Tools I Use In Playing Music

The blessing and curse of getting involved with music technology is all the gear! Perhaps you have heard of "Gear Acquisition Syndrome" (aka "GAS"). While I don't think I suffer from GAS, I have been through my fair share of music equipment over the last three decades attempting to find the right combination of "stuff" that will be a good compromise between portability, useability and of course performance, all at the right price. Below you'll find my current gear list, right down to what model seat I use to sit on!


I use a Yamaha CP33 digital stage piano for straight piano sounds. This keyboard has really good action and feels good to play, with nice weighted keys. It has three different settings (soft, medium, hard) to match the player's touch on the keys. It only weighs about 40 lbs. For audio output, it has both a headphone jack as well as L/R output jacks for sending the audio to a mixer, etc. You can split the keyboard so that you have different sounds on the left and right hands. You can also combine two sounds together for a layered approach. This is a pretty versatile stage piano. The Piano 2 sound is what I normally use in most band settings and the sound cuts through a mix well.

My main synthesizer is a Roland Fantom G7. There's way too much to say about this amazing 76-key keyboard. My main reason for getting it was its versatility. On board it has many great sounds (electric pianos, strings, analog synths, etc.) that help me meet the demands of the wide types of music I encounter in cover bands and in musical theater. It has a huge 8.5" color VGA display, making it so easy to work with in dark music situations. It has a sequencer, and you can sample sounds and add them to the keyboard as well. I have installed the ARX-03 Brass expansion card, for very realistic additional horns. A ton of features make this a very desireable piece of gear to have, and it only weighs about 36 lbs.

For organ sounds, I have a Roland VK-8M Organ Module. This is a small "desktop" module - it's not rack mountable, but it can sit on top of, say, a keyboard. It has drawbars like a real Hammond B3 organ, as well as settings for chorus, vibrato, percussion, etc. It has 66 user registration banks, meaning you can save and recall different combinations of the various drawbars and knobs. Very realistic Hammond tonewheel sound in a very portable module. I use a Roland EV-7 expression pedal to control the swells (volume level modulation).

Connected to my VK-8M organ module is a Neo Instruments Ventilator Rotary Cabinet Simulator. This little device, weighing in at slightly under 3 lbs, replaces the need to have a mic'd Leslie cabinet. I connect the VK-8M's output to the input of the Ventilator, and send the Ventilator's output to my keyboard amp. This unit has the most realistic rotary effect I've ever experienced; it also has a second-to-none overdrive feature. You can play with rotary horn speed, virtual mic distance from the horns, and a few other bits. I bypass the Leslie sim on the VK-8M and use this unit instead.


I've gotten away from using VSTs ("soft synths") in most live situations, preferring to use hardware synths/keyboards/modules. My experience has been that it just takes too long for soft synth patches to load, and while soft synths are very "tweakable", managing these virtual devices in a live environment is difficult. It also means having to lug around some VST host (laptop, computer, etc.) in addition to the actual keyboard(s) required to trigger the sounds via MIDI. However, I do have a Muse Instruments Receptor VST host, and I use this for recordings as well as for certain theater situations. The Receptor is a computer dedicated to hosting VSTs, therefore, it's different than taking your Mac or Windows PC and expecting it to be a good general computer as well as a VST host, which is a specific highly sophisticated role for the operating system that involves a lot of optimization. Instead, the Receptor runs on a modified Linux kernel, and the included WINE program allows VST plugins to exist as if they were running on Windows. The graphical user interface to the Receptor can be accessed either by plugging a monitor/keyboard/mouse into the back of the unit, or by placing the unit on a network and accessing it via VNC, which comes with the Receptor software.

Some of my favorite soft synths I use on the Receptor include:

Sound Reinforcement

For live performances, I sing through a Shure Beta 58A microphone. It has a very warm sound and is extremely durable and reliable.

Generally, I route my sound sources through a Roland KC350 Keyboard Amp. It has one XLR input and three other 1/4" jack inputs, for a total of four separate sound sources that can be mixed together. I send the mono line out to the PA mixing board.

