Thomas Dolby is on the road again after 15 years. And how times have changed: unlike the year 1991, the year 2006 means he can blog the whole tour. For starters, he’s posted the gory details of his performance rig “for the geeks and musicians out there.” (You called?)

  1. Power Mac G5 Dual 2.0 GHz, to be replaced with a MacBook Pro when everything gets ported to Intel
  2. MUSE Receptor for still more plug-in hosting
  3. Logic Pro 7.2 acts as a MIDI host (for outboard hardware synths and plug-ins), plug-in host, and (primarily) playback device for presequenced backup tracks
  4. Stylus-RMX plug-in for loops, thanks to the fact that you can queue up irregular loops
  5. Built-in Logic plugs, plus more: Arturia’s MiniMoog, RMIV drums, Slayer2 guitars, UltraFocus, Camelspace gating effect, T-racks mastering.
  6. Rack: UPS power backup, PreSonus Firepod FireWire audio interface, MOTU MIDI interface, Nord 3 racked synth
  7. Keyboard controllers: Three of them, no less: CME Pro 7 (now distributed by Yamaha), Novation ReMote SL25 (which automaps nicely to Logic), and the Virus TI Polar. The Virus is the only sound source.
  8. M-Audio Trigger Finger for drums, samples, muting and unmuting tracks.
  9. Vintage gear retrofitted for MIDI: Knobs on old oscilloscopes and signal generators controlling soft synth parameters? Now, that’s cool. (Wouldn’t you do something like that if you were Thomas Dolby?)

Choosing software

Two particularly interesting notes: since nearly all of the playback is through MIDI synths, Dolby has set up a custom Max/MSP patch for easy, visual selection of controller zones, routing his three controllers to a variety of soft synths visually. In yet another victory for Max, it was easier, quicker, and more flexible to do this in Max than in Logic’s Environment. (Note: if you’re on a budget, you could easily do the same thing with Max’s open source cousin, Pd, too.)

But where’s Ableton Live in all this? Dolby claims he can’t use Live because his music doesn’t fit into 4-beat bars. That’s actually not the problem he thinks it is; you can easily cue irregular beats in Live by quantizing to the beat instead of the bar, much as he describes doing in Stylus RMX. But this is also a great setup, and benefits heavily from all the built-in instruments and effects (vocoder, anyone) in Logic.

Could you do it on a budget?

In fact, thanks to Logic, this setup doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Dolby says we might want to tally up the whole cost, and I’ve done that, painstakingly researching the street prices of all this gear to determi. . . uh . . . okay, actually, I don’t want to do that. But let’s think about a bare-bones setup: get a MacBook Pro ($2000), plus Logic ($1000, though less if you’re a student), plus an audio interface (PreSonus makes one for less than $200), plus a mic (Shure SM58 Blue is about $150), plus a Remote SL keyboard (extra octaves for just $600) . . . just over US$4000 for an entire road setup. Not bad, especially given that you probably have a lot of this gear. Throw in some Shure E series in-ear monitors for $150.

Still not cheap enough? How about a reasonable PC laptop ($1000), or even a Core Duo Mac mini plus a compact LCD and rack for about the same price, plus an Edirol keyboard ($220, and I’ve got one I love right here), plus Ableton Live ($400), and Reaktor for all the synths and effects you could ever possibly want ($500). Just over $2000. You could even just play with Reaktor for your beats if you wanted. There are various other combinatorics, but most of what Thomas Dolby has is more of everything — three keyboards instead of one, extra plug-ins, an extra rig for plug-ins (the Receptor) even though he’s running backup tracks.

And, as Dolby himself notes, this is a far cry from a $120,000 Fairlight CMI in the 80s.

Just make sure you spend a little extra effort on the retro-sci fi-cool details like those shades and headphones. And notice the keyboards are up front, computers in the back? It makes a difference.

Thanks to the first post on the CDM performing board, via 3l33t_v4cuum, for the lead!

Previously: Logic-based road rigs have included rack-rig Mac minis (part I, part II), Vince Jones’ rig, and even young kids using Logic and Novation keyboards. (Watch out, Thomas; that little girl wants your gig.) And more Logic stuff, too.

  • For those intrested there is a member over at the forums who has just finished building a custom midi controler for Dolby and his latest tour.

    The orginal post can be found here

    Info on the controller is on the builder's Myspace blog.

  • EDIT: Whoops, I screwed up those first links.


    For those intrested there is a member over at the forums who has just finished building a custom midi controler for Dolby and his latest tour.

    The orginal post can be found here

    Info on the controller is on the builder's Myspace blog.

  • Great find, great write-up!

    Am reading Dolby's comments and had a small quibble with your remarks about him not using Ableton Live…it's not that the music isn't in 4-beat bars, but rather the melodic structure and harmonic structures are not "square" i.e., 4-bar and 8-bar structures. Quantizing the beats wouldn't help him…it's like trying to cram a 17 beat rhythm cycle into 4/4 time…square peg/round hole?

    Of course I could be misunderstanding him, too…in the end, it doesn't so much matter HOW he gets there, so long as we're all along for the ride!

    And I really appreciate the cost breakdown/comparisons you did. Thanks! It's giving me some new ideas about that new studio!

  • Thanks, Dennis! I think you can use square pegs, round holes, whatever. You can use Live with 17 beat rhythmic cycles and other unusual structures; I've done it. 🙂 Actually, it's unfortunate; I don't think Live makes it obvious enough that you CAN do this because everything defaults to quantized 4/4. (I hate the fact that it defaults to quantized recordings, too!) But it is possible to do in Live, whether or not that's the tool you want to use.

    Now, that said, I think Stylus RMX has some advantages of its own; this reminds me that I need to spend more time with it. And at a certain point, you might want to just have a linear backing arrangement running so you can focus on your playing, rather than having to actively think (okay, beat 17 and a half, now I need to cue x)! So, in that case, you could either use asymmetric pre-sequenced stuff in any program, whether it's Live, Logic, or whatever you want to use. I've been known, ahem, to try to do too much stuff live instead of just leave myself some room to play. It's definitely a balance.

    Now I just want to figure out where he got those cool retro headphones in the photo. 😉

  • Don't want your love, don't want your money… all I want are the tracks from your Mac mini.

  • Old school headphones?

    Try Grado.. Proper submrine sonar operator from Das Boot stylee 😉

  • Chris Benkert

    BTW: Those "shades" actually have a US Army issued video camera imbedded in them. He'll be displaying what he sees & tweeks on an overhead screen. Pretty cool!

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  • I love the vintage knob MIDI control. Excellent touch. I also really like that the computers are set up behind the keyboards. =) I imagine that makes for a far more entertaining show.

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  • "Thomas Dolby is on the road again after 15 years" man how time flies lol cool looking rig setup too!!

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