Live Music Software Setup Suggestions


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I am very new to the soft-synth world and my goal is to have my laptop and 3 controllers on my stand for live gigs. In my perfect world, I would have a different sound/patch/sample/loop/etc. on each controller, all being housed on the 1 laptop. Would that just be 3 different software platforms and a separate midi channel for each? Or would I need a host program that manages everything between the 3 controllers and my sounds? Is there a setup where I could type in/select the name of the song and the 3 sounds are automatically set for that song? Any help is greatly appreciated! Cheers!
 
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SeaGtGruff

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I would go with a single host running your various plug-ins, because I'd think that would simplify any possible timing (MIDI clock) issues. Some soft synths or VI collections may have their own host program, and you might not be able to use those as plug-ins from another host. So it might help to know which specific soft synths and VIs you want to use, although I think most of them can be used as plug-ins.

My favorite DAW for plug-in hosting is Acoustica Mixcraft. I'm not saying it's the best DAW there is, and it might not be as full-featured as some of the more expensive DAWs. Also, Mixcraft is for Windows only, so you won't be able to use it on a macOS or Linux laptop. But some of the reasons I like Mixcraft are as follows:

(1) The 64-bit version of Acoustica Mixcraft can use either 32-bit or 64-bit plug-ins without needing a special bridge program. Or I suppose it does need to use a bridge, but the point is that any such bridge is built into the program. It has become common for other 64-bit DAWs to run only 64-bit plug-ins, and to require you to manually install some bridge program if you want to use 32-bit plug-ins with them. With Mixcraft you don't have that hassle, and no need to worry about whether your favorite plug-in is 32-bit or 64-bit.

(2) Mixcraft has a Performance Panel which can be toggled on or off in front of the tracks. This Performance Panel is for launching clips in the same way that Ableton Live does-- and to be fair, Bitwig Studio has a similar mode as well. So if you're interested in using a controller that has a matrix of pads to launch clips, it isn't necessary to spend a lot more money on Ableton Live just so you can do that.

(3) Mixcraft lets you assign multiple MIDI outs to a MIDI track, whereas any other DAW I've seen limits you to just one MIDI out per track. This makes it easy to take a single MIDI input-- say, from a master keyboard controller-- and use a single MIDI channel from that master controller to create a series of layers and splits based on specific note ranges, and assign each layer or split to a different VI. You can even create a stack of multiple VIs like this and then save it as a single preset, such that you can later add a new MIDI track and select that particular preset for the track, which automatically creates the layers and splits and multiple VIs that you'd saved in the preset. As far as I've seen in other DAWs, you'd have to set up multiple tracks to do this, since they limit you to one MIDI out per track. So you can still use a master keyboard controller to play layers and splits with different VIs using other DAWs, but not as simply as in Mixcraft.

Of course, if you plan on using multiple controllers for playing your VIs and soft synths, you'll need to use multiple MIDI tracks anyway.

Most DAWs have free trials available, and some even have free lite versions available, so I definitely recommend that you download a few of them to try out so you can see which one rubs you the right way (which might be more on the basis of its UI than its capabilities and limitations), and to determine whether it will sufficiently meet your needs before you spend any money on it. And don't go buy a particular DAW (or keyboard, or soft synth, etc.) just because I or anyone else likes it, because that doesn't mean you'll also like it.

By the way, as far as live performing is concerned, and managing song lists and patches for multiple keyboards at once, one name I've seen mentioned time and again is Cantabile, so you might want to look at it as well. But I don't have any experience with it.
 
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I'd be interested in giving Cantabile a try some day. For one, it has a "multi-setups per song" setup built in, which I had to build an external Max/MSP MIDI router to achieve with Mainstage/others. That said, I'm INCREDIBLY happy with my MainStage setup (can't you tell?), so I have no interest in changing anytime soon, plus it would be a nightmare to shift all my patches into a new host.

PS: MainStage can do multiple midi outs and ins per track as well, you just have to select "Multitimbral" from a dropdown, and it'll pop up a window where you can select your midi routing.

In short, MainStage can be easily setup to do everything the poster has asked, and I love it for Mac. But then again, what the above poster is asking can likely be done on any VI host, since multi-controllers is pretty standard. The one design philosophy I really appreciate about MainStage in particular, though, is that when you're first setting up your project, you can build and customize your own UI from scratch that caters to your individual setup, and there's a lot of flexibility in how to do that. Even more surprising coming from Apple, as the rest of their production software I find terribly rigid and inflexible. I hate Logic and FCPX (the latter with a flaming passion), and I have to use FCPX every day for my day job. I largely got into using soft synths because I felt stifled by standard hardware workstation UI philosophies, my concern is that some hosts (particularly Ableton and traditional DAWs) only really have one way of working, and my needs are often fairly unique so I find myself fighting the interface. From the little I've heard of Cantabile, they have a similarly open-ended design architecture, but once again, I know very little.

