Stage keyboards and laptop computers
September 18, 2022 8:53 PM   Subscribe

I've noticed that a lot of keyboardists on concert stages have laptops with them. Rarely do I see other musicians on stage with laptops (sometimes a tablet or phone, I assume for setlist, lyrics, or sheet music). What are these laptops used for?

If they are used in the actual music-making, I'm curious about complete technical detail. Is the sound actually being generated by the laptop, and if so, what hardware is connected to it to interface with the mixing board? What advantages does this offer over just connecting directly to the keyboard? What terms/brands/devices should I be Googling to understand how this all works together? (If they're NOT used for music-making, but are just references, why don't keyboardists use phones or tablets like everyone else?)

Note, I am not a musician and don't intend to actually do this, but I'm fascinated by it, so please don't be afraid to geek out and go into extreme detail or link to detailed discussions.
posted by primethyme to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm only an amateur, so I'm sure someone will come along with much more detail and nuance, but the short answer is that yes, they're likely running the synthesizer on the laptop, with the keyboard connected as a MIDI controller. In this scheme, the keyboard is sending information about what keys are pressed, how hard, and so forth; the software synthesizer runs on the laptop, and an audio interface is used to output sound to the amps/board. I have a cheap MOTU M4 interface, but it's easy to spend thousands on some brands. The advantage is that for the same money, you can do a lot more with something like Ableton Live and a pile of VST plugins on your laptop, compared to whatever synthesizer is in a keyboard. Some keyboards don't even have built-in sounds, they're literally just a USB device intended to control a synth on a computer. And with something like Live, you can have all manner of sequencing and effects running too.

Of course, on the flip side, other (fancy, expensive) keyboards have really fancy synths built in, and you wouldn't usually use those in the setup you're describing.
posted by Alterscape at 9:14 PM on September 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, as Alterscape says, the keyboard allows the musician to control what notes are being played, but the actual synthesizer -- i.e., the thing that is generating sounds from those key-presses -- may be software running on the laptop, rather than hardware within the keyboard itself.

There are zillions of software synthesizers available, and with them you can emulate the sounds of all kinds of classic hardware synthesizers, as well as other kinds of instruments -- vintage keyboard instruments like organs or pianos -- and sounds that have never been produced before.

And a laptop used by a musician on stage may be doing more than just hosting a software synthesizer program. It could also be playing back some prearranged parts of the music, like a rhythm track, a bassline, or some other sequenced parts.

In answer to your question about getting the sound from the laptop to the mixing board: The way I've done it is just to plug a cable into the laptop's audio jack. But some musicians may use an audio interface, connected to the computer via USB. In that case, the audio interface is basically functioning as an external sound card.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:25 PM on September 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oftentimes, the keyboards you see on stage are being used as MIDI controllers. The keyboard itself doesn't produce any sound, but the data from all the keypresses is sent to the laptop on stage. Instead of, or in addition to, a keyboard, musicians might also use a pad-based controller (e.g. the sort of thing Akai makes) The laptop will run software (A Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW) like Ableton Live, Apple's MainStage, Cantible, Reason, etc... that receives the information from the MIDI controller and turns it into audio signals. The software will have lots of plugins loaded into it (some may come with the software, others purchased from third-parties in the form of plugins in formats like VST or Audio Unit) that output sounds in response to MIDI controller input and manipulate the audio.

So a performer might use a plugin that contains a sample-based synthesizer of a grand piano (i.e. someone painstakingly made many, many recordings of a grand piano and built a synthesizer that plays all the bits back so when you press Middle C on your controller, it outputs a sound file of the piano playing that note at the correct velocity, timbre, etc...) and combine that with plugins like an arpeggiator (play an arpeggio when you press one key on the controller), equalizer (adjust different frequency bands of the audio), dynamics processors (compress or expand the dynamic range/volume of the sound), reverb (add different reverberation effects), and so on. And then they might configure their setup so that they can press a button or pedal to switch to a different instrument configuration or even create keyboard splits (e.g. left half of the keyboard goes to the grand piano sound, right half goes to a custom-built virtual drumkit) to control what sounds they want at any particular time. All of these plugins will have a huge number of switches and dials to configure how they make their sound, and performers might arrange their setup to adjust some of these parameters during the show (e.g. they might set things up so that turning a knob on their MIDI controller adjusts the amount of reverb or tweaks a synthesizer to/from a more metallic sound). It's all pretty much infinitely configurable.

