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How to Build a Toolkit for Broadway Keyboard Programming

tools for keyboard programming

When setting up a new show, I find there are certain tools that are absolutely indispensable for the work I do onsite. For a moderate sum of money, it’s easy to assemble a basic toolkit to bring to the theatre that will cover nearly everything you need. I usually put my tools in a small duffel bag or Pelican case so I can place the items with my checked bags and transport to the theatre separate from my personal luggage. This list is by no means complete, but it will cover some basic items that will go a long way.

Multi-Tool

You’ll need a multi-tool such as the Leatherman – Wave Plus Multitool, Stainless Steel as it will have most of the standard tools you’ll need such as a blade, scissors, screwdriver, etc. This is a great tool to have with you at all times. However, even though it has many options, I find it’s best to also have tools specific to their individual tasks as listed below.

Leatherman Multitool
Leatherman Wave Plus Multitool

 

Flashlight

For finding your way around a rack in a dark orchestra pit, a flashlight is an absolute must. I prefer a tactical flashlight such as this PowerTac E20 1180 Lumen LED Rechargeable EDC Tactical Flashlight. It’s an LED flashlight, is rechargeable, it’s incredibly bright, and extremely reasonably priced.

Powertac e20 tactical flashlight
Powertac E20 Tactical Flashlight

 

Headlamp

Every Broadway keyboard programming toolkit should also have a headlamp as there will be times when you need both hands free to work on a MainStage rig, so walking around with a bright light shining from your forehead is optimal. Something like this Pelican 2760 Headlamp is a fantastic option. Pelican products are known for being rock solid and indestructible.

Pelican 2760 Headlamp
Pelican 2760 Headlamp

Phillips Head Screwdriver

Even though your Leatherman multitool will have a built in Phillips head screwdriver, it’s extremely helpful to have a standalone screwdriver as it’ll be easier to use for reaching into hard to access places and you’ll be able to work much faster with it. Some folks prefer to have an electric screwdriver and while I’ll admit that they’re incredibly helpful and convenient, I find I’d rather not carry around the extra weight. For your screwdriver, any old model will do, so I’d suggest going with something like this STANLEY 68-012M All-In-One 6-Way Screwdriver which is well constructed, includes 6 different tips, and is incredibly inexpensive.

Stanley 68-012M Screwdriver
Stanley 68-012M Screwdriver

 

Wireless Router

It’s extremely helpful to have a wireless gigabit router to enable remote access to the computers in the MainStage rigs. Relying on the existing WiFi networks in the theatre can be quite unreliable. Setting up a local area network is easy and extremely convenient for tweaking levels from the house, doing quick troubleshooting, and file management. Something like this Linksys EA6350 Wi-Fi Wireless Dual-Band+ Router with Gigabit & USB Ports works very nicely.

Linksys EA6350 Dual Band Gigabit Router
Linksys EA6350 Dual Band Gigabit Router

 

Industrial Strength Velcro

It’s always helpful to have a supply of industrial strength velcro in packaging such as VELCRO Brand – Industrial Strength | Indoor & Outdoor Use | Heavy Duty, Superior Holding Power on Smooth Surfaces | Size 15ft x 2in | Tape, Black – Pack of 1 as this can be used for a multitude of purposes such as securing a KVM switch, securing a computer keyboard, etc. It’s a great perishable utility item to have around.

VELCRO Brand - Industrial Strength
VELCRO Brand – Industrial Strength

Velcro Rip-Tie

It’s always helpful to have a supply of Rip-Tie 1/2 x 10 ft. Wrap Strap Black Roll W-10-1RL-BK as sometimes it’s necessary to secure cables, but not permanently as with plastic cable ties. These Rip-Ties can be easily repurposed and cut to different sizes as needed.

