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MainStage 3 Tutorial: Optimizing Computer Performance

Synthesizer Programming for Broadway

I get many questions about poor computer performance when using MainStage 3 for keyboard programming, so I’ve compiled a checklist of essential items to do prior to using MainStage 3 in a live performance situation.

Computer Settings to Adjust

Close all programs not absolutely necessary for running your concert

This includes Mail, Messages, Remote Desktop, and anything else that’s not absolutely essential for running MainStage 3.

In addition, if there are any programs that automatically start and log you in during startup (such as Dropbox, Time Machine, etc), disable these as well.

Turn off WiFi and Bluetooth

This can cause serious performance issues with your computer when running digital audio. Searching for and staying connected to networks will drain your CPU.

Disable Spotlight indexing

This can wreak havoc on your system performance. When your computer decides that it’s time to begin indexing your files so that they’re easily found during the next Spotlight search, it will noticeably slow down your machine and can greatly impeded performance in MainStage 3. To disable Spotlight indexing, do the following:

System Preferences > Spotlight > Privacy

Select the + button in the lower left corner of the screen

Select your home folder, select “choose”, then select “Okay” when the dialogue box appears

Free up hard drive space

Not having enough free space on your computer’s hard drive will surely slow down computer performance as your system needs a certain amount free in order to perform basic functions. You should make sure you have at least 15% of your hard drive free, if not more.

Clear your computer’s desktop

Storing files on your computer’s desktop will create a noticeable lag in computer performance. If you really need to hold onto all the files on your desktop and aren’t sure where to put them at the moment, create a new folder on your desktop and store all of your files there. Better yet, move that new folder to your documents folder.

MainStage 3 Settings to Adjust

Set “Autosave modified concerts” to “Never”

If your MainStage 3 concert is trying to save your modified concerts regularly, this is not only a drain on your CPU, but it also will take up extra space on your hard drive. You can select when to save your concerts (hopefully it will be frequently), and when to do a “Save As”.

Cmd – , to get to MainStage preferences

In General preferences under “Autosaving”, select “Never”

Set Hot Plug behavior to “Do Nothing”

This will prevent your computer from trying to use a video monitor with audio (or other such devices) as your audio output when you plug these in or startup MainStage.

Cmd – , to get to MainStage preferences

In the audio preferences, Hot-Plug Behavior is near the middle of the screen.

Select “Do Nothing”

Set I/O Safety Buffer to “Off”

You’re better off experimenting early to determine the correct buffer settings for your setup rather than relying on this option, which will add to the signal path and CPU usage by constantly monitoring your MainStage 3 and computer performance to determine if additional resources need to be allocated to prevent audio clicks and pops.

Cmd – , to get to MainStage preferences

Go to audio preferences

Select “Advanced Settings”

Uncheck “I/O Safety Buffer”

I/O Buffer Size

Also in the audio preference pane of MainStage 3, you should take care to select the proper buffer size for your setup. You’ll need to balance system performance with the resulting latency. This is especially true for piano and other percussive sounds as those are the ones in which latency will be the most obvious. For programming that has many pads and lush string patches, erring on the larger buffer size will be much less noticeable. Generally, with more recent computers with sufficient RAM (16GB) and an SSD drive, you should be able to set this at 128 or 256 samples easily.

CPU Usage

Also in the audio preference pane of MainStage 3, you should take care to select the proper CPU Usage setting based on the number of processors your computer has. You may need to experiment with this setting depending upon the complexity of your programing, the number of cores your computer has, how much RAM you have, and whether you’re using any third party plugins that may or may not be able to take advantage of multi core processing.

Summary

By making these adjustments, you should notice an improvement in computer performance when using MainStage for your keyboard programming. Additionally, you should find that your rig will run much more reliably. Feel free to reach out with any questions you might have and I’ll be glad to assist.

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How to Build a Redundant MainStage Rig on a Budget

MainStage Programming

I created an earlier post providing step by step instructions for building a redundant rig for MainStage. While this setup works incredibly well, it’s not necessarily within the budget for all productions nor is it always portable enough to be easily transported. In this post, we’ll take a look at how to create a redundant rig when budget or space is a consideration.

