Inside Mobley’s 'Mothership' Keyboard Show-Controller Rig

October 13, 2016

Sometimes I wonder if so many people make their own solo electronic music because technology allows it, or because leading a band can feel more like being a human resources professional than an artist. Austin, Texas’ Mobley sidesteps the latter concern. Yes, he makes all his own music, and he’s a band leader. However, rather than being a fiasco of conflicting schedules, desires and egos, his band is a sole proprietorship.

Not to downplay other solo electronic musicians/producers, but Mobely’s one-man-band schtick sees him handling all the vocals, keys, guitar, bass, drums and samplers for his music, both in the studio and live on stage. Besides composing dozens of pieces for the screen (with several major TV network placements), Mobley writes, plays and produces what he calls “post-genre pop” songs and tours extensively behind them.

Yet this workhorse doesn’t stop at doing all the jobs of a full band himself. He also travels with self-contained full-show rig including his own visuals and lighting design. The heart of this live show beats from his own customized show controller he affectionately calls “The Mothership.” Mobley told Keyboard that The Mothership is “aesthetically modeled after Wurlitzer and Rhodes keyboards from the 70s, and runs synthesizers, samplers, MIDI sequences, guitar processing, bass, vocal effects, videos, and lights. The brain is a Mac Mini that I souped up by maxing out the RAM and adding an SSD for storage. Using various software solutions (including some I wrote myself) and some creative hardware routing, I basically run anything that isn’t the drum kit.”



Mobley is currently touring until the end of October, and he’s optimized The Mothership, along with a “cocktail” drum set with nesting shells, guitar, 15-watt combo amp, lights, and other various pieces to all fit in the back of a Ford Transit Connect [see stock photo]. “There’s enough room left over for myself, my tour manager, and three empty seats,” he said.



Something that optimized doesn’t come without applying a lot of elbow grease. As you may surmise, Mobley grinds hard and obsesses over his music. One of his catchiest songs, “Solo,” drives home the solitary nature of his life and work. One can’t do what he does by himself without putting in the time. The Mothership wasn’t built in a day, and it’s a constant work in progress that he continues to enhance.

“I don't think I've ever gone more than a few months without making a major change,” he said. “It took about two years of wishing for/dreaming up something better than the laptop and mobile rack I was touring with before. Once I actually went about the task of making it real, the fabrication took about a month, and then I spent another six months to get to something roughly like the current configuration. That involved entirely ditching my original plan for the innards of the thing. I got really, really lucky in that I just stumbled into gear and components that fit perfectly despite not being part of the plan. Apart from the skeleton, it's actually mostly impromptu.”



During his stage show, Mobley fluidly switches to and from vocals+keys, vocals+guitar, vocal+drums and even a little new-school finger drumming on a pad controller. It all serves the songs and the performance rather than coming off as a talent show, but the talent is evident as well. Mobley and his stage rig end up working symbiotically together. “I planned for The Mothership to accommodate the show I had, but then the show wound up meeting the Mothership halfway,” he said. “Now they're completely tied up in each other.”

His setup also requires as little live sound engineering as possible. The drums and the amp need to be miked, but the rest of the music and vocals are direct outputs that can plug straight into the house mixer. “The goal was to make it as simple as possible for the sound engineer,” he said.



Mobley wrote his latest EP, Some Other Country, as well as his biggest hit to date, “Swoon,” before incorporating The Mothership into his recording/writing process. But on the next tour, which may be to support his forthcoming album, Fresh Lies, he figures that The Mothership will be his writing tool, as well.



And why not, since The Mothership runs Apple Logic Pro software, which also handles the videos and hosts the DMXIS plug-in for the light show. He also uses the Logic companion app MainStage for the synths, samplers and loops, and Native Instruments Guitar Rig software for guitar processing. The keyboard controller is an M-Audio Axiom.



“I also use an app called MIDIPipe to do some routing and scripting,” Mobley said. “Initially the software that I wrote was doing a lot of work, but as technology has caught up with my vision for the show, I’ve been able to scale it back some. It’s now basically a system of small scripts that allow me to interface with the other software I’m using in a way that’s more ergonomic.”

That’s right, Mobley also learned to write his own software to create The Mothership, so he has something to fall back on in tech-happy Austin if the rock star lifestyle ever loses its appeal. Writing your own scripts can free you up to do things your on way if off-the-shelf products aren’t cutting it. For example, when I saw Mobley’s show, his program changes and/or song transitions were clearly controllable—he was not merely “hitting play” for the whole set—but they were difficult to spot even for someone who is familiar with and looking out for that kind of thing. So I asked him how he was handling them.

“I have to keep some secrets,” he said. “I invented my solution.”



It’s completely normal these day for the biggest tours in the world to run off of computer workstations, so computers on stage are nothing unusual. Still, the potential for a crash always exists, so I wondered to what extent Mobley’s show was reliant on his Mac Mini sitting in the captain’s chair of The Mothership.

“My whole guitar sound is being shaped in Guitar Rig exclusively,” he said. “I’ve got an outboard vocal processor built-in to handle my vocal effects (mostly reverb and delay). She’s only gone down once in three years (knock on wood). I have two backup systems of progressively lower sophistication. Thankfully, I haven’t had to lean on them, except for fly-in dates where it didn’t make sense to lug out the Mothership.”



Both Mobley’s Mothership-controlled stage show and his “post-genre pop” music toe the line between up-to-the-minute modernity and good old-fashioned rock-’n’-soul. When half the songs on Spotify’s weekly New Music Friday playlist seem to share a similar aural aesthetic regardless of whether they’re classified as pop, indie-electronic, R&B, or something else, it’s the songs that have to stand out, rather than sounds. All of Mobley’s labors of love boil down to playing his songs, both in the studio or live on stage, something worth checking out when The Mothership touches down in your area.


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