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a copy of MainStage ($30) and maybe even a few third party sound source plug-ins, and be off to the races using an old, out of date hardware board as a MIDI controller.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:

photo 1.JPG

– 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.

photo 2.JPG

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.

photo 1.JPG

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).

photo 2.JPG

photo 3.JPG

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?


Sunday Summary – Music: November 30, 2008

Okie Dokie… Thanksgiving’s over… Back to the regular grind…

Or so I thought.

Today (Monday) we spent 4.5 hours talking about what we want to do in the first 6 minutes of our Christmas Service on December 21st.

Ahhh, the joy of working in a church music department in December. Kinda like a Certified Public Accountant in March and early April…

(I’m just teasing – I love it!!)

Anyhoo, yesterday…

Last week Andy started a new series called “Listen and Learn”, based primarily on the premise that who and what you listen to will determine your actions and ultimate outcome. Yeah, it’s a pretty elementary concept, but a great reminder to all of us as we’re bombarded with media, advertising, and the people we choose to surround ourselves with.

And as a side note, there’s also a quirky title package with the series that the media guys asked me to write a theme for, as well as all the quirky, 80’s synthesizer sound effects.

Picture 2.png

Check it out HERE. Click on the blue “Listen and Learn” icon, and then click the red “F” to watch via Flash Player Picture 3.png

– – – – –

As far as worship goes, we had some fun this week!

OK, it didn’t all start out as fun – especially in East….

Chrystina Fincher lead worship in East, which is great because she’s great – but she is, well, a she!

Yep, that means GIRL KEYS!

It’s no problem in the long run, but at mid-week rehearsal, playing those familiar tunes 4 or 5 keys away plays some serious tricks with your brain. Guitar voicings change, my keyboard licks fall differently under the fingers, and all that muscle memory goes kaput! And forget alphabetical chord progressions – number progressions need to take over or you’ll have your nose stuck in the chart all night long.

But something cool can end up happening, as it did to us at rehearsal. You get your BUTT KICKED!

Yeah, you heard me right – you walk away beat up, mentally and musically.

And there’s no greater motivator!!!

Personally speaking, I know I can get apathetic, simply because I’m surrounded by these songs all the time, and could play them in my sleep. But when you have to RE-learn a tune, it can sometimes be even more of a challenge than learning a new song from scratch. And that went for the whole band at rehearsal. We fumbled through rehearsal, each one of us being more embarrassed than the next.

And THAT’S when you hit the crossroads that separates the men from the boys. The fork in the road that asks:

“Will you woodshed it on your own time this week to get it right, or will you cross your fingers and hope for the best? Will you spend the needed mental and musical energy needed, or will your apathy get the best of you? Or are you simply not good enough – and if so, what are you going to do about that?”

Gladly, I was on stage with a group of men that knew that the music had gotten the better of them at rehearsal, and they were going to make darn sure that there was no chance of that same thing happening on Sunday.

And that’s exactly what happened. It ended up being a really, really great musical and worship experience on Sunday morning, with a new life and kick to some great worship tunes.


Salvation Is Here

Let Me Sing

Lead Me To The Cross

Good times…

(And now a shot of a headless Lanny Donoho during the welcome…)


East Band: Chrystina Fincher, Danny Howes, Danny Grady, Jayce Fincher, Ashley Appling, Jordan Watts, Me

West Band: Eddie Kirkland, Mike Hines, Daryl Lecroy, Richard Meeder, Scott Meeder, Trammell Starks, Karen Bitzer

– – – – –

What has kicked YOUR butt lately?

Sunday Summary – Music: September 28, 2008

Middle of the Road.

Certainly not bad in any way. Yet not really anything to write home about.

That was yesterday – at least for me.

Yeah, I was playing – which is usually a real charge – but I think I know why I was kinda ho-hum about it:

First of all, we didn’t do any specials (opener or closer), which can make a Sunday a lot more interesting.

But the biggest culprit, for me, at least, was PARTS.

Some songs lend themselves to great, naturally flowing parts – meaning what you play and when. They fall under the fingers with ease, and quickly become second nature. And that allows your conscious mind to focus more on worshipping God than worrying about what to play.

Unfortunately, not all songs are like that – and it differs from instrument to instrument! What is great and natural for, say, the rhythm guitarist might be a nightmare for the bassist. Again, each song is different.

So yesterday, while the rest of the band chugged merrily along, I was in “parts stress land”. Songs that other people love were causing me frustration. Again, not because I couldn’t play them, but that they just didn’t, how should I put it – “flow” from the subconscious.

I know that sound weird, especially if you’re not a musician. But trust me – think of something that’s part of your job that is easy and comes natural, then think of something that isn’t natural and that you really have to spend energy and brainpower on. Yeah, that was me for 2 of yesterday’s 3 songs.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re not hard tunes. It’s just the subtle things that no one else would notice – but we as players do…

BUT…. Todd and Kristian did do a great job leading the people, so kudos to them!


Beautiful One (culprit #1)

Let Me Sing (NOT a culprit – one of my faves!)

Son of God (culprit #2)

East Band – Todd Fields, Danny Grady, Karyn List, Pat Malone, Ashley Appling, Me

West Band – Kristian Stanfill, Alex Nifong, Matt Melton, Joe Thibodeau, Brad Gage, Jared Hamilton, Chrystina Fincher

And now, everyone’s favorite segment: Candid shots from stage during the Welcome (being fed from the other auditorium)

IMG_0585.JPG IMG_0586.JPG

– – – – –

What causes YOU to use too much brainpower on stage?

