Over the past couple years I've tried a huge number of different sound sources with my Zendrum, trying to the find the "perfect" live rig to suit most situations.
I've tried small and simple, large and complex, dedicated hardware modules as well as VST hosts. None of them were quite "right". With any one rig I'd have to sacrifice a level of one feature to gain in another.
The key features of a live rig are (to me):
- Portability. Ideally it should be as light and small as possible. I'm willing to compromise on size in exchange for other considerations though.
- Quality of sounds. A Zendrum is not a drum kit, nor is it a replacement for hand percussion, orchestral percussion, etc. However, when I'm using my Zendrum live, I am trying to emulate these types of instruments and therefore I want the sounds and performance to be as life-like as possible. Not every Zendrummer may agree with this position, but it's important to me. If I'm going to sacrifice sound quality, there has to be a huge payoff for doing so.
Quantity of sounds, ease of kit change. One of my biggest gripes with VSTs used to be how hard it was to switch kits on the fly and how long it would take. I'm coming to terms with this more though by:
- Realizing that sounds modules spoiled me into thinking this was a big deal.
- Realizing that I would never expect to be able to swap out my acoustic kit between songs outside of maybe the snare.
- Leveraging all the "instrument slots" of my VST to create massive kits of which I just use portions of at a time.
- Realizing that much like playing acoustics, changing from sticks to brushes, rods or mallets creates enough variation for one show, and leveraging my Zendrum's 'user setups' to accomplish this rather than changing kits whole cloth.
- Flexibility. In addition to supporting the Zendrum, a live rig optimally provides different routing options, inputs for click tracks and sequences, etc. In other words, it shouldn't be a closed solution.
- Tactileness. A huge deal to me and the purpose of this article. If something in the mix is not right, I need to be able to grab a knob or a slider and fix it -- often on the fly and as I'm playing.
And so balancing all these considerations has led me to my latest rig, based around FXpansion's fabulous BFD2:
The heart of this rig is a hyper-tuned, dual SSD of a beast notebook, feeding a Presonus FireBox (the kid brother of the PT-10s I use in my studio). I've managed to do away with all other outboard audio gear as I'm doing all my routing, mixing and effect chains in my DAW host, Cockos REAPER. This is a lean, mean (and light) machine.
The Korg NanoKONTROL
To overcome the lack of tactile controls inherent in a laptop based solution, I turned to the Korg NanoKONTROL. This is a small, lightweight device that houses a number of MIDI control change knobs, sliders and buttons. This then allows me to control various parameters of BFD and my DAW without needing to use the mouse or keyboard.
I use the routing features of BFD to group like instruments into one mixer channel, and then use the MIDI learn feature to assign the volume controls for those channels to the physical sliders and knobs of the NanoKONTROL. So for instance I have one slider that controls the volume level of the toms, another for the snares, etc. I use the knobs of the NanoKONTROL to control the ambient, overhead and room mics as well as the levels for various effects that I use in my DAW.
Here is a closer look of the Korg as I have it mounted in my rack:
The NanoKONTROL is attached to a hinge that allows me to "fold" it away for transportation. Foam rubber blocks that I attached to the bottom allow the unit to rest solidly on the edge of the rack when extended to eliminate any movement or bounciness.
Here is a shot of the hinged side. Here you can also see the P-Touch labels I used to identify the mixer channels.
ComplaintsIf you research the NanoKONTROL online you'll find that one of the biggest complaints is that it feels flimsy. This is quite true, but was not a major concern of mine since I planned on mounting it as shown. Trouble arose within hours of receiving the unit though when due to its lightweight, it was pulled off my work table while testing it before being mounted. It didn't drop very far and certainly didn't hit the floor very hard however it was enough of a jolt to snap the USB connector off the board.
Words were spoken which I will not repeat here :/
A quick look online to see if I'm just really unlucky or if this was (as I suspected immediately) really a design flaw, showed that I certainly was not the only person this has happened to and seems to be a chief complaint about the unit.
I was about to return the unit in disgust but it turned out that is was actually quite easy to repair the broken connector. Rather than just solder on the existing connector though I opted to sacrifice a USB numeric keypad that I no longer used so that I could have a permanently attached cable. This seemed to me to be a much better long term solution and less prone to breakage.
So if you are considering picking up a NanoKONTROL, be prepared to handle the USB connection with kid gloves, or at least make peace with the fact that you might have to break out a soldering iron at some point.
Here is another shot, detailing the hinge assembly that I attached. You can also see here where I've replaced the female USB connector with a permanently attached cable.
Though not without its share of problems, the NanoKONTROL turned out to be exactly the right solution for my notebook rig. It's small and lightweight, but contains a surprising number of control surfaces. It required no special drivers or tweaking and worked instantly right out of the box with BFD2 and Reaper. I'm hesitant to recommend it for everyone due to the aforementioned physical fragility, however I can say that I myself would buy another.
In the interest of fairness, I should also point out that Korg has since released the NanoKONTROL 2, though I cannot tell if they have solved the issue of the USB connector so easily snapping off. The new version also costs TWICE as much as the original, whatever that means.
Here's one final shot from the drivers seat.
I'm a very happy camper! :)