Posted on

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

 

Posted on

How to Build a Redundant Rig for Using MainStage or Ableton Live

MainStage Programming

I’m often asked how to build a rig with a redundant computer and interface for using MainStage live. While there are a number of ways that this could be done, I’m going to detail how I’ve done this many times in the past successfully and reliably. Building your rig carefully and with attention to detail can often make the difference between being able to troubleshoot effectively onsite or having your rig crash and burn. If you can clearly see the signal path and can tell where every cable should go thanks to detailed labeling, it’s much easier to troubleshoot.

 

MainStage Programming
MainStage rig with cables properly dressed and all components clearly labeled
Which of the above two rigs would you rather troubleshoot?
To get started, you’ll need the following items:
2 x Apple Mac Mini (preferably with SSD drive and 16GB RAM)
2 x MOTU 828x (or your audio interface of choice)
1 x MIDI Solutions 2-Output Active MIDI Thru Box
1 x Furman PL-PLUS C 15 Amp Power Conditioner (or your rack mount power conditioner of choice)
1 x KVM Switch (DVI or VGA)
1 x Radial SW8 audio switcher
1 x Sonnet Technologies RackMac Mini
1 x VESA compatible video monitor (DVI or VGA)
2 x TRS snake (preferably 8 channel, TRS to TRS)
2 x MIDI cable (3’ in length)
1 x MIDI cable (20’ in length)
2 x Apple HDMI to DVI Adapter
1 x 8U Rack with Wheels
1 x Container of rack screws
1 x Roll of Red electrical tape
1 x Roll of Scotch Glossy Tape
1 x Brother P-Touch PT-D210 Label Maker (or similar model)
Summary of connections
Power cables from the following devices:
    Both computers, both interfaces, power conditioner (to sound department power), video monitor, Radial SW8
USB cables:
    Main computer to Main MOTU, Backup computer to Backup MOTU
    KVM switch to both computers
    Computer keyboard and mouse to KVM switch (if using Mac Minis)
Audio cables:
    TRS snake from Main MOTU to Inputs A on Radial
    TRS snake from Backup MOTU to Inputs B on Radial
MIDI cables:
    Long MIDI cable from keyboard controller Out to MIDI Solutions In
    Short MIDI cables from MIDI Solutions Outs to MOTU In on each interface
Video (DVI or VGA):
    DVI (or VGA) cable from video monitor to KVM switch
Step Three: Connect computers to interfaces and verify that all pieces are communicating and working properly
It’s important to ensure that everything is working properly prior to installing in the rack. Otherwise, it will be a huge pain in the rear to take apart the rack to replace a faulty component.
Step Four: Install computers in Sonnet Rackmac Mini
This is a little tricky the first time around, but if you read the instructions you’ll see it’s fairly straightforward. Be careful not to tighten the screws too much as they can be easy to strip on the Rackmac Mini.
Step Five: Label everything
I strongly advise labeling everything you can possibly think of. Label as if you’ve been tasked with using up all of the P-Touch tape that exists in the known universe. You, your keyboardists, and your sound team will greatly appreciate this should you ever need to troubleshoot down the road. This step can make the difference between a simple diagnosis and a stopped show.
Here are some of the things that should be labeled:
Audio Interfaces: Label Main and Backup (or A and B) on both front and rear, power, USB (or Thunderbolt) connections
Power cables (both ends)
MIDI cables (both ends)
TRS cables (both ends, and label where each end connects)
Power conditioner (power switch, power cable)
KVM switch (all cables, remote button, USB jacks for keyboard and mouse)
Radial SW8 (audio switch, power cable and wall wart)
IMPORTANT: After placing each label, apply a layer of glossy Scotch tape over the label to prevent it from falling off.
MIDI Solutions Thru (ins and outs)
Step Six: Install components into rack
Set the rack on the floor or on a low surface with the back facing down and the front of the rack facing up toward you.
Place the components in the rack resting on the rack rails in the order that suits your needs. I prefer the following order (top to bottom):
Power conditioner
Space
Rackmac Mini
Space
MOTU B
MOTU A
Space
Radial SW8
This allows for easy access to the components, easy wiring and cable management in the back, and allows space to run cabling from the Radial SW8 through the back of the rig. It’s also important to keep the Rackmac Mini at least a couple of rack units away from the top of the rack or it will be difficult to access the back of the computers. This also allows allows enough room on the rear rack rails should the sound department wish to mount a G-Block on a Steck Mount.