The premise behind this type of backup system is that you’ll use MainStage as your main rig, but your controller keyboard will actually be a synthesizer that will have most, if not all, of the sounds you’ll need for your production. Your controller/backup keyboard could be programmed to be a near exact reproduction of the MainStage programming if your keyboard has the necessary sounds available. Otherwise, you’ll need to just do the best you can with what you have, but in an emergency, it’ll do. Another option is to simply have some sounds ready to go on the backup keyboard that you could access quickly to reproduce the standard sounds you’ll need in your production (piano, strings, brass, etc).

Pros and Cons
Pros: Portability, easier on the budget, simple to put together.

Cons: Backup isn’t an exact match of the MainStage programming, limitations of what keyboard you can use, more time consuming to program, more difficult to match levels between main and backup.

Here’s What You’ll Need
In addition to your regular MainStage rig (computer and interface), you’ll need the following:

MainStage Programming

A keyboard that has the features you need in a controller PLUS the internal sounds you’ll need to recreate the programming you’ll need. A good example of this is the Yamaha MX88 which is available for around $999.99. This unit only has two pedal jacks, so you may need to improvise to make it work as needed.

MainStage Programming

Coleman Audio LS3 Line Selector This will function as your audio switcher, and is available for about $130. It’s limited with regard to inputs and outputs, but if you only need a few outputs, it’ll work just fine and at 10% of the price of a Radial SW8, it’s a great option.

How to Connect the MIDI and Audio in the Rig
MIDI: Run a MIDI cable from the MIDI out of your keyboard into your audio interface

Audio: Audio outs from audio interface to Coleman switch, audio outs from keyboard into audio switch, audio outs from Coleman switch to front of house.

How to Program the Keyboard
As mentioned earlier, if your keyboard has enough functionality to faithfully reproduce your MainStage programming, you’re in great shape. However, depending upon the show and which keyboard you choose, you may need to make some shortcuts. For example, you might need to leave out some sound effects or complicated splits and layers. If you want to keep your MainStage rig and the keyboard perfectly in sync, then assign program numbers in MainStage and advance patches using program changes. Otherwise, you’ll need to advance to whichever patch you need on your keyboard should you need to switch to your backup.

A simpler approach, but one that won’t work with every situation, is to only program a few patches on the keyboard that can be quickly accessed just to get you through to the end of the act or the set. For example, have a piano patch, some strings, Hammond organ, etc ready to go on the keyboard. This approach will only work on some shows and some types of keyboard books. However, this is a great option if you’re using your rig to play with a rock band in a club or concert. It allows you to bring a minimal amount of gear and to keep things very simple.

A drawback of using your keyboard as your backup is that it will be quite difficult to match your levels exactly between the MainStage rig and the backup. Even if you take measurements in dB, the volumes will still vary due to how the different types of sounds will be approached by you as a player. Also, the difference in the quality of the sounds will create perceived differences. Again, for an emergency situation, this is fine. For a long running show, it may not be the best option.

I’ve used this type of backup for situations such as playing in a wedding band, doing a reading or workshop, and cabaret shows. For such situations, it’ll work perfectly fine and will save you thousands of dollars on the cost of your rig. It’s also MUCH easier to transport. As long as you’re aware of both the pros and the cons of such a rig, you can decide when it will be a solid option for your situation.

Yamaha MX88 88-Key Weighted Action Synthesizer

Coleman Audio LS3 Line Selector

 

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The Ultimate Guide to Building a MainStage Keyboard Programming Rig on a Budget

Synthesizer Programming for Broadway

I see many forum posts in which people are attempting to build MainStage rigs for musical theatre on a budget, so I thought it would be helpful to offer some suggestions for combinations of gear that would allow someone to assemble a MainStage rig for live performance that won’t break the bank. There are many fantastic options out there that don’t require taking out a second mortgage. I’ll offer some pros and cons on the various options and will offer several possibilities at the lower end of the price range that will still offer quality performance.

Computer

The first piece of gear to think about is your computer. In the interest of portability, I’ll be focusing on laptop options, so I’ll be presenting some possibilities for MacBook Pro computers.

Bare minimum specs for a MacBook Pro for using MainStage in a live setting are:

15” screen: better visibility, comes with a Quad-Core processor

16 GB RAM: You’ll need this RAM if you’re going to load many layers or plan to use external plugins. Also, it’ll help your machine to run quicker and smoother.