Velcro Rip-Tie
Velcro Rip-Tie

Cable Ties

For a more permanent solution to your cable management, it’s always helpful to have a combination of sizes of cables ties such as the Cable Matters (Combo Pack) 200 Self-Locking 6+8+12-Inch Nylon Cable Ties (Tie Wraps/Zip Ties) in Black & White

Cable Ties for MainStage Programming
Cable Ties

 

Label Maker

When building a MainStage or Ableton rig for Broadway keyboard programming, it’s absolutely essential to label every element of the rig. I always carry a Brother label maker with me, such as this Brother P-touch, PTD210, Easy-to-Use Label Maker, One-Touch Keys, Multiple Font Styles, 27 User-Friendly Templates, White.

Brother P-Touch Label Maker PTD210
Brother P-Touch Label Maker PTD210

 

P-Touch Tape

And of course, don’t forget spare tape for your Brother P-Touch label maker! Brother Genuine P-touch M-231 Tape, 1/2″ (0.47″) Standard P-touch Tape, Black on White, for Indoor Use, Water Resistant, 26.2 Feet (8M), Single-Pack

Brother Genuine P-touch M-231 Tape
Brother Genuine P-touch M-231 Tape

Electrical Tape

It’s always helpful to have electrical tape handy in a variety of colors. This way you can color code cables (green for main, red for backup) or use red tape to tie back cables that aren’t being used. If you pick up a value pack of a variety of colors, you’ll be covered for a long time. Try this 3M Scotch 35 Electrical Tape Value Pack (10457NA) for your keyboard programming toolkit.

3M Scotch Electrical Tape Value Pack
3M Scotch Electrical Tape Value Pack

Scotch Tape

Remember all of those labels you made with your new Brother P-Touch machine? Unfortunately, they’ll have a tendency to fall off over time unless you cover up those labels with some clear transparent glossy Scotch Tape. Purchasing several rolls in bulk is very cheap and will make your life a lot easier: Scotch Transparent Tape, Standard Width, Engineered for Office and Home Use, Clear Finish, 3/4 x 850 Inches, 4 Rolls (4814)

Scotch Tape
Scotch Tape

Wire Cutters

This is a big one. You’ll need wire cutters to remove plastic zip ties and to trim the ends off of them once you secure your cables. This will make your cable dressing much neater and cleaner. Try something like this model: IRWIN VISE-GRIP Diagonal Cutting Pliers, 6″, 2078306

Wire Cutters
Wire Cutters

 

Scissors

You’ll need a pair of scissors to cut those labels and pieces of electrical tape at some point. You don’t need anything fancy: Scotch Precision Scissor, 6-Inches (1446), 1-pack

Scissors
Scissors

Box Cutter

You’ll need a blade to open all of those fancy gadgets you just purchased for the production. You could use your Leatherman, but opening up a lot of packaging won’t be good for your blades. Better to pick up an inexpensive box cutter for such a task: Stanley 10-099 6 in Classic 99® Retractable Utility Knife, 1-Pack

Box cutter
Box cutter

Pelican 1510 Case With Foam

While this item isn’t a necessity, it’s very convenient to have for your Broadway keyboard programming toolkit. It’s great to be able to keep your tools separate from your personal items and to keep them organized. Also, if you’re flying, you won’t be able to bring your tools in your carryon due to the knives. This way you can just check your bag with all of your tools, which makes flying much easier. I’m a huge fan of Pelican cases. They’re virtually indestructible, they last forever, and they’re reasonably priced. Of course you could go with a duffel bag or whatever form factor makes sense for your situation. I just prefer my trusty Pelican case: Pelican 1510 Case With Foam (Black)

Pelican 1510 Case With Foam
Pelican 1510 Case With Foam

Summary

And that’s one way to build a toolkit for Broadway keyboard programming. This has worked quite well for me for many years and I find it’s incredibly convenient to keep everything stored together and ready to go at a moment’s notice. You might also consider acquiring a set of Allen wrenches, some gaff tape, and/or an electric screwdriver. It all depends upon how much you want to carry and what your specific needs are. Regardless, you should definitely have something ready to go which contains some staple items that you know you’ll need on a regular basis.

