When I started gigging again back in 2011 I was using a heavy, inflexible beast from the 1990s, a 60 pound Roland A-90 that – along with its sonic limitations – virtually guaranteed regular chiropractic visits. When it died two years later, its replacements offered other problems. The Korg SV-1 was 15 pounds lighter, though still cumbersome, and it was functionally limited. It offered zero layering and splitting capabilities and its organ sounds were simply terrible. I added a second keyboard – a 31 pound Kurzweil PC3LE6 – that really shined in some areas, but now I was lugging around two heavy-ish keyboards that still didn’t do everything I wanted. Add to that a QSC K12 for my keyboard amp, and at the end of an evening my back was ready to cry uncle, not to mention my ringing ears. I considered purchasing a Nord, but in additional to the exceedingly high price, these keyboards also have imitations. I was looking for something to offer me flexibility without breaking the bank or my back.
A year ago I started to seriously consider updating my gear to a laptop based system, and after months of research, several purchases, a steep learning curve and countless hours of frustration, I am now playing live with a new setup that’s got one foot in the 21st Century while still offering the stability and simplicity of a 20th Century rig. Here are the specifics:
Nektar Panorama P6 61 key controller keyboard (used)
Casio PX-5S 88 weighted keyboard (used)
MacBook Pro (used)
Mainstage 3 software
IK Media Sample Tank software
Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 (2nd Gen) audio interface
USB port (used)
2U Rack mount case
Rack mount Power Supply (used)
3 keyboard pedals
Shure SE 215 headphones with self-made in ears molds using Radians custom molds
Call it a keyboard rig for the aging rocker who still wants to stay relevant. The price? I purchased both keyboards, the MacBook, the USB port and power supply secondhand, saving me around $1000. All told, my new gear cost somewhere around the price I would have spent on a new Nord keyboard.
A couple of points:
The Casio PX-5S is the best-kept secret in the keyboarding world. It sounds great, it’s flexible and I can carry it under one arm. It’s staggering light – only 23 pounds – and I personally love the feel of the keys. The Nektar Panorama P6 only weighs 17 pounds. So in essence I went from carrying 76 pounds of keyboards to 40 pounds. Nice.
I no longer take an amp with me when I gig. Instead, I use my Shure headphone and directly monitor my keys along with a PA vocal feed through my audio interface. No more heavy amps and I’m guaranteed to be able to hear myself without subjecting my ears to deafening sounds.
I use soft synths for my top controller keyboard only. I use the internal Casio sounds (while still programming patch changes with Mainstage), partly because I like the sounds and partly because it provides me with a backup in case of catastrophic computer failure. No matter what, I'll be able to get through a gig. I basically use the Casio for pianos, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, clavs, Vox Continental, Farfisa and some pads and strings, but it can do a lot more in a pinch.
I run both the Casio and the softsyths through the Focusrite and out the back in mono - each panned hard right or left - so that the audio engineer still has flexibility to change volumes. I've learned that this is a better way to go (for me, at least) because sometimes the volumes I set during rehearsals need tweaking when playing live.
My rack mount contains my audio interface, mult-USB port, Power supply and all the cables I need to set up, which I can complete in about seven minutes. I use Velcro strips to adhere my rack mount onto a music stand, and I use additional strips to adhere my MacBook to my rack mount. Easy, cheap, flexible and – to date – accident free.
Similarly, I adhered all three keyboard pedals onto a 11” x 14” canvas board (painted black) with Velcro strips. This keeps my pedals from sliding around, and it’s light and easy to carry.
All you Apple lovers out there who told me that MacBooks are the best and I would wonder why I didn’t switch to Apple years ago, I cry bullshit. My MacBook freezes and crashes at inopportune times just like my PCs do. It’s a computer, and an inflexible and overpriced computer at that, but I wanted to use Mainstage to play live so I had no choice. Fortunately the most significant problems have occurred during rehearsals and not during live performances.
Speaking of which, Mainstage is an amazing value but also amazingly frustrating to use. Yes, everything can be configured if you have enough hours in the day, but it could be oh so much better. I am not a MIDI guru – I know just enough to be dangerous – and this is no doubt the source of much of my frustration, but Mainstage makes me work very hard to do some very simple tasks. Still, once you get things set, there’s nothing as wonderful as pressing a button and having all of your song settings appear. I no longer spend my time on stage trying to select the correct patch at the correct time, and I enjoy performing live much more as a result.
The sounds that come with Mainstage – particularly the organs and synths – are amazing and allow for endless tweaking to get the sound you need. I purchased SampleTank to help supplement some of Mainstage’s shortcomings, particularly the horns and strings, and for piano, Rhodes, etc. I use my Casio’s internal sounds, and although they’re not as strong as my SV-1’s patches, they’re certainly sufficient and enjoyable to play, and they're much better than Mainstage's pianos.
I have odd ear canal sizes and I wasn’t able to get my Shure headphones to stay in place consistently and block out enough room noise. Rather than having proper in-ear molds created, I purchased Radians ear molds and created my own based on some youtube videos I watched. Cheap and effective.
All in all, the switch to a laptop based system has achieved what I’d hoped for: a lighter rig with better sounds and more flexibility. It’s been a source of frustration to be sure, and I don’t even want to think about how many hours it took me to learn how to use the gear properly and to program patches for my bands, but ultimately it was a challenging and rewarding experience. In a way, it helped me to reengage with music that had become a bore to play and allowed me to examine each song’s potential, challenging me to make the song sound as good as possible. Performing is much more fulfilling as a result, not to mention less back-breaking, and I also feel like this is a rig that can grow with me rather than being bogged down with a expensive keyboards that only do certain things well.