Is a modern keys rig worth it?
Technology can be incredible… as keys players, it gives us access to endless possibilities for our keys rigs. Gone are the days of confinement to our keyboard’s built-in sounds and effects. Now, we can customize every sound to fit our exact needs and personal taste. However, one obstacle stands in the way: a modern keys rig is more complex to set up than a hardware keys rig.
I totally get it… I initially found the complexity factor to be a significant stumbling block. I had questions such as, “What do I need?”, “How does this work?” and “How do I connect everything?” Many hours passed as I scratched my head, looking for help on these topics. Was the learning curve worth abandoning my hardware keys rig and transitioning to a software-based keys rig?
Well… it only took a few minutes of playing a shimmer-reverb piano layered atop a beautiful warm pad to answer: “Yes, it is totally worth it!!!“
What you need to know
Good news: with the correct information, setting up a modern keys rig is very straightforward… this is the exact information I have prepared for you.
The concept is simple: you press a key on your keyboard and hear a sound. A built-in microchip is responsible for playing that sound with traditional hardware keyboards. We bypass that microchip with a modern keys rig and use a computer to generate the sound.
I encourage you to take 5 minutes and watch my video on creating a modern keys rig. I promise it is well worth the small time investment.
What your keys rig needs to have
The following sections will explore the gear necessary for a software-based keys rig. At the end of this article, I’ll include links to the equipment I recommend depending on your budget.
The core ingredients for a modern keys rig include:
Choosing a keyboard for your keys rig
What keyboard should you choose? The short answer is any keyboard capable of sending MIDI data will work. Well… what is MIDI!? I’m glad you asked.
MIDI is the protocol (language) keyboards utilize to communicate with other devices capable of “speaking” the MIDI language. In our case, the keyboard will correspond with the computer and let it know what keys are being pressed.
Almost every keyboard made in the last thirty years is capable of sending MIDI data… you’d be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t. So just check the back of your keyboard to see if there is a USB or 5-pin MIDI port. If you see either one of those ports, you’re golden!
If you don’t have a keyboard, I’ve linked my recommendations at the end of the article. Additionally, here are some tips to help find one that fits you:
- Do you need built-in sounds? Probably not if you are reading this article… so search for “MIDI Keyboard” instead of “Digital Piano.” Dedicated MIDI keyboards tend to be less expensive than digital pianos with built-in sounds… plus many MIDI keyboards will have other MIDI controls (knobs, faders, mod wheel, etc.).
- How many keys do you need? This preference comes down to your musical style and portability requirements. MIDI keyboards typically come in 61 and 88 key variants… 73 key keyboards are rare.
- Weighted, Semi-Weighted, or Synth Action? This is a personal and stylistic preference. As a general guideline, if you play primarily piano… go with weighted; synth leads and pads… choose semi-weighted; organ… synth action.
- Other MIDI Controls? MIDI keyboards can come with various MIDI-capable controls for real-time modification of sounds and effects. You don’t want to be using a mouse/trackpad to change patches, add reverb, unmute/mute sounds, open filters, etc. If your MIDI keyboard doesn’t have the controls you want, you can always pick up a dedicated MIDI controller (like the Korg nanoKontrol 2) and set it on top of your keyboard.
- Reliability You don’t need to spend a ton to get an excellent MIDI keyboard. If you will be playing live, your keys rig needs to be reliable; dying mid-set is not an option. I trust these brands: Akai, Arturia, Korg, M-Audio, Native Instruments, Nord, Novation, Roland, Studiologic, and Yamaha. Brands I’m a bit warier of include: Alesis, some Behringer gear (they have gotten a lot better recently), and some Nektar gear. I’m not saying to avoid these brands outright, but in my book, they don’t have the rock-solid reputation that the previous brands do. Look at reviews… you know the drill…
Choosing a computer for your keys rig
This one is simple… Mac computers are king in the software-based keys realm. I say this as a PC power user; I wish there was an equivalence for running on PCs. However, today the best choice is to go with a Mac. This boils down to two reasons:
- The most popular live keys software, MainStage, only works on Macs.
- General stability and driver support is far superior on Macs (developers don’t need to worry about the near-infinite hardware variations that exist in the PC world… they only need to program for the standardized Mac components).
If you need to purchase a computer, here are some quick tips:
- Apple offers discounts (student, military, & refurbished computers).
- Try to get a laptop with at least 512GB of storage. 256GB is workable but not great.
- 16GB of RAM is plenty! Only upgrade beyond 16GB if you have money to blow.
- All the “Apple Silicon” processors rock! They will run like butter 🙂
- For Intel Macs, get at least a quad-core i5 or i7 processor… nothing older than 2015.
- All RAM is not created equal! 8GB of modern RAM is way faster than 16GB of old RAM.
- All processors are not created equal! A current i5 will beat an older i7!
Software options for your keys rig
What software do you go with? If you’ve opted to use a Mac, the answer is simple: MainStage. MainStage is an app created by Apple specifically for running a live keys rig. MainStage includes an extensive sample library, professional virtual instruments, an assortment of effects, a script engine, and an incredibly intuitive GUI.
