North Point Keys Rig – 2014

By popular demand….

Here’s a look at our keyboard rigs at North Point, as of Spring 2014.

Most of our guys are now using a laptop-based mobile rig as their sound source. Computers’ power, stability and abilities have come leaps and bounds in the last few years, and the universe of sound palettes available via software synths are now seemingly endless and very affordable.

Behind us are the days of having to lug a bunch of keyboards to a gig, or being at the mercy of whatever hardware board was at the church or venue at which we were playing. Searching for sounds was a total pain, and ultimately limited to each keyboards capabilities. And switching sounds in the middle of a song set was a herculean feat.

With the onset and evolution of programs like Apple’s MainStage, and its subsequent sequels (like current version 3), the ability now exists for a keyboard player to have an almost infinite world of sounds carried around in his or her backpack. Really only limited by the power of their computer and the depth of their pocketbook.

And so here we are, in early 2014, where the average cost of a decent hardware 88 note keyboard is about $3,000(+/-). And for the same price, one can acquire a brand new hefty Macbook Pro and a copy of MainStage ($30) and maybe even a few third party sound source plug-ins, and be off to the races using an old, out of date hardware board as a MIDI controller.

And you can surf the Internet and check email too. 😉

So I can learn a set of songs and program & tweak sounds before I even arrive on stage.

And when I arrive, it doesn’t matter what building or stage or venue or part of the country it is – I only need them to provide a controller (or lug one myself), and plug into its MIDI or USB port. EVERYTHING else fits in my backpack: Laptop power cable, Audio/MIDI-to-USB interface, Akai USB pad controller, and a few appropriate USB cables).

And even if I’m playing in the East Auditorium at North Point (‘cause I work there…) where all those cables & stuff already exist, I can still program & practice using my laptop in the comfort of my office or at my keyboard at home.

OK, that said, here’s a look at our current set up:

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– Hammond B3 organ and Leslie. Yep, the real thing, circa late 1950’s. Can’t beat it. Take off the back cover and observe an amazing feat of analog electronics and spinning tone wheels. And stick your head in and take a deep breath: That’s 65 years of real wood, oil and vacuum tubes. It’s intoxicating.

She doesn’t get used quite as much any more due to evolving musical styles, but we’ll never get rid of her. The touch, the feel, the sound: It’s a love you never lose.

– Roland X8. All our campus stages bought one of these several years ago, as we liked the footprint, the internal sounds, the user-friendliness, ability to quickly switch patches via the Favorites feature, and the keyboard feel. It was also before laptop-based rigs became more popular, when folks were using the internal sounds, so having them on all stages helped eliminate as much learning curve as possible.

Now days, 99% of the time it’s being used as a MIDI controller for laptop rigs via its rear USB port.

BUT!! IMPORTANT: The X8 is also being used as the hardware backup to the laptop rig. Redundant redundancy!!!

Here’s the gist… While laptop rigs have come a long way, they are still not 100% reliable and fool proof. Trust me – I know from experience… The laptop rig, regardless of what software you use, can and will fail. Even if it’s reliable 99.99% of the time, the 0.01% time it fails will be when you need it most. Murphy’s law.

So…. we use a MOTU UltraLite Mk3 as the Audio Interface for the laptop rig, AND route the X8’s audio through it as well.

Therefore the MOTU is acting as a mixer (balancing the levels of the laptop sounds and the analog trim levels of the hardware X8), and no additional D.I.’s are needed for the X8.

Both sound sources are mixed and routed to the same Main stereo Outputs of the MOTU, and if you’re not using the internal sounds of the X8, you just keep the volume knob on the keyboard turned down. Super easy. So if the laptop freezes or dies or whatever, all you need to do is turn up the volume knob on the X8.

Or if you step on stage 30 seconds before you’re about to play the main piano part of “Faithfully” by Journey and realize that you forget to log in to your laptop and load MainStage after you restarted it after rehearsal, and the Producer is counting you down from “10, 9, 8, 7…”, all you need to do is turn up the volume on the X8 and play like nothing happened. No one will know except you and the Front of House engineer.

