Since the advent of the transistor radio, in 1954, music fans have been goin’ mobile. While portable units have stayed relatively palm-sized since then, technology has certainly upped the ante on amplification. Today, good portable speakers and a DATman can blow your roof off yet slip into your backpack. This matters most, of course, to touring musicians, who want a system light in weight and heavy in sound. After all, rock stars need more than a Motel 6 clock radio when entertaining after-the-show guests. Here we ask the stars what they rely on when they’re on the road.
Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac
Befitting the guitarist of a legendary band, Buckingham travels with a strictly A-list setup. “I bring ADATs by Alesis – two of them, all built into one box,” he says. “They’re eight tracks each, and I can run them in sync, so it’s like having a 16-track mini studio on the road. I also carry a tiny boom box cassette player to hum into sometimes. But, really, the challenge is to be as creative as you can with what equipment you have. In preparation for this tour, I worked with Mick [Fleetwood] on a Korg Trinity keyboard to sample the sounds for his drum solo. I thought there were a lot of ideas on that piece of equipment that I’d like to explore further. It really got my I wheels turning.”
Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones
The frontman of Boston’s suit-sporting ska men likes it loud. “I want good, clean sound with no distortion at high volumes,” he says. Though the band’s bus has two Sony stereos that he “sure can feel,” he doesn’t use them much. Instead, he prefers the privacy of his Panasonic SL-S125 portable CD player (“It was a birthday present from our manager”) and a pair of Sony MDR-V6 headphones. “I like them because they cover the entire ear. I hate the ones that go in your ears.”
Rock’s Broadway baby is never without his music. “I always have a Sony Discman,” Townshend says. “I’m never without it. I’m a sailor, so I bring it on my boat as well.” And what’s he spinning? “Lately, I’m into Indian chant music. I love jazz and blues, and listen to a little bit of everything new.”
Missy ”Misdemeanor” Elliott
Dig, if you will, the picture: “In My Lexus, I have two 15’s [15-inch subwoofers], and in my Mercedes jeep, I have four 10’s,” Elliott says. “The Lexus has a Clarion TV and VCR, and I’m getting ready to get a TV in the Mercedes. All of my cars have CD players.”
Isn’t it dangerous to drive and watch TV?
“Yeah – but I know a lot of people that do it. I try not to when the traffic is heavy.”
Butch Vig of Garbage
You’d expect master producer (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) and Garbage drummer Vig to have a system that kicks. “A couple of years ago, I bought these Acoustic Research softpowered portable speakers – I think the model number is 570,” he says. “They’re real small, and you can plug a Discman or DATman straight in and have an amazing party – they’ll pump up a room. They’re about 10 inches high and 5 inches wide, and they’re kind of a triangular shape.”
It’s also no shock that a workaholic like Vig is always on the job. “The only other thing I carry with me at all times is a super-low-fi Sony mono cassette. It’s really cheap, and it sounds shitty on playback. I’ve had it for six or seven years, just to tape ideas – you know, [if vocalist] Shirley [Manson] is singing a lyric when we’re in the dressing room, or I’ll turn it on at sound check. It distorts terribly. There’s one track on our first record where we used drum loops that were recorded with it. We just dumped them into the sampler. It sounds terrible – so shredded that it’s cool.”
“The thing is, I don’t really listen to music,” says the frank and freaky songwriter. “This guy on my last tour, this Sony rep, sent me a portable CD player, but I gave it to my sister, and I just asked her to send it to me today.”
DJ Homicide of Sugar Ray
A band with a top-selling album can look forward to nonstop touring, and if you’re a DJ, you want to pack as many tunes as possible. Craig Bullock, a.k.a. DJ Homicide, has found nirvana in the Sony MiniDisc. “At home I hook it into my CD player and all my sampling equipment, and put everything down to MiniDisc – it’s so convenient,” he says. “And it’s better than a DAT, because you can flick through tracks like a CD, since it’s information – not tape. You can switch your songs around or change the order that you recorded them in. You can take all of your favorite songs, throw them on a MiniDisc that takes the place of, like, 10 CDs. It’s so little, it fits into your pocket, and it’s cool-looking…. This is like a Sony endorsement.”
And now for a Sony denouncement: “I’m really clumsy and always dropping things,” says Hatfield, “and whenever I’d drop my Sony Discman, something would get screwed up and I’d have to buy another one. That got expensive, so I started buying the cheapest one I could find. I think the last one I had was an Emerson. I was on tour, and it started skipping on the 13th song. One day I just got out of the van and had to smash it. The 13th was my favorite song, and every time I got to it, it would skip uncontrollably. That’s what I end up doing with stereo equipment – destroying it. I get so frustrated when stuff breaks that I’d rather do it myself.”
The author, restaurateur and patron saint of the Parrotheads favors a Sony Sports Discman ESP D-451, coupled with a pair of Sony folding Sport headphones. When queried on his mode of transport, Buffett is candid. “I don’t tour in a bus — I have a plane,” he says. “In it I just have a simple Alpine CD deck and use Bose Aviation headsets that work just fine.”
Sean Lennon of IMA
“When we’re touring, we usually record ideas with a Sony stereo Walkman that we leave around the stage during sound check,” Lennon says. “As far as listening to music, we use the tape player in the van.”
