Automating with MIDI and XKeys

I don’t like having to work harder than I have to. The saying, “Work smarter, not harder” is my mantra. I’m all about saving myself time and energy that can be better spent actually leading and pouring into the team I’ve been tasked with leading. Thankfully we live in a world where all of our devices can be connected with state-of-the-art protocols like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. And MIDI.

Yes, the MIDI protocol was first released in 1983 and there’s a reason it’s still in use: it’s rock solid!

I suppose I need to paint a picture of our production equipment is laid out. Actually, SketchUp would be better here…

Sandals Production Layout

Sandals Production Layout

s you can see, in the auditorium we have FOH, Monitors and Lighting. The Production Suite is under the stadium seats and has all of our other positions: ProPresenter 1, ProPresenter 2, Video Control and Broadcast.

When we were designing the production systems, I specified that I needed several computers networked via MIDI to our RoadHog. Mark Pearson over at CCI Solutions found these fun little boxes for me:

Each pair of these guys are capable of bi-directional MIDI communication over a CAT5 cable. By using these I was able to get three of my Mac computers—ProPresenter 1, ProPresenter 2 and Reaper—connected to our RoadHog. By interconnecting those four devices I am able to automate Reaper, trigger backgrounds on our center screen and run MIDI Time Code for video synchronization and lighting cue firing.

I know there are a ton of other things I could do with MIDI, but this is all we needed to. That is, until I was asked to support a weekly gathering on Thursday mornings. I’m not sure how your church is, but at Sandals we have a difficult time pulling in volunteers who are available weekday mornings.

Enter Xkeys.

With Xkeys I was able to program it to fire lighting cues on our RoadHog while I was still standing behind the CL5 at FOH. You may be wondering why I opted out of using our architectural control in favor of the RoadHog. Great question! Our architectural control is great for many things. One thing it’s not so great at is controlling our compliment of moving-head fixtures and how they transition from cue to cue. I needed to be able to smoothly fade from cue to cue and be able to jump around as necessary without any gobo pops or erratic movements.

I downloaded ControllerMate, installed it on our Reaper computer sitting at FOH, connected a XKey-16 and started dropping in building blocks. I built mine so that each button would fire a specific MIDI note that the RoadHog would then listen to and in turn, fire a corresponding cue. It worked flawlessly! Since I didn’t need all 16 buttons dedicated to firing lighting cues, I decided to allocate some for Reaper to make Virtual Soundcheck easier.

Firing lighting cues at the first gathering was a piece of cake. However, I did notice one flaw in my design. I got trapped in the Production Suite and hadn’t yet fired the Walk In lighting cue. I had to run out to fire it. You already know how much I hate having to take extra steps so I ordered a XKey-8 to install at ProPresenter.

I really wanted both XKeys to stay in sync so that if I fired the “Teaching” cue at FOH the corresponding LED would light on the XKey-8 at ProPresenter and visa-versa. The beauty about ControllerMate is that not only can it send MIDI commands, it can also listen to them. I programmed the LEDs on the XKeys for each lighting cue to illuminate when they hear a specific MIDI note on the network.

The ControllerMate workflow for this process

The ControllerMate workflow for this process

So now each button triggers a MIDI note and each LED is listening for a MIDI note. There’s some extra stuff going on like using a switch block to turn off the inactive LEDs whenever a new cue is fired and setting the toggle switch on the side to disable the buttons to protect against accidentally firing a lighting cue when I have an operator at the lighting console.

In the near future, I plan on adding another XKey unit at lighting to control Reaper playback to make programming lighting cues to the band’s rehearsal easier. I might toss in a few other buttons for controlling iTunes and some ProPresenter commands to make life easier when we’re running a skeleton crew.

Do you have any other suggested uses for XKeys that help to make your productions easier and more efficient? Let me know in the comments!

My ingredients list

  • MIDILink Transceivers (to bring MIDI signals to centralized location)
  • Motu Micro Express (to merge all MIDI signals together)
  • USB MIDI interface (just a simple USB to MIDI I/O is all you need)
  • Mac computers
  • ControllerMate
  • RoadHog with MIDI widget
  • ProPresenter 6 with MIDI module
  • Reaper
  • XKey-8
  • XKey-16

Combine all ingredients and season to taste 😉

Elite Core