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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.