A video like this one might give you some idea how this looks during performance, or perhaps look at a blog post like How to Perform Live With Ableton Live (The Ultimate Guide). Apple's Logic Pro has a rather detailed manual, and looking at the chapters on effects and instruments will give you a very good idea of the possibilities here. You might also look up videos about how MainStage is often used for musical theater.

The laptop will often have an audio interface attached, essentially a box that connects to the laptop by USB, Thunderbolt, or another protocol and provides regular analog outputs to connect to the mixing board. Alternatively, the laptop could even be networked via ethernet to a digital mixing console (look up Dante networks).

One reason to do all of this is that this same software and plugins are generally used to produce recorded music. So if you've built a particular sound for your album, you can take that exact same configuration and use it live on stage so it sounds the same, along with triggering pre-set parts of your performance like backing tracks, special sound effects, and so on.

I would think of it less as "the keyboard is an instrument that outputs sound" and more as "the keyboard is a type of input device for a computer, the musician creates their own arbitrarily complex instrument out of lots of configurable parts inside of the computer, and the computer outputs sound." Just like pressing "A" on a computer keyboard could mean anything from typing the letter "A" into a document if you're running a word processor to triggering an attack if you're playing a game, pressing Middle C on a MIDI controller could mean anything from outputting the sound of a grand piano playing Middle C to kicking off a bass loop to triggering a sound effect to even sending a command that controls lighting or video equipment elsewhere on stage.
posted by zachlipton at 10:01 PM on September 18, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Is the sound actually being generated by the laptop,

Yup, generally.

The physical keyboard sends MIDI data (which key is struck when and how hard and for how long) to the laptop, which is running software that generates actual sounds.

What advantages does this offer over just connecting directly to the keyboard?

Every keyboard can't do everything, or sound like every other one. Lots of synthesizers & keyboards - especially older out-of-production models - have fairly distinctive sounds that current production models can't really emulate; but there's software that can. So using a computer loaded with software gives the player access to many more sounds than will be built into the physical keyboard they're playing.

Keyboardists are often the music directors for bands, so it's possible their laptop may be running backing tracks - pre-recorded musical parts and sounds that are impractical to produce with the number & variety of musicians on stage (like, big vocal choirs, horn sections, very specific synth or drum machine sounds that are on the recordings). Although on smaller shows the drummer usually controls the backing trax (they're the ones who have to be absolutely ready to play the next song), and on bigger shows there's usually a dedicated tech crew person off to the side of the stage controlling the playback.

It's also possible that as the MD the keyboard player may be looking at a score - as in everyone's sheet music all at once - so they know who's supposed to be playing what when and cue them or figure out a quick workaround if someone misses a cue or a part.

what hardware is connected to it to interface with the mixing board?

The short answer is a DI a.k.a. Direct Injection Box. On the most simple level you'd run a 1/8" to 1/4" splitter cable out of the laptop's headphone output jack to something like the Radial ProD2 stereo DI, and then mic cables from the DI to the mixing board. (Or, more likely, mic cables to an audio snake, which then runs to a mixing board.)

Stepping up a bit, you could route your audio out of a USB port on the laptop and use something like the Radial USB-Pro DI, or a simple USB interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and then out to a DI or two. This will sound better and (hopefully) be a more robust connection. Works for keyboard sounds and a simple stereo mix of backing tracks.

Bigger shows with more complicated backing tracks will step this up, where multiple backing tracks will play at once, but each track has certain sounds on it - like, track one is backing vocals, track 2 is horns, track 3 is 808 drum machine sounds, etc etc. Then you'll use a larger multi-out USB audio interface (like the MOTU 8a 8-channel interface) to a set of DI's mounted in a rack, like the Radial ProD8.

If they're NOT used for music-making, but are just references, why don't keyboardists use phones or tablets like everyone else?

