A Glove Affair

We often get asked about the special ‘one-off’ systems that Kenton have undertaken over the years, and indeed still do. The MIDI performance glove that Kenton produced in 1989 for Marillion seems to be of particular interest to our customers. Here are two reviews dating from that period.

What would you call a guy who fits out a pair of gloves with triggers and links it by radio transmitter to Marillion’s live keyboard rig?

You’d be best off calling him Steve Hogarth, because this is exactly what the band’s new singer has done.

“Because I’d been playing keyboards during the writing and recording the album, there were areas in the live show that needed an extra pair of hands,” said Steve. “I didn’t want to get tied down to keyboards at the back of the stage and this was a practical way to play a few lines ‘on the run’.”

The system is the result of two or three months close co-operation between Steve and Kenton Electronics boffin John Price.

“The original idea was for a jacket, but that proved to be impractical. But with a pair of gloves I could do anything at all. I ran the idea past John – gloves with ten switches, could it be done? Yes. Could you then radio transmit the information? Yes. And by June or July last year we had the prototype.”

The system uses ribbon cables inside Steve’s sleeves to connect the switches to a trigger-to-MIDI box and on to a guitar radio transmitter. The ten notes form a scale rising in tones from middle C on the left-hand little finger. If anything outside the range is needed, the signals are transposed.

Having got it into rehearsal and used it, Steve realised it could have interesting visual possibilities: “I thought it would be interesting if there was a glass screen I could play against, then I could play towards the audience. Now we’ve got lights shining across it so the gloves light up in different colours.”

At the back of the stage, the radio receiver feeds straight into Mark Kelly’s keyboard rig as another MIDI controller. Presently Steve is accessing Mark’s Akai S1000, Roland D50 and Korg M1.

When asked about the commercial possibilities of the system, Steve is more reserved: “It’s so quirky, I don’t know if it would be of any use to anyone else. It’s not terribly expensive – we spent a lot of time developing it but, in terms of components, the cost is considerably under £1000. We may be marketing the radio system, because that could be useful to a lot of players using MIDI controllers strapped around their necks. I remember seeing Andrew Roachford using a remote keyboard and dragging a multicore around, and I thought this might be useful to him.”

Whether or not the system turns out to have commercial potential, it’s a novel way of using MIDI not only as a musical system but as part of a live concept. In the meantime Steve reports all is going well in the Marillion camp.

Marillion’s Steve Hogarth has taken to donning white gloves and stroking pieces of plastic on stage.

Attendees to the recent Marillion shows may have been puzzled to see new vocalist Steve Hogarth break into what on the surface appeared to be little more than an Al Jolson impersonation, performed somewhat perplexingly behind a sheet of clear plastic. While some may have considered, and indeed appreciated, carting him off there and then to a home for the disturbed, others may have paused to wonder why, in fact, he was inspired enough to don white gloves and wave them about in such an unseemingly fashion in the first place.

It was this second train of thought that lead me to the Hammersmith Odeon at soundcheck time, where the band were busy arguing about how one of their impossibly complex songs actually goes, not from the beginning, but from the middle. Rather like trying to work out which letter follows “o” in the alphabet without mentally starting from “a”, or working out how many days there are in a given month without reciting “30 days have September, etc”, Marillion were struggling with the intricacies of cross rhythms from a central point without reference to the opening bar. Needless to say, they were snookered. Yes, even the pros can’t do it. It was shortly after they’d got their poly-rhythms uncrossed that he did it. Without even a bat of their collective eyelids, the rest of this thing called “Marillion” watched silently as Steve Hogarth pulled the soft cotton gloves into place. Obviously hardened to such eccentric displays they launched into a new number (from the beginning this time) while Hogarth proceeded to push and prod in a meaningful fashion at various parts of his anatomy, as well as some of the stage’s fine array of inanimate objects. Concluding that I didn’t wish to pry into the mind of one so obviously disturbed, I was almost at the stage door when I was stopped by a member of the Marillion management. “Steve Hogarth will see you now,” he said, and I could have sworn I saw his eye twitch nervously in one corner.

In fact, in the traditional sense of the term, Steve Hogarth hasn’t actually gone mad at all. Okay, so he joined Marillion, but one temporary lapse of sanity does not a mad man make. And the gloves? Well, there’s an obvious explanation; they are, evidently, an instrument.

