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I am a seasoned keyboardist playing mainly live gigs (Soul, Funk, Rock, Pop). I am very impressed by the capabilities of VST instruments, so I am wondering if it would be possible to use them in a live setup (my equipment today consists of multiple "classical" keyboards).

So, I would like to know

  • What is the minimum setup to use VST on a live gig, hardware- and software-wise (please supply a complete list, including MIDI and audio stuff etc.)?
  • Is there any software tailored specifically to live performances? I don't really care about recording.
  • Optimally, I would like to define presets for two keyboards in advance (e.g. upper keyboard = organ sound A, lower keyboard = piano sound B), and activate them with as little fuss as possible. How can this be done?
  • How would you control the volume in such a setup? Dragging sliders with the mouse before your solo seems a bit impractical...
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What is the minimum setup to use VST on a live gig, hardware- and software-wise (please supply a complete list, including MIDI and audio stuff etc.)?

Hardware:

  • Any system capable of running a plug-in host (PC, laptop, tablet, mobile).
  • Audio and MIDI interface that is compatible with that system.

Software:

  • A plug-in host (the program that will host the VST and/or AU and/or other plug-in format).

  • Virtual instruments.

The minimal specs of the system will depend on the virtual instruments that you'll use. A simple subtractive synth will run in almost anything, but a robust sampler might need more RAM and disk space. You'll need to consult the minimum specs of your virtual instruments for this detail.

The minimal specs will also depend on how many instruments and processes you want to run at the same time. Unless you want to go nuts, something like Intel Core i5-4690K and 8GB 1600Mhz DDR3 RAM should be more than enough. You might need a lot less than this, but that setup would leave a reasonable room for expansion if you ever feel like going more crazy.

Test your vst setup with different systems, see if the systems can handle it (check latency, CPU usage, and if any artifacts are being induced), and write down the specs of those systems. This will give you a good idea of what you need and what to expect from different specs. You want your setup to run absolutely flawlessly: no artifacts, ultra low latency, and no CPU usage peaking near the limit.

Choosing the correct system for your needs (Mac, PC, Mobile, Laptop, OSX, Windows, Android, iOS, Linux, processor, RAM, etc) is crucial here.

Also, if you are very serious about this, you might want to consider having a backup system in case your main one fails. Consider having more than one if you can afford it.

Is there any software tailored specifically to live performances? I don't really care about recording.

There are many options, but I think the best one right now (and by far) is Ableton Live. It was tailored for live performance, everything is agile and intuitive. It is so much more than a plug-in host, so it leaves a lot of room for creativity. "Can we do this live?" With Live the answer is almost always "yes". Even if you imagine a device that doesn't exist, you can build it with MAX for Live.

One think that I love about Live for live performances is the Instrument Rack. You can layer many instruments in one single track, and have macros control different parameters from different instruments at once. This can be done in most plug-in hosts (in the form of multiple tracks and MIDI mapping), but nothing comes close to how fast, easy, and live-friendly Live implements it.

Check other options (BitWig and Mainstage come to my mind), but chances are that Ableton Live is exactly what you want.

Optimally, I would like to define presets for two keyboards in advance (e.g. upper keyboard = organ sound A, lower keyboard = piano sound B), and activate them with as little fuss as possible. How can this be done?

This is very easy to do, and most VST hosts can handle it (I can't think of one that wouldn't). Exactly how to do it will depend on your host, but it will almost always be more or less like this:

Make each keyboard send MIDI from a different channel, and make each virtual instrument receive MIDI only from the channel you want. Set the organ sound to receive MIDI only from channel 1, and set the piano sound to receive MIDI only from channel 2. Set upper keyboard to send MIDI through channel 1, and set lower keyboard to send MIDI through channel 2. Upper keyboard -> MIDI channel 1 -> organ sound, lower keyboard -> MIDI channel 2 -> piano sound.

To activate/deactivate you arm/unarm the MIDI track. You can do this from a control surface, if your keyboard has buttons that send MIDI you can have each keyboard have its own activate/deactivate button, which will be mapped to the arm/unarm function of the MIDI track.

How would you control the volume in such a setup? Dragging sliders with the mouse before your solo seems a bit impractical...

You can do it from a control surface. If your keyboards don't have knobs or sliders you can get a control surface with knobs and/or sliders, and assign them to whatever you want, including volume.

If you plan to have a lot of tracks, you'll make your life a lot easier by getting something with motorized faders. Something like Bheringer's BCF2000 or X-Touch.