(Yeah, I did that. I was REEEEALLY glad I had a redundant hardware backup that day, and even a few times since.)

Obviously you don’t need a Roland X8. Any hardware keyboard with at least an internal piano sound will suffice.

– Wait, that’s it? Well, pretty much, yes. We’ve all but eliminated a second tiered keyboard from our East Auditorium rig simply due to the incredible versatility of MainStage. The ability to layer sounds, split keyboard zones within the software removes the need for a second synth-based keyboard.

Well, one more IMPORTANT Peripheral… I would not use MainStage in a live format without an external USB controller, like the Akai LPD8. It, or a device like it, is ESSENTIAL!

There are other similar devices on the market, like the Korg nanoKontrol, or even Behringer USB flying-faders mixer, that allow the rapid changing of patches and adjusting of levels (volumes, envelope filters, tap tempo, etc.). All those physical aspects are easily assignable in MainStage.

You can see an Akai LPD8 placed on the keyboard chassis above the low octave.

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Our risers are on large casters and are moved backstage for the message. Hence the red bungee cord. I want my laptop to stay on the stand, not fall on the floor during riser transit. **Safety first, y’all….

– What’s on the Floor?

Well, lots of gack. Excuse the rats nest of power cables, audio snake, X8 audio cables, Firewire cord, USB cords & hub, 2 different laptop power supply types (new & old), mic cables & foot switch for my band leader/talkback mic, expression pedal, sustain pedal, and the MOTU.

Oh, and an anti-fatigue mat. ‘Cause a Sunday with 4 services and full rehearsals for 2 different sets of volunteer tech crew is a looooong 13 hours. And my feet were hurting. ‘Cause I stand. And you should too. ‘Cause only the drummer should be the only person sitting.

And while you’re at it, if you happen to have a real Hammond organ as part of your set up, I’d suggest building a 4” (+/-) riser for it. Having it at the right height when you stand and play makes it so much more fun to play!

– MOTU Notes:

Probably the biggest pain to set up was all the internal routing and level adjustment on the MOTU. Especially since its output is very hot when you use its balanced outputs.

We found this out when we started using an identical unit over at the drums position as an interface for our Ableton rig.

First, make sure your MainStage (or other software) is at the appropriate, unity levels. That’s kind of a no-brainer, but is worth repeating.

Now long story short, use the internal menus to do the following:

– Lower the output levels on the channels you want to use by at least 10dB. I found the easiest way was to slave all outputs (Main Outputs and any other analog outputs) to the Master level. Then you can adjust all outputs equally with just one knob. The terminology to the MOTU uses is “Monitor” on or off. On means yes.

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Now find a level of output that has your audio guy happy at FOH, with ample gain and some headroom to play around with. For us, that’s having the MOTU output down to about -10dB. That may then fluctuate a bit from player to player based on the levels of his or her laptop software.

The last thing to do is to adjust the input trim of the hardware board’s audio to match the laptop audio. Also, double check that its output channels are routed correctly.

For us, a satisfactory matching level was achieved by activating the -20dB pad and adjusting the trim up +12dB. (Basically -8dB overall).

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The reason that mixing these two sound signals at equal levels down the same set of channels is so imperative is so that if (more like WHEN) something does happen, all you need to do to correct the issue is simply turn up the volume knob on the hardware board. No frantic FOH person. No crazy levels. No accidentally muted channels. Just peace of mind.

Any questions?


11 thoughts on “North Point Keys Rig – 2014

  1. Great write up, Reid. We have a very similar setup, except backwards timing – we’ve been running MainStage for a few years, but we just added a B3 a few weeks ago. I’m in love with the B3. Possibly an odd addition given the synth direction worship is moving right now, but we love it and hope to make it part of our sound.