Concealed beneath the visible glove is…another glove. It’s on this ordinary household glove where our story begins. Inspired by John Otway’s body drums (which Hogarth helped Otway to make) and Laurie Anderson, who wired her entire body up to a Synclavier, this lower glove is fitted with a number of switches. These switches are linked to a multicore wiring system which travels up his sleeves and into a belt. The belt transmits, a receiver receives, a keyboard is triggered. Not for Steve Hogarth the expression “Nothing Up My Sleeves”.

Looking a little closer into the system, a number of questions spring to mind. Being the technical type, the first one is obvious: what make gloves do you use?

“These are from Selfridges woman accessories,” he responds quickly. “I prefer these because they’re a bit tighter; I do like it thick and tight.”

Resisting the obvious, we move on.

“The switches are sewn onto the ends of the fingers – we got them from Farnell Components in Leeds. They’re just straight on/off switches. The one on the thumb is sewn slightly to the side, because when you play keyboards you play with the side of your thumb. So I have ten notes available to me; they’re attached to this ribbon connector, which goes up the arm sleeves of my jacket, and into this box of tricks, which I wear. This is where the clever stuff is.” The clever stuff is, indeed, really rather…well, clever really, and is concealed in a thick belt which he wears around his waist. Also in the belt is a small metal box which has that rather endearing home-made quality about it.

“This was made by John Price of Kenton Electronics, who did all the heavy brainwork for me. The gloves plug in here, and that turns the switch information into midi information, and processes it so it can be radio transmitted. Normally midi information can’t be radio transmitted – the frequency is too high that it operates at.”

The box is linked via a jack to a regular Nady guitar transmitter that is also concealed in the belt, and transmitted to keyboard player Mark Kelly’s ‘rig’, which features masses of equipment just waiting to be triggered. The gloves work over a range of about a hundred metres, and the receiver sits on top of the expander rack. In the rack is yet another home grown black box, which has the job of decoding the mass of signals it’s receiving from Steve.

“It decodes everything the Nady receives and turns it all back into midi information, and then it goes to all the synthesizers on stage. Mark’s using a midi merger on stage which enables him to re-route all the synths at the touch of a button. The gloves are just an additional midi input to the whole system.”

Midi note assignment is pre set in tones from middle “C”, with no sharps or flats. If he needs them, they can transpose at the synth end to put him into another key. For example, if he needs to play B flat, they’ll transpose down to “F”. Obvious.

While Steven’s musical gloves are indubitably a technical marvel, it does beg a simple question: “Why bother?”

“The whole point of designing the gloves in the first place wasn’t because I wanted some kind of visual gimmick, it was because after we’d recorded the album we found that we ended up with keyboard parts that were crossing each other that Mark wouldn’t have had enough pairs of hands to play live. So it became obvious that I would have to play synth at several points in the set, but I was very anti singing too many songs from keyboards. I didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t want anything out front to get in the way when I was running around. So I thought, what if I had an item of clothing, like maybe a jacket, with maybe a keyboard configuration down the arms. But it was impractical because everything’s so soft in a jacket, so I thought of the gloves.”

Indeed. But where does the plastic screen come in?

“We use that in a song called ‘Uninvited Guest’ – where the glove system is really featured. I have to play this specific line in all the choruses, where Mark’s playing another line that crosses, and we’ve got a screen which comes down. There are lights either side of it and it’s cross lit. I play behind it towards the audience so that they can see what’s going on.” Unfortunately, Marillion fans being what they are, they still don’t know why Steve Hogarth has taken to fondling a piece of perspex on stage mid-set.

“People still come up to me after gigs and say ‘You’re miming this, aren’t you?'”

Which isn’t totally surprising when it’s not only keyboard parts he’s playing.

“There’s this other song called ‘Berlin’ where I actually use the five fingers of my right hand to play guitar samples. When we recorded ‘Berlin’ we had this other guitar part that was very glassy and clean with repeats on it, and we took all those off the multitrack, off onto DAT, and sampled them all, and I play those during the verses. Later on in the song, the M1R strings are assigned to it and I’m playing those. So it must look confusing.”

So what’s next? Musical underpants? Teeth-to-midi interface?

“It’s not really something I think I’ll take any further – I’m not going to get into musical hobnail boots or anything, or musical hats. I don’t know though, maybe one of those ties with musical notes on that you can actually play. Now, there’s an idea… “THE TOUCH”