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Building a Live Rig: Where to Begin

Building the perfect live rig can be a daunting task. In this month’s field guide we show you how to get started.

Because there are so many possibilities available to you, it is hard to narrow down the perfect combination of equipment to allow you to perform your music the way you want on stage. My live rig has gone through many iterations and will continue to change as my requirements change. In this column, we will explore the possibilities and consider the challenges that you could face. I will offer some advice based on what I have learned, and share with you some product choices that have been very useful to me.

Where to begin

Let’s start at the very beginning: before you begin building your live rig, you should consider what equipment you want to use. This may be common sense, but each piece of equipment has different requirements when considering how to power it and connect it to a sound system, etc. When I first started all, I had was a couple of iPads, a USB keyboard controller, and a compact mixer. I put those in a gig bag and off I went to the gig. Even with that simple setup, I had problems syncing the tempo between the two iPads. Thus began my journey to building the perfect live rig. Now all of the gear is safely tucked away in a guitar pedal board case. Everything is connected, synced up, and ready to play. It has taken a while for me to reach this point.

Command center

So, let’s talk about the iPad. I use the iPad as the control center of my rig. If you are like me, you may already own an iPad. I think the iPad is one of the best things to happen in mobile music technology in recent times. I have successfully made music with nearly every version of the iPad going all the way back to the iPad 1. Because of the apps available, the iPad can be used for multiple things in your rig at the same time. It can be a synthesizer, a sampler, a looper, a midi sequencer, an effects processor, or a multi-track recorder, just to name a few. In each case, there are specific items that need to be addressed. First, you need to decide how to power the iPad. You can run it off of the internal battery, but it usually won’t last long enough to get through a show. I have learned to always have my iPad connected to a USB charger, that way your iPad’s battery doesn’t die in the middle of your set! Next, you should decide how you plan to use the iPad in your performance. This will determine if you need, for instance, an audio interface, midi interface, Wi-Fi connection, sync output, or Bluetooth connection. This will also determine where the iPad is connected in the signal chain. If you are going to use it as a live looper, for instance, you may have it at the end of your audio signal chain and you will need an audio input connected to your iPad. In my case, I am using the Modal Skulpt as a midi keyboard to play synthesizer sounds on my iPad and I am sending midi note information and tempo sync to my other synths in the case from the iPad. So, I have a midi interface connected to the iPad with the Apple camera kit and the Skulpt connected to the midi input. I also have the Crave synth connected to the midi output and the rest of my synths synced with the sync ins and outs on the Korg Volcas. This way all of the patterns on my synths play in sync with the audio loops on the iPad. It is important to use a USB midi adapter that is compatible with the iPad. I have tried a few models and the one I recommend is the Roland UM-ONE. It is very inexpensive, works well with the iPad, and takes up very little space in the case, which is also another important consideration. Refer to the illustration above to help you understand the proper connections. The midi out jack on the Skulpt is connected to the midi in on the USB adapter. Then the midi out of the adapter is connected to the midi in of the Crave. This is a very typical connection between one midi keyboard, an iPad, and another device. You can substitute your devices in place of these. With this connection you will be able to play the keys on your keyboard and play an app on the iPad, like a virtual synth, and also play the second device, or trigger it from a midi sequence on the iPad. On the iPad app, you may have to select your USB midi adapter from a list of possible connections in the app’s midi settings. There are also 16 individual channels where midi information can be sent and received, so you may have to learn how to set the midi channels on your particular devices to get them to play the way you want. Typically, the midi input channel on the iPad can be set to Omni or all, and the output channel set to the same channel that your other synth is set to. Usually, the default channel is channel 1. If any of your devices have a midi out or thru, like the Crave, then you could connect another device and play it also. You can chain multiple devices this way and if you have a multi-track sequencer playing on your iPad you could play each track’s notes on a separate synth. We will explore this and some of the other types of connections in our next issue.

I hope you have found this article helpful. Don’t be afraid to give it a try and see what sort of live rig you can build with your devices. There are tons of possibilities and a whole lot of fun to be had trying different arrangements.

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