    We’ve been kicking around deploying MainStage for our campuses. Right now those guys are suffering with the onboard sounds of a CP300. No joke. Our main concern has been stability and the complexity for volunteer weekend warrior musicians. I love the idea of sub mixing the hardware keyboard as a backup using the MOTU box. I’ve used 828s since the 90s for my personal rigs.

    If you haven’t already, check out the CueMix app on the Mac for setting up the MOTU interface. It makes level setting a breeze.

  2. Hey, Reid. Could you do a post in the future about what sounds you use in MainStage? Finding the right sound is more than half the battle, and some weeks, I feel like I strike out. Beyond typical keyboard sounds, I’m especially struggling to find good drum samples that sound like those used in today’s worship loops.

    • Hey Bill,

      Yes, getting great sounds is always a journey. Fun, but a task nonetheless. Many of us also use some third party plugins, like Omnishpere & Kontakt (including their New York Grand and others).

      As for drum loops.. while we’ve journeyed away from those as of late, one of the best resources is Stylus RMX. Always some great stuff there.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’m glad you’re blogging again! North Point is a great source of inspiration and creative ideas for us.

  3. Hey Reid, thanks for the info. Question, you said you don’t need DI’s for the Motu is that because you are using a 1/4in TRS to XLR cable? Would like more info on this because this would save me money instead of buying a bunch of DI’s or an audio interface with XLR outs. I would be using it for Ableton. Thanks

    • Yes – we are using a 1/4″ TRS to XLR snake, thus no DI’s.

      BUT!!!! An important note: The level is much hotter (like 20 dB) using that method versus DIs, so we’ve assigned all the MOTU outputs (they call them Mixes) to mirror the level of the MOTU’s Master volume, then bring that Master down by 20dB.

      Otherwise you’ll be fighting Ableton levels, having to bring them down by 20 dB, or assigning them to busses (which we already do) and bringing those busses down by 20 dB. But that’s a pain to always remember to do, so just adjusting the MOTU once is way easier, and prevents accidental extreme sound levels.

  4. Reid,
    Know somebody that will do Ableton lessons for-hire?…like when you need to talk to a counselor every once and a while…I need that for launching good into Ableton Live 9.

    I have recently switched to Ableton and am now doing the learning curve. Yes, there are a lot of good videos out there. sometimes it feels like I am looking through the search results more than landing on the particular instruction I was hoping for. I’ve been through a chunk and messed around enough to get around. I have not started using this in a live setting yet. I used to program all sounds/fx on a regular keyboard workstation (like motif, etc), but 2 years ago, got hooked on playing through a mac..I was using Mainstage.

    current gear – macbook pro, motu interface, impulse 61key midi keyboard, ableton live 9 (the mid level version)

    goal – cue click/loop tracks from the keyboard as well as use the keys to play live. I want to use audio files from places like loopcommunity…hunt for cool sounds/fx people have worked out…program a few of my own loops/sounds. With all that…looking to get somebody to show basics on what they have found great in these types of areas: good click sound, organizing the various ableton files (still learning the diff extensions), how to have some standard sounds always ready to fade in as needed. stuff like that.


    • Regarding Ableton with loops & stuff, I assume you’ve read my post on how we use Ableton here at North Point:

      After that, let me know if you have any questions.

      As for using Ableton on one machine to launch songs (scenes) and their respective loops, clicks, tracks, etc. AND trigger your live sounds… I have no idea.

      We use a dedicated machine at the drums for all the clicks, tracks, loops, etc., and then I use a separate, independent machine at Keys to run MainStage 3 as a host for all my sounds. Some are MainStage factory sounds, but most are third-party plug-ins, like Omnisphere and Native Instruments New York Grand and others.

      9 out of 10 keyboard guys that play throughout our multi-church pool of players are using MainStage 2 or 3 as a host. The other dude is using Ableton. And honestly, I don’t know how 🙂 Totally confusing to me compared to the simplicity and user-friendliness of MS3.