I've never even heard of Mixcraft. I looked at their page. At first glance, it looks a little "DAW-ish" for my taste, and I'm pretty much of the opinion that I want to keep my recording/performance environments separate. (not an Ableton fan, really, at least for live performance).

My biggest beef with ALL of these is that they advertise "You can do a different split every song!". Wow, 1992 called, it wants it's new feature back. Where-as I'm more interested in, "You can do multiple SETUPS per song!". I'll often play 5-8 patches per song, with 2-3 regions per change, but while staying within the same "song" with the same text-field notes, effects, etc. None I've tried can do that out of the box (hardware or software), and it's a BIG deal for the way I like to operate. But I found with a little midi routing, you can do it in any host, but I had to write a little helper app to do the routing, and keep track of note-offs so I don't get any stuck notes. When I have some down time, I'm preparing a video tutorial on my method. But I've always been a one-board guy, if I used 3-4 boards, I probably wouldn't use splits.

Whatever you choose, I recommend you use one that loads ALL your patches into memory for an entire set. The first host I used (tiny homemade one called "Jambalaya") didn't, and I sometimes had to wait 3-8seconds between songs, and it was kind of nerve wracking. If you have a computer with a good amount of ram (16GB+), and a sizable SSD (this was a complete game changer, I can't stress this enough), you won't have any problems. I wish Apple would release a 32GB laptop because doing this eats RAM for lunch, but it's worth it, and with SSD, it caches everything quickly and I've never had any problems.
 
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For some Show & Tell, here's how I setup my live performance in MainStage. This happens to be the view for one song for my Video Game cover band (which uses far more complex setups than my working rock band). What you're seeing is the "Edit" view, but when I'm in performance view, you just see what's in the central Yellow region. The Performance view is completely customizable, and I like it to mirror the hardware controls on my Arturia Keylab controller. Traditionally, MainStage Inputs will be displayed as large "keyboard keys" objects, of which you would have one for each hardware board in your setup. Personally, I think they take up too much screen space, thankfully, MainStage includes an alternate, small circular input object that does exactly the same thing. You'll see 8 of them shoved into the center-left of the performance window.

This setup will likely look completely different from anyone elses, because it's completely customizable. MainStage workflow philosophy is very object oriented. You create a graphic widget for every controller and midi input in your hardware setup, which later makes assigning controllers very fast, but it does require some initial work. Once you have an interface setup you like, you can export it to any of your projects. Personally, I love to have a large text region where I can write notes and chord changes to myself, and then make all my other UI objects small and shove them into corners.

I'm only using two keyboards: a main board (Arturia Keylab88), and a Seaboard Rise49. I can route the main board to one of 6 midi setups per song with the press of a footswitch patch change button on my board. This is why I have it setup as if I had 6 inputs. I have a 7th dedicated to my Seaboard, and can make region splits for all 7 of these setups per song. An 8th input is "Omni", which will play a patch no matter what the midi routing from the mainboard is (for instance, B3 in the left hand at all times, where the right can switch between synth lead and mellotron). Once again, this is all just my setup, I could to many more or less depending upon my hardware workflow.

Unfortunately, none of this advanced routing is possible out of the box, which is where the "Channel Cycler" app comes in, which takes MIDI coming in from the board, and echoes it out over an internal midi bus to channels 1-6. Yes, the initial setup is a little complex, but it's very logical, after that, performance and setup editing become a BREEZE. I never have to hunt for that specific synth lead patch mid song, just click my foot switch and it's ready to go.



I developed this workflow during the 90s playing on old hardware boards (Alesis QS8 particularly). At the time, I would use the sliders like organ stops. Within 1 Multi, I would assign different groups of patches to different faders. Obviously, this was a pain to setup and very complicated, so software makes this workflow much simpler.
 
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Meh, the more I read about Cantabile, the less I like it. I think I got it mixed up with Forte, which unfortunately is now defunct, so never mind. Gig Performer also looks pretty good, as it shares a lot of the same "create your own UI" philosophy with MainStage. But it's also cross platform, so if your on the Windows side, might want to take a look at that.
 

SeaGtGruff

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Yes, Mixcraft is first and foremost a DAW, not a live performance app per se. I'm not surprised that you haven't heard of it, since it's Windows-only and you live in the Mac world. :)

I've heard of MainStage, but that's about it. Now that I have a MacBook, I might check it out, along with other Mac programs. Are there any you particularly recommend?

As for Cantabile, I hear it spoken of very highly by gigging keyboardists in another forum. I did download the free version to try out, but the features I was most interested in aren't included in the free version, so I haven't done anything with it yet.
 
