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.Continue reading How to Build a Toolkit for Broadway Keyboard Programming
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 for MainStage
Close all programs not needed for MainStage
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.Continue reading MainStage 3 Tutorial: Optimizing Computer Performance
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:
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.
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.
I see many forum posts in which people are attempting to build MainStage rigs for musical theatre on a budget, so I thought it would be helpful to offer some suggestions for combinations of gear that would allow someone to assemble a MainStage rig for live performance that won’t break the bank. There are many fantastic options out there that don’t require taking out a second mortgage. I’ll offer some pros and cons on the various options and will offer several possibilities at the lower end of the price range that will still offer quality performance.
The first piece of gear to think about is your computer. In the interest of portability, I’ll be focusing on laptop options, so I’ll be presenting some possibilities for MacBook Pro computers.
Bare minimum specs for a MacBook Pro for using MainStage in a live setting are:
15” screen: better visibility, comes with a Quad-Core processor
16 GB RAM: You’ll need this RAM if you’re going to load many layers or plan to use external plugins. Also, it’ll help your machine to run quicker and smoother.
256 GB solid state drive: With no moving parts, an SSD drive will be much more reliable for a portable rig and will load much quicker. I consider 256 GB a bare minimum as by the time you add the full MainStage library and save a few versions of your concert, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll use up the space.
A brand new 15” MacBook Pro from Apple with 16GB RAM and a 256GB SSD will set you back $2,399.00 (not including AppleCare). But if you’re willing to order a model that’s a few years old, you can still get the same specs, albeit with a slower and older version of the Quad-Core processor in a refurbished or used model from Apple or from Mac Of All Trades for $1,699 or $1,299 respectively.
I’ve purchased several refurbished computers from Apple and have been very pleased with all of them. I’ve never purchased from Mac Of All Trades, though I have sold computers to them. They’ve always been a pleasure to work with and their customer service is excellent.
If you don’t have strict needs with regard to the number of physical
outputs you need, you’ll have many options here. I recommend getting an interface with at least four physical outputs so that you have the options of sending sound effects through a separate stereo pair or using the extra pair for monitoring. If you plan to run backing tracks or a click track, you’ll want to consider at least eight outputs, though you’d be better off with sixteen.
There’s also the issue of connectivity. I like to opt for USB interfaces given how rapidly technology changes. This way, you’re not committed to thunderbolt (as an example) only to find that after purchasing a new computer in a few years you suddenly need to update your interface too or else be forced to use an adaptor (which I strongly advise against). I’ve been using USB connections on all of my shows and everything has been running extremely smoothly, whether it’s six channels from MainStage or sixteen channels from Ableton.
Here are a couple of options for reasonably price audio interfaces that will deliver solid sound and reliability:
At $249.99, it’s hard to not like this interface. These Focusrite interfaces are known to have decent sound quality and low latency. As a bonus, this model has four analog outputs, so there’s room for flexibility with your output routing.
I make no secret of being a huge fan of MOTU products. In fact, I like them so much that I even became an authorized dealer. MOTU offers exceptional sound quality, low latency, rock solid MIDI performance, and excellent customer support. The UltraLite-mk4 offers eight analog outputs (ten outputs if you include the main outputs too). Even though this unit is over twice the price of the Focusrite, you’ll get an improvement in sound quality and more outputs. The advantage here is that it’ll likely be quite a bit more time before you need to update your rig if you go with the MOTU right off the bat.
Just a quick warning about certain MOTU products: The AVB series of interfaces sound great and work fantastic for recording or track playback, but I’ve always found their MIDI response to be glitchy for live use with MainStage. Fortunately, MOTU has many other available products that work fantastic.
There are many options in addition to the two I’ll list below, but I limited my search based on several criteria:
The keyboard must be an 88-key instrument with weighted action
It must have at least three pedal inputs (sustain, assignable, and volume)
There must be a MIDI output. I won’t use any keyboard that doesn’t have a MIDI output. I find that it’s much more reliable in live performance, makes setting up a redundant rig much easier, and is one less item to take up the valuable USB ports on the computer.
The keyboard must have pitch bend and mod wheel unless I’m working on a project that specifically doesn’t need these features.
This keyboard has it all. Honestly, I’ve never been a fan of the Kurzweil action, but I’m listing this keyboard because it has all of the other features I mentioned above, and all at a very reasonable price. Though Yamaha offers the CP40, I’m not a fan of this unit for live use due to its plastic body, which I consider too easy to damage.
This instrument is strictly a controller, but I list it as a budget priced option. M-Audio has passable action, though I wouldn’t want to play the Wicked K1 book on it every night. But for $399.00, it’s a great unit to bring to gigs that you can leave unattended in an orchestra pit during a run without having to do guided meditation every night over fear of theft or damage.
As you can see, a MainStage rig for live use needn’t cost a fortune. With some creativity and flexibility, you can assemble a rig for as little as $2,000. Just add another two to three hundred dollars for pedals, cables, and a stand and you’re all set.
In a future post, I’ll offer some options for creating a redundant rig on a budget. I hope you find this helpful, and do feel free to reach out if I can answer any questions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Export the patch to be shared: In EDIT Mode, highlight the patch that needs to be shared.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- When prompted as to whether you’d like to save your changes, select save.
Image E: Saving the changes
- Close the instrument by clicking on the grey dot in the upper left hand corner of the EXS24 instrument.
Image F: Closing the instrument
- 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
And here is a front view of the same rig in the orchestra pit:
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.
If you have any additional questions, feel free to contact me anytime at:
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 to 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.Continue reading Yamaha U1SH Silent Piano Review