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The Hollywood Reporter was invited to spend a day with American Idol musical director Ray Chew on the set of the Fox staple. Our vantage point was the vertigo-inducing top step of the staircase that Ryan Seacrest walks down every week to begin the show. That meant looking down at Chew in his well-designed space. For each of his three seasons on Idol, Chew has had a different location, depending on the design of the set. Months before a new season begins, Chew meets with the set designer and works out the placement of all his instruments and equipment, with help from music librarian Eric Fischman.
Directly in front of him, Chew has a Yamaha Motif with a Trident Extreme sitting on top. “These two keyboards have all the sounds I need,” says Chew, who can go from country to pop to R&B to a standard in one episode. “I have it MIDI-ed up, synchronized to other sounds. I have a laptop with my piano samples.”
There is no stand for sheet music; instead, Chew has a touch-screen computer monitor that displays all of the sheet music he needs. Thanks to a system designed by Fischman, Chew can make notes on the screen and they will show up on his band members’ screens. Hard copies of the sheet music are standing by, just in case. Chew explains the need for paper: “During a live show, there’s no doing it again. Things happen and it’s not like we can do a retake. No one is going to understand, ‘Hey, my monitor went down.’ Really?!”
Completing Chew’s area is a vintage Hammond B3. “There’s only one Hammond Organ,” says Chew. “That’s the organ for life. They make new models but nothing sounds like this. It’s a very personalized instrument. This is my choice and I love it.”
THR met up with Chew on a Monday, though that’s not the beginning of his week. His schedule for the two episodes that air every week begins on a Friday. “It all starts when the contestants determine what song they’re going to do and meet with the executive producers,” says Chew. “I meet with them Friday night and we do the framework for their download, which is the full version of their song. For the show we do a short version. They’re the same exact rendition and we give the same kind of service to each of them. We want them to sound the same.”
On Saturday, Chew and his band are in the studio all day. “The vocal producers work with us and we do the final vocals for the iTunes versions. We have to make sure it sounds like a finished product and then Sunday, we’ll do more overdubs, including live strings, horns, French horns, banjos, pedal steel, all that stuff we want to record for the iTunes version.”
That brings us to Monday, our day with Chew. He seems to be everywhere, up in his band area, down on the stage, out in the audience. He interacts with everyone — the contestants, executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick and vocal coaches and associate music directors like Peisha McPhee and Michael Orland. Everyone has the same goal — to make each performance the best it can be. Chew explains the collaborative process: “There are no boundaries as to what someone may suggest, keeping in mind that the final result is going to be between Ken and Nigel and the contestant.” And since it’s a competition, the contestant gets the final word, as each finalist will live or die based on their own choices.
Chew enjoys working with Lythgoe and Warwick because, as he elaborates, “They are very astute with all of their music and their repertoire and their history. They are artists. There are some executive producers who don’t have that kind of musical knowledge. They know exactly what they want. So there’ll be times they’ll be singing something to me and it’s my job to make sure I’m capturing that, processing that and building it into some kind of musical creation.”
On Stage 36, AKA the Idol-dome, Chew is responsible for moving the Monday rehearsal forward. When he’s ready, after any necessary discussion with contestants, producers and coaches, Chew is the one who signals that it’s time for the contestant to perform.
When his day at CBS ends late Monday afternoon, the work day is not over for the bandleader. “After I finish here, I take a dinner break and then I’ll go and mix everything for iTunes. I usually stay up all night doing that, at Interscope Studios.” Tuesday, Chew is back on the set starting at 8:30 AM for camera blocking. “We’re here all day,” he says. “Tuesday night we go over group performances. Wednesday we do a full dress rehearsal, then we do the show. Wednesday night I have off; I go home and watch the show. Thursday we rehearse guest stars, any group performances and the swan song for whoever gets voted off. I’ll go home Thursday night and watch the show and Friday we start all over again.”
Listening to Chew describe his schedule, it’s apparent that there is something missing. A day off. “I prepare myself at the beginning of the season,” the music director says. “I know it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I get gassed up and ready to go. There’s only one thing I’m doing from the start to the finish and it’s this show and the downloads. Every other moment I have, I go directly to sleep. I have the ability to fall into a deep, REM sleep in like 10 minutes. I’ll go to my dressing room and I can go that deep. I can sleep standing up if I need to.”
With no days off once the live shows begin, Chew has no doubt about what his plans are once this season’s winner will be named on Thursday night. “Right after the finale, I take a full seven days vacation where I really power out. Then I’m on to the rest of my calendar,” says one of the busiest and hardest-working musicians in show business.
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