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I don't end up using a lot of Mac specific programs these days, though some were when I started using them. My main DAW is Digital Performer which is now cross platform. Max/MSP, same. I use mainly Adobe CC for graphics work (my day job is about 50/50 audio production and graphics/video). Unfortunately, my job requires outputting and upload 10hr H.264 videos daily, and when it comes to sheer encoding speed, Apple FCPX is much faster than Premiere, so for the final renders, I have to use FCPX, which is a terrible program. Thankfully I spend almost no time in it, just to do the final render. I've never used Logic, never even seen it. Strange since I started on Cakewalk9/Sonar, demoed Cubase for a bit, then ran Pro Tools for quite a few years before settling with DP... you'd think at least some point that I'd try Logic, but I have no interest, I'm very happy with DP and it's home to me. I don't even use a single Mainstage/Logic plugin. By the time I adopted it, I already had NI Komplete, Korg KLC, and a number of other VIs and libraries. Plus if I stick to 3rd party VIs, I can transport them to other hosts and DAWs.

I've talked with many DP and Ableton users who rave about taking their DAWs to the stage, but anytime I've looked into it, the interface really falls short. I'd never use DP as a live workstation rig. I THOUGHT (considering it's name) that Ableton would be great, but while it's fantastic for queuing and manipulating backing audio/midi tracks, I found it very clunky as a synth workstation, and setup/patch switching looked limited to physically opening and loading individual project files. I just took a look at a number of tutorials showing how to "gracefully switch patches" in Ableton, and it looks like a hackish nightmare. I have yet to hear of a program that really dealt with patch and setup changes really head-on, which seems very strange. Which is why I finally built my own midi routing system, and can use it with any host I want.
 
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@arrrkeys - I think its quite important to detail the type of laptop you have e.g. Windows Platform or Apple Platform, Operating system used etc as advice can then be given based off this info. From the above posts we know there is Apple Mainstage and Cantabile for PC (I think a MACOS version is in the works) VST Host platforms but there is also a crossplatform application called Gig Performer : https://www.gigperformer.com/ I quite like the look of this and if I were going to go giging with a virtual keyboard rig, I'd seriously look into this platform.

You can create custom racks of Virtual Instruments and Virtual effect, create set lists so you can recall your keyboard sounds per song which is a feature you'd be interested in. Worth looking at this as well and its not badly priced.
 
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Yeah, Gig Performer looks quite good at a glance, I sorta wish there were more choices around when I first started. Very happy with what I’ve got, but I’d give others a shot if I was beginning. As I said, GP looks like it’s cut from the same cloth as Mainstage, being very visually customizable. My biggest beef with MS is that Apple (surprise) insists on putting all these 3D widgets in their UI, and the CPU can take a hit. Many people say MS works far better with a dedicated video card, which is absolutely ridiculous for a professional audio program. I have a MacBook Pro 2011, 13” (just iris intel graphics), and I don’t have a lot of problems, though sometimes the screen widgets will bug out a bit.

In any case, none of the other hosts have 3D widgets, which is a plus.
 
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My biggest beef with MS is that Apple (surprise) insists on putting all these 3D widgets in their UI, and the CPU can take a hit. Many people say MS works far better with a dedicated video card, which is absolutely ridiculous for a professional audio program. I have a MacBook Pro 2011, 13” (just iris intel graphics), and I don’t have a lot of problems, though sometimes the screen widgets will bug out a bit.

In any case, none of the other hosts have 3D widgets, which is a plus.

Many programs use the processing power of the graphics card which is more or less a computer in its own right to supplement the grunt of the main CPU, this is certainly the case with the Adobe CC products you use especially Premiere and After Effects.

This may well be the case with the audio software discussed in this thread.
 
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Many programs use the processing power of the graphics card which is more or less a computer in its own right to supplement the grunt of the main CPU, this is certainly the case with the Adobe CC products you use especially Premiere and After Effects.

This may well be the case with the audio software discussed in this thread.

While this is true in Adobe CC, it’s fairly rare in other software outside of 3D effects. Even Apples own design software doesn’t use the GPU except for 3D plugins, which has been a major complaint of users. The problem is that Apple is including fairly complex 3D graphics like pedals and polygon based nobs with shading in their UIs. Users have noticed that using these nobs in a computer without a graphics card makes the CPU take a substantial hit. I purposefully chose a 13” laptop because of its small footprint on stage, I have a MacPro and 4K iMac for my graphics work, so I don’t have need of graphics capabilities. I was a little put off that their Audio software took a CPU hit just from screen widgets because it didn’t have a GPU.
 
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Apple is as Apple does.

Its their ethos to make things look good, unfortunately its at the expense of efficiency.

I know what you mean about FCPX, it is on my Wifes iMac and whilst I quite like it I am about 5x faster at editing on my steam powered PC with Premiere than I am with FCPX, but there again I have been using Premiere since version 4.2 and that is going back near on 25 years.
 
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Yup. I positively HATE the fact that Clips have to be connected to other clips. I’m used to being able to move around clips at will, disconnected from Audio and floating B-Roll, in FCPX, that becomes a big task. Also, Apple interfaces waste a lot of space with big bevels and “gee-wiz” graphics. Curious because I love MacOs and find it appealingly minimalistic in comparison to Windows. I guess like any company, it has it’s good and it’s bad. I just use a Mac for the OS and their ridiculously long-lived computers, but I avoid their productivity software like the plegue, with the sole exception of Mainstage.
 

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