Connecting the Laptop and Sound Module to the House Console
For the keyboardist in our band, currently that’s me, the stage setup is relatively simple. Behind the scenes of the software things can get a bit tricky, but not too much. This will should give you an overview of the connections that need to be made and the way we route the connections to the house console for the keyboard player.
Until now, the primary source of backing tracks has been centralized at the keyboard station. It does not have to remain this way. In fact, having the backing tracks on a separate computer synchronized as either a master or slave device to the rest of the technology being used would be a better solution to isolate heavy processing power between the two.
Until that point, this is our ideal setup under our current circumstances:
The laptop can be anywhere as long as the devices that trigger it can reach it and the songs and sets are pre-set such that the computer doesn’t need to be reached during the performance. This takes preparation. Otherwise, the computer will need to be within reach to make any last minute changes or adjustments.
Connected to the laptop we have our power, so we don’t run dry on the battery during a performance. We also have a powered USB hub. Using the BUS power on the computer to run all of the external devices can be done, but it’s not as stable, so we use a powered USB hub. To that we connect the Keyboard(s) and any triggering devices such as a foot-pedal, Launchpad or Launchpad Mini, as well as the iPad that runs the master OnSong library.
Our external sound module, the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 should always be connected to its own USB port directly to the computer. Don’t combine this with any other devices on a powered HUB. We need this to be a one-to-one connection to ensure there aren’t any other interfering devices. Does it work when attached to a USB hub? Yes. But not the best practice.
The last device that we have connected to the computer is our external storage device which holds a mirrored copy of the entire Ableton Library that our master worship set relies on to operate. This is connected via Thunderbolt. USB is just too slow to transmit the data we need during a performance.
After preparing the set for a performance, this external drive is synchronized to a 2nd external drive which is stored off-site for redundancy and backup. Ultimately an external drive is not required to operate the set if all of the files are stored on the computer’s local hard drive. Due to the size constraints of the computer we have been using, and the fact that all pre-production setup takes place at another location, this has been the best solution to date.
That takes care of all of the connections to the computer. Configuration of each device is a topic for another article.
The next considerations are the physical connections from the external sound module to the house console. The keyboardist needs at minimum 2 channels on the board to maintain a stereo signal. All piano sounds are sent through channels 1 and 2 which are the outputs on the back of the Scarlett 18i8. Currently, backing tracks are also sent through the same output. This poses a challenge for the console operator because there is no way to independently control the dynamic range of signals that come from the human performance because the backing tracks are mixed into the same signal.
So, the solution is as displayed in the illustration. Ableton Live is configured to deliver live human performance elements (piano etc.) through channels 1 & 2 on the Scarlett 18i8. It is also configured to send all of the backing tracks on channels 3 & 4. On the sound module, there is no physical port for BOTH 3 & 4. Instead, we use the left headphone jack on the front of the sound module and we split the signal between the tip and the sleeve of that single 1/4″ connection. Then, we configure Scarlett Mix Control to send audio that Ableton is sending on 3&4 to that port. One 1/4″ connection acts as 2 outputs. We split that output with a stereo Y-Connector, and send it to the snake.
The third consideration for the sound module is the in-ear monitoring. The click and the audio band cues are sent on the 5th output of the 18i8. This is done by routing the sound from Ableton to the 5th output, which happens to be one of the sides of the other 1/4″ output on the front of the sound module.
In practice, the keyboardist needs a L/R output for every stereo signal that he/she sends to the house. That means if there are two electric pianos on the stage, 2 things could happen. 1. Each keyboard has its own L/R output (or single mono output if the instrument being played isn’t inherently a stereo instrument, such as an actual piano) or 2. All keyboards could be mixed on stage with software and sent to the house. This would limit the control the house has over mixing.
So, in summary, between live keyboard performance sounds, backing tracks, and in-ear cues, 5 channels need to be reserved on the main console. There are other solutions to the hardware limitations that this could pose. In our case, we have plenty of channels on the QU-32, but when we start reaching capacity, we can employ more advanced mixing setups.