They're already taking up a bunch of stage real estate with all their keyboards, and often have lots of flat surfaces to put a laptop on. Why not use a laptop? The bass player and the sax player are just hangin' out in the wind with maybe a skinny little mic stand in front of them - where are they gonna put a laptop? Clamping a tablet to a stand is easy and low profile.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:21 PM on September 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Along with what everybody else said:

- If the keyboardist IS using the sounds of his hardware keyboard, the laptop might be used for "patch management", loading the right sounds/settings to the keyboard at the right times. Often this is easier than using the tiny screen on the synthesizer.

- Especially in some more electronic bands, the laptop might be sequencing one or more parts (playing them back with hardware or software synthesizers) or even playing back an audio track. For example, they might be playing keyboard leads while the bassline is sequenced or pre-recorded.

- The laptop might be running effects as well as synthesizers. For example vocals or guitar could be going into the laptop and coming out with added reverb or other effects. You'll also hear a lot of live performances using AutoTune or something like it to fix minor tuning issues with vocals, or even create deliberately exaggerated effects. That's done on a computer as well, although that computer would be on the mixing desk for more professional bands.

By the way all of these things COULD also be done on an iPad (including software instruments) but computers are a bit ahead of the curve as the software has been evolving for 20-30 years.
posted by mmoncur at 10:32 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, back in like 1989 or so my first and only real etched the board myself project was building a MIDI controller for my computer. Back then it was big cables of the 5-pin DIN In/Out/Through variety because my roommate had a keyboard and drum machine and a bunch of effects pedals, amp, etc. and my computer had a sequencer and 4 channels of sampled audio and an audio digitizer. Our parties were so much fun.

Back then with MUCH slower computers and such there were limits to what the computer could do, but it could control the keyboard or drum machine. People had small half depth racks of devices that were MIDI controlled. So not necessarily the computer making the sounds, there was special hardware to make the sound. The computer just did some things and mostly sequenced and controlled the other things through the MIDI network.

Now computers are very powerful and I think MIDI now runs over like plain old ethernet. But the whole idea is still the same. MIDI events flow along the network and the computer does stuff or controls other stuff.

Besides, everybody probably carries around a laptop of some sort, even if it doesn't do anything. I'd actually guess that they would have a small rack with an even more powerful computer and whatever software they use or whatever devices generate the sounds. The laptop is probably just a terminal like device that they use to control or program the other few boxes.

It would be cheaper and easier to have a non-laptop computer running the software rather than relying on your laptop not going boom. Once you're moving around keyboards and drum machines and mixing boards for performance reasons... you don't rely on your laptop to be running the show.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:17 AM on September 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another reason: typically the sound of a $300-500 piano patch on a laptop sounds better than the piano patches on a $3k stage piano. So even if the desired function is available in hardware, it's often just cheaper to do it with software.

Also depends a lot on genre/style. Plenty of people play shows with a nice Nord or Roland or Korg stage piano and don't need/want anything else.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:30 AM on September 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Of course, on the flip side, other (fancy, expensive) keyboards have really fancy synths built in, and you wouldn't usually use those in the setup you're describing."

People do sometimes. Maybe as a backup (if your laptop dies, you'll still have some basic sounds to get you through the night), it might just be the keyboard you're used to, you might want some combination of sounds from the laptop and your keyboard(s), etc.
posted by bfields at 5:40 AM on September 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

It used to be that specialized hardware could outperform general purpose computers, but that's not really the case any more. From what I understand--laptops are just too good, and engineering specialized hardware for small markets is just too expensive. If you want a piano imitation, for example, software will get you more detail and accuracy for your money. And a laptop with a big screen, keyboard, etc., provides a more flexible general-purpose interface for interacting with lots of different instruments. (Just yesterday I was cursing my main board as I entered patch names using an interface that reminded me of entering high scores on an arcade machine....)

For more specialized synthesis, there's an advantage to a hardware interface that's exactly tailored to the sound generator, so for example analog (and virtual analog) synthesizers are doing well these days. You have to wonder what's going to happen to the market for general-purpose do-everything keyboards, though.

Also, it seems like mobile devices are slowly catching up with laptops? I don't know if there are people doing all their synthesis on their ipad, but there are at least people getting a few of their sounds that way.
posted by bfields at 6:13 AM on September 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

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