Practicing on the road with a mini keyboard

So here I am. I’m back from a short vacation. Just one and a half weeks. Long enough to have this feeling of really having traveled, but probably short enough to pick up the daily routines in no time. Usually I need a full week slow down to idle mode and then a week to start up again. One and a half week does not really cut it then, but it will have to do.

The choice for me was to just step out of the daily routines of practicing and playing live and then step in again, or bring some gear and practice on the road. Actually the only thing you need is anything between a phone and a laptop to be able to sing here and there, but if you also want to practice playing keys and singing there are some choices to make.

This time I chose to bring an iPad, a (Windows) laptop, the Zoom U-24 audio interface and a mini keyboard, the Komplete Kontrol M32. It gave me several options of practicing singing and playing the keyboard. The good thing about the M32 is its build quality and the playability given its limitations.

Is a midi keyboard with 32 mini keys something you can play on? Maybe. I found out that it is just a little too cramped and limited for my songs, but it was close to having a keyboard most of the time. It does fit into a backpack. Maybe it’s more suited to just playing around then practicing full songs? Jamming along some new song ideas? I brought it along, so it would have to make do. Your mileage may vary.

An iPad, an USB-C hub and a mini keyboard
An iPad, an USB-C hub and a mini keyboard

The most lightweight option is the iPad and the M32, but I had to bring a small USB-C hub to connect the two. Once connected and loading up Garageband, I was practicing a few songs in no time. Perfect for a few songs I really wanted to practice on. The iPad speaker audio quality is reasonable.

A laptop and a mini keyboard
A laptop and a mini keyboard

Then there is the option to scale up a little. Bringing the laptop allowed me to load up Ableton Live and the full live sets, or just load a basic setup to play piano sounds with the M32. A Windows laptop however only gives you Windows audio output which is notoriously slow and gives you latency. Unless you load Asio4All drivers of course. I tried it and it worked fine. The laptop speaker audio quality was not very special maybe even a bit too soft.

A laptop, a compact audio interface, a headset and a mini keyboard
A laptop, a compact audio interface, a headset and a mini keyboard

The full scale option was also at my disposal. By connecting the audio interface I had my full live set and low latency audio and I could practice any song just like always. Except of course for being limited to the 32 mini keys. The full set was also great for writing songs, or just some playing around. This time I needed a headset to hear something or portable speakers. The audio quality was outstanding.

All in all the experiment was a success. I have practiced a few songs. My vocal coach assured me that a short vacation is actually good for your voice, so I did not practice every day. I must admit I accepted the risk of using the mini keyboard also because I use a microKorg in my live setup. Mini keys are not a no-go area for me. I hope you can use these experiences to choose your own on-the-road-practice-setup.

Livestreaming with good audio quality with the Zoom Livetrak L-12

In a previous post I discussed how I try to have good audio quality for my livestream with OBS, by linking up a mixing desk I use for all live performances with a studio audio interface that I use for live streaming. So the idea is that when I know how to mix my live performance I can also livestream that mix with good audio quality. OBS supports high quality audio with an ASIO plugin, so all is great.

The mixing desk I use for live shows and streaming is the Zoom LiveTrak L-12. Lately I started using a separate laptop to do the livestreaming, not hooked up to the studio. For a livestream I would switch over the interface cable to the laptop. Only a few days ago I realized that the L-12 itself is an audio interface and I slapped my forehead.

Sure enough, when installing the L-12 driver software and starting up OBS with the ASIO plugin, I could find the Zoom device. After assigning the master output channels to the OBS inputs it worked immediately. So now the setup is way simpler. The livestreaming laptop is hooked up directly to the mixing desk. The master mix now is hooked up directly to OBS.

Livestreaming setup simplified the L-12 connects to the streaming laptop

Now I asked myself, can I use the same trick to hook the L-12 directly to an iPad or iPhone to do livestreaming on Instagram, or other phone based streaming platforms? The L-12 can connect as a class compliant interface, so its no problem to hook it up to iOS devices. Software like Garageband will find its way in the Zoom inputs and outputs. You have to set a switch for this on the back next to the USB port.

