I love keyboards! While I started playing piano at a very
young age, my fascination with synths began in my teens and has only
increased over the years. This is a good thing, as I’m often called upon
to create sounds that shape recordings. If I had my way, I’d have every
classic keyboard on every gig and recording session. Of course, that
just isn’t a reality. The good news is that software rigs have really
come into their own, and I now use them nearly exclusively for many live
gigs. Considering doing the same? Here are five things you need to
1. Harness Software’s Flexibility
I started using an all-software rig with my band Rudder
because I was looking for the most sonic flexibility and the easiest
physical setup. I wanted to be able to switch between drastically
different sounds with mapped effects in an instant, and a software rig
allows this. However, you won’t get this sort of flexibility without
spending some time building your mapping in the computer. Try to imagine
the sort of textures you’d like to create if equipment were no object.
Chances are you can create a lot of these sounds in software with
creative stacking and effects routing.
2. Customize Your Control Surfaces
I wanted a software rig that could replace not only the
keyboards I wanted to hear, but my stompboxes as well. I checked out as
many USB control surfaces as I could find, and experimented with audio
interfaces and keyboards. Apple MainStage has no problem working with
multiple controllers. To replace my slew of stompboxes, I opted for the
ubiquitous Korg NanoKontrol. It was easy to map buttons to “on” and
“off” switches on my virtual pedal rig, and to set up sliders as
parameter changes for those effects.
3. Test Your Rig Before the Gig
I’ve had an interest in using software instruments live
since 2000. I started adding software to a hardware setup where I knew
that I’d have other keyboards to fall back on if my software failed.
Little by little, I learned more about what worked best for the machines
and software. In addition, machines have gotten so fast that the
ceiling has really been lifted. However, software rigs can and will fail
if they are not tended to. Before I headed out on the road with a
software-only rig in 2009, I experimented with my computer for several
months. I stress-tested my rig over and over and learned what was
working and what wasn’t. Which plug-ins are the processor hogs? Which
ones play best with others? Finding all this out is crucial work.
4. Invest in a Good Computer
You’ll need a recent machine to run recent software.
You’ll also need plenty of RAM and a fast hard drive—preferably a
solid-state drive. I’ve seen disastrous results because people came to
their gigs with barely enough memory to load their sounds. There are
wonderful sounds out there from folks like Rob Papen, iZotope,
Spectrasonics, Native Instruments, and others, but they aren’t intended
to run on “skeleton” systems. If your machine is modest in power, then
don’t overdo it.
5. Make It Musical
I like my software rig because it feels like an instrument.
Musicality should always apply, whether you’re playing the most
elaborate multitimbral sound stack or an acoustic upright piano. Just
because you can perform near-inhuman feats with software doesn’t mean
that you should (although once in a while it’s a nice thing). If musicality is foremost, you’ll always get the best results.
Author bio: Henry Hey has worked with David Bowie, George Michael, Empire of the
Sun, Dionne Warwick, and Mika, as well as producers Phil Ramone, Tony
Visconti, and Eddie Kramer. He’s also the musical director, conductor,
and pianist for George Michael’s Symphonica project. Find out more at henryhey.com.