|An attractive and flexible stage-oriented plugin host with Logic-style channel strips, custom control panels, and all of Logic's instrument and effects plugins.|
|Reviewed on:||January 7, 2008|
This review used a copy of the product owned by the reviewer.
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Review of MainStage
Apple's Logic is a powerful composition and mixing tool, but perhaps not the right tool on stage. It has too many knobs and buttons that are only one accidental click away from creating an embarrassing glitch during a performance. While Logic's instrument and effects plugins are effective in a studio, all of those tiny plugin controls become unreadable on stage with a computer screen several feet away. Despite these drawbacks, if you need Logic's built-in plugins on stage, you have to use Logic. Until now.
Included in the Logic Studio 8 boxed set is the new MainStage application designed for stage use and flexible control of instruments, effects, and the mix, without the complexity of Logic. Most of Logic's built-in plugins are available, along with Audio Units (AU) plugins. MainStage's full screen custom control panels also provide readable knobs and buttons to adjust key plugin parameters during a performance while the rest of each plugin's controls are safely out of reach from accidental mouse clicks.
Preparing for a Concert
A "Patch" in MainStage is a named configuration of plugins and mix settings for a song or a portion of a song. Patches are grouped into "Sets" and sets are combined into a "Concert" and saved as a MainStage concert file. Every concert has its own custom control panel of knobs and buttons shared by all of the patches. Different patches can assign these knobs and buttons to do different tasks.
When MainStage starts up, it provides a selection of sample concerts preconfigured with banks of keyboards, guitars, and other common instruments. Concerts open within a large window with three pages named "Layout", "Edit", and "Perform". The "Layout" page is used to design a custom control panel for the performance, while the "Edit" page adjusts the mix and plugins. On stage, the "Perform" page pushes everything out of the way and just shows the custom control panel. A "Full screen" button expands the control panel to the full screen so that it's easier to read from a distance.
|The "Edit" page.||The "Layout" page.||The "Perform" page.|
Setting up instruments and effects
|MainStage channel strips
assign instruments, effects,
and mix settings.
On the "Edit" page, the left side shows a scrolling list of the sets and patches in a concert. In the middle is the concert's control panel and on the right is a group of Logic-style channel strips.
Like channel strips in Logic, each MainStage channel strip has a sound source, such as a mic or a virtual instrument, effects plugins, effects sends, panning, volume, mute, and solo. Channel strips can be named and assigned any of Logic's instrument icons. Effects sends can route audio to auxiliary busses, which each have their own channel strip with more effects plugins and sends. The last few channel strips handle individual audio outputs and include a master volume fader.
Editing a concert patch is like setting up the mixer in a Logic project. Channel strips can be added, deleted, and configured with instrument and effects plugins. Most of Logic's plugins are available along with AU plugins. However, since MainStage channel strips are always either mono or stereo, Logic's surround sound plugins are not available. MainStage also omits high latency plugins that would not be useful during a live performance. (See TestTone's tables of MainStage Instrument Plugins and MainStage Effects Plugins for a summary of what is and is not available.) Channel strip presets saved in Logic can be loaded in MainStage to replicate on stage the setup used for a song's mix.
A concert can have multiple patches and each patch has its own channel strips, plugins, and mix settings. When a concert is loaded, all of the plugins for all of the patches load up front, including any of the samples needed by any of the plugins. While this makes loading a complex concert slow, it enables very fast switching between patches during a performance.
Notably missing from MainStage is Logic's plugin preset browser. Changing a plugin preset requires opening the plugin's own window and using menus on the black Logic-style window frame or within the plugin itself.
Building a control panel
The control panel for a concert is built on the "Layout" page. The center of the window shows the control panel. Along the bottom of the window are knobs, buttons, foot pedals, and meters to drag and drop onto the control panel. On the left side are parameters for these controls.
|Knobs, buttons, meters, and faders can be used to create a custom control panel.|
|The layout inspector configures
controls to respond to MIDI.
