I decided to put together a micro keyboard rig for some upcoming gigs. Here’s why…

3 Constraints of a Keyboard Rig

  • Cover the necessary sounds (universal constraint)

    Duh, but also difficult. When a set of music requires piano, B3, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, MiniMoog, CS-80, CP-80, SH-101, Arp String Ensemble, DX7, RS-09, etc. I obviously have to choose where to use substitute sounds and where the original keyboard must be used. The other instrumentalists in the traditional rock band don’t have this problem to the extent that keyboardists do.

  • ‘Alive’ (personal constraint)

    There is nothing nice about feeling like I could easily be replaced by a backing track. If I am there to perform, I would prefer to play real analog synths and acoustic or electro-acoustic mechanical instruments. I would prefer to use my 30+ years of piano and musical experience to perform music. No offense to the spacebar jockeys of the world, I just wanna actually play.

  • Reasonably sized (universal and personal)

    With Grizzly Bear I am extremely fortunate to be allowed to bring enough gear to fill an entire 8x8 riser. Obviously, that is a rare and coveted position to be in. The rest of the time, I have to figure out how to get gear to/from gigs and fit on stages of all sizes. When I lived in Los Angeles, I was able to bring larger gear to gigs because I drove an SUV. Living in Brooklyn has forced a more minimal approach. What can fit in the trunk of an taxi/uber?

My upcoming tour with Lanz Projects will be using a rental car for transportation and we will be playing small/medium stages.

This calls for a microrig!

5 Constraints of a Micro Keyboard Rig

  • Fits into carry-on luggage

    We are flying to the Midwest, and baggage fees add up.

  • Single mono output

    I usually like to send a single mono output through a DI and into an amplifier with a microphone on it. It is a simple setup and gives me the control I need.

  • No Laptop

    Just don’t. I mean, go ahead. I am just not gonna do it.

  • Versatile: mono/poly synths, samples

    The coverage constraint from above applies here. What sounds am I willing to sacrifice/change? I always need at least a Poly and a Mono synth for the type of music I enjoy playing. That’s a start, then my usual move is to go weird or go home.

  • Quickly assembled

    Make it easier on a whiskey’d-up self.

Philosophy: Always two, never one.

How can I have the most sound options with the least amount of keyboards/space? I have two hands, so I need at least two separate keyboards or sound sources. Here is what I will be flying with to the Midwest:

  • Arturia MiniBrute (MONO SYNTH) MIDI CONTROLLING Pocket Piano (POLY SYNTH)
  • M-Audio KeystationMini32 CONTROLLING Raspberry Pi 3 running SamplerBox (SAMPLER)
  • PO-16 (weirdo lil’ chiptune synth/sequencer jammer)
  • Behringer 4 channel line mixer
  • Line 6 DL4 (DELAY PEDAL)

By mixing four different sound sources I can create a more interesting hybrid sound that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Combining mono and poly synths into one controller saves space and mental overhead.

I am covered on synth-y stuff. The MiniBrute can play synth bass or leads, the Pocket Piano can produce poly pads or arpeggiated textures. However, for my upcoming gigs I need to be able to play some piano samples.

Unfortunately I hate every piano sample on every keyboard – particularly piano samples on Scandinavian red keyboards that have been disguised in a different color or even housed in completely ridiculous piano-sized(!) shame-boxes.

Fuck!

Anywayyyy…Back when I lived in Los Angeles my friend Bram gave me a Kontakt instrument (set of samples) sampled from his own upright piano. Perfect. Now I have a weirdo piano that I don’t hate. The only problem is I would be forced to use a laptop to play a Kontakt instrument or play the samples in Mainstage.

I think this is a very common dilemma for keyboardists: Do I violate the code of ‘real’ keyboardists and bring a laptop, wrestle with a hardware sampler that is probably limited in functionality and takes up too much space, or just play the part on a different synth/keyboard?

Almost always I would play the part on some other keyboard that will sound good. But playing cool samples as a keyboard instrument can be very rewarding and interesting. I am not talking about hitting a key and watching background vocals go by. What about a teapot’s beautiful whistle? I think stacked minor seconds will be a very pleasant ‘synth texture’ to mix in with other ‘real’ sounds. The world of sound is vast and adding a little concrète to your musique is never a bad idea.

Philosophy: No laptops.

To avoid using a laptop, I decided to build a fully polyphonic sampler out of a Raspberry Pi 3 (RPI3). It is small, very configurable, and can easily cover the needs of a sample player for cheap.

The following is the path I took to get my sample player working. Please let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions or questions.

WARNING: This section is a bit more technical.

How to build a RPI3 sample player

  1. Install the OS on the SD card
    1. I tried the ready-to-use disk image from SamplerBox, but I was correctly worried that some packages hadn’t been recently updated in that image. After looking at the SamplerBox source code, I decided I wanted to control the build from the ground up (dealing with any dependency problems along the way) so I decided to put Raspbian Stretch Lite on the SD card and manually install SamplerBox from GitHub.
    2. I find peace of mind knowing that I am up to date on packages. Also, it turned out that the samplerbox.py configuration file in the GitHub repo was newer/different than the one in the pre-compiled disk image (which makes sense), and I wanted vim on the damn pi.
  2. Set up the USB stick to mount automatically
    1. Raspbian wasn’t recognizing/mounting a hot plugged USB stick to the filesystem or even mounting it on boot. Because the samples are located on my USB stick, I had to figure out how to automatically mount it. I used the information found here to do this. This video also walks you through it.
  3. Change the local samplerbox.py config file’s constant ‘SAMPLES_DIR’ to the directory the USB stick mounts to. samplerbox.py
  4. Set up a systemd service to run SamplerBox as a daemon on boot. The manual install doesn’t run the python script on boot, because why would it? I used an article like this to set the service up.
  5. Order, solder, and install a DAC audio piHat
    1. It is supposedly well known that Raspberry Pi audio is crap. I ordered this relatively cheap DAC piHat to handle the Digital to Analog conversion and my pi is sounding good.
  6. Modify the case (optional)
    1. I had a case from a previous project, so I drilled a new hole to fit an 1/8” stereo cable and broke a lot of plastic making sure the piHat fit. Fun.
  7. Make a stereo to mono summing cable (1/8” TRS male to 1/4” TS male)
    1. The pi DAC output is 1/8” stereo. I need to convert that to mono to go into my Behringer mixer with no signal loss.
    2. Wow, these cables just don’t exist. Read this great article about why you should never just tie two outputs directly together to sum into mono. This cable was annoying to build, but it works great!

Here’s a pic of the pedalboard with (clockwise) RPI3, Pocket Piano, Behringer mixer, PO-16, and M-Audio midi controller:

Good noise to you, friends.