Van Halen's "Jump" meltdown: the techs have spoken!
It’s been the buzz of the blogosphere for well over two weeks now, and we thought it was time to get to the bottom of Van Halen’s “Jump” mystery. If you haven’t seen (or rather, heard) the tortuously off-key live performance from Greensboro, N.C., you can find it on YouTube, as seen below. (It’s not quite Ashlee Simpson on SNL, but substitute her Irish jig for David Lee Roth dry-humping a blow-up microphone, and it comes pretty damn close.)
So was it the sampling rate of the keyboard track? Eddie Van Halen’s guitar out of tune? Were their monitors or in-ears to blame? We let the pros duke it out, enlisting Chris Vrenna, keyboardist for Marilyn Manson and Gnarls Barkley’s drummer, Clayton Janes, a tech for Playback who’s handling backing tracks for Ozzy’s tour, and Lonnie Totman, Eddie Van Halen’s former guitar tech, currently on the road with Matchbox Twenty, to pick apart the train-wreck (Warning: the following discussion involves some seriously geeky gear talk). Read on and jump to your own conclusions.
EW: What do you think went wrong?
Clayton Janes (playback tech):I think it’s a complete backing track issue. [The synthesizer] is adigital recording off a computer and normally played at a sample rateof 44.1k. In this case, I think it’s already been proven that a masterclock source was at 48k, a higher quality playback. What happens isthat it transposes a pitch shift so all of a sudden, it’s playing threesteps higher. If you know the song “Jump” and hear it on the youtubeclip, you could tell right away that it sounds a little higher andfaster. There’s nothing you can do at that point. I don’t think it hadanything to do with the guitar side.
In other words: The sample was played a wee-bit fast.
Lonnie Totman (guitar tech): It was 100 percent a guitarissue. All of Eddie’s guitars, except one, are tuned to E flat. Hetypically has one in E, a half step off, for a couple of songs, and hewas either handed that one or he grabbed it. A lot of people on the netare saying it was a sample rate issue, that’s impossible. Ed isactually playing that part, recorded into ProTools, and with ProTools,if you want something to play back at a different sampling rate, itwon’t allow it in that session, you have to set up a whole new session.Plus, the keyboard guy on their tour is one of the most together guys Iknow, so it simply wouldn’t happen. I even confirmed with the Van Halencamp, it was all Eddie.
In other words: Eddie played a guitar that was sharp. Or what Randy Jackson would call “a little pitchy.”
Chris Vrenna (keyboardist): I believe the synth track wasplaying fine. First, the original song is in the key of C. But live,they play it in C sharp, up a semitone (bands will often change the keyof a song to make it easier to sing every night). I found another liveperformance of “Jump” from a few nights later, then played along withboth performances on a piano and both nights the keyboards were thesame. Plus, what it would take for the backing tracks, or livekeyboards, to go out of tune, would be a series of events. If acomputer was playing back a prerecorded session, that session — and thesample rate — would have been made and saved previously. If they wereusing ProTools, someone would have had to go into the menus andmanually changed that info. I cannot believe any of their techs wouldhave done that. Some think there’s a live keyboard player off stage.Again, one would have had to go into the programming functions of theMIDI keyboards to change the tuning. Pitch bend wheels are usuallyspring loaded so if the pitch wheel was bumped, it would’ve returned tothe null position. Both of these scenarios seem unlikely. It wasEddie’s guitar that was out of tune.
In other words: No way it was the keyboards.
EW: So then what happened on stage?
Janes: Edddie’s playing to what the files should be and hisguitars are probably perfectly in tune, and the whole band could be intune but all of a sudden this track is introduced and it’s chaos. Maybethey introduced a new piece of gear to the equation and it was asituation of, let’s match everything to 48k so we get the best possiblequality. Something changed, it wasn’t like someone mistakenly flipped aswitch. But it’s the backing track that’s out of tune, not Eddie. Inthe beginning of the video, you can tell he’s trying to see if he’s intune or not, he didn’t really know what was going on, but the train hadalready left the tracks.
In other words: Eddie’s playing to a backing track that’s out of tune with the rest of the instruments.
Totman: Eddie didn’t change or swap out the guitar. Forwhatever bizarre reason, he decided to keep playing. Because everythingelse is in [tune]: Dave did an outstanding job of staying in throughoutthe song, the bass was still in, even the drums are tuned to thekeyboards, it was clearly just the guitar. Eddie’s a pretty ornery guy,not the most pleasant human being that I’ve ever worked for. And he’sthe kind of guy who would keep playing it to make a point, to his techor whoever. That’s the only reasonable explanation that I can come upwith.
