MainStage 3: A Much-Needed Update to Apple’s Live Music Performance App

MainStage has long been Apple’s answer to the live music performance industry. While the company hasn’t listed names of popular bands who use the app (like they did with Logic Pro), there are quite a few artists who use the concert-optimized DAW for synthesizers and sometimes even mixing. I’ve been using the second version of MainStage to play synths at church for over three years now, and while it was a learning process to understand things, I’m fully invested in the app now, and I love it.

When I saw MainStage 3, I was excited to see new features like arpeggiators and drum machines finally making their way to the app. The sparkly user interface, too, looked like a nice change. After a bit of testing, I’ve come to a few conclusions about the app. Let’s go over them.

A More Fitting User Interface

A beautiful dark user interface is welcomed.

A beautiful dark user interface is welcomed.

The new design is much more modern. It fits the “professional” look that Apple is aiming for with this app. Since most concerts are performed at night anyway, there’s no need for the user’s eyes to be blinded every time he looks at the screen to tweak with things. It also doesn’t illuminate your face — that’s what concert lighting is for anyway. Best of all, this design is very cool, so when you’re using the app you actually look like you know exactly what you’re doing. The mixture of darkness and vibrant colors makes for a splendid DJ-esque look.

The Perform screen hasn't changed much, but the new Smart Control knobs look nice.

The Perform screen hasn’t changed much, but the new Smart Control knobs look nice.

Also changed in the design is the sidebar full of patches. Instead of being limited to a certain number and resorting to scrolling, the Edit tab now allows for 22 patches to be shown on the screen at once. It’s really handy if you’re trying to see an overall picture of things.

New Instruments, a Drum Kit Designer, and Bunches of Shiny Presets

The new Retro Synth is fantastic, and nice-looking.

The new Retro Synth is fantastic, and nice-looking.

MainStage 3 brings a batch of fresh synthesizers and samples. My favorite is the Retro Synth, which is both beautiful and easy to use. I had a good time tweaking with the presets and getting a genuine sound out of the synth. It offers analog, FM, sync, and table oscillators for a diverse range of results. It includes two oscillators with a slider to mix them and about 100 presets to tweak with. I really enjoyed using this synth, and its interface is a nice look after seeing ES2 for ages.

Redownloading Logic's content because everything has been updated.

Redownloading Logic’s content because everything has been updated.

The best thing about MainStage 3 is that you get all of Logic Pro X’s instruments. There’s no extra in-app purchase for them or anything, which makes this app a steal. $30 for the whole range of sounds and new plugins is the best deal on the market, even if you can’t record with such prestige as with Logic.

The new Drum Kit Designer makes creating a unique sound effortless.

The new Drum Kit Designer makes creating a unique sound effortless.

On to the Drum Kit Designer, which Apple is very excited about. It basically lets you take each component of a traditional drum set and replace them with elements from, say, a Middle Eastern one. You can then tune them to your liking, adjust the dampening, and even mix the kit. It’s a splendid way to make your own custom sound when playing live, though technically would be used more for recording.

Old Presets May Not Work

Since I’ve begun using MainStage 3, I’ve had to completely revamp my weekly church concert. If I use the old concert file from MainStage 2, the app constantly warns me that the “concert contains plugins that add output latency”, which will “cause a longer delay between audio or MIDI input and audio output.” Since that didn’t sound very appealing, I decided to make a new concert from the keyboards template and change things up. I mostly used the new presets that MainStage 3 includes, but I also copied and pasted some of my channel strips and settings from the older concert. This led to some problems.

Older presets don't play well with MainStage 3.

Older presets don’t play well with MainStage 3.

Unfortunately, copying over an already-configured channel strip from MainStage 2 brings along all the latency issues, so I had to instead go into the synthesizer itself and save the settings as a preset. I then loaded them from my desktop and finally had the patch I had spent hours configuring before. When this was finished, I had another problem: none of my plugins were imported with the setting. I then had to go find my effects and tweak them exactly as I had them before.