Ken Jordan of the Crystal Method
As half of the Nevada electronic DJ duo, Jordan has crystal-clear opinions on portable gear. “I just like accuracy,” he says. “Regular playback without adding all that megabass and stuff. Or that – what is it, the ‘wide’ switch? All of that throws things out of phase, which is like poison to an engineer’s ears. I like a DATman because you can plug it into a whole bunch of things and end up listening on several sources. We travel with a decent pair of portable speakers. We had a crappy pair of Sonys that were real lowfi and couldn’t play loud enough. But these are decently powered ones that plug into the wall. We play music in our hotel rooms, usually new CDs that we haven’t heard yet. Right now we’re listening to Fluke, the new Portishead, and Sasha and Digweed.”
Lars Ulrich of Metallica
Metal’s hardest-hitting beats-man has all of his bases covered. “I carry a Discman, Walkman and the musicians-only-man, which is the DATman – Sony all the way,” says Ulrich. “Most musicians work with DAT in terms of studio stuff, so a DATman’s sort of required.”
As for his compatriots: “Kirk [Hammett carries around a hundred-dollar Walkman with a mike on it and has tapes of him, like, ‘Singapore, 4:30 a.m.,’ where he plays a guitar riff for an hour and a half. And Jason [Newsted] kind of fiddles. He’s the guy who loves to jam with other people. He’ll smoke pot all night and play Pink Floyd, you know. I’d rather watch paint dry.”
Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam and Brad
Guitar-guy Gossard prefers to read on the road but wisely totes a hand-held recorder to capture his creative bursts. “I like to travel as light as I possibly can – I bring a guitar and a suitcase, a little carry-on with a little microcassette recorder to record a riff if I come up with something,” he says. “The only other thing I bring is clothes and underwear.”
Rickie Lee Jones
“I generally don’t own anything of value in terms of electrical devices, as my energy field has been known to cancel out anything electricity-driven,” says the rock-folk-jazz-hop songbird. “I once broke three Walkmans in a row just by holding them. While making my album Ghostyhead, there were a few occurrences where the machines simply ran on their own – they played back the parts of tracks they liked. It is exciting to have that relationship with machines, but it’s useless to try to own anything of value. The only home equipment I ever liked were the cassette recorders made back in 1980, ’81. These little things had built-in microphones, didn’t cost too much, and the quality of the recording was good enough to be able to transcribe a song from a tape. You just put it on the piano and sing. I like to push the red button down and record. That’s all.”
The ageless singer/songwriter once packed an earth-rattling fold-up system (“It was the shit,” he says), but these days he prefers to travel light: “I bring a Sony portable DAT, a Discman and a hand-held cassette player with a pitch wheel, model PC-150, to write with. I used to carry a hotelroom system – that’s what we called it – but carrying it around got to be more trouble than it’s worth. It’s by Cambridge Sound Works and has a subwoofer in the suitcase. You open it, and the little speakers and amp come out, and then you close the suitcase, which houses the subwoofer. You can hook up three different things: a CD and a DAT and another auxiliary. You put the case somewhere – next to the couch or underneath the desk – and that provides all the bottom end. It’s the bomb, man.”
Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot
The mastermind of Germany’s anti-rave digital hardcore scene, Empire is living proof that the do-it-yourself punk ethos is alive and sampling. “We have this ghetto blaster – but a lot of places don’t use that term anymore – that we manipulated,” he says. “It had a double tape deck, so we broke out one of the tapes and put in an adapter, with a ‘line in’ plug. When we get too bored, we hook up our sampler, the Yamaha SU-110, run a CD and use samples on top of that. The box is this shitty thing I bought in a mall for $40 that we spray-painted and put stickers on so it looks like it’s from a 10-year-old. What else do you need on the road?”
This young blues-guitar prodigy will never own a Walkman. “I hate tapes – they seem like such a waste to me,” he says. “All that magnetic tape that just sounds like crap anyway. I have a Sony Discman with the 10-second-memory deal. I beat the hell out of it to get it to skip, and it doesn’t. So it works. I’ve got pretty good Sony headphones that were only 13 bucks – that’s why I got ’em. They’re those head-muff phones that go over your ear. Lately I’ve been listening to old Stevie Wonder, mostly, and Blues Traveler, Phish, King Crimson and lots of old blues. I’m too lazy to carry a tape recorder for riffs, but I do want to get one of those little digital wallet-sized deals that you talk into.”
Rapper Rhymes is out to prove that, yes, you can take it with you. “I bring a little studio with me so I can do pre-production,” he says. “I’ve got a digital 24-track Yamaha O2R system and all my outboard gear in three boxes: my MPC 300, my Akai S950 sampler and my SP 1200. I bring my shit out there so I can keep vibin’ while I’m on the road. You can come across records and samples in different states that you don’t find where you live. I use MK2 headphones and got all the shit that I need right there. I don’t like to lose little things, so I don’t bring a DiscMan. I’m a little careless sometimes; I’ll be runnin’ around trying to do a million things at once, and I’ll leave it somewhere. Them shits is expensive, and I hate to lose things that are costly. So I pick up something temporary for the trip.”
What do you look for in stereo equipment?
What type of audio gear do you bring on the road with you?
What do you look for in headphones?
Something that won’t mess up my hair.
What kind of stereo do you have in your tour bus?
It was a Sony. It skipped, so I threw it out the window.
Is there any stereo equipment that you want?
No. I hate music.
What piece of portable gear have you had the longest?