Note that the Main MOTU goes beneath the Backup MOTU. This is intentional as that’s consistent with how the audio will be wired in the rear of the Radial SW8.
Once you’re satisfied with where all of the components will go, secure them into the rack using the rack screws.
Step Seven: Mount the MIDI Solutions Thru on the floor of the inside of the rack
Use the industrial strength Velcro for this, and ensure that there’s enough room for the MIDI cables to connect to it.
Step Seven: Connect the audio and power cables
This is where things get creative. You’ll want to connect and mount the cables one group at a time (computers power cables, interface power cables, audio, MIDI, etc). Make sure you can clearly see the path of the power and audio cables and can access everything easily. You may need to repeat parts of this process in order to fine tune it.
Use the zip ties to connect cables to rack rails or the back of the RackMac Mini and use pieces of the roll of Velcro to hold together groups of audio and MIDI cables.
Dressing the cables will serve two purposes: 1) keeping the back of the rack neat and easily accessible, and 2) helping to prevent cables from becoming disconnected while in transit.
Step Eight: Install the KVM Switch (optional)
This step is only necessary if you’re using two Mac Mini computers. If you’re using two iMacs or two MacBook Pros, you won’t need a KVM switch unless you want to utilize one computer keyboard and mouse to control both computers. However, I recommend keeping things simple and using a separate keyboard and mouse for each computer if you’re using iMacs or MacBook Pros.
Mount the KVM switch on the top of the Rackmac Mini using the industrial strength Velcro. Make sure that the USB ports are facing the front of the rack and are easily accessible. Coil the cable to the remote switch and mount the switch next to the actual KVM so that it’s easily accessible, but secure the cable coil behind the KVM by fastening it to the top of the Rackmac Mini with black electrical tape.
Connect the KVM cables to the Mac Mini computers. You’ll need to use the Apple DVI to HDMI (or VGA to HDMI) adaptors to connect the KVM video connections to the Mac Minis.
Carefully bunch and secure the cables to the rear of the Rackmac Mini using the zip ties.
Step Nine: Connect the MIDI cables
Use the 15’ (or 20’) MIDI cable to connect the MIDI out of the controller keyboard to the MIDI In of the MIDI Solutions Thru box. Connect one of the 3’ MIDI cables from MIDI out A of the MIDI Solutions Thru to the MIDI In of the Main MOTU. Use the other 3’ MIDI cable to connect MIDI out B of the MIDI Solutions Thru to the MIDI In of the Backup MOTU.
Bunch the MIDI cables using a strip of Velcro from the Velcro roll.
Step Ten: Connect the video monitor
Use the included DVI (or VGA) cable to connect the monitor to the KVM switch. Also connect the ICE power cable from the video monitor to the power conditioner in the rack.
Step Eleven: Connect the computer keyboard and mouse
These should be connected to the respective jacks on the KVM switch
Step Twelve: Turn on everything and test
Your rig should function properly at this point unless you’ve connected something incorrectly. If you took the time to test the components prior to assembling the rack, you’ll be able to narrow down the culprit to having made and incorrect connection when assembling the rack. All you’ll need to do is trace your beautifully labeled and dressed cabling until you find the item that’s not corrected correctly.
It’s during this step that you can determine the proper boot up and power down sequence. You should experiment with several different orders and power your rig on and off several times to ensure that it’s working correctly and consistently. Also be sure to test the audio each time, and test both the main and the backup components of the rig as well.
MainStage Programming MainStage Programming
Summary
When using MainStage live, it’s absolutely critical to be mindful of these seemingly small details. Be sure to take the time to really enjoy the process. If you rush, you’ll be more likely to overlook things and to make mistakes. Treat this as an art project and perform the steps beautifully and with attention to detail. It’s actually a very calming and peaceful process, and will serve you well in the future if you take the time to do it properly in the beginning.
I also advise creating a QuickStart guide for your players. It should be one page in length and should address startup and power down procedure in clear, simple bulletpoints.
Enjoy the process, and if you have any questions, I’m always happy to help. Feel free to reach out anytime at:
+1.917.338.7427
Posted on