Zoom LiveTrak L-12 Backside USB connector and switches

However, the master outputs are not output channels 1 and 2, so iOS devices cannot pick it up as the default audio input. So no easy live streaming on the iPad or iPhone directly from the L-12 unfortunately. For this you will need to hook up another class compliant interface that picks up the mix desk outputs and does output the master mix on channels 1 and 2.

Remote control for OBS

Running a live stream with OBS can be tough if you want to have a little bit of a show and you’re making music at the same time. In OBS you can dynamically change whole scenes or switch individual sources (video clips, images, text, cameras, audio) on and off. In my case I want to launch different video clips for different songs. And I have a panic scene without camera and audio to just show that I’m busy fixing something. Fortunately OBS is full of neat little tricks to allow you to run the show with just keyboard shortcuts, or if you want to, with a push of a button on a remote control. No need to wander around with the mouse to try to hit the right spot.

Elgato Stream Deck options

One of the many options is an Elgato Stream Deck but I always hesitated to buy it. The different sizes cater for different needs, but I find it a bit pricey for just the single purpose of controlling OBS remotely. As a musician it seemed more logical to use a Novation Launchpad or other MIDI controller. The Stream Deck is the Rolls Royce option, no doubt, but it is an investment.

Unfortunately there is no standard MIDI support for OBS and also it needs to be two-way. When you push a button this sends a message and to light up the button to confirm your choice OBS needs to report back. That is what I would expect to happen on a Launchpad. You also need to map OBS events to MIDI keys. A Launchpad has very specific key sequence per row of buttons. Up to now I did not find an acceptable plugin or solution for MIDI. If you have please let me know.

Novation Launchpad and its MIDI key mapping

Maybe you noticed the mobile option in the Elgato line-up above? For the past months I controlled OBS remotely using a phone or the iPad, but I didn’t use the Elgato Mobile app. You can opt for Elgato mobile, but it has a monthly or yearly subscription model. Again there are more affordable options. All starting with installation of the websocket plug-in in OBS. There are several to choose from. I’ve used the StreamControl app the longest, but eventually reached its limits. If you have just a set of scenes to control it’s perfect. It couldn’t handle my 20+ video sources to choose from during a live stream.

Please note that if you use Streamlabs OBS you can remote control with the Streamlabs Deck app. The Streamlabs Deck app can be paired with a QR code. I have the pure OBS version running, so this is why I need the websocket plug-in and I can’t use the Deck app.

Eventually I stepped up to Touch Portal and that is what I use now. It can do your dishes, the laundry and reserve a table for your next dinner and also controls OBS. It also needs the OBS websocket plugin by the way. It has a companion Touch Portal app that you can install. I use the paid version on an iPad so I can use the full surface of the iPad to remote control so in total I invested 14 euro. I saw no other way to be fully in control and up to know it hasn’t failed me. If you have found a better way to remote control OBS during a live stream show, please let me know in the comments!

The advantages and pitfalls of a head microphone

Yesterday I did a live stream with a new head microphone or headset mic and for the first time since using it, something went wrong. Kind of spoiling an hour long live stream. Before this I used my old faithful AKG D330 on a microphone stand, but when streaming, visually this was kind of a pole with a big thing in my face. So, enter the Samson Wireless Concert 88x I chose this mic because it was affordable and suited for singing. Worth an experiment.

A big stand and microphone

A lot of these affordable headset are for sport instructors, so more intended for the frequency range of the spoken word. Also a lot of the smaller, more invisible, headset mics have an omnidirectional sensitivity. I was worried that such a mic would pick up the key clicks and foot pedal stomps. This mic has cardoid sensitivity that seems to only pick up my voice and not any of the noise from playing. Comfort while wearing is also an aspect and adjustability. On most aspects this mic is fine for me. Audio quality is a little less transparent then the AKG, but acceptable.