For connecting unbalanced sound sources, I think the Radial ProDI passive direct injection boxes are outstanding.


My general live music setup, especially with a cover band, is to use my Yamaha CP33 digital piano as both a source of piano sounds as well as a MIDI controller. I run the CP33 on MIDI channel 1 and send the MIDI out to my Roland Fantom G7. The G7 has a line input, which is how I route the CP33's sound. This means I only have one sound output between the 2 keyboards to worry about. The G7 also triggers my Roland VK-8M organ module (as mentioned above, its output goes to the Ventilator, which in turn goes to my keyboard amp). So in terms of MIDI, I don't need any other gear, just 2 MIDI cables.

However, for more elaborate setups, I use a Cakewalk UM-3G 3x3 USB MIDI interface. This allows me 3 inputs and 3 outputs. The interface can be connected to some kind of computer or laptop and the host program can route the MIDI signals as required. The UM-3G can also be run in "MIDI Thru" mode, which means it becomes a MIDI merge box, when I have a series of controllers and modules that need to talk to each other, which eliminates the need to have a host program in the middle.

The best MIDI sequencing program for live theater I have found is MIDIMaestro. This program only runs on Windows. In theater, there are several musical embellishments which make it difficult to use a standard sequencing program. For example, a "vamp" is a repeated section of measures that keeps looping until a certain cue is reached, the timing of which is often different from performance to performance. Cuts and even fermatas are tricky to program. However, MIDIMaestro is designed with these things in mind. All the songs are listed in show order, and going from song to song can be done automatically, or via MIDI commands. MIDI commands can be entered via computer keyboard or MIDI controller. The program also allows one to slow down or speed up the tempo using the pitch bender on a keyboard, as well as tap the tempo with a keyboard key. All in all, this program does amazing things for a live theater performance.

I have used two computer programs successfully and continously over many years to do MIDI sequencing for recording purposes. One is Cubase from Steinberg. The other is an Open Source program called Rosegarden. While I tend to do most of my digital audio workstation type sequencing either directly on the Fantom G7 or in Cubase, I have found working in Rosegarden quite easy and interesting. I use Rosegarden on Linux. When working with DAWs on Linux, it's a good idea to use a specialized distribution that has an optimized kernel plus all the required and good-to-have software apps all bundled together. My favorite such distribution is Planet CCRMA, which is built on Fedora (it will also run on CentOS).


My favorite program for creating all sorts of notated music is Lilypond. This is Open Source software that will run on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. The software itself does not have a graphical user interface, though there are a few programs that provide a GUI for Lilypone. I prefer to score directly in the Lilypond scripting language - after one learns the ins and outs, it is fairly quick and easy to create some elaborate engravings, ranging from full orchestra scores to lead sheets for guitarists.


For live cover band work, I stand when I play. For musical theater, and when I'm working on music at home, I play seated, and having a comfortable padded seat is a must! My favorite seat is the ProLine PL1250.

I have several keyboard stands (almost all are the X-type) I've collected over time. When playing seated, there are a variety of those stands I'll use depending on which keyboards and how many of them I'm using, if I need to have a music stand in front of me, etc. However, when playing standing, the only keyboard stand I use now is the APEX AX-48 Pro Stand. I like the fact that each of the two keyboard tiers is infinitely adjustable, and that the stand folds up into itself and is very portable. Looks cool onstage too!

As mentioned above, when I perform in cover bands, I am in the standing position. Since I'm a vocalist as well as a keyboard player, and I'm 6' 1" tall, and I'm playing a stack of two keyboards, positioning a boom microphone stand so that the stand is somewhere either to the side or back of my keyboards, the boom is high enough to reach over the top keyboard, and the microphone sits right in front of my face is a lot harder than you might think! Most boom mic stands can't accomplish that. I bought a stand made by AKG Acoustics in the early 90s second-hand from a friend, and it is still my go-to stand to this day.