Another Step Away

Since 2015 or so, I’d been trying to get synths working, mostly for live performances, and found myself frustrated with Kontakt, Ableton, and the like. I’m not knocking either of these programs. I know they’re tried, tested, and true. I know a ton of pros live and breath by them. For me, I just couldn’t get them to click. I found the learning curve steep and the cost high. I never made it past the trial stage.

I turned to Apple’s MainStage which made everything easy. Thanks to this app and my trusty 12-Step, I was able to not only record synth parts for Opium Winter, but also play them live.

An Opium Winter set loaded up in MainStage.

However, as anyone who happens to read this blog knows, my MacBook Air is on its last legs and I’ve mostly moved away from Apple. I had to start looking at alternatives.

When I started moving back to Windows, I gave a few apps an honest try. Gig Performer and Cantabile and Camelot Pro and, again, none of them clicked with me. So while recording on Windows, I’d just fire up my old Mac and run all my synths and keys through MainStage, which was becoming less fun as the computer was showing its age.

Now that I’m pretty entrenched in Linux, I decided to finally take a bit of time and figure out synths outside of MainStage. As it turns out the answer was staring me in the face all this time: Just use a DAW.

While learning recording techniques, I spent so much time dealing with microphone setups and direct inputs that I’d completely overlooked the fact that you can easily setup midi inputs in Reaper and Mixbus 1 , create a track, attach a hardware midi controller to it, load up whatever synth plugin you want, and just go for it. All it took was for me to stop searching for “MainStage alternatives” and start searching for “setting up synths in (insert DAW here)”. I quickly got my answer in an eight minute video from an account I already subscribe to. Needless to say this made me feel not so smart.

Anyway, it is what it is. I tried the steps in the video and it worked as advertised 2. Easy peasy, but how about the synths themselves? Well, if there is one thing open source musicians love it’s synths.

Just check out the list at Linux Music Rocks. Pages and pages and pages of synths. Some are paid, most are free. The hardest part of this experiment is wading through and testing all the various plugins. Some are good (SATURN by Unlimited Records is fun) some are not so good (most anything from Uhhyou plugins crashes both Reaper and Mixbus hard) and others are somewhere in between.

Yet there is one major standout: SURGE XT. This plugin is, for me at this particular moment, the holy grail I’ve been searching for.

SURGE XT Running in Reaper.

There is so much to work with in this plugin that I’ve only made it through maybe half of the presets, which I like to start with just to see what a plugin is capable of. And so far I’m impressed.

I’m still playing around with SURGE XT as well as testing out other instrument plugins and it’s good to have found a native way to get the sounds I want. Admittedly, this is why there were no keys or synths in my last two songs; I wanted to see what I could do with only Linux. And now here. The new track I’m working on has synths created sans MainStage.

I don’t know when I’ll ever get the opportunity to try this out this setup in a live environment, but for recording it’s perfect.

1: TBH, any DAW out there worth its salt can handle midi.

2: No surprise there. Kenny Gioia’s REAPER Mania account is solid gold for anything Reaper. If it can be done, he’s got a tutorial for you.