Intro to Keys Rigs

Keys Rig GraphicOne of the goals of this blog is to provide helpful information for keyboardists who want to get involved with instrumental worship but aren’t sure where to start. Keyboard setups for worship of course aren’t different from those in other band settings and computer based systems are becoming very common place. Software setups offer some significant advantages over hardware in terms of sound options and quality but are more complex to set up. If you have decided to go with a software based setup but aren’t sure where to start read on!

The term “keys rig” arguably was coined by the worship staff at Hillsong in Australia (at least that’s where I first heard it). While any keyboard setup would certainly be considered a keys rig the term typically is used to refer to the combination of keyboard controller, computer and software host, and soft synths.

The Recipe

A live rig will require a few components:

  1. Keyboard controller and midi Interface
  2. Computer host
  3. Software Host
  4. Audio Interface

The Keyboard Controller

The Keyboard Controller can be a hardware synth that you also want to use with software or one of the many dedicated controller keyboards from Novation, M-Audio, Akai or others. Although we all love the feel of 88 hammer weighted keys under our fingertips usually 49 or 61 keys are plenty for worship.

Your keyboard controller will send note and performance data to the computer via a protocol called midi. A midi interface is needed to receive that data. All modern controllers have this interface built-in and will communicate with the host via a USB cable. Some consumer keyboards and older controllers will have a midi output that will need to be connected to a midi input. External audio interfaces usually include at least one midi port and it is possible to get very inexpensive USB adapters to bring that data into the computer.

The Computer Host

A computer host needs to be powerful enough to run your software without causing audio glitches. Software demands tend to advance right along with processor power so plan for the most powerful machine you can manage. That said it is quite possible to get great results with machines that are 1-2 years old and sometimes older if you are careful. Processor speed tends to be more helpful than number of cores and at least 4 GB and preferably 8-16 GB of RAM are recommended. In terms of manufacturers Apple machines tend to be the most common since it is easier to predict the performance of these machines. On the windows side it is a good idea to check with others to see which vendors and machines have proven reliable. (edit: my wife points out that saying computer host is needlessly complicated – it’s just a computer. Thanks dear.)

The Software Host

Software hosts are the home for your soft synths and choosing the right one is pretty important! It is certainly possible to use a DAW that you are already using (ProTools, Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer) however most musicians choose to base their setup around dedicated host software. The most common choices for dedicated hosts are Apple Mainstage or Ableton Live. It is important that your host runs well on your computer hardware – reboots and crashing on stage are not a great way to win the confidence of your band mates.

The Audio Interface

An audio interface can be as simple as using the line out of your laptop or a larger multichannel unit. When you are selecting a unit or debating using your laptop output there are a couple of important things to consider. Your interface needs to achieve low latency. Latency refers to the time between your key press at the controller and the audio output of the device. Most people find 128 samples to be comfortable. Less is better but 256 samples may work for you. The computer hardware works with the interface to achieve this number so your host hardware is important too. If you cannot run your laptop interface at 128 samples without clicks and pops then you may benefit from an eternal unit. External units also provide additional outputs so we can run pianos on one set of outputs and pads on another, or loops on a set separated from our live instruments. In terms of interface method USB 2.0 or firewire will work fine.

Putting it Together

Connect your keyboard controller to your computer host (using a midi adapter if necessary). Get your audio interface hooked up and fire up your host software. Make sure your software is configured to route your keyboard data to your soft synths and the audio from your software to your audio interface. At that point all you need to do is get playing and start designing those patches for Sunday!

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