITER-80] on stage and fully find out what I can do with it.
Do you think you can have too may keyboards on stage?
No. There’s no such thing as too many keyboards. [Laughs.] As George Duke has proven to us with his rigs with 12 keyboards, there is never enough. [Laughs.]
What do you love about what you do?
I love the fact that I can travel, I can play music, and I can be around good people and be expressive, and it’s just what I do. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s drawn me to this—that I can actually wake up every day and do music. That’s great. It’s the career of a dream.