– – – – –

Keyboard Korner – Soft Synths: The Hookup

OK, consider this Part 2 of what I stared here.

I realized that after going on and on about using stand-alone keyboards for live performance, that I missed answering Cris’ main point – Using a keyboard to control a computer (laptop) soft synth for live performance.

I did mention in Part 1 that I have done this. It’s not my favorite, but is sometimes the most logical answer depending on one or more of the following:

– Your financial resources

– Your gear transportation ability (or willingness…)

– Your gear storage ability

– Your computer and software

– Exactly what you want to accomplish in a live setting

– Your current stand-alone keyboard’s abilities

Now let’s first start at the basics, as this was part of Cris’ question:

“How do you hook up a keyboard to a computer?”

Here’s the problem: That’s an easy question with a lot of answers. Most of the answers vary depending on the abilities of your keyboard, computer and software synth.

Let’s start with the 2 physical keyboard-to-computer connection types:




Chances are that you have a keyboard with MIDI ports. If it’s a decent keyboard made in the last 20 years, it’s got one or more MIDI ports on the back – OUT, IN and THRU. All you need to worry about is the OUT port.

The OUT port does just that – sends MIDI information OUT of your keyboard. So each time you hit a key, it transmits that information out of your keyboard and IN to another MIDI-capable unit, and eventually your computer.

Now if you don’t have MIDI ports on your keyboard, you’re out of luck. MIDI is the lowest common denominator in this realm, and if your keyboard doesn’t have them, unfortunately your keyboard is not going to work for hooking up to a computer.

OK, so you’ve attached a MIDI cable to the OUT port of your keyboard. No where’s it go? There are no MIDI ports on my computer!

Well the signal then needs to be translated into a physical form that will hook up to your computer. Fortunately there’s any easy and cheap way to do that via the USB connectors on your computer. Simple, inexpensive products like THIS MIDI to USB converter do everything you need to make that happen.




USB (Universal Serial Bus) is now an industry standard platform that connects all kinds of computing components – printers, hard drives, your computer mouse and keyboard, etc.

Fortunately for us in music, manufacturers have included these types of connectors on just about every electronic keyboard in the last 5 years. And (this part’s cool) as music production software and software synths have grown in popularity, so have USB Controller Keyboards.

A USB controller keyboard is pretty much like it sounds. It’s nothing but an input device – one that controls your computer’s soft synth. And they hook up via one simple USB cable – no MIDI to worry about.

These are still transmitting MIDI data, but without the bulk of MIDI cables or ports, and no external converters required.

Most of these devices are inexpensive since they don’t have any internal stand-alone capabilities. There are no internal sounds. They also range in price due to size (number of keys, ranging from just one octave, all the way to 88 weighted keys), and quantity of controllers. Some are just a basic keyboard, while others have stuff like multiple sliders, knobs and pads. These are all used to manipulate soft synths via transmitted MIDI data.

It seems we, the consumers, are the beneficiaries from multiple companies competing for our business in this growing market. 4 years ago I got a 49 key model that I used on my desk. Last year I got a new one with twice as many features for half the price…




OK, so your keyboard is physically attached to your computer. Now the hard part -controlling your software…

Every soft synth is different and how they use controllers can even differ from patch to patch. Some software programs are super easy, while others have a seriously high learning curve.

GarageBand, Reason and Pro Tools, for example, are pretty easy. Finale, however, is just plain nasty…

Once you’ve got your keyboard or controller attached to your computer (via the USB port), it’s time to tell your software what device you want to control it.

That’s usually done in the Preferences menu of your software. Here are a couple examples:


Picture 2.png

As you can see, it automatically detects my USB controller keyboard:

Picture 4.png


Picture 5.png

You can have it auto detect both keyboards and other control inputs. It stores them

Picture 6.png

Other times it can be determined by individual MIDI channels:



Picture 7.png

Picture 8.png



Pro Tools:

Picture 10.png


Make sure you Record Enable the desired MIDI track…

Picture 13.png

And that it’s triggering the desired plug-in. Here I’ve chosen A.I.R.’s “Xpand!” plug-in, which I have as an insert in a stereo audio track. NOTE: Xpand! is made by A.I.R., a subsidiary of Digidesign, and is available for FREE to registered Pro Tools users. So that’s cool!

It’s their take on the sound palate of a basic workstation. A wide variety of sound and instrument genres, most of which sound great – especially the sonic textures. It also has a lot of features like syched arpeggiators, verbs, delays etc. within the plug-in, and it’s not a CPU hog.

And it’s free. So you can’t beat that!

Picture 11.png



OK, next time we’ll look at setting a few of these programs up for live performance…

Keyboard Basics – Videos

WARNING: These are 4 of the most boring videos ever!

These are not for the mere mortals – they are for keyboard players

I put together a few short videos discussing navigation sounds for live performance, as well as an overview of B3 organ basics and how to effectively use it in modern rock and worship.

They’re pretty elementary, but at least the B3 stuff is info that I would have liked to have known when I was starting out.

Let me know what you think…

Synth Rig

Hammond B3 – Basics

Roland X8 – Storing Favorites for Live Performance

Korg Triton – Navigation Sounds for Live Performance

See! I told you they were boring…