The first reactions on the looks in the live stream are positive. Visually this is an improvement over a big round mic on a stand. One aspect of these mics is that, because they’re stuck to your face, you can’t vary the distance to the mic anymore. Any intention or emotion you want to add, by yelling with the mic far away, or whispering with the mic close by is impossible. Some singers that want to belt with the mic far away will feel limited. In my dreamy pop songs I am missing it a little, but not a lot.

The first real pitfall I fell in was yesterday. Because I wanted to drink some water before going live a moved the mic a little bit from my face. Then in the live stream someone remarked that my voice volume was so low. I started fiddling with the faders for the mic, but only after watching back the live stream I saw that it was too far from my face. Caught by the cardoid sensitivity!

Some other downsides are when I breathe through my nose, the wind blows straight into the mic. Resulting in a rumbling sound. Also, one of my songs starts with a part where it’s like i’m calling a friend and speaking into the answering device. The design of this mic more that ever makes me look like a call center employee hahaha.

Samson Wireless Concert 88x

Another aspect is that it is a wireless model. I chose this because eventually I want to play really live again and it would be convenient. It means however that I now have to rely totally on a set of batteries. When you buy an inexpensive set like this, there is no battery indicator. For now it seems reliable in battery life and there have been no problems with the wireless connection. I’ve had maybe 6 hours of operation from the first set of batteries. I hope it won’t fail on my while playing live. Knock on wood.

I’m also the kind of person that immediately starts using a new gadget like this. Tossing aside the manual. But browsing through it after some days I found out that you should not skip reading it. Here in the studio it works out of the box on the default frequency. Live however you and I will undoubtedly have to fiddle around to find the best frequency and you need instructions from the manual to set up right.

For now this little and affordable gadget sounds good enough, really adds convenience and just looks better.

Korg VPT-1: Toy or Gadget?

A vocal pitch trainer. Any guitarist can get a very pocketable guitar tuner for just a few bucks. So why wouldn’t a singer be able to use the same? Well actually would you as a singer want one? The voice, like a violin can play any note in any tuning. Why would you want to sing a perfect 440 Hz A when other instruments around you are not in tune? Another one is that sometimes you put some ’emotion’ and ‘glides’ in. your singing. That would be lost if you would sing perfectly pitched.

To set you up right. I’m now in the vocal coaching program of Tiffany van Boxtel. I wanted to improve my live singing. Her main goal is to give you confidence while singing. Singing in tune is just one aspect and in her program its NOT the main focus. Better sing with confidence and connect with your audience than sing totally in tune is the motto. The coaching program is awesome for me.

Enter the Korg VPT-1. Its not very expensive, but then again its 4 times as expensive as an entry level guitar tuner. When you switch it on, it immediately shows a level, starting at Easy. The top control toggles between Easy, Medium and Hard. Then when you sing a note appears on the bars on screen. For me it was more useful to see the note letter and octave. For this you can use the middle control. It also sets your center note. It starts at A4 but i set it to C4. Then the bottom control plays the note but with a simple toy-like sound.

Then there is a blue indicator and a sharp red indicator and a flat red indicator. Blue lighting up shows you that you are singing in perfect tune. Red sharp means: higher then perfect tune. Red sharp means: lower then perfect tune. The idea is that if you sing scales the right notes show and the indicator is mostly blue. On level Easy that is easy and on Hard its hard. Simple as that.

Now how does this work in practice? One of the most important things I have learned is to warm up the voice before performing. I use a standard warm up exercise with scales. This is where I now pick up the VPT-1 to just check that indeed most notes light up blue and that gives me confidence. I can see that at the start of the exercise there are more red notes and slowly i get into the blue zone. I do not switch to medium.

