Hardware Vs. Software

Don't Get Left High And Dry

Have you ever worked all night on a paper only to have the power go out and realize you didn't save your work? It's gut-wrenching! Now imagine that happened on stage! Keyboard players don't have to be at the mercy of their equipment. Let's compare hardware vs. software rigs and see how we can mitigate disaster.

Hardware

This means that you are going to spend the bulk of your money on an actual keyboard that has built-in sounds. It’s an all-in-one machine. Simply plug in the power, plug in the audio connections, and you’re good to go. 

Pros and Cons

1. It’s only one piece of gear (usually) which means less things to troubleshoot if something does go wrong.

2. All the sounds are internal and fairly easy to access.

3. It can be somewhat limiting in its abilities. (i.e., the ability to combine multiple sounds, arps, and even quality of sounds)

4. It may not be as easy to move around. An 88-key keyboard is heavy!

5. These keyboards are fairly rugged in their construction, so you don’t have to worry about breaking them as much.

Software

This means that you are using a computer that is running software like MainStage, Logic, Pro Tools, or Ableton in order to generate sounds from those programs or third-party plugins. You’ll most likely play these sounds using a keyboard controller (which generally does not have built-in sounds). In addition to the computer and keyboard controller, you may have an external hard drive to store all of your samples and plugins, a midi interface, an audio interface, other control surfaces, and more. 

Pros and Cons

1. More than one piece of gear means many more things to troubleshoot if something goes wrong.

2. All the sounds come from your computer, so if it dies, you’re up a creek without a paddle. 

3. This method can be extremely flexible and powerful, allowing you to cover more keyboard parts than you could with just hardware alone. 

4. This can be easier to move around. I use this kind of rig, and I can pack it in my backpack alone if I don’t have to take a controller.

5. Most of these pieces are very fragile. Drop your computer, or anything else for that matter, and it’s toast.

There Is A Third Option

Last week I was playing at church, and as usual, I brought my software-only rig. I use a laptop running MainStage, for which I use a variety of software and plugins. I also use an iPad to control these sounds along with a Korg NanoKontrol. I have an external hard drive as well as a USB hub. Lots of moving parts! The only difference is that I always play these sounds using a hardware keyboard. I never use just a controller if I can get away with it. I was using a Nord Stage 2, and I was glad I did. Everything was fine during rehearsal, and the moment we started the first song during the service, my computer lost midi connection. I couldn’t trigger any sounds! I was dead in the water…. for about 3 seconds. Fortunately, I had already dialed up a good piano and synth pad on the Nord, just in case something went south. And I’m glad I did. I immediately turned up the volume to the Nord and played the set. After that service, I restarted my computer and everything was fine. I was able to use my rig for the next several services.

Conclusion

Always have a backup plan. You never know when that amazing piece of software is going to die. Combining the best of both worlds can keep you rolling through a digital disaster.

Ryan is currently the Worship Director at The Church at Wills Creek in North Alabama. He has been the keyboardist for many Christian artists and has served with several churches including Christ Fellowship and Church of the Highlands. Ryan is the keyboard instructor for WorshipArtistry.com and also works as a producer, music educator, and studio musician. Ryan has two children, Josiah and Vivy, and they love spending time on their 100 acre farm.

Hardware Vs. Software

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Do you have a preference or

Do you have a preference or suggestion for which MacBook Pro
I should purchase to use with my Roland RD800? Is the 13" too small?
I may eventually get Omnisphere, but for now, is 8gb enough ram
for mainstage? How new should the MacBook Pro be?
Thanks!

MBP...

I would go with the 15" for the screen realestate. But that's just my preference. The newer the better because the newer CPUs are faster and can handle the processing load. I would got for 16gb of ram especially if you are going to run Omnisphere or anything else that's taxing. You can always buy newer refurbs on Apple's site. That's what I do.

Mainstage Memory

I've actually heard Mainstage can be hard on memory, but that's probably dependent on which sounds you choose, and how many. Just wanted to give you a heads up. 16 GB is really the minimum I'd go for, but I ran Ableton Live on a newer Core 2 Duo, 2.3 GHz machine with 8 GB for over a year. I'd only get 2-3 voices and a drum kit at a time, but it worked.