In other words: Eddie knows his guitar is out of tune, keeps playing out of spite.
Vrenna: Something must’ve happened to Eddie’s guitar tuning.Maybe he banged the headstock or the whammy bar threw it out of tune.And when guitars go out of tune, they do it randomly, not in nice evensemitones. So the strings could be playing anything really. Maybe theguitar was in tune with itself, but just tuned wrong. Or maybe thetuner the tech was using was off. There are many variables to consider.It happens to the best of them.
In other words: Eddie’s guitar was off. S—t happens.
EW: Is it possible they couldn’t or didn’t hear what was really going on?
Janes: That’s possible. Not knowing what they use, maybe intheir monitors or in-ears, they weren’t listening to the track or alittle bit oblivious to what was happening. It could have been mainlyon the front of house, for sure.
In other words: Maybe only the audience heard it.
Totman: No. Eddie doesn’t wear in-ears, the only guy in theband that does is Alex. And they’re very demanding of their monitorsand side fills. He heard it without a doubt. He does have a good set ofears, he knows if he’s out of tune. Watching the video, you can tell byhis reaction, the way he goes back to his cabinet to listen to it.
In other words: Eddie heard every note.
Vrenna: Perhaps. If Eddie’s guitar was in tune with itself,he may not have thought it was him, but the keys. But the way he andWolfgang look at each other, they both know something is wrong. In theheat of a huge live show, it can sometimes be hard to immediately graspwhat’s wrong when something does start going off.
In other words: Eddie and Wolfie heard something was off, but couldn’t pinpoint the problem.
EW: Might as well stop? What could/should have been done?
Janes: The playback person should have had eye contact withthe band, and signaled or pulled Eddie over to the wings. Or the mixingengineer could have pulled that track out. People really just wannahear Eddie playing guitar, so it would’ve been fine. They might havethought, “Oh where did the synth go?” But there’s Eddie’s solo and hisguitar playing… We talk about these kinds of apocalypse situations atthe beginning of tours. Usually we decide with the artist that at thatpoint, we’re gonna stop. And it’s OK to do that. Any competent personcould check that really quickly and start again.
Totman: Eddie could have simply stopped playing and gottenanother guitar. It would have taken a couple of seconds, the song wouldgo on and they wouldn’t have had to subject everybody to that.
Vrenna: Nomatter what actually happened, one of the offending instruments shouldhave been stopped. If it was the guitar, Wolfgang or Eddie’s techshould’ve said something and quickly changed to a new guitar, maybe atthe verse where his parts aren’t as important. If it was the keys, thetech should’ve stopped the playback and the band finished the songwithout it. It may have been missing some parts, but at least what wasthere would’ve sounded musical. Between the band and their techs,someone should have figured out the problem quickly and jumped in tohelp. You can never just stop playing a song. That’s admitting to thecrowd that something is wrong. You have to get through it, but the bandand crew didn’t react fast enough, or at all, to try and fix theproblem.
EW: So, ultimately, who’s to blame here?
Janes: Whoever’s in the position to control the playback.It’s a weird discipline — a combination of studio engineer, somebodythat can troubleshoot computer equipment and also understand live[sound]. And the person above who oversees that on a day-to day-basis,like a production manager.
Totman: Either the guitar tech or Eddie for grabbing thewrong guitar, which he’s been known to do. One or the other, butultimately, I’d have to put the blame on Ed and his attitude because heknew right away it was out of tune and he could have just stopped.
Vrenna: Eddie’s guitar, so it could’ve been the tech’s faultin his tuning. Or maybe the tuner the tech was using was off(especially if it was a strobe tuner. They are very accurate, but canbecome un-calibrated easily.) It’s happened to every band. [On tourwith Manson], I’ve had my MIDI keyboard controller lose communicationwith the host computer even though it said it was online. We rebootedand still nothing. Luckily it was also during our last song of thenight. The next day everything loaded fine and that problem hasn’thappened since.
Our verdict: Using the very unscientific method of playingtwo YouTube clips at the same time, we conclude that the guitar was off,since the keyboards sound the same on both nights. But without gettinginto locking nuts and things beyond our comprehension, we’re notentirely clear on why Eddie didn’t simply readjust on the spot. Afterall, he’s one of the world’s greatest living guitar players, right?Anyone care to keep the debate going?