Using A DAW app to Control your rig
Building the perfect live rig can be a daunting task. In this month’s field guide let's discuss how to use a digital audio workstation (DAW) in your live rig.
I have spent many hours experimenting with different ways to set my live rig up for a performance. We have discussed many options in this column previously, but I wanted to pick up where we left off last month and expand on the idea of a single sequencer controlling all of the other devices. Last month, we looked at how a hardware sequencer like the Yamaha QY70 could control all of your other devices. This month let's take a look at some software options for the iPad and dig a little deeper into how to set them up.
First, I'll mention GarageBand because it is free and is included on your iPad. GarageBand is an amazing music app, especially for beginners. It is a complete music production package that includes synthesizers, traditional instruments, drumkits, audio effects and recording, loops, and many more useful features. The one feature that it does not have is a way to control external devices through MIDI. It is a closed system and because of that, it is not suited for what we are trying to accomplish.
One of my favorite DAWs is Cubasis by Steinberg. Based on the incredible computer software Cubase, it has many of the best features and flexible workflow found on the PC version. Cubasis has recently been updated and now includes Ableton LINK, which allows it to tempo sync to other apps that have LINK and makes it an even better choice for a live rig command center. Cubasis has MIDI tracks, internal instrument tracks, and audio tracks. It also includes many audio effects and a powerful mixing section that allows you to record automation and group tracks. It is a linear sequencer, so how you compose your music determines how you set things up. For instance, if you want to compose complete songs and play along to them, then you can use the linear sequencer and program your tracks from start to finish. However, since Cubasis is linear, if you wanted to trigger loops you have to be a little creative. To compose this way, you have to set a loop point in the sequencer and program all of your parts from the start of the loop to the loop point. Then during your performance, you would fade in or unmute the parts that you want to play and fade them out when you want them to stop. This way of working is not automatic, but it does provide you a way to create loops that can be as long as you want, and it can give you a pallet of parts that you can mix and match during your performance.
Another DAW that is highly suited to control your live rig is Korg Gadget. Like Cubasis, it includes external MIDI tracks, internal instrument tracks, and audio tracks. It includes audio effects and can be used to create complete songs or individual loops. It is a loop-based step sequencer and loops are limited in length to 16 bars. What I love about Gadget is the way Korg has created each instrument. Rather than have one or two internal instruments that include all of the sounds, Korg designed many individual "Gadgets" that are designed for particular types of sounds, from drum machines to analog synths, to audio recorders and many more. There is even a virtual controller for external MIDI tracks that can be configured to control certain parameters on your external gear. They have even preloaded some configurations to control external Korg devices, like the Volcas. The workflow takes a bit of time to get used to. It isn't like other DAWs, so that is something to consider. Another thing that I have found to be a hindrance to the way I like to perform is that you can't trigger individual parts, you can only trigger a whole row of sequences. So, if you only wanted the first part of the first row to play, you would have to mute all of the other parts on that row. It is not a deal breaker, but it is something to consider.
Roland Zenbeats is another great DAW that includes many famous Roland instrument sounds, MIDI tracks, and audio effects. It is similar to Korg Gadget in many ways. It is laid out in a grid-launcher style format, and it is loop-based. However, it does allow you to trigger individual loops on the grid instead of a whole row. I like this workflow the best because it allows me to create loops that will sound good together no matter which ones I choose. During a live performance, I can choose any combination and the song will sound good. This also means that the same set of loops can be used many times, but the music will sound different because of the different combinations and the sound settings on the individual synthesizers that I am playing.
There are many other DAW apps that you can choose from for IOS, and more are being produced. The best thing to do is try a few and find the one that works best for you. If you have an IOS device, a MIDI interface, and an external synth, you can use this type of setup. If you have multiple synths that you would like to send MIDI to, you will need a separate MIDI hub to split the signal out to each device. You can send up to 16 separate MIDI channels out of one MIDI connection, so your system could be extensive. Whatever the case may be, adding some external synths can add some new life to your music. I hope that this article will inspire you to think about adding some external synths to your rig and encourage you to start building your loop palette inside your favorite DAW.