Review: Loctek Ergonomic Stands and Mounts

As creative professionals, we’re often sitting at our workstations for many hours on end, sometimes to the detriment of our health. Our posture suffers, we get tight quads and hamstrings, IT band issues, and fatigue. I often solve this by keeping a kettlebell sitting out in the middle of the room and taking a break every 45 minutes or so to perform a kettlebell complex. This way, I’ve done a complete workout by the end of the day, I have opportunites to move my body, and I can stay energized and productive much longer. However, I often wish I could do my work standing up. Now, there’s a solution with Loctek Ergonomic’s Sit-Stand Adjustable Workstations.

Loctek makes workstations that are easily assembled and sit on top of an existing desk. When fully collapsed, their workstations allow the user to work in a sitting position. However, the workstations can be extended to allow the user to work from a standing position as well. The workstations are solidly built and come with a tray for a computer keyboard and mouse. Many models have more than adequate room to also hold a laptop computer or other office items. As an added bonus, they’re priced quite reasonably too!

If you’re like me and choose to use more than one video monitor, Loctek has many great solutions. They manufacture a full line of articulated monitor arms, all VESA compatible. One of my favorites is the Loctek 2-In-1 Full Motion Gas Spring Dual Monitor Arm Desk Mounts for Laptop & Monitor (D5DL) which allows you to mount both a video monitor and a laptop computer on two separate articulated arms. This can easily attach to the FlexiSpot Standing Desk – 35″ wide platform Height Adjustable Stand up Desk Riser with Removable Keyboard Tray (M2B-M-SIZE) sit-stand adjustable desk.

I believe that the Loctek line of products will be extremely useful for anyone who spends long hours at their computer, especially those in the creative professions. I can see these being very helpful for composers, orchestrators, music producers, video editors, and graphic designers, just to name a few.

There are enough options to allow for access to all of the usual equipment, and I believe that the Loctek product line will grow to be an essential part of the workflow for any health concious creative professional.

 

Posted on

KVM Switches for MainStage Keyboard Programming

MainStage Keyboard Programming

I’m often asked about the best way to create a redundant computer rig for live theatre. Specifically, for use with MainStage keyboard programming and Ableton Live. A redundant rig with a functioning main and backup scenario would always include two computers, two audio interfaces, a MIDI splitter box such as the MIDI Solutions Thru, an audio switch such as a Radial SW8 and a KVM Switch. While the audio switch allows audio to be sent simultaneously from both the main and the backup interfaces so that with the push of a button the operator can choose the source of the audio that will be sent to FOH, a KVM switch allows the operator to control either the main or the backup computer from the same keyboard and mouse and to choose which computer to view on the video monitor.

It’s often tempting to purchase the fanciest KVM switch available and to utilize HDMI connectors for their superior video quality. However, I’ve found that this is one of those situations where often the simplest solution works the best. After trying many different KVM switches over the years, I often choose a simple IOGEAR 2-Port USB DVI Cable KVM Switch with Cables and Remote, GCS922U for its reliability, ease of use, and excellent price point. Often when using HDMI switches, there’s a considerable lag time when switching from one computer to another. With a VGA or DVI switch, the latency is minimal. The IOGEAR switches are generally “plug and play” with zero setup time, they’re bus powered, and are easy to fit into a rack full of gear.

For live performance, I advise against programming a hot key for switching computers just in case there are any issues with the USB port or bus, or if one of the computers should crash mid-performance. Always use the switch button on the KVM switch for safety purposes.

I highly advise checking out the IOGEAR 2-Port USB DVI Cable KVM Switch with Cables and Remote, GCS922U I’m always happy to discuss options with anyone who is looking for something with more features.