For me now using it this way its not a toy but a gadget. It would probably be no use for me while singing otherwise. You have to hold it close to your face to pick up your voice correctly. For just the warm up, which is its perfectly in tune, its fine. Then another exercise is lip buzzes. The VPT-1 does not handle that at all. It doesn’t recognize lip buzzes as notes. All in all I hope you find this information useful. Let me know how it works for you if you have it.

OBS: With Green Screen

If you have seen my recent live streams, you will have noticed that I ‘travel around’ these days while live streaming. I’ve started to use the Green Screen effect. With OBS Studio its so dead simple that you can start using it with a few clicks in your OBS Studio scenes. Of course there are also some caveats I want to address. The main picture for this post shows you what it can look like. It may not be super realistic, but it is eye catching.

So what do you need to get this going? A Green Screen is the first item you need. It does not have to be green. It can be blue or blue-green, but it should not match skin color or something you wear. It should cover most of the background, so it will need to be at least 2 meter by 1.6 meter, which is kind of a standard size you can find in shops. It should be smooth and solid. Creases and folds can result in folds in the backdrop, but some rippling is OK.

Green Screen selfie
Green Screen selfie

Then you need to set up OBS Studio. Its as simple as right-clicking your camera in the scene and selecting the Filters properties. In the dialog add the Chroma Key filter and select the color of your green screen. Then slide Similarity from somewhere around 100-250 to get a good picture. Everything outside the color range will become black. Then add a backdrop image (or video!) somewhere below the camera in the the scene list and you will have your Green Screen effect.

OBS Camera Filter
OBS Camera Filters
OPBS Chroma Key Filter settings
OPBS Chroma Key Filter settings

The first caveat I bumped into was that I set it up during daytime and it kind of worked, but then I found I stream in at night time and then you need light. In fact it turned out that 2 photo studio lights came in handy. When you use at least 2 studio lights they also cancel out shadows through folds and creases in the green screen. It does however bleed a little onto you as a subject, so you will be strangely highlighted as well. This is something you can also see in my first Amsterdam subway picture. Because of the uneven lighting in subways it does not really show. Not every picture is suitable as a backdrop. Photos with people or animals don’t work, because you expect them to move.

The second effect you see is that instruments with reflective surfaces also reflect the green screen. This will result in the background shining through reflecting surfaces. My take is that its a minor distraction, so I accept some shining through of the backdrop. Its also possible that some parts of your room don’t fit well with the Green Screen, doorways or cupboards. In that case you can choose to crop the camera in the scene by dragging the sides of the camera in the scene with the Alt-key (or Apple key) down. The cropped camera borders, will be replaced by the backdrop.

OBS: Live streaming with good audio quality

In a previous post I mentioned that I use OBS Studio for my live streaming and a little bit about how. It shows that I use an ASIO plugin for audio in the OBS Studio post, but why is it needed? For me in the live stream I want to recreate the studio quality sound, but with a live touch. After all, why listen to a live stream when could just as well listen to the album or single in your favorite streaming app? Lets first see where the ASIO plugin comes into play.

Live Streaming Setup
Live Streaming Setup

My setup in the studio is divided in two parts. One part is dedicated to studio producing and recording, with a Focusrite Scarlett 18i8, a digital Yamaha mixing desk and a MIDI master keyboard. For recording I use Ableton Live. The other part is the live setup, with (again) Ableton Live, another Focusrite Scarlett 18i8, a Clavia Nord, Micro Korg and the Zoom L12 mixing desk. The live setup will directly connect to the PA with a stereo output. Both sides run on separate PCs (laptops).

Home Studio Live Side
Home Studio Live Side

For OBS Studio and the live streaming setup, I chose to use PC on the studio recording side. Its directly connected to the Internet (cabled) and can easily handle streaming when it doesn’t have to run studio work. I play the live stream on the set dedicated to playing live and i use the live side stereo PA audio out to connect it to the studio side to do the live streaming. This means the live side if the setup is exactly as I would use it live.

