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Designing live playback rigs with Alex Turner of Gravity Rigs (Pet Shop Boys, Chemical Brothers, Disclosure)

13th January 2023 12:45 pm

Gravity Rigs promo image for Pet Shop Boys playback rig

Alex Turner of Gravity Rigs on designing live audio playback rigs with RME, Ferrofish & DirectOut.

Alex Turner is one half of Gravity Rigs, a UK-based partnership with Matt Cox. The company specialise in the design of custom-built playback and live music performance rigs.

Alongside their work as live engineers for some of the biggest names in the UK music scene, the pair have been the brains behind cutting-edge systems for a number of high-profile artists including The Pet Shop Boys, Chemical Brothers, Orbital, Disclosure, Keane, Eric Prydz and Kygo.

We sat down with Alex to find out more about the design process, and why his builds regularly include gear from RME, Ferrofish and DirectOut.


Gravity Rigs promo image for Eric Prydz playback rigAbout Gravity Rigs

“Gravity Rigs is me and Matt Cox,” Alex explains. “We’re both very experienced technicians, with a shared mission in designing ultra-reliable playback rigs. It became a bit of an art form and a craft, and we finessed our skills into a business.

“We do bespoke playback and keyboard rigs for artists and bands – mainly DJs and electronic duos. Last year we did Pet Shop Boys, Overmono, Prospa, Kygo and Eric Prydz, and right now Sam Smith.”

Matt and Alex know exactly what’s needed to create reliable, rugged playback solutions that can withstand the rigours of a worldwide tour.

“I stopped touring in 2017,” Alex continues. “Matt tours with Chemical Brothers and New Order. He keeps a real eye on what’s happening in the music technology world, and what’s happening in the music tech industry, appraising new tech with the highest of high standards.

“I’m trained in 3D design and PRINCE2 project managing, so the physical aspects of each rig come naturally, squeezing everything into a rack that’s flyable, fits all the requirements, and that’s not going to fall apart. That’s what Gravity Rigs is really good at.

“What the client gets is a bespoke system, with everything tailored to what the artist wants. Within reason of course – we’ll say no if needed, e.g. if the client asks for something that we know is never going to work, or will be too unreliable.

“Generally the first thing is to sit down – mostly virtually these days – with the artist, tech or PM, figure out what they want, and capture all of their requirements. Then we go away and work out what’s the best and most cost effective outcome.

“We spend a lot of time prepping, working out whether something can be built or not within the confines of a fly rack.”


On designing rigs for The Pet Shop Boys

One of Gravity Rigs recent designs was for The Pet Shop Boys. A name that should need no introduction, the synth-pop duo’s records have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.

“Pet Shop Boys was a big scale project,” Alex says. “They’ve got five RME Fireface UFX+ interfaces in total. Basically it’s 7 MADI streams, going into a box that mixes them all into one. It’s all digital – everything goes to front of house digitally via optical – and doesn’t go to analogue until it hits the speaker cable. So it’s pretty sharp!

“There’s also RME MADIface XTs. Four of those, plus some older RME gear. Then three computers for the band, with the drummer triggering MIDI stuff on stage, which is all happening in Mainstage. And then two keyboard players, with dual systems each.

“The schematic for the pet shop boys actually ended up as the centrefold for the tour programme. Which made me think all my time at art college wasn’t wasted haha.

Gravity Rigs promo image for Disclosure playback rig“Disclosure was a similar size, back in 2015. That was RME and Ferrofish-based as well, and DirectOut.”

Alongside larger projects for the likes of The Pet Shop Boys, Gravity Rigs also work with smaller electronic music projects, as well as DJs looking to transition into live shows.

“A lot of the rigs we do are fly-packs,” Alex continues. “Once we started using MADI –  everything just got so small – so our main concern is making sure everything is really nicely cased, with lots of foam, which a lot of others will try and skimp on. My rule of thumb is that I’ve got to be confident enough to throw it down a flight of stairs. I’ve never actually done that haha, but I’m 100% confident it would be okay.