      Question – have you tried running both programs on one machine and used two different external controllers? One for each program? You’ll probably have to turn off the MIDI-thru in MS for the one, and make sure only the other is selected as the remote in Ableton’s preferences. Might need to try two different types of controllers, like using the pads on your Impulse to select through your MS3 patches, and an external Akai LP8 (or similar) to be the remote for Ableton.

      • thanks for the detail. I got in touch with the guys at Loop Community for some Ableton coaching and they got me in touch with Scottie Dugan (spelling?)..great guy with tons of insight on the programming. He hooked me up. I think Scottie plays within your circuit of keyboard players.

  5. Do you get the sounds for the songs and get them to the keys players? I have found it difficult to find consistency with our patches especially since it sounds different in my office than it does in the room. Do ya’ll often have to tweak or switch sounds once you begin rehearsing due to it not sounding the same as it had when using headphones or something other than the house. Do you have any feedback on how to help with this to always get a high quality sound?

    Do you create a set list for each service on main stage or operate from a master bank with the midi assigned to each patch being used?

    If I were to buy one other program to go along with MS3 should it be omnisphere? My church got Reason a few years back but it does not seem to be as popular as MS3 with Omnisphere.

    With the use of tracks becoming necessary to cover many of the current worship songs. What parts do you have your keys players do. How do you choose what will be on the track vs played live?

    • Hi Tim,

      Few things:

      – Omnisphere is by far the most popular third-party plug in that our guys use. I’d also suggest Native Instrument’s New York Grand, usable with the free Kontakt Player.

      – Different guys will do different things for service sets based on their comfort level. For the most part, I do not give players the sounds. I want to hear their creativity, and learn from them, too! Although occasionally I will share a set, patch or channel strip if the sound is unique and I’m looking for it to be played again, without them having to reinvent the wheel.

      But every once in a while, I have to sway someone away from their creative instinct and point them to what is best for the song and the audience’s experience.

      – Personally, I do create a set list for each service or event (well, for the most part…). The service or event is the Concert, the song is the Set, the section of the song is the Patch, and the layer(s) of instruments are the Channel Strips.

      When I’ve created all the aspects needed for a song, I’ll export the set (song). Then I can import that same set (song) the next time we do that song. That way I’m not loading up my RAM with unused sounds.

      So then final Concert (service/event) is just a collection of sets (songs) I’ve created at an earlier date and quickly imported in. It should be noted that the final Concert is built from my custom pre-existing template which also has some generic multi-use sounds (piano, piano & pad, pad, Rhodes, Rhodes & pad, etc.) Some of these also have a few Channel Strips that can be mixed, like a synth string layer on top of a piano & pad that I can mix (with an Akai LPD8) in on the fly for a big Chorus, etc.

      Those template sounds are a good place to start if programming a new song, or if a song calls for something extra, like specific synths, pulses or arps, or a specialty sound, that can be added as well. When you’re finished with the programming for the new song, just export the Set (song).

      I’ve found this to be the easiest way to easily access a variety of sounds once we hit a live service. One quick tap of a pad on the LPD8 and I have access to a world of new sounds, instead of constantly mixing a limited number of generic sounds.

      – When your sounds (or anything you sequence, mix, etc.) sound radically different between your edit station and your FOH, you need to realize what those are and account for the difference.

      I learned this the hard way. For the longest time, I used Sony MDR-7506 headphones to practice, edit, program, sequence, etc. But my tracks/sounds/music always sounded inferior in the room. Only later did I learn that those headphones had both a low and high enhancement, not a flat frequency response. So I had to adjust. I then knew if my sound was way too bright or beefy, then it would be right for the room. Once I switched to a good pair of near-field monitors in my office that more accurately reflected the frequency response of FOH, the results were much improved.

      But even then, because of the way sound reacts in the big room verses your controlled headphones or NFMs, the music & sounds you slaved over will always sound different. Just listen to your favorite album on your headphones and then in the room, and you’ll hear a variety of differences.

      Hope that helps!

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