How To Build A Live Software Rig
Before I jump in to building a reliable software rig, let me first answer why you would want software as part of your Live rig. Isn't that just for studio or bedroom work? Not anymore, the quality of the digital models is good enough for anything, from studio recording to live work. Here are just a few of the compelling reasons I've seen musicans incorporate live software into their rigs:
Control – many people think you need a mouse and keyboard to control your digital modeling software. Not true at all. You don't even need to use a touchpad interface. If you add a MIDI foot controller, not only do you get the same control as a pedalboard, you get better control since you can change multiple effects and settings with a single stomp, instead of tap dancing on a real pedalboard.
Setup Time – even a moderately complex setup requires a lot of power cables, extension cords and patch cables to hook everything up. After that, you need to check each and every knob that might have moved during transport. If you're lucky everything just works first time but we've all been there trying to troubleshoot why something isn't working right. With digital modeling, much of this goes away.
Consistent Volume – when using a PA, you're typically mic'ing the guitar and bass cabs. This means you get a different volume at every gig, which is why we have to sound check. If you use digital amp and cabinet models, you send the same signal level to the PA every time. Sound checks become easier.
Feedback / Clarity – more mics means more feedback potential. More mics also pickup delayed sounds as they bounce around the venue making your mix sound like mud. With digital amps/cabs, you have less microphones on stage.
Hauling Gear – most of us don't have roadies. We have to setup and tear-down our own gear. Hauling all that gear in and out of venues with very little time available can be pretty stressful. The more gear we can digitally model, the easier this gets.
Damage / Theft – we all have a lot of hard-earned money invested in our gear. Some gear might be vintage or custom and very difficult to replace or repair. At live venues, stuff happens. Things are knocked over. Drinks are spilled. Sometimes things are stolen. Software rigs tend to use inexpensive, easily replaceable components.
A live rig, no matter what it consists of must be reliable and must be rugged. Is that even possible with software?
Absolutely! It is possible to have a reliable, software based component in your live rig, suitable for gigging. The fact that you're reading this article I hope means you are curious about how one might go about building one. Keep in mind, every piece of equipment (real or digital) has the potential for failure during a live performance. With less risky components we rarely need to worry about them. For more risky components, you probably want a backup plan. This is just as true for someone using vintage tube amp as it is for a laptop. Having rugged equipment meant to be hauled around goes a long way to making sure problems don't happen in the first place.
The answers to these questions are different depending on your live playing needs. Playing local pubs obviously doesn't require flight cases, so exactly what you will need will depend on where and how you play. However, there's a lot of good practices that can apply to any software rig.
A software rig at its heart consists of the computing device that runs the audio processing. This is likely a laptop or a mobile device such as a tablet. You will also likely have an external audio interface, typically a USB or Firewire connected device that gets your sound to and from your virtual gear. For the purposes of this article, I'll assume we're dealing with a laptop but everything is just as applicable to a tablet.
If you want to be able to turn effects on or off and tweak knobs just like real pedals and amps, you'll also need a decent MIDI foot controller.
At a minimum, your software rig will require a computing device and an audio interface. Adding a MIDI Foot Controller is highly recommended.
While an extra guitar cable or two is a no-brainer, a backup plan doesn't necessarily mean having two of everything.
That's neither practical, nor affordable. You've probably already (consciously or unconsciously) assessed the risk of all your gear and have some fallback ideas floating around your head if something breaks. For example, if your distortion pedal dies, maybe you'll just crank the gain on the preamp. If an amp dies, maybe you keep a DI box around to go straight to the PA. These might not be a perfect solution, but they can at least get you through the show.
A similar approach can be used for software based components. A reliable rig really only needs to satisfy two questions:
1. Is it rugged enough?
2. Is there a backup plan?
I started out bringing a laptop to rehearsals in a laptop bag, it was easier than hauling my pedalboard. The audio interface was velcro'd to the lid as shown. The sideways orientations allows cables to plug in from the sides when the lid is open.
Is it rugged enough?