Home Studio Recording Side
Home Studio Recording Side

It all starts with the stereo output on the Zoom L12 mixing desk, that normally connects to the PA. On the mixing desk there is vocal processing and some compression on all channels to make it sound good in live situations. To get this into the live stream as audio I connect the stereo output to an input of the Yamaha mixing desk. This is then routed to a special channel in the studio side audio interface. This channel is never used in studio work.

Of course it could be that your live setup simpler then mine. Maybe only a guitar and and a microphone. But the essential part for me is this that you probably have some way to get these audio outputs to a (stereo) PA. If you don’t have a mixing panel yourself and you usually plug in to the mixing desk at the venue, this is the time to consider your own live mixing desk for streaming live. With vocal effects and the effects that you want to have on your instruments. Maybe even some compression to get more power out of the audio and make it sound more live.

But lets look at where the ASIO plugin comes into play. The ASIO plugin takes the input of the special live channel from the Yamaha mixing desk using the studio side audio interface and that becomes the audio of the stream. Because I have full control over the vocal effects on the live side, i can just use a dry mic to address the stream chat and announce songs. Then switch on delay and reverb when singing. Just like when I play live, without the need for a technician even.

Playing a live stream is different from playing live, because it has a different dynamic. In a live stream its OK to babble and chat minutes on end, this is probably not a good idea live. I find however when it comes to the audio, it helps to start out with a PA ready output signal. Similar to the audio you would send to the PA in a real live show. Also it helps to have full hands on control over your live audio mix to prevent you having to dive into hairy OBS controls while streaming live. Lastly, for me its also important that streaming live is no different from a playing live at a venue in that you can break the mix, miss notes, mix up lyrics and that you feel the same nerves while playing.

Streaming live with OBS Studio

Okay, like everybody else i started streaming too. I had a planned live show, but live shows will not be possible for at least another half year. Every evening my social timelines start buzzing with live streams and all the big artists have also started to stream live. No place for me with my newly created and sometimes shaky solo live performance to make a stand? After some discussions with friends i decided to make make the jump.

But how to go about it? If you already have experience with live streaming, you can skip this entire article. This is here just for the record so to say. After some looking around I came to this setup:

OBS Studio with ASIO plugin
Restream.io for casting to multiple streaming platforms
Logitech C920 webcam
Ring light
– Ayra ComPar 2 stage light see this article

OBS is surprisingly simple to set up. It has its quirks. Sometimes it does not recognize the camera, but some fiddling with settings does the trick. You define a scene by adding video and audio sources. Every time you switch from scene to scene it adds a nice cross fade to make the transition smooth. You can switch the cross fade feature off of course.

OBS Main scene setup
OBS Main scene setup

I only use one scene. The video clip is there to promote any YouTube video clip. It plays in a corner and disappears when it has played out. The logo is just “b2fab” somewhere in a corner. The HD cam is the C920 and the ASIO source is routed from my live mixer to the audio interface on the PC. I setup a limiter at -6db on the ASIO audio as a filter to make sure i don’t get distortion over any audio peaks.

I also had to choose my platform. From the start i wanted also to stream live on Facebook and Instagram. Instagram however kind of limits access to live streaming to only phones. There is software to stream from a PC, but then you have to set it up again for every session and you need to switch off two-factor authentication. For me one bridge too far for now.

I chose Restream.io as a single platform to set up for streaming from OBS. It then allows to stream to multiple platforms and bundle all the chats from the different platforms into a single session. For Facebook pages however, you need a paid subscription tier. For now I selected the free options YouTube, Twitch and Periscope. YouTube because it is easy to access for my older audience. Twitch because it seemed quite fun and i also like gaming. Periscope because it connects to Twitter.

If the live show takes shape i might step into streaming from my Facebook page. Another plan is to try the iRig Stream solution and start making separate live streams on Instagram. With high quality audio from the live mixer. I will surely blog about it if i start working with it.

