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Use Your Laptop As A Synthesizer - Live!

6:00 am Live Sound

If you use your laptop and your favorite recording software as the basis for your home studio (like I do), you are accustomed to the idea of playing your studio keyboard and recording the part as a MIDI track, giving you the flexibility of assigning a new voice to the already-played part right up to the time when you mix the song.

But has it occurred to you to use that same recording software to turn your MIDI-ready keyboard into a synthesizer with all the latest and greatest voices that you could play as part of a live show? Me neither! (Until recently.) Here’s how to do it.

The Key To Success

For this application, you would run the recording software (GarageBand, for example, or Logic, or Cubase) on your laptop onstage, but you wouldn’t actually record anything. Instead, you would use the monitoring function to “listen” to the output of the computer. Actually, instead of merely “listening” you would route the output of your computer to an instrument amp and crank it up. And guess what? Those GarageBand voices sound great played LOUD!

But why would you want to do this, you ask? Well! Maybe you have a MIDI keyboard that you use in the studio that doesn’t have a built-in synthesizer and thus can’t make sounds on its own (like the Akai unit I use). How else are you going to play it live? Or maybe you have a standard keyboard with built-in voices, but it’s two or three generations old and you don’t care for the particular voices it offers (or you’re sick of them). Or maybe you just want to get your feet wet working with a computer onstage, without getting into programming it or other fancy stuff just yet.

Don’t forget, once the computer is hooked up to your onstage amp (see below), you can play anything you want through it in addition to your regular cool keyboard parts! You can play sound effects. You can play bits of songs. You can play that weird mashup you put together the night before that happens to be ready to play on the laptop. Whatever your audience will stand for!

Hooking Up

Setting up your laptop-cum-synth onstage is pretty straightforward. You’ll need an AC power connection, unless you want to try to make it through a short show with a fully-charged battery. A mouse might seem nice to have, but it’s likely to end up being a nuisance to keep track of, so I’d skip it and use the laptop’s trackpad (or whatever).

The only other thing you need, assuming that your recording software is up and running OK, is an audio cable from your laptop’s headphone jack to your instrument amp. (You probably want to use a keyboard amp rather than a guitar amp, for reasons I discuss in my article Can I Run Live Vocals Through an Instrument Amp?) You should use a cable that has a 1/8″ stereo mini-plug on one end (for the computer), and two 1/4″ phone plugs on the other end, like this one.

Since some of the voices will be in stereo, the two channels of the output (Left and Right, duh) will likely be slightly different.  If your amp has two inputs, you can plug in both phone plugs and let the amp combine them into a single mono signal. If there’s only one input, just plug in one channel or the other and see how it sounds. (You could also use a signal combiner to merge the two channels.)

I know this setup can work because I just now tried it out in my home studio and it sounded pretty great. Even with the volume setting on the laptop (a MacBook, in my case) all the way up, there wasn’t a trace of distortion, yet there was more than enough signal to drive the amp to full volume (and my neighbors to distraction). So, it should work for you too!

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3 Responses
  1. jnr tyotam :

    Date: January 29, 2011 @ 12:08 am

    i really like the idea…infact its one which adds that special sound you don’t normally get out from keyboards - another dimension.

    i also have tried it out and it sounds great!

    i’m also learning alot out from reading articles and discussions that happen in this site.

    thanks guys…you are heavenly sent!

  2. barry :

    Date: October 28, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    would it be possible to do this through an iPad or Samsung tablet. I don’t like the piano sounds I get from my Korg trinity playing live and wondered if this would be possible.


  3. Cheap Advice Guy :

    Date: November 7, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    Yes - you can get some of the benefits I describe from your iPad or similar device. The only problem is the fragility of the device, especially the connectors, which makes it risky to use them in the rough-and-tumble of an actual gig.

    For more on the pros and cons, check out the article at

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