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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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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

 

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Can I Use A Windows Computer For Music Production and Keyboard Programming?

Keyboard Programming

I’m often asked whether it’s absolutely necessary to use an Apple computer for music production and keyboard programming. This question is certainly understandable given how much Apple products tend to be associated with creative professions and the tendency for content creators to gravitate toward the Apple ecosystem. However, I would argue that the answer to this question is a resounding “no” – it’s not necessary at all to use an Apple computer for music production and there are many great software options that exist for Windows based systems.

Why do so many music professionals use Apple computers? Originally most of the software created for music production was only available on the Apple OS, so many people simply started with Apple and never considered alternatives. Then when their friends, students, and colleagues were ready to purchase computers, they simply bought what they were familiar with. This makes perfect sense as I always advise people to use the same software and hardware as their friends and colleagues so that they have a network of peers who can help them with tech issues. A strong community built around a piece of software can be extremely beneficial to all of its members.

But what if you primarily use software that’s also available on the Windows OS? Is there any reason to use Apple products? I say not necessarily. Though there tend to be subtle differences between the Apple and Windows versions of the same software, the functionality is essentially the same between the two. Therefore, there’s no reason to limit yourself to just one brand of computer. Also, Windows based computers are often much more customizable, are available with much more variety, and can often be upgraded post purchase. And if your needs are very easy on CPU, it’s easy to find many inexpensive Windows based options.

It should be mentioned that an Apple computer and a Windows computer with the exact same specifications tend to cost exactly the same amount of money, so when comparing “apples to apples”, there’s no savings in purchasing a fully spec’ed Windows machine, so cost is only a factor if you don’t need an extremely powerful machine.

Several advantages to purchasing a budget Windows computer for music would be if you need something for music notation. Unless you’re using large sound libraries for playback, software such as Finale and Sibelius don’t require much processing power, so for this purpose a Windows machine is perfectly suitable. A budget Windows machine can also be excellent for travel so that you don’t need to be too concerned about loss, theft, or damage to your brand new top of the line MacBook Pro.

There are also many excellent digital audio recording software options available for Windows, such as Pro Tools, Cubase, Nuendo, Ableton, and much more. And for live performance, a fantastic alternative to Apple’s MainStage software is Brainspawn’s Forte. In fact, for someone with very basic audio production or editing needs, a Windows computer can be a great money saving option. Many musicians don’t necessarily need a DAW for producing albums, but rather just to make occassional edits to audio they’ll be using in other situations. I would argue that for these types of users, there’s absolutely no reason to spend a lot of money on a top of the line Apple computer when a perfectly suitable Windows computer can be purchased for a fraction of the price. That said, should the user’s needs become more complex, the cost benefits become less apparent.

So it’s not quite so clear cut. That said, I would still argue that for the right user with a certain set of needs, a budget Windows computer can be an excellent option for music production.

Feel free to contact me anytime with questions at:

jeff@mardermusic.com

+1.917.338.7427

 

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MOTU Audio Interfaces on Broadway

MainStage Keyboard Programming

As a synthesizer programmer for Broadway productions, I’ve been a longtime user of MOTU audio and MIDI interfaces. At times, I’ve tried other products, but have always been disappointed in one way or another, and whenever I’ve returned to using MOTU I’ve been fully satisfied with the quality of the products, reliability, and the excellent customer service I receive from the company.

Using MOTU for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on Broadway

My first exposure to using MOTU products on Broadway was while working as the Associate Conductor and synthesizer programmer for Priscilla Queen of the Desert. For the synth rigs everything was hardware based, though we also ran backing tracks through MOTU’s Digital Performer.

We sent audio to front of house using the MOTU 896mk3 Hybrid

Digital Performer worked absolutely flawlessly for us. We recorded sweetener tracks of double-tracked strings and horns directly into Digital Performer and ran it in “chunks” mode to trigger sequences during the show. In 18 months on Broadway and a year on tour, the combination of Digital Performer and the 896 sounded fantastic and never once did we have any malfunctions or crashes. The system was completely rock solid. It’s no wonder that Digital Performer is the go-to sequencer of choice for so many folks who run backing tracks in live performance.