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The MainStage Rigs of the Broadway Show Gettin’ the Band Back Together

Gettin' the Band Back Together

I recently had the pleasure to set up the MainStage rigs as the synthesizer programmer for the new Broadway production Gettin’ the Band Back Together. It’s a fantastic production with great music, hilarious jokes, a fun story, and freakin’ amazing band and cast!

Overview

The MainStage rigs are fairly standard redundant MainStage rigs, but I’ve managed to squeeze a bit of extra functionality out of them. Keyboard One (K1) is comprised of a standard MainStage rig with the addition of a Hammond XK5 organ running through a NEO Ventilator 2 Leslie simulator. Keyboard Two (K2) is a standard redundant MainStage rig. I built each of these MainStage rigs as per my earlier post on how to build redundant rigs for live performance. For audio interfaces, we’re using the MOTU UltraLite mk4 and we’re using Radial SW8 audio switchers.

MainStage Rigs
MainStage Rigs for Gettin’ the Band Back Together

Click Tracks

On this production, we wanted to use click on nearly every song, but only had a few places in which we wanted to trigger any timecode or sound effects. Therefore, we couldn’t justify the expense for a separate Ableton rig. I couldn’t use the metronome that’s built into MainStage as some cues required tempo changes mid-song. I considered using the Playback plug-in, but there’s too much latency when triggering cues. I finally found a great solution in the EXS24, thus allowing us to send click from the MainStage rigs.

I created a template in Logic for building clicks. Using the EXS24, I created a high pitched woodblock click for each downbeat and a lower pitched woodblock click for the other beats. I then recorded my voice counting to four and chopped these up so I could create varieties of count-offs. I placed markers throughout the project as per the form of the song and built tempo changes into the tempo map of the project. 

After bouncing the click and the count-off together as 44.1/16 WAV, I imported the file into a new EXS24 instrument mapped to the note C-1. I created a new EXS24 instrument for each click.

Depending upon whether the click was needed for one entire song or section of song, I’d either load the EXS24 instrument with the click at the set level or the patch level. In the K1 rig is a MIDI Solutions F8, which I use for the switch pedals that will operate the click. The START pedal is mapped to send Note On to C-1 to start the click. The STOP pedal is mapped to C#-1. I mapped C#-1 in MainStage to send “all notes off” to the EXS24 click channel strip.

MainStage rigs
K1 MainStage Rig for Gettin’ the Band Back Together

Integration with FOH

There are a few places in which we needed to send timecode or a series of sound effects, but needed a quick and simple way to implement this. We achieved this by using a MIDI Solutions Quadra Thru. The K1 keyboard controller runs into the Quadra Thru’s MIDI In, and the MIDI Outs of the Quadra Thru go to the MOTU UltraLite mk4 Main, Backup, and to a MIDI Line Amplifier (MLA). The MLA then converts the signal to XLR to send to the front of house console where it’s routed to the QLab rig. Within QLab, C-1 is set to receive MIDI per cue. When it receives a Note On message from the K1 rig on channel 1, that signal either triggers timecode or an audio stem of sound effects.

MainStage rigs
K1 Footswitches

Achieving an Authentic Hammond Sound

As for the Hammond XK5, we wanted an authentic Leslie sound, but I’m not a fan of using a Leslie cabinet in a theatrical situation. They’re not reliable enough, they make a ton of noise backstage, and a slight accidental microphone movement can affect the mix drastically. Once I heard the NEO Ventilator 2, I was hooked. We use a Hammond CU-1 half-moon switch as a remote for the Ventilator, which required some adjustments to the stock settings. Also, I needed to tweak the Leslie acceleration and deceleration speed on the Ventilator and the EQ on the XK5, but eventually we achieved a sound that was quite authentic and that sits well in the mix.

The Keyboard Two Rig

The K2 rig was much more straightforward and was also built according the earlier post on how to build a redundant MainStage rig. However, there are several places in the show where the drummer needs to leave the drum booth and run to the stage to play drums in a scene as a member of the onstage band. During the underscoring cues in which he’s either onstage or in transit between the stage and the pit, I built drum loops to be triggered by the K2 player. 