Oh… and it only costs 30!?
If you opt to use a PC (or just don’t want to use MainStage), you have some options. You can pick up Ableton Live (Standard or Suite), Gig Performer, Camelot by Ilio, Unify by the Plugin Guru, or VST Live by Steinberg. All those options run on both Mac and PC… but again, if you own a Mac… check out MainStage.
KeyStudio, your MainStage template
If you choose to go with MainStage, you can build your own sounds, routing, effects programming, scripts, etc., from scratch… or pick up a MainStage template. I highly recommend using a MainStage template; you will save yourself hundreds (even thousands) of hours programming sounds, effects, volume balancing, GUI modification, scripting, routing, etc.,
Several templates are available, but the most powerful MainStage template is KeyStudio. Full disclaimer… I created KeyStudio… but you won’t find anything that does as much as KeyStudio. It is my “software baby.” I spent thousands of hours creating sounds, effects, mappings, sampling hardware synths, scripting, and more. I did this to give you and me the best MainStage keys experience out there. 🙂 With KeyStudio, you will spend more time making music than tweaking parameters.
I offer a FREE version of KeyStudio. You can get started with a MainStage template and my in-depth video training course at no cost. If you find a better deal than that… please let me know.
Connecting the keyboard to the computer
This is the fun part, connecting everything together! I’ll note that some of the following material may initially seem a bit complicated. To make things easier, I have included a diagram below of the different ways to connect everything. Focus on finding the method you will use to connect your rig; beyond that, there isn’t much to it.
First, plug your sustain pedal into your keyboard.
Second, let’s connect the MIDI keyboard to the computer. Remember earlier when I mentioned your keyboard needs a USB or 5-pin MIDI port? The cable that connects your keyboard to the computer will vary depending on the keyboard’s port type. Let’s look at two scenarios:
- Scenario 1: Keyboard has a USB port. All you need to connect your MIDI keyboard to your computer is the appropriate USB cable! These are typically USB A to USB B cables (the same USB cable many printers use), but nowadays, you can find some newer keyboards and computers that utilize USB C. In most cases, the MIDI keyboard will come with the appropriate cable, but consult the user manual for the type of USB cable if you have any questions. Note: oftentimes the USB port will power your keyboard, saving you the need to use a power adapter!
- Scenario 2: Keyboard has a 5-pin MIDI port. You can pick up a 5-pin MIDI to USB cable online (I’ve linked to some at the end of this article). If the cable has two 5-pin connectors on one end, plug the connector labeled “IN” into your keyboard’s 5-pin “OUT” port (We are sending MIDI “OUT” of the keyboard and “IN” to the computer). In this scenario, there is another way to connect the keyboard to the laptop; we discuss it in the next section of this article.
Routing audio out of the computer
You don’t want to rely on your computer’s built-in speakers for sound. Instead, we need to get the sound to our external speakers/monitors, soundboard, etc. There are two main approaches, both of which can be referenced in the diagram above:
- Scenario 1: Use the headphone port. We can use a 3.5mm (1/8) TRS to Dual 1/4 TS cable, which allows us to use the headphone port for stereo sound. You might opt for the Female 1/4 TS cable variant so that you can use any 1/4 TS cables you already have.
- Scenario 2: Use an audio interface. The main advantage to using an audio interface is the potential to use more than two outputs for your sounds. Perhaps your sound person wants finer control over the mix and would like you to send him your pads and pianos as separate feeds. Or maybe you must send a click track feed to your soundboard; you need an extra output. There are other reasons to use an audio interface, but having more outputs is the primary purpose for keys players.
Note: If you use an audio interface, you can connect your MIDI keyboard to it (rather than the computer) if your interface has a 5-pin MIDI “IN” port. The audio interface will route the keyboard’s MIDI data to the computer. This could save you from using an extra USB port.
Start using your keys rig
You’ve got all your gear set up, so what’s next!? Start making awesome music of course! Launch your software, complete the initial setup, and you’re off to the races.
If you need anything broken down into even greater detail (perhaps how to install MainStage or KeyStudio, how to get your physical controller set up to control MainStage, etc., please check out my free training course. I show you everything you need to do, click by click.
I hope you enjoy the creativity and control afforded by a software-based keys rig. Exciting musical moments await. 🙂
Key rig gear recommendations
It can be hard to decide what gear to buy. So I’ve put together my recommendations to help with that process. I noted the prices at the time of writing this article. They may change over time, but I’ll try to keep this page up-to-date.
The following are Amazon affiliate links. These are a great way to help me continue to produce more free content for you. They don’t cost you anything extra, but I may generate a small commission from clicks that result in a purchase. So if you’re going to purchase on Amazon anyways, please consider using these links. Thank you!