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

jeff@mardermusic.com

+1.917.338.7427

 

Posted on

Do I Really Need A UPS for MainStage Keyboard Programming?

MainStage Keyboard Programming

An issue that comes up frequently when I’m setting up MainStage keyboard programming for new theatrical productions is whether or not to use a UPS for the keyboard and backing track rigs. There are several ways of approaching this issue, and after setting up shows both with and without UPS units, I have some insights on the matter that I believe are worth sharing.

A UPS (uninterruptable power supply) is typically used to provide emergency power via an internal battery when the main source of power is interrupted. This protects against damage to your computers and loss of data. Many UPS units also provide some degree of power conditioning.

In the orchestra pit in a live theatre situation, the keyboard rigs are always connected to power that is supplied by the sound department. This power source always has independent UPS units and power conditioning. Therefore, one could make the argument that a separate UPS for the keyboards is unnecessary. However, there is a strong argument in favor of using a UPS anyway and that is the following. During tech and previews, there are changes being made frequently to the keyboard programming as well as to the sound design and related equipment. It’s entirely possible that the sound department would need to shut down their power unexpectedly without having the opportunity to warn the keyboard programmer. Without a UPS, this would leave the keyboard programmer in the unfortunate position of seeing their rigs power down without the opportunity to save their work. Therefore, it can be an excellent idea to keep a standalone UPS in the orchestra pit throughout the tech and preview period. Check out the APC Back-UPS Pro 1000VA UPS Battery Backup & Surge Protector (BR1000G)
The unit is perfectly fine for this and will give you just enough power to save and properly power down. However, you’ll want to measure the power output of all of the items in your rig and use a unit that will provide enough power to function properly in the event of a power failure.

Once the tech and preview period is over, I always choose to cease using a UPS and instead to use a simple power conditioner in each rig or a power distribution unit with surge protection such as this Furman D10-Pfp 15A Rack Power
As the sound department already has a UPS unit on the power feed going to the pit, an additional UPS in the pit is redundant. More importantly, as a synth programmer, I’m not in the theatre every performance so there’s no way to know if a UPS has been powered down. If the UPS isn’t powered down on a regular basis, the battery is constantly getting drained and the unit loses its efficacy. Eventually, this can cause the UPS to malfunction and not power up the rig, which can be rather inconvenient just prior to a performance.

By using only a power distro unit without a UPS, I can have the players power down the computers and let the rest of the rig power down on its own when the sound department turns off their power. This is actually much easier for all involved and just as effective. Additionally, if the show is a touring production, using a power distro unit instead of a UPS makes the keyboard rig MUCH lighter and easier to move. It’s also much more cost effective.

If performing in a club, community theatre, or place of worship, it can make much more sense to use a UPS as there tend to be few, if any, protocols in place in these situations, thus making them somewhat unpredictable. On a rig in your home, I’d suggest always using a UPS to protect against power failure.

So it’s not necessarily a clear answer on the UPS issue. It all depends on the situation. Hopefully, this article shed some light based based on my personal experience in the field with UPS units and power conditioners.

APC Back-UPS Pro 1000VA UPS Battery Backup & Surge Protector (BR1000G)

Furman D10-Pfp 15A Rack Power

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

jeff@mardermusic.com

+1.917.338.7427

 

Posted on

Review: Yamaha U1SH Silent Piano

Several months ago, I did something that most of my peers would consider to be crazy. I traded in my Steinway Model M grand piano for a Yamaha U1SH upright piano with Yamaha’s Silent feature. I absolutely love Steinways and especially loved the Model M that I owned for the past twelve years, but several months into my switch, I stand by my decision and strongly believe it was one of the best things I could have done.

The motivation for the switch to the Yamaha U1SH

As a professional keyboardist an synthesizer programmer actively working on Broadway, and as someone from a deep classical and jazz background, I consider it essential to own a quality piano for practicing and learning new repertoire. The Steinway M is a wonderful instrument, but not always the most practical in a tight New York City apartment. For years, I’ve maintained separate workspaces in my home for piano practice and for synthesizer programming and composing. In the interest of space and better organization, I decided that it was time to combine these spaces into one.

