Mainstage Mondays: Creating a Hardware/Software Keyboard Rig
I love Mainstage, but like all software, there’s the chance that it could crash live. I love hardware, but it lacks a lot of the functionality and power that software synths offer. Starting last year, I made a decision that if I could help it, I would never rely completely on just hardware or software exclusively, and I started developing a hybrid rig that had redundancy, reliability, and a ton of sonic power. Here’s how I did it:
1. I bought a great hardware synth. I started with buying a Nord Stage, my personal favorite hardware keyboard on the market. It does a great job of covering everything electro mechanical (pianos, organs, electric pianos, etc), and it’s nearly one-knob-per function, making it super easy to program (I have a strong dislike for many of the workstation keyboards on the market because of the clunky user interfaces that many have).
2. I bought a flexible and powerful audio interface. My choice was MOTU’s Microbook II. The main reason I got this interface is it has bullet-proof audio drivers, a separate Cue Mix mixing software that can route any signal to any combination of outputs, and it’s tiny. I then routed my Nord’s output into the Microbook, and then I usually route the monitor from the stage mix into the XLR input of the Microbook.
I then set up a mix where I could balance the levels of Nord and Mainstage together, along with the monitor input from the monitor engineer. I then was able to send a separate mono-summed mix through the output of just the Nord and Mainstage to the FOH. So far, it works like a charm, and it’s been super stable for me.
Even if Mainstage crashes, the audio interface continues to function separately through the Cue Mix software, and I’m able to use my Nord Stage while I trouble shoot (this situation hasn’t come up yet- I’ve yet to have Mainstage crash since I bought the Microbook).
3. Midi in from the Nord. Rather than have my Novation Remote MkII 61 keyboard be the only way to control Mainstage, I often choose to layer synth sounds by wiring the midi output to the midi in on my Novation, keeping cables to a minimum. In the past before I had the Novation keyboard, I’ve used a cheap midi-to-USB adapter to accomplish the same thing.
There are a couple of obvious drawbacks: this rig uses a few more wires than using Mainstage alone with two bus-powered midi controllers (there’s two more wires, to be exact). This may not be a big deal to some, but if you’re in a tremendous hurry this can count.
The second drawback is price: the Nord costs about $4,500, compared to my old 88 note keyboard that I bought for the whopping total of $270. That’s a huge difference, but if you’re in a situation where you can’t afford to lose audio for even a few seconds, it pays to buy quality. And quality ain’t cheap.
I’m convinced this is the route that most serious keyboardists need to take in the 21st century- a mixture of powerful software, combined with dedicated hardware in case something goes wrong. I’ve been duty testing my hybrid setup for the past year, and I’ve been extremely pleased with the result. It’s easy to program, easy to set up, and gives a level of reliability I could never had with Mainstage alone.
What does your Mainstage rig look like? Write me, and I might feature your rig in a future Mainstage Monday!