Regardless of what instrument you play or what software you use to record and compose, it's never been easier to access massive libraries of synth and sample sounds, guitar and bass amp emulations, vintage-derived effects and so on. While all of this power and flexibility has been a boon for the home recordist, bringing these same software-derived sounds to the stage continues to vex many. The good news is that today's multicore laptops have more than enough horsepower to handle the needs of most keyboardists, guitarists and experimental-leaning vocalists, as well as multi-instrumentalists who may need to jump between several instruments during a set. By choosing the correct software and hardware, as well as doing some critical housekeeping and asset-management chores, you can easily bring your best software instruments and effects to that stage and consolidate your hardware needs down to a few roadworthy essentials.
THE HOST WITH THE MOST
First and foremost, all of your software instruments and effects need to live somewhere. While it's completely feasible for a keyboardist or guitarist to work solely within a workstation-style product such as Propellerhead Reason or Native Instruments GuitarRig, if you really want to take advantage of your plug-in collection or jump between instruments, you need to employ a more open-ended option. Two products that are built expressly for this purpose are Apple MainStage — part of the Apple Logic Studio bundle ($499; www.apple.com/logicstudio) — and Native Instruments Kore 2, which is now available in a software-only edition for $229, as well as the software/hardware package for $559 (www.native-instruments.com). Both programs do many of the same things: 1. They allow you to access, organize, edit, combine and recall the majority of the third-party plug-ins on your machine. 2. Both allow you to play software instruments and process live audio sources (guitar, bass, vocals and even feedback loops). 3. By largely removing the traditional elements of a DAW, both of these apps allow more CPU resources to be used for instruments and effects, thus keeping latency in check.
Choosing a host performance application will depend largely on what software you already own. Logic Studio users have a clear advantage in this department because all channel strips and saved plug-in settings are immediately available in MainStage; in other words, what you did in the studio shows up in MainStage. Kore, however, requires a little more prep work in the beginning (users will need to batch-convert their third-party plug-in sounds over to the KoreSound format), but it offers support for a wider range of plug-in formats as well as Windows PCs.
The second major task in prepping your sounds for performance is figuring out exactly what you need and exactly what you don't. If your goal is to replicate the sounds you used in your recordings, a recent demo or what have you, then that is the obvious place to start. Open up the original sessions, isolate the plug-ins that you need to use live and give each preset a specific name before saving them to a new folder. Of course, you can skip that step if you want to dive in and start playing. Either way, once you start to have a firmer grasp on what you're going to need in a live show or rehearsal situation, that's the time to start creating a performance library.
MainStage and Kore have different ways of creating that library. With MainStage, you'll need to create a new Concert. A Concert can comprise any number of live audio and instrument channels, and the Performance pane can be customized to include a wide array of assignable controllers (which you can then easily map to your hardware), meters and patch selectors. You can load instruments and live signal processors in a row and select them interchangeably like presets on a piece of hardware. A single preset can comprise both audio and instrument plug-ins, and a Concert can include any number of presets. When you load a new Concert, all the associated instruments and samples are loaded in the background, and nothing really nails the CPU until a preset is selected. The load time between presets is generally very minimal.
The process of creating sounds in Kore is different. With Kore, there are Performances and KoreSounds. A Performance is where you build your sound. If you need to create a preset that comprises a pad, a bass sound and tempo-synced texture, you would open a new Performance and locate the appropriate sounds, which can be single plug-in presets or other KoreSounds. Kore allows users to build incredibly complex presets because a single KoreSound may comprise a dozen different elements. Also, the creation of a KoreSound doesn't limit your ability to edit the sound at the plug-in level; nothing is being rendered to audio or flattened. At the heart of Kore, a very robust browser allows you to find a specific Performance, KoreSound, MIDI file or plug-in quickly. The keyword search works quickly, and the attribute tagging makes it simple to find specific KoreSounds or Performances.
