Learning the Ropes of MainStage

This chapter pretty much continues were the last one left off.  As many discover quite quickly about MainStage:

  • The program is pretty awesome.
  • But it’s easy to suck at using it.
  • It packs a pretty comprehensive sound library, that’s before buying anything extra.
  • You need to be a rocket scientist (or at least a drone scientist) to get the most out of it.
  • If you are picky with your sound, particularly want something real close to that on a new recording, or to match new hardware, sooner or later you have to resort to buying good third party add-ons.
  • If you are in a hurry to get playing rather than programming, you have to buy a good template as your start point.

So How do you get started?

After some quick google searches, finding some online communities, it didn’t take long to realize that there is a whole ecosystem of MainStage resources tailored towards worship musicians.  Unfortunately, apart from some free sample packs, most comes at a price, and they use a business model that nickel and dimes the individual worship musician rather than the churches whom they serve.  (Only it’s more than nickels and dimes).  But I’ll save that rant for a future article.  For now, it’s nice that there are many affordable startup packages, (some costing more than MainStage itself).  The key is to get a good value proposition out of it.

As in many situations where there is a widespread ecosystem, it’s important to make good choices.  At $30 to $50 a crack, it’s easy for hit and miss to add up. So the first step is to try out the sample packs offered by each vendor.  Then you need to see what the online community has to say about the products, the vendors’ support teams, etc.  Although they are all intended for live use in a worship context, you will discover differences in approach, usage model, design styles and business models.

Sooner or later you have to pick one to be your first.  So let’s review why I decided to buy a MainStage worship template rather than just go it on my own.

  1. Quick start – I wanted to have something that would get me able to use MainStage quickly, and as an alternative to packing all my hardware.  This became more important because, after a recent move, the heavy gear now has to go up and down stairs (no longer stored at ground level).
  2. Something to study – One of the quickest ways to learn is from examples.  Learn how others have done it right (or in some cases learn from their mistakes).

So for my case, did it help?  It certainly did.  Within a couple of weeks, I had something closely resembling all my RD-800 custom sounds.  It wasn’t difficult to map out the template to my hardware.  For my case, I dusted off my vintage Roland MCR-8, a MIDI controller with dials, faders and buttons.  I didn’t need to buy a Korg nanoKontrol2 like many have done.

Does it sound the same?  Actually it doesn’t sound much the same.  In fact I found many of the sounds lacked the richness of the sounds in my Roland hardware.  However, I was able to come up with functional equivalents.  I could play, using MainStage, the same way that I do using my Roland RD-800.  It didn’t sound exactly alike, but it was close enough, at least for the first round.

But there was obviously room for improvement, in fact, two ways (not going to third party plugins yet).

  1. I found that many sounds could be adjusted using the control parameters provided by the template.  Many I could tweak to my tastes.
  2. After digging into the Apple sound library, I cloned a few patches, replacing the sound tone with one that was closer sounding to my hardware setup.

I also learned some tricks from the MainStage template and figured out how to add some of these same types of effects into my RD-800 custom patches.  This keeps me in line with my overall goal to ensure that anything I can do on my hardware rig has an easier to pack alternative based on software, and that anything new I implement in software has a reasonable hardware backup in case of computer failure while using it live.  (Obviously the backup only applies when I bring my own hardware).

My most recent change was to customize the template itself to add support for additional pieces of hardware I have.

So to recap, what did I accomplish?

  • Close MainStage equivalent to each of my RD-800 custom patches.
  • RD-800 hardware backup for the new things I have started using from my experience using MainStage.
  • Make provision for additional hardware components.
  • Better understand how it all works.  I can now program my own patches, even my own templates.

So what’s next in all this?

  1. The next iteration of improving patch sounds could involve the use of third party libraries.  I have Komplete Select and Sample Tank sound libraries that came bundled with hardware and software I had bought.
  2. Start moving forward in terms of functionality.  Go beyond what is done using traditional hardware approaches.  (But make sure that I have hardware backup sufficient to be able to “fake it” in the event of a computer or software failure). These next steps could involve using step sequences as well as arps.

So what template did I go with?  I went with Sunday Keys by Sunday Sounds.  The modular usage model I was familiar (and most comfortable) with from my background of Roland JV and XP synthesizers and RD stage pianos.  It got me started quickly and provided a good foundation I could expand on.  I found it was great as a start, and provides some good sounds.  However I also found I plain didn’t like some of the sounds (actually not really different from when buying a new keyboard – you like some sounds, and dislike others).  Much of this, I attribute to taste.  If I created a bunch of patches, chances are, you would like some and find that others aren’t to your tastes.  After some tweaks, and in some cases, choosing a different sound from the Apple sound library, I was able to get satisfactory results.  The clear winning feature of Sunday Keys was that most of the tweaks could be done using the control parameters that were set up by the author.  I still use Sunday Keys and I use it from the perspective of having something that works, gets the job done and can be expanded as needed.  I however envision that some day I will replace it with my own creation.

Sunday Keys also provided valuable learning.  In addition to many good tutorial videos related to using and customizing MainStage patches, I was able to learn a fair amount by studying how things were done.  It has a cool tonic drone feature.  It has a good implementation of shimmer reverb (a trendy sound, although I haven’t gotten used to shimmer yet).  I would have no difficulty recommending Sunday Keys to someone getting started with using MainStage in live worship context.  And if you are likely to want to buy added patch libraries, even song specific patches, this is a good way to go.  There are other good alternatives available, but I haven’t used them.  So I can’t say whether Sunday Keys is better or not versus alternatives, but I can say that you won’t go wrong with it.

I could get more into programming my own template and patches, but that goes beyond “learning the ropes”.  What I will mention, is that it is likely to focus on:

  • My needs and the approach and style I use in worship.
  • Hardware controllers I use.
  • Combining hardware with software.
  • Make use of the third party sound libraries I have.
  • Likely use multilayered approach, (but likely not be as orthogonal) as Sunday Keys.
  • Experiment with integration of Maschine (and my JAM controller).
  • When designing sounds, I usually have to consider the acoustical conditions of the venues I play at, so this will bear on it.

So please don’t hold your breath waiting for me to come up with something for general use.  My own template will have to be subject for future articles when I have done more of this.  In the mean time, I have a good software implementation that works for the venues I play at.