Playing software instruments live is now a mature practice. Today’s better laptops can handle the studio-level CPU and storage needs of today’s best instrument and effect plug-ins. Add a good audio interface and observe a few guidelines, and worries about audio glitches and latency become largely a thing of the past. But when it comes to host software that’s geared for live performance (e.g., not a DAW), the pickings have remained slim. Apple MainStage has commanded the big slice of mindshare in recent years, but some find its channel strip-based approach still too DAW-like for the stage. Besides, what if you’re on Windows? Relative newcomer Gig Performer hopes to be your solution.
Gig Performer (GP for short) is a cross-platform (Mac OS 10.9 or later; Windows 64-bit with OpenGL graphics card) host program that supports VST plug-ins on both platforms as well as AU on Macs. This is an immediate convenience if you want to stay Mac but migrate from MainStage. If you’ve bought all your plug-ins for Pro Tools, AAX support is said to be forthcoming.
Central to GP is the Rackspace. If your gig needs are simple—say, piano, organ, and pads—you could devote a single Rackspace to your entire set. If they’re more varied and multi-timbral, you’d use one Rackspace per song. Stepping through Rackspaces is glitch-free even if the next tune in your set list uses completely different plug-ins, and the recent addition of “patch persist” (as of version 1.2) means that sustained notes won’t cut off when you change Rackspaces. GP makes this work across all plug-ins, which is pretty slick.
“Variations” on Rackspaces use the same plug-ins with different entry settings (e.g., “scenes” by a more common name). A GP project file containing one or more Rackspaces is called, fittingly, a Gig. A Rackspace has two main views: Panel and Connections. The Connections view is where you’ll start setting up your virtual keyboard rig, so let’s go there next.
The Connections View
GP’s developers saw the mixer-like sends and buses of other host software as non-optimal for keyboard players, and their alternative is a sort of “virtual modular” canvas where you cable together instruments, audio effects, and MIDI and audio I/O in any way you like. Users of Plogue Bidule will immediately feel at home, and comparisons to Logic’s Environment layer suggest themselves, but GP’s interface is easier on the eyes and, for my money, more intuitive.
The umbrella object here is a Block, which is a color-coded, um, block that can represent a plug-in, your MIDI controllers, your audio interfaces, or internal utilities such as a fader/panner and a MIDI filter. Little semicircles around the Blocks’ edges are patch points—orange for MIDI and blue for audio—and you simply drag from one to the other to make a connection. In an initially blank project, Blocks for any audio and MIDI devices I had connected, whether USB class-compliant or using drivers I had installed prior, just showed up sporting the correct number of inputs and outputs.
Right-clicking brings up a menu of all your plug-ins. Select one, and a new Block appears. Double-click on that Block, and you’ll either get the full plug-in interface or, if it’s an I/O or internal Block, a window with all relevant settings. Of course, any changes you make at this inside level, such as which preset a given plug-in is playing, are saved as part of the current Rackspace.
Fig. 1. In this screenshot, I set up a quick bass/EP split between Roli Equator and Waves Electric 200 in the Connections view.
I had some early head-scratching moments when trying to set up keyboard splits and layers using multiple plug-ins. Then the lightbulb went on: For a split, just create a separate MIDI-in Block for each zone. You can have as many as you need even for one hardware device. Open it up, set the key range, transpose/octave shift, and channels as desired, then patch the MIDI-in to the Block of the plug-in you want to play in that zone (see Figure 1). To make a split within a single multi-timbral plug-in (e.g. Omnisphere, Kontakt Player), patch in multiple MIDI-in Blocks set to different channels. A straight layer is even simpler: Just patch a single MIDI-in Block to multiple plug-ins.
In both the MIDI and audio domains, there are virtually no restrictions on patching a single source to multiple destinations and vice-versa. This accounts for a huge part of GP’s flexibility. Under the hood, a great deal of busing and routing management is going on, but GP makes it all so visual that the steepest part of your learning curve will likely be unlearning how other software may have conditioned you to think.
The Panel View
All of the above is pertinent to building your setups. The Panel view is what you’ll be looking at when actually playing. Here, you can create “rackmount” panels (mimicking hardware modules of 1U to 4U in height), then drag in Widgets such as knobs, sliders, organ drawbars, and switches to create a custom user interface that operates all of the plug-in parameters you want to tweak in live performance while keeping the set-it-and-forget-it majority out of sight. In most MainStage use cases, the analogous Performance pane is a graphical mirror of your hardware rig. Here, it’s, well, anything you want.
