Count The Beats: Playing keys and synth live on a Mac (interview).

Over the coming months, the Count The Beats series is going to be taking a closer look at how the Mac (and the accompanying software) fits in with the various components of a typical rock band (drums, bass, electric guitar etc. You get the idea).

In this post we're going to take a closer look at keyboards (playing keys and synths) in a live performance context. From honky-tonk piano's on fire to out-of-control oscillating synths, there is so much gear and software out there it can be difficult to know where to start, especially when it comes to playing in a live performance context.

Session musician, and good friend of mine, Jon Dean does a fair bit of this, and does it well. In the last few years he's gone from classically trained pianist to Rock 'n Roll, synth and pad-crazy keys extraordinaire.

I managed to pull Jon away from his busy touring schedule to sit down with me and a cup of tea with some After Eight Mints (it's a new kind of Rock 'n Roll out there, apparently) to talk controllers, audio interfaces and moving from PC to Mac, with a couple bad musician jokes thrown in for good measure.

Even if you're not a keys player, it's interesting to see how the Mac continues to facilitate and encourage creative musicianship to an extent that just wasn't available a few short years ago.

Click the Read More link for the interview.

Photo credit: kolleggerium on flickr.

TUAW: You do a lot of live keyboard playing and make some pretty interesting noises, um, on your keyboard. How did you get into playing keys with a computer?

Jon Dean: I'd like to say that I've been doing this for years, but the truth is, its been a journey of around 3 years to get to what I use today. I'm a classically trained piano player, so going into the world of keyboards and synths took a good deal of education, time and trial and error before I really knew what I was doing. Also, this journey is actually what brought me into the world of Apple and using Macs. Before then, I didn't have a clue!

TUAW: Naturally the quality of the instrument you play is really important. Being a classically trained pianist you must have high standards when it comes to tone and 'feel' when you sit down to play your instrument. With so many controllers out there, what do you look for?

JD: With the setup I have now I actually look to my keyboard to be more than a controller, as I use it for piano, electric piano and organ sounds. However, if I was playing all my sounds out of my laptop, then a crucial element would be the keys themselves. I would have to have weighted keys to play piano, and maybe, in an ideal world, I would have a separate semi-weighted controller for the synth and organ sounds. The next thing on the list would be a good bank of faders and knobs to control the sound in whatever way you want. If I could, I would probably steer clear of a controller with loads of inbuilt sounds, as I'd be paying for gear that I wouldn't ever use.

However, I'm currently using the Nord Stage 73 EX. This is my latest addition to the set up (previously I was using a Yamaha s90), but it has already become my favourite! It is outstanding in many ways, but in particular, the quality of the fully weighted keys, its piano and electric piano samples, and how easy it is to adjust effects as you go makes it, for me, an absolute cut above the rest. The organ sound is great, and it looks pretty hot too!

I use the Nord mainly for piano as well as electric piano and organ. There is a highly capable synth section on board too, although at the moment, I'm mainly using software on my Mac for synths and pads.

TUAW: You're using a MacBook as the brains behind your operation. As you mentioned, you're fairly new to the world of Macs, why did you decide to go for a Mac as apposed to a Windows PC to power your setup?

JD: I asked loads of people before I decided which to go for (I originally had a PC laptop with Windows), and the resounding answer was Mac all the way. The biggest reason for me, to go for Mac, was that a Mac is far less likely to crash, which is crucial in the live performance setting. I know someone with a Windows laptop that runs similar software for keys and synths, and I've seem them struggle, regularly. It made the decision a lot clearer. Having used my Mac for a year now, and almost no problems whatsoever, I am very happy that I made that decision.

I ended up getting a 13" MacBook 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 4GB RAM (was originally 2GB). Today this MacBook is no longer available, but its closest available product would be the current 13" MacBook Pro. If money was no object, I probably would have gone for the faster model, but with an extra 2GB of RAM (which I think is necessary), it is more than capable of doing everything I need in a live setting.

TUAW: What audio interface are you using to tie everything together?

JD: I'm currently using the Edirol UA25-EX Audio Interface. This has been a really solid, robust interface whilst I've had it. It has a metal rather than plastic case which makes it a lot more durable, something that is important when you're on the road a fair bit. Its main job, for me, is to interface the keyboard and the Mac, although when I am limited to 2 channels on the PA desk, I will also use it as a mixer to take in the left and right outputs from the Nord.

I've also got a Korg NanoKontrol. This little gadget is the width of my laptop and fits snugly before the trackpad. It's possible to assign its buttons, sliders and knobs to almost anything you want, but I generally use it to control my volume levels in the various tracks that are open in Logic (as well as the master volume).

TUAW: Lets talk a little more about the software and plug-ins then.

JD: OK, I'm using Logic Pro 8 to host everything that I am doing, Logic has some great built in plug-ins that I sometimes use for keys sounds, but for synths, Spectrasonic's Omisphere is definitely one of the most powerful software synthesisers out there, and has some amazing samples, as well as some pretty weird stuff! At the moment I am barely scratching the surface of what it can do, as the possibilities, in terms of creating your own sounds, go on and on. I mostly use this plug-in for atmospheric pads and 80s synth sounds.

TUAW: Are there any 'tricks of the trade' that you've discovered to enhance those amazing tones?

JD: I've been known to use a Boss DD20 Delay guitar effects stomp box to get some unique delay sounds for my keys, but now that I have the Nord, which has an inbuilt delay effect, this isn't an essential piece of kit anymore. Having said that, the DD20 does have more features than the Nord's delay, and it produces a different tonal quality which I like. It's also particularly useful to be able to use the built-in tap tempo feature rather than my fingers to dictate the tempo.

Other little tidbits, maybe not tricks of the trade but ... A sustain pedal (Yamaha Control Pedal) and a switch pedal for Rotor Speed. Not too much to say about them really, apart from they are pretty handy! The more you can let your feet do the better.

TUAW: Lets talk about samples for a minute. With so many to choose from, say you could only run 2 samples through an entire gig, what 2 samples would you choose and why would they be your "go to" sounds to get you through the show?

To start with, the software program I would use would be Spectrasonics' Omnisphere, the plug-in that I run out of Logic. It has an absolutely huge bank of sounds, but more than that, the number of effects and parameters that you can change are endless. It has a great live setting which makes it possible to switch between different samples seamlessly, and loads of MIDI capability that makes using it live a lot easier. I haven't come across anything that comes close to this.

TUAW: Alright, we get it, you love Omnisphere! But if you could only choose 2 sounds for the gig..?

JD: For the bands I play with, what is typically required for most songs would be some kind of synth for the faster stuff, and atmospheric pads for the slower, more intimate or medium-paced songs. If I had to choose one synth it would be one called 'Eighties Oberheim Pluck' on Omnishpere, which does exactly what it says on the tin, really. It has a nice modulation effect which really opens up the sound when you want it to go big. For the pad, I would probably go for Greenhouse Pad. Its light and airy so it doesn't dominate too much, but has a slight crackling which makes it a bit more interesting. I'd also have the piano (either grand or electric) available on the Nord at any time to layer on top and define chords or play other parts.

TUAW: Finally, something a bit more theory orientated, but what do you get when you play a diminished chord with an augmented chord?
A demented chord!

JD: Thanks, I've got to go now....