Five Tips for Using a Software-Based Live Rig

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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 know.

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