For now it all works. Restream.io allows me to drop a widget on my site. Its a bit basic and only comes alive when i am live, so i have to add relevant information to it to make it interesting. If you want to drop in and join my live musings check my YouTube, Twitch and Periscope channels or my site at around 21:00 CEST.

Controlling a light show for a small solo set

I’m back on the track of my own small solo live set. The first experiment was running a video stream that would run along with the show. But now there is a new twist: The Corona virus came and there will be no live set the coming months. All public shows have been cancelled for about half a year. My first live show has been pushed to November from June. The only alternative is live streaming.

Just before the lockdown to combat the spread of the Corona virus I had bought a stage light. Just one to at least have a blue wash on stage to set a kind of moonlight mood. This was the Ayra ComPar 2. A simple LED stage light, with an IR remote and plenty of flexibility be more than just a blue stage wash.

But while staying at home and after browsing through some online articles it dawned on me: you can simply control stage lights as part of your Ableton Live set. I use Ableton Live sets to run my stage show and believe it or not I use color coding for each different song to quickly browse through all the songs without having to look up the names.

The colors match the moods of the song, so my simple idea was to use this color code to match the color of the wash on stage. A red wash for a deeply felt love song. A green wash for a song about nature. A purple wash for an up tempo hot song etc.

But why put all this effort in a stage light when there will not be a stage for months to play on? Up to then I had been a bit weary of immediately jumping to live streaming instead of playing gigs. All the bigger artists now stream live. Every night on my socials there are at least a dozen artists performing live. I’m just starting out, so what can I bring to the table?

After discussing this with a close group of musicians and my music coach it became obvious. Why not start streaming live? It’ll be fun, even if nobody watches it. I can invite friends and just have fun together. And also because I had nothing else to do I jumped in to make this stage light idea work. It would change color with the song. Not on stage, but in the attic. The attic with my home studio as my online stage.

One of the intriguing functions of the ComPar 2 is the ability to connect a XLR cable with DMX signal to control it. After diving into it and in lockdown there was a lot of time to dive into anything I found out that there are also DMX light controllers that support MIDI. From the same company I got the Ayra OSO 1612 DMX Scanmaster controller. Very friendly priced i think.

Blacked out by default
Blacked out by default

The DMX light controller simply accepts MIDI note data and maps that to programmable scenes. The controller can be connected to a chain of lights and a scene can set each light correspondingly. You can have flashing lights in a scene or movement from stage lights that can move. With 240 scenes you can probably make an interesting progression of lights for several songs, but I simply have a red, green, purple and blue scene for each song.

The controller I chose has a default setting where it blacks out all lights when starting up and that is not a bad thing at all. The only thing I must remember is to switch off the black out when playing live. That is the only attention it needs and from there everything is now running on rails. The live streaming shows allow me to test stuff out, but I’m now pretty happy with this setup.

When you need a patchbay

You might already have seen this on my socials. A nice photo of a new box stacked alongside my MIDI patchbay. Lately studio life got more complicated. I have 2 mixing tables. One for working in the studio and one for practicing live gigs. I found myself plugging instruments in and out of these mixing tables. Also, the studio mixing table, a Yamaha 01v, is getting old and some switches now already noticeably start making noise. For me this was the sign to start saving the desk and considering a patch panel.

You can spend any amount on a good one, but for my modest home studio purposes I chose the Behringer Ultrapatch Pro PX3000. With 48 channels it is well beyond my need to patch 6 channels across 12 inputs. But hey, who knows what will happen in the future. And it doesn’t break the bank at around 80 euros.

Plugging the instruments across the inputs of two tables now won’t wear down the inputs on the more expensive mixing desks any more. There is even be an option to use the patchbay in half-normal mode. In this mode I can make a setup to send the instruments to both inputs at the same time. Then you have to factor in the impedance of both mixing desks against the line outs of the instruments, but to my calculations it might just work.