256 GB solid state drive: With no moving parts, an SSD drive will be much more reliable for a portable rig and will load much quicker. I consider 256 GB a bare minimum as by the time you add the full MainStage library and save a few versions of your concert, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll use up the space.

A brand new 15” MacBook Pro from Apple with 16GB RAM and a 256GB SSD will set you back $2,399.00 (not including AppleCare). But if you’re willing to order a model that’s a few years old, you can still get the same specs, albeit with a slower and older version of the Quad-Core processor in a refurbished or used model from Apple or from Mac Of All Trades for $1,699 or $1,299 respectively.

I’ve purchased several refurbished computers from Apple and have been very pleased with all of them. I’ve never purchased from Mac Of All Trades, though I have sold computers to them. They’ve always been a pleasure to work with and their customer service is excellent.

Audio Interface

If you don’t have strict needs with regard to the number of physical

 

outputs you need, you’ll have many options here. I recommend getting an interface with at least four physical outputs so that you have the options of sending sound effects through a separate stereo pair or using the extra pair for monitoring. If you plan to run backing tracks or a click track, you’ll want to consider at least eight outputs, though you’d be better off with sixteen.

MainStage Keyboard Programming

There’s also the issue of connectivity. I like to opt for USB interfaces given how rapidly technology changes. This way, you’re not committed to thunderbolt (as an example) only to find that after purchasing a new computer in a few years you suddenly need to update your interface too or else be forced to use an adaptor (which I strongly advise against). I’ve been using USB connections on all of my shows and everything has been running extremely smoothly, whether it’s six channels from MainStage or sixteen channels from Ableton.

Here are a couple of options for reasonably price audio interfaces that will deliver solid sound and reliability:

Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 (2nd Gen) USB Audio Interface

At $249.99, it’s hard to not like this interface. These Focusrite interfaces are known to have decent sound quality and low latency. As a bonus, this model has four analog outputs, so there’s room for flexibility with your output routing.

MOTU UltraLite-mk4 Audio Interface

I make no secret of being a huge fan of MOTU products. In fact, I like them so much that I even became an authorized dealer. MOTU offers exceptional sound quality, low latency, rock solid MIDI performance, and excellent customer support. The UltraLite-mk4 offers eight analog outputs (ten outputs if you include the main outputs too). Even though this unit is over twice the price of the Focusrite, you’ll get an improvement in sound quality and more outputs. The advantage here is that it’ll likely be quite a bit more time before you need to update your rig if you go with the MOTU right off the bat.

Just a quick warning about certain MOTU products: The AVB series of interfaces sound great and work fantastic for recording or track playback, but I’ve always found their MIDI response to be glitchy for live use with MainStage. Fortunately, MOTU has many other available products that work fantastic.

Keyboard

There are many options in addition to the two I’ll list below, but I limited my search based on several criteria:

The keyboard must be an 88-key instrument with weighted action

It must have at least three pedal inputs (sustain, assignable, and volume)

There must be a MIDI output. I won’t use any keyboard that doesn’t have a MIDI output. I find that it’s much more reliable in live performance, makes setting up a redundant rig much easier, and is one less item to take up the valuable USB ports on the computer.

The keyboard must have pitch bend and mod wheel unless I’m working on a project that specifically doesn’t need these features.

MainStage Keyboard Programming

 

Kurzweil Music Systems SP6 88-Key Stage Piano with Fully-Weighted Hammer-Action Keyboard

This keyboard has it all. Honestly, I’ve never been a fan of the Kurzweil action, but I’m listing this keyboard because it has all of the other features I mentioned above, and all at a very reasonable price. Though Yamaha offers the CP40, I’m not a fan of this unit for live use due to its plastic body, which I consider too easy to damage.

M-Audio Hammer 88 | 88-Key Hammer-Action USB MIDI Keyboard Controller

This instrument is strictly a controller, but I list it as a budget priced option. M-Audio has passable action, though I wouldn’t want to play the Wicked K1 book on it every night. But for $399.00, it’s a great unit to bring to gigs that you can leave unattended in an orchestra pit during a run without having to do guided meditation every night over fear of theft or damage.