A control panel can accommodate a large number of controls, if needed. Each control can be moved about, stretched to a larger or smaller size, and assigned an indicator color and text label.
Any of the controls can respond to MIDI. Clicking on a "Learn" button and touching a MIDI knob or button sets the on-screen control to match. The MIDI response can be configured manually as well by using menus to select the MIDI device, channel number, controller number, and whether a knob sends absolute values or changes relative to the current value. Controls can also respond to MIDI note numbers.
The feature set here is comprehensive and easy to use. It only took a few minutes to configure a control panel to roughly match my M-Audio Axiom 25. Once configured, turning a knob on the Axiom immediately updated the equivalent knob on the control panel. Once built, control panels can be exported and later imported into new concerts.
While not essential, it'd be nice to have a wider variety of controls, such as organ-style draw bars, radio buttons, rotary switches, MMC transport controls, and more metering options. More control over the visual appearance would be useful, such as different knob styles and colors, text colors, fonts, and a way to set the background color behind a group of related controls.
Configuring a control panel
|Any of the instrument, effect, or mix parameters are available
for control by knobs and buttons on the control panel.
The control panel layout is shared by all of a concert's patches, but the knobs and buttons can do different jobs on different patches. Back on the "Edit" page, clicking on one of the control panel knobs or buttons shows a list of controllable patch parameters at the bottom of the window. These include channel strip mix settings, like the volume, pan position, and effects send levels, plus settings for any of the instruments and effects used by a patch.
Clicking on a parameter assigns the knob or button to change that parameter. Each knob can be configured to vary a parameter by a little or a lot, and MIDI keyboards can be split to send MIDI notes to different channel strips, or layered to send MIDI notes to more than one channel strip.
|The control inspector configures
controls to affect mix,
instrument, or effects parameters .
If a concert has multiple patches, control panel knobs and buttons must be configured individually for every patch. If a patch doesn't need one of the controls, it can be left unassigned for that patch. During a performance, that unassigned control is disabled.
Performing with MainStage
Switching to the "Perform" page enlarges the control panel to fill the application window. Clicking on the "Full Screen" button enlarges it further to fill the screen. This makes all of the controls big and easily seen while sitting a few feet away.
Getting good results
While complex layouts with a lot of knobs and buttons can be built, this defeats the purpose of MainStage. A dense control panel filled with tiny controls is not much better than using the channel strips and plugin user interfaces as they are.
MainStage concerts can be large and use lots of sets and patches. However, the more channel strips, plugins, and plugin samples a concert uses, the longer it takes to load the concert file. Large concerts also require more memory to keep it all immediately available on stage. If memory is limited on your computer, it may be better to split sets and patches into their own concert files.
Comparing MainStage to Logic's Environment
MainStage's control panels are a simplified and more attractive form of Logic's environment. Anything that can be done with a MainStage control panel, can be done in Logic's environment. However, the reverse is not true. MainStage has no support for Logic's arpeggiator, transformer, and other environment objects, and no way to wire objects together. Instead, MainStage's control panels are strictly about hooking up knobs and buttons to control specific features of the mix and plugins.
MainStage is a slick attractive product that effectively combines together a plugin host, a custom control panel creator, and a concert patch and set manager. The combination is smooth, tightly integrated, and fun to use. Because MainStage is part of the Logic suite, it has access to Logic's built-in instrument and effects plugins.
MainStage is also a 1.0 product and it has a few weak spots. For example, there are no tracks behind the channel strips, so there is no way to set up audio loops or a backing track to go with a performance. Control panels are limited to a single control panel shared by all patches in a concert. Control panel layout is constrained by a short list of available knob and button styles. And Logic's plugin preset browser is not included.
Logic's environment has equivalent control panel features, though much less attractive or stage ready.
Cycling '74's Max has custom MIDI control panel features as well. But like Logic's environment, Max is designed for considerably more complex MIDI manipulation than is needed to create large readable control panels for stage performance.