Hardware vs. Software: Musical Theatre Edition

June 9, 2013

Hardware or software? This question comes up so often in the world of music technology from recording, to post production, to sound synthesis, to musical theatre. When synthesizers became a viable musical tool in the 1980s, many Broadway shows began incorporating them into pit orchestras. Yamaha’s DX-7 FM synthesizers saw widespread use in Les Misérables and Kurzweil’s K-series became the Broadway standard for many years. Today, most pit orchestras on Broadway have moved over to software systems running on Apple MainStage or Brainspawn Forte. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the pros and cons of both sides, and why I’ve decided to use software exclusively.

I had a hardware phase for a while. A few years ago, I was in the market for a new keyboard. I wanted excellent sounds, programming capabilities, and an onboard sequencer. After taking a serious look at the Kurzweil PC3K8, I decided to go with a Yamaha Motif XF8 because of its excellent sequencer. Musical theatre books often require hundreds of patch changes. The Kurzweil keyboards were so popular on Broadway because they allow sound to be sustained through patch changes. The XF8 does not, and that’s why I would not recommend it for musical theatre. I learned to live with it because I also used the sequencer very often. I did end up programming a few shows on the XF8 – The Wedding Singer, Spring Awakening, and Bat Boy. Luckily, the patch sustain wasn’t a huge deal in these shows.

So what are the pros of using hardware? The Kurzweil boards come with excellent sounds that fit well in a mix. The usual argument for hardware is that is more reliable than software. I’m not sure how much I agree with this. Professional keyboard rigs almost always contain two computers running the exact same MainStage or Forte file. If one crashes, the player simply switches to the backup and restarts the main computer. The chance of both computers failing is pretty slim…especially on a system that’s been optimized for live use. The Kurzweil PC3K8 sells for $3,500. For that price, you can buy a Yamaha CP33, two Mac Minis to run Apple MainStage, an audio interface, and any accessories you may need. So hardware definitely doesn’t win when it comes to pricing, and it doesn’t really win on the reliability end either.

I’ve been using Apple MainStage for a few years now, and I can’t imagine moving back to programming hardware. MainStage comes with a pretty good library of stock sounds. I’ve since added a bunch of other virtual instruments, and the sonic capabilities definitely beat hardware. Best of all, you can always use a program like AutoSampler to sample hardware presets you really like. For me, programming in MainStage is a lot faster than programming hardware. The flexibility is great too. I can carry around the programming on a flash drive and load it on any Mac with MainStage installed. Finally, I don’t have to carry a really heavy keyboard to gigs. I’m currently using a Yamaha CP33 as a controller in my MainStage setup, and moving it around is an absolute joy.

That’s all I have to say. In summary, software is…just as reliable…more flexible…sounds better…and is more cost efficient than hardware.


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