61 Key Keyboards - For that portable keys rig
$119 – 61 Keys Semi Weighted: Nektar GX61 – https://amzn.to/3n3MhsR
$199 – 61 Keys Semi Weighted: M-Audio Keystation 61 MK3 – https://amzn.to/3OuGCaS
$279 – 61 Keys Semi Weighted: Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol – https://amzn.to/3OclkPK
$399 – 61 Keys Semi Weighted: AKAI Professional MPK261 – https://amzn.to/3y41Yqi
$549 – 61 Keys Semi Weighted: Arturia KeyLab MKII 61 Professional – https://amzn.to/3n3O557
88 Key Keyboards - For that full piano keys rig
$249 – 88 Keys Semi Weighted: M-Audio KeyStation 88 MK3 – https://amzn.to/3y2j9Zu
$319 – 88 Keys Semi Weighted: Nektar Impact LX88+ – https://amzn.to/3xHgHWO
$379 – 88 Keys Semi Weighted: Arturia Keylab 88 Essential – https://amzn.to/3n1ExaR
$499 – 88 Keys Weighted: M-Audio Hammer 88 – https://amzn.to/3tNi0lM
$529 – 88 Keys Weighted: Studiologic SL88 Studio – https://amzn.to/3Odvekk
$999 – 88 Keys Weighted: Arturia KeyLab 88 MKII – https://amzn.to/3bdjwr4
$1,149 – 88 Keys Weighted: Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol MK2 – https://amzn.to/3y7YaEK
Sustain Pedals - Your keys rig needs one
MIDI Control Surfaces - When your keys rig needs more MIDI controls
Computers - The brain of your keys rig
$489 – 2015 13.3″ MacBook Pro: 3.1GHz i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD – https://amzn.to/3tLMhS6
$499 – 2015 15.4″ MacBook Pro: 2.2GHz i7, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD – https://amzn.to/3mY5a0u
$600 – 2018 13.3″ MacBook Pro: 2.3GHz i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD – https://amzn.to/3mY5KLI
$645 – 2017 15.4″ MacBook Pro: 3.8GHz i7, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD – https://amzn.to/3O948dT
$750 – 2020 13.3″ MacBook Air: 3.1GHz M1, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD – https://amzn.to/3O988en
$895 – 2020 13.3″ MacBook Pro: 3.2GHz M1, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD – https://amzn.to/3Nac39w
$1,199 – 2020 13.3″ MacBook Air: 3.2GHz M1, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD – https://amzn.to/3QtbxXf
$1,399 – 2022 13.6″ MacBook Air: M2, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD – https://apple.com
$1,499 – 2022 13″ MacBook Pro: M2, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD – https://apple.com
$1,999 – 2021 14″ MacBook Pro: M1 Pro, 16GB RAM, 512 SSD – https://apple.com
$2,495 – 2021 14.2″ MacBook Pro: M1 Pro, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD – https://amzn.to/3n2qbqF
Software - The heart of your keys rig
$29 – MainStage – https://apps.apple.com/us/app/mainstage/id634159523?mt=12
$99 – VST Live – https://www.steinberg.net/vst-live/
$149 – Camelot – https://www.ilio.com/camelot-audio-modeling
$169 – Gig Performer – https://gigperformer.com/store.html
$449 – Ableton Live Standard – https://www.ableton.com/en/shop/live/
$749 – Ableton Live Suite – https://www.ableton.com/en/shop/live/
MainStage Template - Powerful sounds, effects, and mappings
USB to USB Cables - For direct keyboard connection to the computer
$6 – USB A to USB B: Amazon Basics – 6ft – https://amzn.to/3bhm73v
$8 – USB Mini-B to USB C: Cable Matters – 6.6ft – https://amzn.to/3b6dEjf
$9 – USB B to USB C: CableCreation – 6.6ft – https://amzn.to/3QxQ4fO
$10 – USB A to USB Mini-B: Amazon Basics – 6ft – https://amzn.to/3bcSqR4
$15 – USB C to USB C, 2-Pack: Anker – 6ft – https://amzn.to/3O9902F
5-pin MIDI to USB Cables - For direct keyboard connection to the computer
5-pin MIDI to 5-pin MIDI Cables - For keyboard connection to an audio interface
3.5mm (1/8) TRS to Dual 1/4 TS Cables - Use the headphone port
1/4 TS Cables - Your keys rig instrument cables
XLR Cables - For DI Box to Soundboard connection
Audio Interfaces - Add audio outputs to your keys rig
$99 – 2 In/Out, MIDI In/Out: PreSonus AudioBox – https://amzn.to/3n2qD8t
$109 – 2 In 4 Out, MIDI In/Out: Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD – https://amzn.to/39HMzm7
$169 – 2 In/Out, MIDI In/Out: PreSonus Studio – https://amzn.to/3y1UGDv
$169 – 4 In/Out, MIDI In/Out: Behringer U-Phoria UMC404HD – https://amzn.to/3y5LFJz
$199 – 2 In/Out, MIDI In/Out: MOTU M2 – https://amzn.to/3y7PqOW
$299 – 6 In 4 Out, MIDI In/Out: Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 3rd Gen – https://amzn.to/39BEG1B
$419 – 8 In 4 Out, MIDI In/Out: Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 3rd Gen – https://amzn.to/3zXVdaO