While I’m grateful that there are now competitors to Mainstage, there are several reasons I believe Mainstage is still the best live performance software on the market. Here are the 3 reasons I think neither Akai or Native Instruments got it right with their first challenge to Mainstage:
At $599 for even the basic version of each setup, both Akai and Native Instruments make Mainstage look like the steal that it is at under $30. Many would argue that you get a keyboard with both Akai and NI’s offerings, which is a fair point. But even when bundling an expensive controller like Novation’s feature laden Remote SL MKII with Mainstage, you’d still walk away with an extra $70 in your pocket.
And the price point only drops (or goes up) from here. Mainstage comes with 10+ gigabytes of amazing plugins and samples. You have to purchase plugins separately with both Akai (you have to buy 3rd party samples unless you stick with the limited free plugins) or buy Native Instrument only plugins with their offering (I dropped $500 for my Komplete plugin suite).
If Mainstage’s plugins were sub-par, I’d have a harder argument to make. But Apple continues to upgrade their built-in synths, and sonic aficionados as wide ranging as Lady Gaga and Nine Inch Nails opening admit to using Mainstage’s software VSTs both live and in the studio.
Both Akai and Native Instruments’ virtual instrument platform are only truly effective with the integrated keyboard they sell, meaning if you want to take advantage of all the additional features they offer, you’ll have to stick with the integrated keyboard. If you go with another keyboard (it’s not clear yet if Akai’s VIP software will even work without their keyboard), you lose any advantage that the software/hardware integration offers.
Switching out keyboards might not be an issue to some, but I often need to control Mainstage with both a 88 note hammer action keyboard and my trusty 61 key midi controller, and I don’t want to lose functionality just because a switch instruments.
Also, I am increasingly moving from venue to venue for shows, using whatever midi controller they have available. Switching to one of Mainstage’s alternatives would make me have to haul my keyboard on flights and tour buses every show I play.
Lack of proper third party support
While it looks like Akai’s system will host 3rd party plugins, Native Instruments only tightly integrates with NI’s software plugins. While everything Native Instruments make is top-notch, there are still third party plugins I use, and keeping me from using them live is a deal-breaker for a professional that needs the best sounds.
Akai’s software appears to be more flexible, but I doubt that by itself it will be an improvement on Mainstage. In the past Akai has often struggled with user interfaces (MPC 2000, anyone?) , and I wouldn’t be surprised if this software system is somehow “locked” to their Advance keyboards, or loses most of the advantages when switched with another keyboard.
I’m happy that their are competitors to Mainstage starting to surface. There has been a huge need for robust performance software for keyboardists for quite some time, and until now Apple’s Mainstage has been virtually the only option. While I don't think either Native Instruments or Akai got it right the first time around, that doesn't mean they won't eventually create something amazing. To be honest, Mainstage 1.0 wasn't that great, either.
Perhaps the rise of these new competitors will force Apple to do what it does best when faced with competition: step up the game, innovate, and create something even more remarkable. Or perhaps it’s competitors will overtake Mainstage, turning it into a relic of the past.
Until then that day comes, I’m sticking with the innovative program that makes it so easy to create and perform live: I’m sticking with Mainstage.