I occasionally rent equipment to live theatrical productions to provide rigs for MainStage and Ableton Live

How I currently use MOTU on Broadway productions

In my rental rigs and my own personal rigs, I always use MOTU interfaces for several reasons. First, MOTU offers the largest variety of products of any company in the industry and offers an audio or MIDI interface for any need. Second, they sound fantastic, and at a very reasonable price. Third, MOTU products are rock solid. While some other competing interfaces have known issues when interacting with various USB connections, the MOTU products never produce any issues. I know that when I’m working on a project, their products will work totally reliably without any problems.

Here is a rearview peek at one of my rental rigs using the MOTU 828mk3 Hybrid Firewire Audio Interface

You can see 2 of the mk3 Hybrid in the middle of the rack:

MainStage Keyboard Programming

My MainStage/Ableton rental rig revolves around redundant setups running in tandem using two MOTU 828mk3 Hybrid Firewire Audio Interface

With 8 outputs, this provides more than enough for live performance. If I need more outputs for running backing tracks, it’s an easy matter to create an aggregate audio device to combine the two interfaces to send 16 outputs. I’m now using the MOTU 828mk3 Hybrid on nearly every production of Disney’s Aladdin worldwide, my personal rig, and my rental rigs. It’s also been used on 4 Broadway cast recordings, several Off-Broadway productions, the Tony Awards, various regional productions, and has even been shipping back and forth from New York City to Tokyo for recording the cast album for the Tokyo production of Aladdin. Always rock solid, always great sound, and a fantastic value.

Here is a look at the back of the keyboard one rig from the Australian production of Disney’s Aladdin, which uses the MOTU 828mk3 Hybrid:

Synthesizer Programmer Broadway

And here is a look at the front of one of the keyboard rigs on the US tour of Aladdin, which is nearly identical to its Australian counterpart:

Synthesizer Programmer Broadway

 

Using MOTU for Ableton on the Finding Neverland national tour

When running backing tracks in Ableton, I often prefer to use the MOTU 16A

With 16 TRS analog outputs, it’s ideal for running backing tracks. Like all of the other MOTU products, it sounds fantastic and is 100% reliable. However, the audio matrix feature is absolutely indispensable. I can create customized routing for different situations. For example, I can route audio from Ableton to send to a general stereo mix for rehearsals while continuing to send click to its own channel, but can load a separate mix for show situations that utilizes all 16 outputs to send a complete mix to front of house. This avoids having to create multiple versions of the audio routing in Ableton, so it’s much safer not having to have multiple versions of the Ableton session floating around. At the moment, I’m using the MOTU 16A on the national tour of Finding Neverland. It’s worked brilliantly for us providing fantastic audio quality, flexible audio routing, and rock solid reliability.

Here is a look at the Ableton rack for the national tour of Finding Neverland, which uses the MOTU 16A audio interface:

Synthesizer Programmer Broadway

And here is a front view of the same rig in the orchestra pit:

Synthesizer Programmer Broadway

MOTU customer service

MOTU also provides some of the best customer support in the industry, which is absolutely essential when working under the tight deadlines of mounting a live theatrical production. The MOTU tech support team has always been there for me, even when traveling overseas. I’ve received quick responses to my queries even when dealing with multiple time zones and emailing back and forth from onsite in Germany, Australia, and Japan.

With a product to suit every possible need and budget, competitive pricing, top notch sound quality, rock solid reliability, and the industry’s best customer support, I see no reason to consider any MIDI or audio interfaces other than those offered by MOTU.

MOTU 828mk3 Hybrid Firewire Audio Interface

MOTU 896mk3 Hybrid

MOTU 16A

If you have any additional questions, feel free to contact me anytime at:

jeff@mardermusic.com

+1.917.338.7427