If your rig is only transported to your rehearsal space, your needs are pretty basic. A laptop bag is sufficient for safe transport, and I assume you've got something stable to put it on (teetering on top of an amp is not a good idea, the floor would work better if nothing else is available). If your audio interface is small and lightweight, you can use velcro to attach it to the lid of the laptop. This is fine for an environment where you don't have to worry about audience members bumping things or knocking things over. If you go this route, I suggest putting the scratchy side of the velcro on the bottom of the audio interface, and the soft side on the laptop lid.
Once you've got a crowd of people in front of you, you may not be comfortable having a laptop out in the open. Small venues like pubs and coffee shops are going to have people getting pretty close to your gear. Laptops and tablets stand out, not just as things that beg to be knocked over or spilled on, but catch the eyes of theives too.
When any of this is a concern, I strongly suggest moving to a compact rack case with a sliding shelf for the laptop or tablet. Add a MIDI controller and you likely won't even need direct access to the computer during the performance. This means your laptop or tablet can be tucked away out of sight.
A rack case with a shelf or two is ideal for securing your computing device, its power supply brick, as well as the audio interface.Industrial strength velcro can be quite a pleasant surprise if you've only handled the regular stuff which loses its fastening power rather quickly. Good velcro is more than adequate to attach a laptop to a sliding shelf. In this case, I suggest putting the scratchy part of the velcro on the shelf, and the soft part on the bottom of the laptop. The same is true for a tablet, though if you go that route I suggest getting a rigid case for your tablet. Velcro the case the to the shelf, and then place the tablet into the case.
(LEFT) The live rig is sitting in the studio ready for work. With MIDI control, the laptop is not usually open. (CENTER) When adding new presets, the laptop slides out and opens without blocking access to the lower rack slots. (RIGHT) Even flipped upside down, the laptop is securely attached using only industrial velcro.
At a bare minimum, you need a computing device to run your software, and a way to get your sound in and out of the computer. Most audio interfaces will have up to three types of inputs. Instrument, microphone and line-level. You need to plug into the correct type of input. Typically there is at least one or two 1/4” inputs that are labelled instrument and suitable for the signal coming from your guitar or real pedals. Plugging into the line-in by accident won't damage anything, but it won't sound very good either. The output from the audio interface is almost always line-level. We'll discuss how to connect this a bit later.
This sums up the uniquely vulnerable parts of a software rig, and it's often just those two devices (computing device and audio interface). With the processing power of todays laptops and tablets, you will not need to use desktop computers, mice or keyboards. In fact, laptops in particular have become so powerful you can find older laptops that are more than adequate for running todays best algorithms. At the time of writing this article (Jan'2016), I am using an Intel Core2Duo based laptop which can be had for about $200 USD used or refurbished.
A shallow depth (typically around 14") rack case with 2U to 4U slots is a great size for mounting your essential gear, while keeping weight and size reasonable for handy carrying in and out of venues with just one person.
Your rack will likely consist of at least two shelves. One sliding unit for your computing device, and one fixed shelf for things that are not typically rack mounted. These include things like audio interfaces, power supply bricks and any other equipment you may want permanently mounted.
There are a couple options to mount non-rack gear to shelves. With vented shelves (strongly recommended) you can use zip ties to tie down just about anything. If the piece of equipment has rubber feet that screw on, you can replace these with panhead screws of the same size and screw them in up through the shelf slots. And finally, you can always use your trusty industrial velcro.
Getting a rack mount power supply is an inexpensive way to tidy up all those power cables and make it easier to plug in when you get to the venue with a single power cord.
Keep in mind the nominal height of a rack space is 1.75". Shelves typically have a small offset (and thickness) to the shelf surface itself meaning you don't have a full 1.75" for your gear. Consider a 3U rack with an empty slot in the middle and the fixed shelf on the bottom. This allows some headroom to make sure everything on the shelf fits. In a future article I'll discuss tips and tricks on how to fit the maximum amount of gear in the minimum amount of rack space.
At the start of the article I asked, "Is it rugged?". So far we've covered the essentials for having ruggedized gear, whether you're hauling a laptop/tablet bag to rehearsal or a small rack case to a venue.