With both of the applications, CPU resources may become a concern, and tailoring your sounds to fit a performance environment can do a lot to mitigate that. First and foremost, there is no reason to have your system set to anything other than 44.1 kHz for a live performance; you're just wasting resources otherwise. Secondly, when you're prepping presets and channel strips from your DAW sessions, take a good look at what's there. Look for opportunities where you can swap out high-CPU plug-ins for stock counterparts (such as dynamic effects and EQs). More times than not, the stock plugs that come with the host application are optimized for that environment, and the change to your sound in a live environment is going to be minimal. Remember, just because you were able to run a ton of high-end plug-ins in your DAW session doesn't mean that same math applies when you set the latency low enough to process live audio.
HARDWARE AND ERGONOMICS
There are two major considerations on the hardware side of things: audio I/O and MIDI control. The more these two functions can be consolidated into one or two pieces of gear the better. As any independent touring musician can attest, the ability of a band to set up and break down quickly and not cause the house engineer a major headache will lead to more time onstage and a better-sounding show. Unprepared, laptop-wielding electronic artists are just the type of acts that most Bob Seger-loving front-of-house engineers hate.
That said, some of the best options for a laptop-based performance rig are FireWire or USB audio/MIDI keyboards. The Novation Xio and X-Station, which both come in different sizes, are probably two of the best such products available ($549 to $999 MSRPs; www.novationmusic.com). Though both are USB, and that limits the number of discrete audio channels, both boast XLR (with phantom power) and ¼-inch inputs, ¼-inch and headphone outputs, a bevy of synth-specific assignable controllers and an onboard synthesizer (which is great on its own or as a backup). If you're sticking to a budget, it's still possible to find the now-discontinued M-Audio Ozonic on eBay. The Ozonic is a product that was built for exactly this kind of live setup; it doesn't include an onboard synth, but it does offer more audio-out options (such as cueing in headphones) because it is a FireWire-based interface. Hopefully, this product will see a refresh in the near future. With any of the products mentioned above, you can plug in and process a guitar, bass or microphone (vocoders come into play here) while preserving your ability to play software instruments.
Guitarists and vocalists will also benefit from a MIDI pedalboard that will allow you to change and alter presets without having to reach for the laptop. There are many products available that can handle such tasks; one of the most robust yet affordable options is the Roland FC-300 MIDI Foot Controller ($399 MSRP; www.rolandus.com). This controller includes assignable stompbox-style pedals for turning effects on and off, as well as two assignable expression pedals for filter/wah effects or whatever else you need.
Finally, think about ergonomics. How are you going to reach things in the middle of a show? Where is all the gear going to reside? One of the best investments you can make is a decent multitier keyboard stand. The Ultimate DX-48B Deltex II stand can be found online for around $120. It features two adjustable tiers that can support a maximum of 50 lb. each, and the unit has enough heft that a casual nudge isn't going to send your precious laptop flying through the air. You may also consider having a custom piece of Plexiglas made for your laptop to sit on while you perform. Also, a 5 lb. sandbag from a theater supply store for the bottom of the stand and a $10 C-Clamp can go a long way to ensure that your gear stays in one piece.
With some investments in software, hardware and time, your trusty laptop and the plug-in library you already own can handle all of your live-performance needs.
THE NO-HASSLE, BUY-NOTHING KEYBOARD WORKSTATION
If you're a budget-conscious keyboardist and you want a simple and reliant way to access an array of keyboard sounds that requires practically zero mousing around and almost no MIDI assignment editing, here it is.
Load up an empty 16-track session in your DAW of choice. Starting with the first track in the session, load up your first instrument sound and set this track to receive only MIDI channel 1. Repeat the process as needed (track 2 to MIDI channel 2, etc.) until you've loaded up all of the sounds you need or you're out of MIDI channels. Changing MIDI channels on most portable MIDI keyboards (M-Audio Oxygen 8 V2, Axiom 49, etc.) is a simple one- or two-button process. With this setup, you only have to load one session into your DAW, and switching between sounds is as simple as changing the MIDI channel on your controller.