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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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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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Buying a Used or Refurbished Apple Computer for MainStage

MainStage Keyboard Programming

I often see posts in Facebook forums concerning which Apple computers could work well for Apple’s MainStage software for live music performance. More specifically, which Apple computers could function well if purchased used or refurbished.

This is a tricky proposition as there are a number of things to consider. First, you’ll need to consider whether you plan to run 3rd party plugins. Generally, I’d advise against it when using an older computer unless you can find something already loaded with 16GB of RAM. As the recent models don’t allow for RAM upgrades, you’re stuck with what you get unless you purchae something several years old. But then you run the risk of getting a processor that’s too slow, or running into hardware issues if it’s a used unit and not factory refurbished.

If you plan to run MainStage without any 3rd party plugins, you should be fine with a Quad-Core machine and 8GB RAM. Just don’t get too hopeful about running all of your favorite Native Instruments libraries. You’ll want to stick to EXS24 and other formats native to MainStage and you’ll need to optimize your programming to put as little strain on your processor as possible. You’ll do this by using aliases as much as possible, limiting the use of processor intentive plugins like convolution reverbs, and using aux busses for your effects. You might even be able to get away with running Synthogy Ivory Grands too depending upon your programming.

A great option for MainStage is Apple MacBook Pro MD104LL/A 15.4-Inch Laptop (Intel Core i7 2.6GHz, 8GB Memory, 750GB HDD, Mac OS X v10.8 Mountain Lion, 2012 Model), Silver. Something with a Quad-Core processor, 8GB RAM (which is an absolute bare minimum), and an SSD drive would work great. If you’re looking for something for your personal home rig, you’ll want to look for similar specs in an iMac. Although it’s best to find something with an SSD drive, you’ll be find with a mechanical drive for home use. And if you find a great deal on a MacBook Pro model without an SSD drive, you could always purchase a DIY kit to remove the optical drive and replace it with an SSD. I’ve done it myself and it’s fairly straightforward.

While purchasing a used Apple computer for MainStage isn’t necessarily ideal, it can be a fantastic way to complete your live rig without having to lug around a $3,000 machine. And if you already own a $3,000 machine, a used computer can be an excellent way to keep a backup on hand just in case you need it.

If you have any additional questions, you can contact me anytime at:

jeff@mardermusic.com

+1.917.338.7427