I received this note from a reader this week:
Hi Eric. I'm interested in your thoughts on playing in the box. Like many people you use a Nord Stage which I imagine you like to have available whenever possible as you perform with other people.
The Nord has a great sample library option that gives you a load of wonderful sounding and vibey pianos, eps, wurlies, clavs, and synths. Do you ever use the internal sounds when you perform or record or are all of your instruments software based? Thanks for your feedback.
Thanks for writing! Yes, I love my Nord Stage, and it is definitely an important part of my live rig. Both software like MainStage and hardware like the Nord have advantages. Here’s what I think each offers:
With the Nord Stage there’s so much hands on control that it’s easy to tweak or dial up a sound live. I regularly tweak the FX on the Nord live, and it’s amazing being able to reach out and adjust drawbars instantly.
While it’s not true of all hardware keyboards, hardware’s dedicated controllers can really help you get the sounds you need when you need them. Also, because of the all-in-one-nature of hardware keyboards, it’s super fast to setup and tear down at shows.
I’ve never hit the power button on my Nord and had it not power up perfectly and consistently work throughout the set with zero glitches.
I’ve stress tested the Nord on beaches, rainy stages, and even extreme Minnesota cold with no problem, and I feel like most modern keyboards hold up about the same under demanding conditions.
So why even use software? There are a lot of reasons, but here are a few crucial reasons I keep coming back to software:
1. Sound quality
Despite advances in hardware, software still has the most sonically amazing sounds on the planet. Because of the cost-limitations of hardware, manufacturers have to limit internal hard drive size, resulting in them having to sacrifice sound quality. To add perspective, most of the sample libraries I have on my laptop are bigger than the entire internal memory used for samples on my Nord Stage.
Also, when you use software you can use plugins from thousands of manufacturers, not just one manufacturer. This allows you to build your own sound set, and pick and choose what samples most speak to you.
Software, particularly MainStage, can do almost anything you imagine live. You can stack 20 strings patches for a massive orchestral sound, use it as an FX processor for your vocals while playing synths, or build a live monitor mixing rig. And all this power can fit inside a 13 inch laptop.
It’s also flexible as to what hardware you need. I’m writing this blog on the road, and the only keyboard I have along is a 32 mini-key Axiom AIR that fits in my laptop bag. When I get to my show, I’ll be plugging in three controller keyboards to my laptop to control MainStage. By untangling the sound generator from the controller, you’re free to add any controllers you need at the moment.
Fortunately we don’t have to choose in this era of cheap keyboard peripherals. When I run things live, I like to combine the sound sources of my Nord with MainStage, and send a combination of the two signals to front of house for mixing.
I let each piece of gear do what it’s great at: MainStage handles all of the strings, pads, synths and any song-specific sounds, and I use the Nord for bread-and-butter organ, rhodes, and pianos. For a detailed description of how I set it all up, here’s a blog I wrote about it.
Bottom line? No one way of setting up a keyboard rig is going to work for everyone. Experiment, and when you get something that works for you, send me an email and let me know about it. Thanks!