Turn your laptop into a multi instument keyboard and vocal-processing powerhouse

January 9, 2009


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 (; www.apple.com/logicstudio) — and Native Instruments Kore 2, which is now available in a software-only edition , as well as the software/hardware package  (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.

Time to organise..

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 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.


  1. Thank for your post.

  2. Your post is really well written and I was wondering if you could possibly help me in my quest. I am new to the realm of MIDI. I am attempting to hook up a system comprised of four different keyboards along with my laptop. All four boards have MIDI but only two have USB. Because of all the latency issues I have read about involving 3rd party softsynth sounds, and, although many of these programs produce fantastic instrumentation, I am trying to stick to just the sounds on board the keyboards that I have. Laptops can get overloaded out of the blue so quickly and I want my CPU to concentrate on speed rather than have to labor with, say, loading a 270MB grand piano patch live and producing it 3 milliseconds after a key strike.

    Is there a software program, without softsynth sounds, by which I can integrate, via laptop and in concert with a contemplated midi controller, many keyboard voice/performance MIDI combinations much like a digital organ whereby the bottom tier keyboard (Yamaha MM8) will be my left hand, but also double instantly as an acoustic/electric piano for live interludes between tunes, the top tier keyboard (Yamaha MO6) will be my right hand, and my generic MIDI bass pedals (no USB) will kick all sorts of bass sounds, etc.? I also gig a Yamaha SHS-10 Keytar that is MIDI (wireless) but no USB.


    Right Hand (Yamaha MM8) — Muted Trumpet layered with Flute
    Left Hand (Yamaha MO6) — Soft analog pad
    Midi Bass Peds — Velo Fretless (med. decay)
    Keytar — Tenor Sax (slap delay, long tail)

    I would need to be able to create a rather extensive index/library involving literally hundreds of these midi combinations whereby on the laptop, between tunes, I could possibly click on a midi combination in an on-screen library/index, or, key a combination in numerically on a MIDI controller pad while utilizing a hard copy sheet of combinations. I haven’t purchased a MIDI controller yet but I want to shy away from adding another keyboard. Perhaps a rackmount would work best IF there are software programs that would work via laptop.

    I’m thinking there could be as many as 400 of the so-described above combinations with each sound saved in a particular combination being able to be tweaked (e.g., EQ, effects, cutoff, attack, delay, sustain, volume balance between sounds, etc.) BEFORE saving.

    Another aspect of this project: I perform with a percussionist who loves to play along with tracks. The grooves/beats on both of the tiered keyboards have nice factory jam-able performances (keyed arpeggios, really). I just don’t like the instrument voices assigned to many of these performances and want to change them to save in the combinations library.

    When it comes to MIDI implementation and control, I am definitely no whiz kid, but Googling around is telling me that there are not many skeletal midi project software platforms out there that are NOT bundled with softsynth, 3rd party instrument sounds. My dream is to harness and instantly produce on stage the best my keyboards, not loaded sounds on my laptop, have to offer.

  3. http://www.ourworshipsound.com can teach you this if you hadn’t learned all ready.

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