“With Prospa it was a large array of large tabletop electronics, we managed to fit it all into 5 pelis, and lots of custom foam to make everything secure. Overmono was also really interesting, because it’s a similar rig, but all of their tech items were small, so we put it onto these boards and wired it all up. And then we got a case made up, with shelves within the cases.

“Each one of those boards goes into the case on top of one another, so Overmono pretty much had all of their gear in a single case, with only a few connections to make it situ. A lot of people come to us asking the impossible, but on that one we pretty much achieved it, people’s eyes pop out when they see it.”


On RME, Ferrofish and DirectOut

Gravity Rigs promo image for Kygo playback rig“I don’t use anything else, I really don’t,” says Alex on the subject of RME. “I’ll use DirectOut, Ferrofish and RME.

“It’s everything – the build quality, the sound quality, and the drivers. I’ve been using RME pretty much exclusively since 2015, when I did the build for Disclosure. I’ve used all sorts – RME MADIface USBs and XT’s, UFXs, UFX+s, UCs. A bunch of the converters as well. TotalMix is always handy, and it’s fairly easy to use, unlike some of the other routing software that’s out there.

“I don’t use anything else”

“The drivers have to be good, and they have to be kept up to date. Because Apple will make changes, and some manufacturers don’t keep up. And I know of techs who are always having problems with drivers. I won’t put a tech in that position. And that’s why I tell them we’ve got to have RME in here, it’s worth the expense.

“Same for Ferrofish. I’ve been using them ever since 2015, and was happy to get my new A32pro Dante recently, which I’m planning to use for a carry-on playback and keys rig. It’s going to have MIDI Ins, and both MIDI and audio will be switchable. A dual redundant, 32 in / 32 out, MADI-compatible playback rig that fits in a single carry on case.

Gravity Rigs promo image for Dimension playback rig“Then the DirectOut MADI switches are fantastic. We’ve never had a problem with them. I mean all of this gear – Ferrofish, RME, DirectOut – I’ve just never had a problem with any of it, ever. That’s what we want, and that’s why we use them.

“In fact, any issues that have come up turn out to be solvable. Either TotalMix has allowed us to get round it, or there’s been another way to connect to the unit. We’ve never had a problem that’s not been easily solved. So yeah, that’s why we use those companies.

“All of this gear – Ferrofish, RME, DirectOut –
I’ve just never had a problem with any of it, ever”

“I’ve also always had a great relationship with Synthax, everyone there’s fantastic. Luke and Martin are always flexible, and really helped my business grow. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”


What’s next for Gravity Rigs?

Gravity Rigs promo image for Maluma playback rig“We’re looking for more MDs, more musical directors to work with. Right now we mostly specialise in DJs and electronic duos – Bicep, Kygo and Overmono for instance. Although we have a good history with bands like Keane and Snow Patrol as well.

“When you come to us you go through the process, you get your requirements met, the ones you know and the ones you didn’t! And we work creatively together. We’ll get you on stage reliably, get you to festivals – we’ll get your gear through that transit process without issue, and it’ll be easy for any engineers to set up.

“Our books are very much open right now, but everyone has to think in advance, don’t leave it too late. A month is too late – if you come to us with 4 weeks to go, it’s not going to happen. People need to get in early. Get in now! If you want it done for May and festival season, and you’re thinking about it, then get in now. Any later than January we’re probably fully booked.”

Our thanks to Alex Turner & Gravity Rigs. If you’d like to get in touch with Gravity Rigs, visit www.gravityrigs.com .

You can also see more of Alex and Matt’s designs on the Gravity Rigs Instagram.


See the full range of RME Audio Interfaces

See the full range of Ferrofish AD/DA Converters

See the full range of DirectOut Solutions

If you’d like to know more about any of the playback systems produced by RME, Ferrofish or DirectOut, give us a call on 01727 821 870 to speak to one of our team or to arrange a demo.

You can also contact us here.

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