Hardware For Use With MainStage

This instalment in my MainStage series focuses on hardware to use with it (that is apart from your Mac and your primary keyboard controller).  Chances are, you have no guarantee that your keyboard controller has all the controls and buttons that you want or need (especially for the worship MainStage templates you can buy online).

The most common favourite these days is the Korg nanoKONTROL 2.  MainStage templates such as Sunday Keys or Worship Essentials come typically pre-mapped to the Korg nanoKONTROL 2.


  • Low cost
  • Lots of assignable buttons and controls
  • Button LEDs can be controlled by the DAW (or by the local hardware state)


  • Dial and slide pots do not synchronize with changes in start values after a patch change (inherent weakness of pots in general versus touch strips and rotary encoders)

For most, the pros well outweigh the cons.  For me, it wasn’t enough since, as I mentioned in an earlier article, I had a vintage Roland MCR-8 I could map and use until I made up my mind.  Well my mind has since been made up that I simply don’t need a nanoKONTROL 2 added to my hardware collection.  I have no need for it unless I ever choose to go down the path of creating and marketing MainStage templates (like others do).

Now lets go to my personal needs.  The first is very simple, it must be small enough to fit into my road case with my other gear.

When fully loaded, my MacBook (in protective case) sits upright in the rear of the box.  My iPad fits in the right side compartment (with a few other items and any papers / booklets).  My cables, pedals, mic kit, etc all get tossed in (except for the few that are velcro’d to the underside of the lid.

Now my requirements (apart from the above):

  • Support my minimum setup requirements even if all a venue supplied keyboard provides is 88 weighted keys, sustain pedal and a MIDI (or USB MIDI) interface, this being:
    • 88 weighted keys (venue supplied)
    • MIDI or USB MIDI (venue supplied)
    • Sustain pedal (venue supplied)
    • Pitch bend (venue optionally supplies)
    • Modulation (venue optionally supplies)
    • Expression (FC) jack input (venue optionally supplies)
    • Minimum of three (3) controller pots, faders, rotary encoders and/or touch strips.
    • Minimum of three (3) buttons.
  • Provide sufficient extra controls, etc to support expansion, new ideas, etc, especially when I combine use of MainStage with my more elaborate hardware setup.

I basically have three modes I want to support:

  • Basic hardware-only setup, typically consisting of my Roland RD-800 plus accessories.
  • Basic MainStage setup that can mate with pretty much any venue supplied keyboard controller and provide functionality equivalent to (or perhaps a bit better) than my basic hardware-only setup.  This must all fit into the road case.
  • A more advanced hardware plus software setup that goes beyond what I do using by basic setups.

As I get more into my own MainStage concerts and patch design, I will likely need a fourth mode that is used in my home setup in support of tweaking all the patch sound parameters.

Below are the hardware add-ons I obtained for this.

Top left is IK MultiMedia iRig Keys I/O 25; top right is Arturia BeatStep, and bottom centre (resting on keys of my Chi 1p-40, topic for a future article) is Radial USB Pro.

Of these, The iRig Keys fulfills pretty much the basic needs as well as providing a backup audio I/F (and the one I routinely use at rehearsal venues).  The USB Pro is my audio interface for live venue use.  The Arturia is still just for experimental use.

IK Multimedia iRig Keys I/O 25

  • Slips into a small laptop case (for protection) and sits in my road case adjacent to my MacBook pro.
  • Small enough to rest on top of most venue supplied keyboards (sometimes a thin foam pad is needed).
  • Provides two octaves of secondary keys (presently map one octave to set the note for a tonic drone function).
  • The pedal input can provide either a sustain (FS) input or an expression (FC) input.  I use this for expression.
  • Two touch strips (with Alt functions for total of four).  This are mappable to Pitch Bend, Modulation or other MIDI CC’s as well as some internal functions such as octave shift and program change up / down.  I use these for Pitch Bend and Modulation.  The Alt functions are a second MIDI CC and program change up / down.
  • Four mappable rotary encoders with a mappable touch / release function.  A fifth data rotary encoder.  These each have Alt functions to total of 10 mappable functions.  I use these as assignable controls.
  • Eight drum pads, individually mappable as note triggers, MIDI CC’s, etc.  I use these as assignable switches, misc controls and still have spares mapped as note triggers.