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    Forget about the BCF2000. It's crap. The X-Touch series has the faders, knobs and displays from the X32 series, which are very good! – Jörg W Mittag Oct 25 '14 at 13:30
  • @JörgWMittag Yeah I've noticed mixed opinions of the BCF2000. Mine has lasted several years, and still works great, but I've also known of defective devices. This contrast seems to be common in low-end devices (the BCF2000 might be the cheapest control surface with motorized faders). There's a lot of options in the control surface market, and it's worth to invest in the mid to high end equipment. – Lyd Oct 25 '14 at 13:53
  • +1 for Ableton.. it's great for live performance. As for a specific computer, if it's in your budget the Macbook Pro is pretty much the standard for live music these days as it's pretty bulletproof (this coming from a PC guy). Of course you can also use a PC laptop if the specs are sufficient, it just isn't as popular for live music. I haven't tried it yet, but there are a lot of good synth apps out there for iOS so an iPad might be enough for your needs. – Charles Oct 25 '14 at 17:14
  • You may want to check out the video on how Ableton Live is used for Depeche Mode live performances as well: youtube.com/watch?v=YvuCp1lZIBw – vwegert Feb 1 '15 at 9:43
  • Don't forget the latency of your chosen audio interface can make a big difference here. For years I played around with VST's through my standard sound card only, and got quite annoyed with latencies ranging from 50-200ms. With a nice firewire interface I have managed around 3-5ms (depending on sample rate); it is like night and day. Not to say you have to use firewire - that's nearly obsolete now - but make sure you do some homework on whatever you pick up. – Darren Ringer May 10 '15 at 1:28
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I don't have much experience in this area, but I can recommend Apple Mainstage, a $30 app for Macs that works with any number of MIDI controllers attached to a single Mac computer.

Mainstage does everything you ask for in your answer except work with VSTs. If that's a dealbreaker for you, you will need to look for different software, unfortunately. Instead of using VSTs, Apple's music software uses Audio Units, which are a different standard for software synthesizers. Mainstage comes with several AUs and hundreds of presets for them, and many major synthesizers like Massive and FM8 are available as AUs.

Using Mainstage, a minimal, complete setup for a live performance would be:

  • The MIDI keyboard you play
  • A computer running OSX
  • An amplifier or speaker
  • A USB or MIDI cable between the keyboard and computer
  • An audio cable between the computer and speaker

Mainstage can't record what you perform, but you said in your answer that you're not looking for that functionality. The software lets you configure the software synths you're controlling, then play them live.

Mainstage lets you set up multiple software synths configured in different ways ahead of time, then switch between them quickly during performances. I believe that you can set Mainstage up so that it will switch between configurations based on MIDI signals, so you wouldn't even need to reach over to your computer to do so.

And finally, Mainstage also lets you control parameters like volume and panning using MIDI controllers as well as by using the computer directly.


I'm not sure what alternatives are available for Windows, but I'm willing to bet that they exist, and that they have exactly the same functionality as Mainstage does. I would be very surprised, for example, if any serious live performance software required a more elaborate setup than what I described or didn't have the ability to switch between instruments and control parameters using MIDI.

  • My answer recommends one piece of software. I'm only recommending Mainstage because it's the only software like this that I'm familiar with, not because it's necessarily the best. It's Mac-only and doesn't work with software synths, but I bet some looking around will find PC alternatives. For example, this thread on Reddit discusses some alternatives. – Kevin - Reinstate Monica Oct 24 '14 at 23:10
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You want Cantibile. Or Forte (Brainspawn not the notation Forte...). They will not only host your VSTs with whatever patches you want for each song and create signal chains for VST EFX, But they will also let you create Set Lists, trigger background Audio files, and have cool features like programmable midi keys so you can trigger things like start and stop as well as step forward or back thru your set list all from your keyboard so your laptop doesn't even have to be visible on stage. I have both and slightly favor Cantibile, but compare features for your purposes.

All you need is a good audio interface to get good quality audio out to your amplification. Tons of USB boxes will do it for you. If you are running lots of instruments and have a sound man, you may want an interface with more pairs of outputs than just a single stereo pair so your sound man can tweak levels separately. Shop accordingly and read the reviews online first with a focus on reliability for the interface(s) that seem like a fit for you.

You'll set volume levels via slider for each VST separately, including any audio tracks being triggered. Plus an overall volume. Once you get everything right song to song it stays there so there shouldn't be a need to tweak other than at first when you set up for a new gig.

I run two MIDI channels from two keyboards, as well as a MIDI guitar and a MIDI EWI AND GET EXACTLY WHAT I WANT FOR IT ALL ON EVERY SONG WITH NO FUSS.

This is what you want software wise, it's not overkill like some DAW with a million other features you won't use unless you're triggering tons of loops like doing an Ableton Live performance.

I run everything from it from Omnisphere (best thing on the planet in my opinion), Trilian, Iris, Razor, all the Native Instruments, the Cakewalk synths, Alchemy, Hans Zimmers Zebra version, and even old ones like the Korg stuff such as the M1...

It just works.

Good luck!

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It's been several months since "googol analytics" posted a question regarding using VSTs in a live setting. If you're still looking for a solution, take a look at the Muse Research Receptor standalone unit. This is a dedicated unit for VST plugins. I have a couple of keyboard midi controllers hooked up to the unit. I use it on all my live gigs. Go to the Muse Research website to get more info on the unit.

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Apple Mainstage will drive plug-in instruments. Most VSTs on the OS X platform are also delivered in the form of Audio Units. These are directly supported in Mainstage.

protected by Shevliaskovic Nov 20 '15 at 19:28

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