For starters, there’s no one-to-one correspondence between rack panels and underlying plug-ins. This is initially counter-intuitive but quickly proves useful. As a matter of housekeeping, you could follow a “one panel per plug-in” rule as you configure your Widgets. You could just as easily build a single panel with knobs and sliders mapped to parameters in different plug-ins, perhaps on a category basis: One rack panel might control all the filters in the current Rackspace, the next, all the envelopes. It’s up to you.
Click on a Widget while in Edit mode, and you’ll see inspector panes for its properties (range scaling, polarity, etc.) and for which plug-in and parameter it controls. A Learn mode allows one-click association between the Widget and the target parameter in the plug-in’s interface. This worked reliably across every AU and VST plug I threw at it. There’s a separate Learn function for mapping Widgets to hardware controls.
Drag-select multiple Widgets, and up pops a menu of appearance and layout tools such as colors, custom captions, and object alignment. You can’t yet save multiple widgets as a template, but you could copy and paste them to an otherwise inactive rack panel for later copy-pasting back into a Rackspace. I did exactly this so that I’d have to create a bank of nine organ drawbars only once.
As in the Connections view, there’s a little getting-the-hang-of-it, but only a little, and once you do, you positively fly at crafting gig-ready Rack-spaces. I do have a couple of wants, though. First, I couldn’t find any way to make a single Widget control more than one parameter at a time, either within one plug-in or across several. This sort of macro capability seems elemental for performance gestures at least some musicians might make, for example, sweeping the filter cutoff on all your soft synths. (Workaround: MIDI-learn multiple Widgets to the same hardware control.) I suggest this as priority one for the next update.
Second, when the Panel view is not in Edit mode, there’s no quick click to bring up a plug-in’s full interface. I understand that this is a by-product of the Panel view not being about individual plug-ins but rather how you’re using them collectively, but I can see being in the heat of battle and wanting to adjust something I hadn’t thought to create a Widget for.
Deskew claims that Gig Performer conserves CPU cycles compared to MainStage running the same complement of plug-ins, and some users on the Keyboard Corner forum (forums.musicplayer.com) corroborated this. I’m happy to report that my tests did as well. My late 2012 MacBook Pro (2.3GHz Core i7, 8GB RAM, 500GB internal SSD upgrade from Other World, external Thunderbolt SSD for sample libraries) not only metered less CPU usage, but physically felt less warm when shaking a cocktail of Roli Equator, u-he Diva, Waves Electric 200, Native Instruments Monark, and the C. Bechstein grand piano library running in Kontakt.
Open Sound Control (OSC) has gained so much popularity that you no longer have to be a friend of Peter Kirn to use it, so it’s nice that GP offers full support for adding custom touchscreen controllers from, say, an iPad running the Lemur app.
The real killer app, though, may be that you can run multiple instances—not just of plug-ins, but of Gig Performer itself—on the same computer. Applications for this include managing the top and bottom keyboards in a two-tier bar-band rig, separately (as many of us do with hardware synths), or having multi-bandmate access: As you play your virtual keyboard rig, your guitarist could run through amp modeling plug-ins, and your worlds would exist in separate spaces without any one GP setup getting too complicated. Just keep the laptop at your station so you can turn the guitarist down.
I haven’t encountered a live-oriented host program that combines radical open-endedness with relative ease of use as effectively as Gig Performer does. It’s more flexible than MainStage where it counts, given the multiformat support and the no-worries routing free-for-all in the Connections view. Cantabile (Windows only) and Live Professor (Mac/Windows) have certain indica of more mature products, such as integrated playback of audio cues. But for keyboard players who gig across a variety of bands and styles, Gig Performer’s thinking hits a singular sweet spot. We might even dare say it “thinks different.”
PROS Cross-platform. Hosts both VST and AU plug-ins. Quick MIDI learn. OSC support. Visual, object-oriented approach is easy to learn and almost limitlessly flexible for creating custom multi-plugin setups.
Cons No quick way to open full plug-in windows from main panel view. Can’t create macros (e.g. single panel knobs that control multiple parameters).
A uniquely powerful, easy-to-use, and fun anvil on which to pound your studio plug-ins into your dream stage rig.
$249 | discounted to $124 at press time