I contacted Dmitri Shelest of Faust Harrison Pianos in NYC as he was incredibly helpful in assisting me when it was time to purchase a new piano for the orchestra pit of the Broadway production of Disney’s Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre here in town. Dmitri made time for me to test the various Silent and Disklavier options in the Faust Harrison showroom. Once I decided on a model, he worked with me to decided on a fair price to trade in my Steinway and purchase the Yamaha. The process went as smoothly as it possibly could go.

MainStage Programming

Upon delivery, I went about setting up my new rig. Here’s how I did it. I run a MIDI cable from the MIDI out of the Silent Piano control box to a MIDI Solutions Quadra Merge

MainStage Programming

I also run a MIDI cable from an Akai Professional MPK49 keyboard controller to the Quadra Merge box. I connect the MIDI out of the Quadra Merge to the MIDI in of a MOTU UltraLite-MK3 Hybrid FireWire/USB2 Audio Interface

The MOTU is connected to my Apple Mac Mini computer housed in a Sonnet Technologies RackMac Mini housing.

MainStage Programming

I run audio outputs from the MOTU UltraLite to my Mackie 1202 mixer, which sits on top of the Yamaha U1SH, and run a pair of outputs from the Mackie to my Adam A7 near field monitors, also sitting on top of the U1SH. This way, I can use the Yamaha U1SH as my main MIDI controller, but I have the option to use the AKAI should I need aftertouch, pitch bend, or mod wheel. I also run an expression pedal through the AKAI just in case I need that too. I have a video monitor connected to a Loctek D7L

On the Mac Mini I have Apple’s MainStage software, Logic Pro, and Sibelius. I find this setup is incredibly ergonomic and flexible. I can easily switch between composing, synth programming, and practicing and the rig adjusts according to my needs.

How the Yamaha U1SH helps my MainStage programming workflow

First of all, as a NYC apartment dweller, it’s very practical to be able to use the Silent feature on the piano for when I want to practice early in the morning, late at night, or while practicing extremely repetitive figures so that I don’t test the patience of my neighbors. The internal sounds of the U1SH are shockingly good, and I find that I really enjoy practicing with headphones sometimes.

When learning music for Broadway shows, it’s often helpful to practice along with a recording of the show. I have a template set up in Logic for this. For example, when preparing to play the Keyboard Two part for Book Of Mormon recently, I loaded the audio of the monitor mix into a track in Logic and set up a piano sound on another track. I placed markers throughout the file so that I could identify specific locations in the score, and I could practice along with the monitor recording while adjusting the balance between my playing and the track.

For composing, it’s very helpful to be able to jump back and forth between the AKAI controller and the Yamaha depending upon what the part calls for. I can use the Yamaha for keyboard instruments, drums, and guitars, but the AKAI is great for synth patches and strings, just as an example. And the pitch bend and mod wheel are right there when and if I need them.

And for synth programming, it’s so nice to be able to start my work using the Yamaha as my main controller. As most Broadway productions use fully weighted action controllers in the orchestra pit and most of the players come from a strong acoustic piano background, it’s helpful to experience the MainStage patches as the players would approach them.

For backups, I constantly keep a LaCie hard drive connected to the Mac Mini for Time Machine backups, but I also back up to a Glyph drive and to a Dropbox folder.

Though for playing, there’s no substitute for a Steinway Model M (except for a Steinway Model B or D), I find that with the Yamaha U1SH I get so much enjoyment out of the piano and the increased boost to my creativity that I actually don’t miss having the Steinway at all. I can now play piano any time day or night, I can use my rig in ways I couldn’t before, and my workspace now takes up half the amount of space in my apartment. I’ve been so much more productive and creative since making the move.

My thanks go out to Dmitri Shelest and all of the other folks at Faust Harrison for making this such an easy transition. I’m absolutely thrilled with my new piano and can’t imagine working any other way now.

MIDI Solutions Quadra Merge

Akai Professional MPK49

MOTU UltraLite-MK3 Hybrid FireWire/USB2 Audio Interface

Loctek D7L

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

jeff@mardermusic.com

+1.917.338.7427