Mainstage Memory

It depends on the sounds and other VIs that you are using. And unfortunately, 16 gb, is still the limitation on all Mac laptops. So there's no exceeding that. I'd still get the fastest possible.

MainStage

Thanks for all the input. I am up and running; still use my Roland for confidence.

Having software, Computer & iPad sounds complicated

I can use a computer, but when it comes to combining complicated software that takes forever to learn. Then carrying your keyboard, along with your iPad and computer, seems heavy in the pockets, heavy in the arms and heavy on the brain. It's like learning how to drive a truck when you are only familiar with driving a car in a country setting, with little traffic. How can this be made easier? I cannot carry heavy equipment, nor does the church have that kind of space or setup expertise! Putting the keyboard through the sound system is difficult enough for many churches. I would love great sounds but carrying a keyboard and setting my iPad is more than I or the church can handle. They don't pay. They mostly have volunteers who don't know much. What light weight keyboard with great sounds can you suggest and an app for my iPad?

Thank you, Miriam

Mainstage- This iPad app is

Mainstage- This iPad app is used extensively in worship settings. It is simple to set up, easy to use, and does all the basics you need to extend the sound of your keyboard. You'll need some sort of MIDI interface - most synth keyboards have USB ports that support MIDI, so a 'camera connection kit' is all you'd need. But if you do need a MIDI DIN port (the round, 5-pin connector), there are many available for around $50.

Getting the sound from your iPad to the mixer is easy - a regular 3.5 mm to XLR converter cable should be around $10, maybe less. Something called a Direct Box is good to have, but you can usually get away without spending the extra $40+. You'd also need a different cable - 3.5 mm to 1/4" phono (not the stereo TRS - you'll lose half your sound). There are more sophisticated setups, but you said you're looking for low-cost and easy.

Light weight keyboard in most cases does not equal great sounds. There are a few exceptions, but they get expensive. Korg's microARRANGER is nice, around $500, but the smaller keys might be an issue. Korg and Yamaha both have 61-key Arranger Workstations for about the same price, but I can't speak for their sounds.

Have you looked into the used market for a good full-size Yamaha, Korg, or Roland? They're heavy, for sure, but you may find one cheap enough that your church would spring for it.

If you're really strapped for money, I'd say forgo the full keyboard for now and get a cheaper MIDI controller keyboard. M-Audio, Novation, Alesis, even Behringer all make useable MIDI keyboards for a decent price. Native Instruments and Akai make better ones, but you'll pay a little more. Once you're set up and getting experience with the digital side, you can save for a full synth keyboard, and either sell the MIDI keys or use it as a second / backup. Whatever you get, try not to go for less than 61 keys - if you're used to a full keyboard, you'll find 61 limiting, but 49 will be impossible. (not knocking the 49's - just a way different playing technique.)

If you have the time and inclination (and yes, a little extra $$$ eventually), you should really try out a DAW. A Digital Audio Workstation will really expand your sounds and what you can do with them. If you buy a MIDI keyboard, you'll most likely get an 'intro' version of one for free.

Really, whatever you end up with, use whatever you have now to the best of your ability. God gave you both!

Having software, Computer & iPad sounds complicated

Like many things, it can be as complicated or simple as you want to make it. I completely understand the dilemma of having a big, cumbersome setup at a church that can barely handle an upright piano and a mic. This is where you have to take upon yourself what the church cannot.

You're asking the same question that many are asking today. "Where can I get a light weight keyboard with great sounds for as little money as possible". The answer.... you can't. There's always a trade-off. Quality/features vs price.

So here's my lightweight, portable rig. I have an Akai MPK261 61 note controller (it's only a controller, it DOES NOT have internal sounds). I run Mainstage on my Mac laptop with a variety of other plugins (Omnisphere, Keyscape, Native Instruments Komplete, etc.) I use my iPad to control the software on my Mac that is generating the sounds. I use an Apollo Twin Duo audio interface to send the sound out to the sound board. All of this fits in a Monocase softbag for the keyboard and my backpak for my laptop. Two bags... fairly lightweight.

