In Pound For The Sound, Phoenix New Times gets technical with musicians about what gear they use to create a signature style.
Aidan Smith is barely an adult, but he plays like a seasoned veteran. The 3Nations keyboardist loves to listen to progressive rock and take part in the band's writing process. His chops and musical choices are impressive, and his musical instincts usually are right on the money. And he hasn't even graduated high school yet.
Smith was born in the Valley, but his family moved to the Midwest when he was still in diapers. He began playing music in Chicago, starting with piano lessons at 4 years old. However, it wasn't until he moved back to the Valley with his family in 2011 that he started pursuing music more seriously.
Now 18, Smith has spent the past five years focusing on building his skills. And it shows from the amount of playing he has been doing, both with his band 3Nations and as part of the "house band" at School of Rock.
Smith has plans to pursue a degree in electrical engineering starting this fall at Arizona State University. When asked if graduating high school would change things for the band, he says, "No way. Everyone is staying in state."
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He and the rest of 3Nations have two shows over St. Patrick's Day weekend. You can catch them on the local stage at Pot of Gold on Sunday, March 18, and at their debut album release party at BLK Live on Saturday, March 17. Before the busy weekend, New Times talked with Smith about gear, his love for piano, and his band's upcoming album release.
New Times: What's the secret weapon of your sound? And how did that help you find your "signature" tone?
Aidan Smith: In 3Nations, I would say the thing that shapes my tone the most is that we’re a three-piece band. In fact, we have very strange instrumentation for a three-piece band. When you think of great trios, you might thing of Cream, Rush, Jimi Hendrix Experience. However, each of those were composed of guitar, bass, and drums. Even Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which was a keyboard-led group, had a dedicated bass player in Greg Lake. 3Nations is different in that our singer, Lelea Fonua, will usually play acoustic guitar or ukulele, which leaves me to cover the bass part, the main keyboard part, and whatever lead lines need to be played.
Therefore, most of what I do when it comes to shaping my sound is just trying to get everything to sound as full as possible. My preferred setup is to have my Kurzweil PC3K facing the audience, then having my Hammond on my right. I usually position a Moog Sub Phatty on top of the organ, which I can use either for leads when I’m playing the Kurzweil with my left hand — or for bass when I’m playing the organ with my right hand. All three of these instruments produce amazing bass sounds.
The Kurzweil is kind of my jack-of-all-trades keyboard. I’ve gotten very good at programming it; most of the sounds you hear on our album I either made from scratch or are edited versions of one of the factory patches. I have to say that I love the Studio Grand in the Kurzweil. Almost all of the piano sounds on the record are that patch, with the exception of “Chameleon,” which was recorded on a Steinway Concert Grand.
What's your favorite piece of gear in your collection and why?
I would say my favorite piece of gear would still have to be my Hammond Xk-3c. As much as I love B3s, the portability and ease of use of this keyboard is just incredible. The Leslie simulation is amazing, so I can literally just direct-input it, even when recording. As far as Hammond emulations go, I’d say that this is definitely the best I’ve seen. Also, if you are a keyboardist playing rock music, you just have to get used to playing a ton of organ. When you have loud, guitar-heavy music, it’s one of the few things that can actually compete.
Any special pieces of gear acquired over the years? Any special story, or stories, behind your collection of tools?
Last year, I built MIDI bass pedals out of some bass pedals from a 1953 Hammond M-3. I basically just wired everything to an Arduino, and then had that send MIDI note on values for each pedal. I can then use this to trigger synthesizers or samples. I don’t use them live often, but they were very fun to make and I always get a big reaction from people when I bring them out.
Just listened to “All Eyes On Me” from your debut album, 3Nations. Great song, love the reggae and rock feels going on. I really enjoyed your mini organ solo flairs here and there — and the creepy lead line that shows itself from time to time. How did you go about getting all those different tones on your recording?
I think of all the tracks on the album I definitely had the most fun recording “All Eyes On Me.” When you listen to it, it sounds very arranged. However, when we went to record the drum track, it was really just me and Sefo jamming it out. We basically just picked a tempo and we knew how we wanted the drums to sound over the chord changes and then started recording. I think the last drum fill at the end was punched in, but everything else was done in one take.
Sefo and I have played together long enough where we don’t have to look at each other to know what we’re going to play, it’s just intuition. After we were done with the drums, I then had the task of figuring out how the final product was going to sound. I played all the guitar, bass, and keys on this track. Therefore, I kind of had to work out in my head where I wanted all the different parts to come in. I think I ended up doing the guitars first, because the organ that you hear on the song is pretty similar to what was done on the scratch track. All of the clean guitars are a Strat through a Marshall amp, which I was pleasantly surprised had an amazing clean tone.
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For the distorted parts, I tuned down to drop D and tried to create as much feedback as possible. I really like to use feedback to mark transitions. When you start hearing feedback, you know that whatever is going to come next is going to be really big. It’s kind of a way of tricking the brain.
You had said that you love to play piano because it is “an instrument you can play out by yourself.” Can you please elaborate?
Well, piano — and keyboards in general — is unique in that you can play in the treble range and the bass range simultaneously. A solo piano performance can sound complete in a way that is not possible with other instruments. This is especially helpful with songwriting. Sometimes in 3Nations, when we’re trying to write a part of a song, I can play a part on the keyboard that I know will become a guitar part or a bass part on the recording. Also, when we are improvising, Sefo and I can play the song and it sounds full with just drums and keyboards. Then, Lelea can improvise a lyric and he doesn’t have to worry about the chord changes.
Your debut album release party is Saturday, March 17, at BLK Live. Any words you wish to share with readers about your upcoming performance?
First of all, BLK Live is an awesome venue. The sound is always great, and it’s perfect for the feel of our band. As the name 3Nations suggests, we are all from different countries, with our singer being from New Zealand, and our drummer from Samoa. Therefore, we really wanted to bring an island vibe to the show, and BLK is perfect for that.
I am also really excited that we have the School of Rock Sugar Skulls and Tamali’i Entertainment opening. The Sugar Skulls — of which I am also a member — are the house band for our local School of Rock. It’s an extraordinarily talented group, and a lot of the covers we do are songs that you will never hear another band attempt. Everyone also really rocks out, so it’s going to be very fun. Tamali’i Entertainment are amazing Polynesian dancers, and there may or may not be fire involved. Of course, we are releasing our album that night as well, so please come on out! We can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on.