Arturia BeatStep

  • Slips into small cloth bag and fits into road case.
  • Has 16 assignable rotary encoders and 16 assignable drum pads.
  • The drum pads are velocity sensitive, and it appears (polyphonic?) aftertouch, which is more than the typical controller.
  • Has built in step sequencer.
  • At present, I use this for experimental use.  Future use still TBD.

Radial USB Pro

  • A very basic USB audio output suitable for live use.
  • Built in stereo DI with isolation transformers.
  • Uses standard USB audio drivers (MacOS, Windows, Linux).
  • Level adjust and a mono switch along with typical DI functions such as ground lift.

Bundled Software

The iRig Keys came with a fairly decent software bundle for MacOS and for iOS.  The biggest was a full edition of SampleTank 3.  The BeatStep came with the basic edition of Analog Lab.

Sample Tank came with a comprehensive library of sounds that I explored as potential candidate as an expansion library.  Unfortunately there were a number of issues with it.  In the end, disappointed, I uninstalled it.  It suffered from being out of tune with everything else, and attempts to tune it, made it run unstable, at times crashing.

Analog Lab was a basic version of a software package that accompanies Arturia products.  Their keyboard products come with bigger libraries, but the basic library has some nice keyboard, piano and organ sounds.  Someone could use the BeatStep with MainStage and take advantage of this to add some sounds on top of the Apple stock library.  I only got as far as experimental use as I also have Omnisphere and Komplete libraries to which the Analog Lab sounds were no match to.

I am a bit surprised that no one making MainStage templates using the nanoKONTROL 2 as the default controller have bothered to explore the software bundles that Korg provides with it.


  • If you don’t want to mess around defining your own input maps, etc, then stick with the Korg nanoKONTROL 2.  But perhaps explore the bundled software and determine how good they may work as supplemental sound libraries.
  • If you have an old controller (like how I have an old Roland MCR-8) then consider mapping to it and just using that.  Save yourself some money, at least until you know where you want to take this in the future.
  • My favourite is the iRig Keys I/O 25.  There is a bigger 49 key version available as well (but that doesn’t fit into the road case).  It is quite a useful and flexible piece of hardware, but don’t expect Sample Tank to be of any use as an AU plugin for MainStage.  (The iOS app is fun to play with as an alternate, and you can always checkout the Windows version.  Maybe you’ll get further with that with say Ableton as the host DAW).
  • The BeatStep is fun, but doesn’t provide all the equivalent to the nanoKONTROL.  What it does provide is good quality.  Consider using this if you have no intention to map one to one with the nanoKONTROL or you plan make all your own concert templates.  It does come in considerably less expensive than the iRig Keys, but costs more than the nanoKONTROL.

Other Software Items

I also mentioned Omnisphere and Komplete.  Omnisphere by Spectrasonics is the premium software synthesizer available as an AU plugin (and I believe VST for Windows).  Its strengths are in the area of pads, synth sounds, especially analog sounds.  It features a fairly comprehensive sound library.  The only con is that it is a bit pricey (and they seldom ever have sales with significant discounts).  A pro is that you get the upgrades as they come out.  Komplete by Native Instruments has many libraries sold as separate packages.  There are presently four editions.  Like the case for Omnisphere, Komplete is pricey (beyond the basic “Select” edition).  But unlike Omnisphere, you can buy selected libraries on their own for use with Kontact.  Also unlike Omnisphere, upgrades will cross boundaries more frequently where you have to pay for the upgrade.  Upgrades usually are at a discount versus full purchase.  Native Instruments usually have 50% off sales around USA Thanksgiving and at Christmas.

I got Komplete Select bundled with Maschine JAM (a subject for another future article).  I upgraded it to Komplete (standard edition).  I also added Alicia’s Keys since I don’t expect to upgrade to any of the larger editions.  I also bought Omnisphere because, I found that the Apple stock sounds were a bit lacking for live use.

That Under Utilized Arturia BeatStep

I think that I will get the full utilization of the Beat Step around the same time I get full utilization of my Maschine JAM.

The Maschine JAM provides eight columns of buttons, each with a touch strip.  The Beat step (if lined up nicely below or above it) would effectively add two rotary encoders and two assignable felicity sensitive note trigger pads (with aftertouch) for each column.

That will be really cool!

Next Article

This is Chi 1p-40 , a keyboard I built from parts, bits and pieces and two Arduino micro controller boards.

to be continued…