Roland Users Group
When it comes to touring, the MD is more like the MVP. The Music Director is the person who hires the players, arranges the music, leads the rehearsals, and guides the band from opening night to final curtain. From today’s touring crop, few leaders possess the grace-under-pressure skills of Lanar Brantley, a.k.a. Kern. For well over a decade Kern has been laying down solid, deep-pocketed bass and serving as MD for a cavalcade of top stars, most recently for Beyoncé and now for Destiny’s Child, whose current world tour is blanketing Japan, Australia, Europe, North America, and more. “It’s looking like there will be over 70 shows,” Kern tells us. “We’ll be out for at least six months. Should be fun. This tour is particularly exciting; we did Beyonce’s solo tour last year and did a live DVD, and this year we’re planning for a live DVD as well.”
To deliver the type of show that fans demand, Kern was tasked with recreating the sounds and signature parts from Destiny’s Child’s records “as closely as possible,” he explains. “The fans want to hear something that sounds like the record — they want to hear those familiar sounds and parts. But, actually, what I’ve tried to do is find sounds that are a little bit bigger for the live shows, because some of the things they used in the studio don’t necessarily translate to big arenas.” And that’s where Roland and BOSS instruments have proven effective for Kern and his bandmates. (More info on the band below.)
Onstage with Destiny’s Child, Kern not only holds down the traditional electric-bass duties, he also plays synth bass. His instrument of choice? “The V-Synth. It’s such an interesting keyboard. When I first saw one at Guitar Center in Detroit, I loved the fact that it’s such a hands-on instrument. I like being able to program it from the front panel without having to go into a bunch of menus, and I love using the D Beam to change the sounds onstage.” In creating his synth-bass patches for the tour, Kern would often start “with a kick-drum sound, and build it up from there.” Kern routes the V-Synth through a 1x15 bass amp onstage, with supplemental reference audio coming from a pair of wedges. “I treat the V-Synth like it’s a bass with keys,” he explains. “It goes through the same rig that my regular bass would.” Strap on a seatbelt. Some of his V-Synth sounds are guaranteed to rattle the rafters.
And not just for bass tones, Kern’s V-Synth is used in other capacities during the show. “I’m playing flutes on some stuff,” he says, “as well as some sound effects. There’s a sound called ‘Broken HAL’ that I use for the elevator rises. That’s another thing I love about the V-Synth — it has stock sounds already in it that are show-worthy: openers, intros, interludes, sound effects, drum sounds. It’s great to have a keyboard that’s so versatile.”
Having great tone is only part of the picture. “For synth bass, I feel that you shouldn’t approach it like a keyboard player,” he advises, “but more like a bass player. The way you phrase, the way you make it breathe. . . . My brother [Valdez Brantley] is a keyboard player, and he approaches synth bass more like a pianist, with fast runs and right-hand stuff happening. My approach is more from a bass player’s perspective, so I’m thinking more about the groove, making it bounce, and putting the slides in the right places. Another important thing to think about. . . . If you’re a bass player who doesn’t play keyboard bass, you’re cutting yourself out of a lot of work. A lot of these records nowadays have heavy synth bass.” Kern is in the process of producing an instructional DVD for synth bass players, so stay tuned.
In Kern’s electric bass rig is a BOSS OC-3 Super Octave, a TU-2 Tuner, and the CE-5 Chorus Ensemble. “I prefer the chorus designed for guitars, not basses,” he reveals. “For me, it’s a little brighter, and cuts through the mix better.”
Kern offers some sage advice for bassists who are playing large venues: “Keep it simple and solid. I don’t like to play too many notes in these big venues — not a lot of fancy tricks, just heavy and solid.” Kern stretches on his jazz gigs, such as on previous tours with Earl Klugh and Grover Washington, Jr., “but for my R&B gigs with R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Puff Daddy, and Destiny’s Child, for example, I take more of a foundation/support role with the bass, and leave room for the other guys to play.” Coming from a bassist who can burn with the best, Kern’s unselfishness and “play for the song” attitude is one of the reasons he’s remained in such high demand.
In Good Company
One of Kern’s tips for keeping the show running smoothly is “to select the best musicians available. I admire Quincy Jones, and one thing I’ve noticed about him is that he surrounds himself with the most talented guys, like Greg Phillinganes and Ricky Lawson, and lets them do their thing. Quincy keeps the discipline and order, but at the same time he allows the players enough room to be creative. So for me, if somebody comes up with a hot lick, a nice chord, or an embellishment that will work in the arrangement, then I’ll most likely go with it.”
When it comes to constructing medleys, Kern starts with a roadmap. “I’ll make a list of the songs, and what key each song is in, and then find the pivot chords to weave them together. What I like about Beyoncé is that she knows exactly what she wants. She might say, ‘Give me the chorus, the bridge, then out and into the next song.’ It makes my job that much easier, ’cause I don’t have to play a guessing game.”
The norm for most modern tours is to use in-ear monitors, but Kern and crew prefer to use open-air wedges for a more organic onstage environment. “A lot of that comes from my experience back in the day playing in church,” says Kern. “I grew up in Detroit in a gospel atmosphere where you were always surrounded by great instrumentalists in church, and you had to be able to hear each other and almost ‘grab’ that sound live in the room.” Kern also credits his church-playing upbringing for his quick reflexes, musically speaking. “In church, you have to be ready for anything. You don’t know what key they may start a song in — any key, any tempo.”