Summary

As you can see, a MainStage rig for live use needn’t cost a fortune. With some creativity and flexibility, you can assemble a rig for as little as $2,000. Just add another two to three hundred dollars for pedals, cables, and a stand and you’re all set.

In a future post, I’ll offer some options for creating a redundant rig on a budget. I hope you find this helpful, and do feel free to reach out if I can answer any questions.

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MainStage 3 Tutorial: Editing EXS24 Strings for Greater Playability

MainStage Keyboard Programming

MainStage comes with a lot of great stock orchestral patches, though they often get a bad rap as these patches aren’t necessarily optimized for musical playability right out of the box. Many of the patches sound dull, are difficultly to control, and lack the needed response to be able to use them effectively.

While I often resample patches from other sound libraries so that they can be used in EXS24 format, there are many times that I find the stock instruments to function perfectly well, but only after some proper tweaking. In this tutorial, I’ll describe some of the steps I take to add musicality to the stock MainStage EXS24 instruments.

To demonstrate some examples of things we can do to tweak EXS24 instruments, let’s start by loading the “Full Strings Legato” instrument in our EXS24 sampler. You may notice that the instrument sounds fine, but lacks much depth, warmth, or playability.

Let’s start by opening the EXS24 and going to the level slider on the right side just under the EDIT tab. This setting will affect how our instrument responds to velocity. Typically, the default position leaves a velocity range that is much to wide to control. I like to adjust the bottom portion of the slider to about -18dB. Typically, you’ll want to be anywhere between -10dB and -20dB and you’ll need to adjust to your own taste, the type of instrument, and your playing style.

MainStage Tutorial
Adjusting velocity response on the EXS24

The next thing you’ll want to do is add some effects. You may wish to add some EQ to taste depending upon how the patch sounds to you.

For strings, I nearly always add some stereo spread. For this, I like to use the stock Stereo Spread audio plugin. Often, the default setting works quite nicely. There’s one sound designer I’ve worked with who always requests that I add this, and I’ve found his results at front of house to be some of the best I’ve heard with regard to blending sampled strings with live strings.

MainStage Tutorial
Adding Stereo Spread to EXS24 strings

The final piece of the puzzled is the reverb. For strings, I usually like using the Space Designer reverb on the 1.5s String Chamber preset with the Rev setting set at -24dB. If I use the effects in an aux bus, I leave the settings at their default and will send to the bus at around -12dB.

MainStage Tutorial
Using Space Designer reverb for EXS24 strings

These few tips should begin to make your patches more playable. In upcoming tutorials, we’ll dive deeper into edits that will address issues of timbre, uncontrollable velocity response, and how to handle stock instruments with too long of an attack time.

 

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MainStage 3 Tutorial: How to Share MainStage Patches Between Concerts

MainStage Keyboard Programming

When doing keyboard programming using MainStage, it’s often much easier and more convenient to share individual patches and sets rather than uploading an entirely new concert if it’s necessary to add incremental updates to the file. This is especially true when collaborating over long distances. In this tutorial, we’ll look at how to collaborate using this method.

In this example, we’ll assume that the music team has requested an edit to the patch that corresponds with song #6, measure 60. Note that if new samples are needed, it will be necessary to address how to import a new EXS24 instrument, which will be covered in a separate tutorial. For this purpose of this tutorial, we’ll only be working with sounds and channel strips that are already present in the current concert.

  1. Export the patch to be shared: In EDIT Mode, highlight the patch that needs to be shared.
MainStage Tutorial
Selecting the patch to be exported

2. Open the Patch List Action Menu in the upper right corner of the patch list window. Select Save As Patch… -OR- Use the keyboard shortcut Command-E

MainStage Tutorial
Saving the desired patch to be exported

3. Save the patch to desired location to transfer via drive, email, or upload.

4. Open concert on show computer.

5. In EDIT Mode, navigate to the patch just prior to where you wish to import the new patch. From the Patch List Action Menu, select Load Patch / Set… -OR- use the keyboard shortcut Command-I

6. Navigate to the patch that will be imported and select it. The patch will load into the current patch sequence.

MainStage Tutorial
Importing the patch

7. Save the concert.

It’s that easy! This is a great way to send and receive keyboard programming updates that are very minor without having to send a whole new concert.