In Logic, I used samples from the stock Native Instruments Komplete drum libraries to construct loops based on the drum parts in the score. Our K2 player then triggers these as one-shots during the scenes in which the drummer is moving between the pit and the stage. I’m assuming the loops work well in the house based on a moment in tech rehearsal in which our K2 player was testing the loops on his keyboard and the choreographer asked the drummer to stop playing.

MainStage rigs
K2 MainStage Rig for Gettin’ the Band Back Together

The Drum Rig

Our drummer is also using a Roland SPD-SX in addition to his acoustic drum kit. We use it mainly for sound effects and for some 808 drum kit sounds. However, there’s also a section in which he triggers a drum loop that he created on the unit. He used the internal SPD sounds to play and record the loop directly on the unit. I then recorded that audio into Logic for further editing. I adjusted the audio to place the hits exactly in time with the tempo grid and added some additional processing and layering within Logic to give the loop a bit more fullness. I then imported the new loop back into the SPD so it could be triggered with a pad.

Summary

Gettin’ the Band Back Together is currently running at the Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street in New York, NY. The show is hilarious, the music is great, and the band is rocking’. Sound designer John Shivers designed a beautiful mix that sounds incredibly full and authentic. This week, we’re recording a cast album at Power Station Studios which will be released on Ghostlight Records. I highly recommend checking out this incredibly fun show!

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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.

 

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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
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MainStage 3 Tutorial: How to Edit Tunings of EXS24 Samples in MainStage

MainStage Tutorial

I this MainStage tutorial, we’ll look at how to edit pitches in the EXS24 sampler.

It’s not uncommon to discover that one particular sample in an EXS24 instrument is out of tune slightly, particularly if resampled from an external sound library or instrument via Auto Sampler. Or, it may be necessary to adjust the pitch of a sound effect to achieve the desired result. In this post, we’ll explore how to do this.

 

  1. The first step is to open the EXS24 instrument you’d like to edit by clicking on the plugin within the channel strip in MainStage. This will open a window that looks like Image A below, which is the stock harp patch in MainStage.

Image A: Opening MainStage instrument

MainStage Tutorial

  1. Next, click on the edit button just to the right side of the instrument name (immediately above the level fader) to open the edit window.

Image B: Opening the edit window

MainStage Tutorial

  1. Now highlight the sample you wish to edit. You can do this by striking the key on your MIDI keyboard that corresponds to the note you need to edit or by simply highlighting it with the computer mouse. In this case, we’ll edit the pitch of note D4. Once you’ve highlighted D4, you’ll see something that looks like Image C.

Image C: Highlighting the note/sample you wish to edit

MainStage Tutorial

  1. Since in this case, we’ll be editing the fine tuning of the pitch, we’ll double click the number in the column corresponding to the fine tuning of the highlighted sample. However, you could highlight any of the elements you wish to edit.

Image D: Selecting the fine tuning

MainStage Tutorial

  1. Now simple type the number that corresponds to the degree to which you need to adjust the tuning. In this case, I’ve already checked the pitch against the built in tuning from MainStage, so I know that the pitch needs to be adjusted up by 10 cents. Therefore, I’ll type the number 10 into the highlighted area. If we needed to adjust the note down by 10 cents, we’d simply type “-10” instead of “10”. In the upper left corner of the edit screen, you’ll see a red dot. Click on this red dot to open the prompt to save.
  1. When prompted as to whether you’d like to save your changes, select save.

Image E: Saving the changes

MainStage Tutorial

  1. Close the instrument by clicking on the grey dot in the upper left hand corner of the EXS24 instrument.

Image F: Closing the instrument

MainStage Tutorial

  1. Save the concert and reopen it. Your changes should now take effect for any instances of the edited instrument.

You could use this process to edit any of the parameters in the EXS24 instrument. This is particularly helpful if you’re unsatisfied with the tuning of a particular note, need to edit the range of a note, or if you need to adjust the volume of specific samples.

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

jeff@mardermusic.com

+1.917.338.7427

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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