Now, it’s easy to bypass this issue by simply clicking Ignore and checking the “Do not show this message again” box. The thing is, I want a clean setup, so I have decided to not use any legacy presets.

Arpeggiator, Chord Trigger, and Lots of New Plugins

Finally, an arpeggiator!

Finally, an arpeggiator!

Apple has finally added an arpeggiator to MainStage — it’s amazing! I’m surprised it took them this long since nearly every other DAW and synthesizer on the planet has employed this function for years. Of course, Apple’s version is much more beautiful than your average arp. Its feature set includes the same basic items: four octaves, four variations, the usual pattern presets, and a 16-measure pattern input area where you can draw the velocity of each note or use the preset ones.

There’s are new “EDM” presets sections to get people started with a mainstream electronic music sound. These include a “Dub Machine” which will help you produce decent dubstep without the hefty configuration process. It’s nice to see Apple making this style more available to people who don’t want to do as much programming.

The Chord Trigger makes synth-organs possible with a few clicks.

The Chord Trigger makes synth-organs possible with a few clicks.

One thing I couldn’t find in the arpeggiator was a tuning feature for the pattern. I use these often to make small looping riffs for leads. Usually arps have a tuning option for patterns — not just velocity — that let you adjust each note in a measure by cents. This come in handy during live performances and I’m surprised there isn’t an option in this arpeggiator.

Other handy MIDI effects include the Chord Trigger, Modifier, Modulator, Note Repeater, Randomizer, Scripter, Transposer, and Velocity Processor. I’m not going into detail on all of these, but I will say that the Chord Trigger is perfect for that synth-organ sound you hear in house music.

No Toolbar Customization or 32-bit Plugin Support

You can't do this anymore.

You can’t do this anymore.

Now to the cons of upgrading to MainStage 3. First there’s the lack of toolbar customization. Unlike with the previous versions, you can’t change any of the buttons displayed in the top toolbar. This means no Tap Tempo button, patch and set switching buttons, or even a panic function. Since I use many of these features, the removal of them has affected the way I work with the app. Worst of all, there’s no CPU or RAM meter in the toolbar anymore, and since there’s not a customization option, you can’t get it back. When you’re using a MacBook Air like me, resources get used up fast and it’s nice to know where you are.

There's no longer an option to open the app in 32-bit.

There’s no longer an option to open the app in 32-bit mode

Moving past customization, let’s take a look at the worst problem with MainStage 3: it’s 64-bit only. This means that all 32-bit plugins, from the legendary Sylenth1 (which used to be one of my most used synths) to Native Instruments and even Ivory won’t work if you had them in 32-bit. Apple is forcing developers to make their plugins 64-bit, but there’s a downside to that: in the meantime, you can’t use your instruments with the new software. There should at least be a 32-bit option for people who still have legacy plugins to use.

The new 64-bit architecture also means that ReWire is not supported with 32-bit software. I had to buy a new version of Reason so I could still use it with MainStage, which was an otherwise unnecessary investment.

A Solid Live Performance Upgrade with Things to Learn

MainStage 3 is a powerful upgrade.

MainStage 3 is a powerful upgrade.

I want to like MainStage 3, but it will take me a while to adapt to its new ways of doing things. In addition to that, one of the more annoying things for me is a bug with the Musical Typing feature. It doesn’t stay on the keyboard side, but rather the piano one, so every time I open it I have to switch modes to play. It should remember what I was using last, but it doesn’t. I’m sure this, and other concerns, will be worked out eventually.

Something I would love to see in this app is iCloud sync for concert files. Obviously, this would just be for the arrangement saves, not the resources. Right now I use Dropbox and since Apple already uses iCloud for everything else, why isn’t it being integrated here?

Overall, this app will take some getting used to. Apple has changed a lot of the core functionality — more than I can go over in this review — and people will learn how to use it eventually. In the meantime, it will frustrate us. The good thing is, there’s enough good new stuff to make up for that.


Summary

This much needed update to Apple's live performance software finally brings arpeggiators and a new look to MainStage. Some things require practice to learn, but it's the way of the future.

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