Now all of that can get pricey so the least expensive option would be the:
Akai MPK261 - about $500
Mainstage to run on your Mac - about $30 (assuming you own a Mac laptop, if not that changes things), and you'll use Mainstage's build in sounds which are fine.
Some kind of gigbag or softcase for the Akai.
You can run your audio straight out of the headphone jack of your computer to the sound board.

Since there's no one-size fits all keyboard for under $1k, this is about your best option.

My Rig

I have the AKAI MPK261, and I can really recommend it. I had to save for six months to afford it, and I've never regretted the expense. Keys are a little stiff, but the thing is built to last and feels like it. The controls are great, too, and integrate well with my DAW, Ableton Live. I've also had the M-Audio Keystation 88 and the Alesis 49 key. The Keystation was very nice, but overkill (the older 88 was huge - the newer one is a lot slimmer). The Alesis was cheap, and, sorry, kinda felt that way, but it worked fine, and was great for leaning next to my computer and picking up for working out a key, melody or whatever.

The Apollo Twin I've heard is a great audio interface. If I could afford one of their models (I don't have Thunderbolt) I would. I personally use the Focusrite Scarlett 6i6. It works great, has everything I need and is almost a third the cost of the Apollo. They have other models that have less input/output options and cost even less.

That said, don't stress out about it. Direct from your computer using a headphone to XLR cable works just fine in most cases. If there's a buzz, and you're using a computer with a battery, unplug the charger and see if that fixes the buzz. If so, there are fixes, though you may need someone with a little electronics savvy. Also, don't go cheap on audio connectors and cables - the good ones aren't that much more, and you'll regret the cheap ones very soon. That's not to say you should pay out the nose for the REALLY expensive ones. Guitar Center, for example, has a decent line, not expensive, that they back with a lifetime warranty. Look for deals like that wherever you buy cables.

Hardware Disadvantage you didn't mention

The one biggie for hardware that wasn't mentioned - Downtime. If something does go wrong, you're out for however long it takes to get the keyboard repaired.

With a soft setup, you can beg, borrow or if needed buy another computer and get everything reloaded in a day (you Are backing up your arrangements, yes?). Even if you're forced to replace the computer entirely, $300-$500 for a laptop that will handle most tasks is a lot less than replacing that Nord, Yamaha, Korg... (Even a Mac would be a Little cheaper... :-)

I agree that a computer is more likely to have problems than a hardware synth, but when something does need repairs, the computer is more likely than not to be fixed in a day or two, and a borrowed replacement can usually be found in a pinch. If you have to ship your keyboard off to get repairs, you'd be very lucky to see it in a week, more like two to six.

Your solution is the best - have both available if possible, use both to the best of your ability, and be prepared for something to go wrong.

For a computer sound setup, you can minimize the possibility of problems by taking a few preventative measures:

Dedicate One Computer for the job: Don't use it for anything else if you can help it, except possibly light internet work, looking up lyrics, listening to songs, etc. When you do use it for other things, be careful what you download or install. Don't let other people use it unless you trust them AND their computer savvy. Some people just can't understand how that internet game can do Things (TM) to bring your computer to a crawl.

Back It Up. Lots of free cloud storage leaves no excuses. Save your Arrangements to the cloud. Most arrangement files aren't very large, so you shouldn't have to buy extra space. Samples, clips, and stems do take space - a LOT of space, and would take a long time to download from the internet, too. A USB drive is the perfect place for the Huge Folders of Sound, and another backup of your Arrangements, too! (Do a search for the 3-2-1 backup strategy - you may be glad you did someday.)

Kid Gloves: Although the origin of the phrase can be controversial, the idea gets across - Keep it protected as best you can, and less Stuff (TM) will happen to it. You know, 'cuz Things and Stuff... they Happen.

USB Hub recommendation

I am looking to make the switch for our keyboard players to using MainStage in a few months. I need the Motif to hook up to the keyboard via USB and would like to use an SSD and audio interface but only have 2 USB ports. Do you have a USB hub that you recommend?

USB Hub recommendation

I've got a simple 4-port 'powered' hub from Radio Shack. It works great. You just need to make sure it comes with a power adapter. Belkin makes some as well as many other manufactures.