How I used MainStage and a 61-key controller to play percussion for Les Miserables.

A few months ago, I was invited to play percussion for a local production of the musical “Les Miserables”. The percussion book contains cues for 30 or so instruments, including the usual timpani, snare, sus. cymbal parts, and lesser used things like garbage can lids, brake drums, and extensive use of roto toms. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to go out and buy all these things, and the theater didn’t have access to all the stuff I needed. Enter MainStage.

For those of you who aren’t privy to the endlessly capable world of MainStage, google it. Seriously. Imagine being able to create a custom piece of software that has all the functionality you need to get through even the most complex of gigs. MainStage lets you do this and more. Seriously, google it.

I started by tackling the problem of convincing and effectual timpani parts. I needed to be able to manually play rolls [meaning I didn’t want a sample of a roll]. So I found some samples I liked, tweaked the velocity curve to get them responsive, then I copied the entire patch up two octaves, effectively creating a “second mallet” so I could play the same note with both hands on different keys.

Timpani patch.

The split between the two timpani patches.

I created another patch for the rest of the unpitched percussion. I used the same “two stick” mentality for the concert toms, roto toms, gran cassa, and hi hat.

For the snare drum, I actually ended up with three keys under each hand. I had the D and E keys triggering the normal samples which allowed me to do double strokes and flams by using my first and second fingers on each hand. The D# key triggered a buzz roll on both sides.

Another tricky aspect was the suspended cymbal rolls. I decided to use my mod wheel as an expression controller. I assigned a key to a looped sample of a cymbal roll. If I held the key it would roll forever, then on release I’d get a nice natural decay. To get a nice dynamic roll, I’d turn the expression all the way down before triggering the sample. Then, while the key was held down, I’d slowly raise the expression and get nice [sometimes long] crescendi.

There were also a few pitched percussion patches for xylophone, glockenspiel, crotales, and tubular bells. No sweat there.

I ran into a problem when I encountered passages where the timpani and toms would trade phrases. To solve this problem, I decided to use my sustain pedal as a momentary patch change, so anytime my pedal was down, the timpani patch was active, and every time I released the pedal it would go back to the “everything else” patch. This also proved useful in quickly getting back to drums and cymbals after I played a quick xylophone cue or something.

It’s worth noting that I ended up using all samples that were included with MainStage. So if any of you need some outlandish solution to live performance stuff, you can probably make it happen in MainStage without any third-party samples or plugins.

Happy Gigging!

-John

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