MIDI Controller with build-in PC for live (VSTi)

...and how to do so...
52 posts since 9 Mar, 2012

Post Tue May 29, 2018 10:56 pm


I'm attempting to build a hybrid instrument - MIDI Controller with build-in x86 PC (due to VSTi compatibility). I'd like to use an actual controller - probably CME UF series, 'cause it has a lot of space under the cover - but any will do (at least 61 keys :)). I'm jazz semi-pro player - musician and tech-geek - but unfortunately no programmer/electronic master :(. I have an idea - and I believe someone may have solution or can help me with this :D .

The first idea was to use WinTablet (BayTrail or CherryTrail) with simple plugins like KORG M1 from KLC or Sylenth1 (heck, even OP-II X Pro works on those babes :)). But these machines offer poor performance under stress - using WASAPI around 50% generates risk of drops/crackling, and using external audio interfaces is no better - low IPC and a lack of instructions and cache makes those babies very risky to use - I have to use low-spec plugins, which is ok with me, but I don't want compromises there. Also - the Win 8.1/Win10 and the lack of Legacy BIOS is another story - all I need is Windows XP Kernel, host and plugins - nothing more. For this purpose, heavy-modified version of XP is good to go (I used once Micro XP 2.1 and it was blazing fast for my needs). No luck to run it on those tablets.

So the second idea (having Spectrasonics Keyscape in mind as must-have plugin installed in this project) is to use laptop mainboard with Intel Haswell i5 (for example i5 4300M). I have this CPU in my actual laptop (Lenovo L440) and they are excellent for this task. The problem is to find mobo small enough to fit inside controller and mount PSU INSIDE :ud: . I don't think desktop solutions will do, 'cause the PSU is too big (even those slim ones used in Dell/HP workstations). Maybe someone have in mind something small yet powerful enought to run Keyscape? I believe good C2D will do, 8GB RAM is a must. As for cooling, that's another story - I simply don't believe fanless CPU powerful enough to run flawlessly Keyscape exists.

Another story is a display - I think about 5-6" inch touchscreen connected through HDMI and firmly build-in will be enough. Another idea is to transmit video through WiFi on tablet or smartphone - any ideas? Pre-configuration will be made before gig - on the show, I just want to switch presets (about 10-20). There comes the most important thing to me.

Is there a way to transmit patch names on external LCD? I think it will involve assembly programming - the friend of mine is a programmer, but I don't know if it is possible? The main idea is to display actual patch name - changing them is another story. I'd like make "patches" from snapshots inside DAW and calling them through PC (program changes) - especially when working with several plugins. I'd like to have front-end experience - to route between presets and see their names. This way, using tiny LCD display will do - everything else can be done remotely.

Ideally, I'd like to have something like Kronos - grid of 16 patches on touchscreen, or something similiar (playing live requires a fast patch changes :)). If that is not possible, or difficult to make, maybe there are some ready devices for such things? I plan to use OS with every possible process killed, with no drivers, no services - just ASIO driver, host, plugins and nothing more. Everything load at autostart, so everything is pre-configured. Just GUI to show patches on LCD/remote screen or external simple LCD display to see patch name. Simple as that.

This is very important to me to get ANY information about that kind of projects. I don't have enough skills - especially in software or programming external devices - but have strong vision on this project. I'm tired of getting laptop, PSU, interface, soft, mouse, clicking and messing around to just get several patches - I just want to play music, and not worry about my rig :). I thanks for any help! Sorry for my poor english :D .

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6 posts since 19 May, 2017 from Germany

Re: MIDI Controller with build-in PC for live (VSTi)

Post Thu May 31, 2018 2:12 am

sounds interesting but hard to realize, especially the programming part. I am busy with similar ideas a couple of years now.
My first keyboard related DIY project was a midi software that replaces masterkeyboard functionality, so i can control the midi connections between random keyboards with random Soft- or hardware synth. Although written in java, it is fast enough (even on a 2004 Laptop with a 2.3 ghz single core cpu) to play it live without noticable latency. It free to download here: http://www.msuhr.de/jcontrol/
My second project was a midicontroller for the VSTi Organ VB3 by the italian Cooperation Genuine Software and for the NI b4. The electronic was realized with the midibox- project by Thorsten Klose (midibox.org / ucapps.de ). I used the keys and drawbars of an old viscount organ from the 80ies (no velocity). the vb3 runs on a pc or the vmachine, which unfortunatley is discontinued and not supported anymore. but for the vb 3 it is ok, even today.

From todays point of view, i would prefer a mac mini for any live played software instruments and actualy i am saving money for one. The next project i am about to realize is a hardware controler for VSTi The Legend.

Did you never think about using a mac for your project? this should be the most stable host for your needs. A mac mini is available for not much money.

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Beware the Quoth
26474 posts since 4 Sep, 2001 from R'lyeh Oceanic Amusement Park and Funfair

Re: MIDI Controller with build-in PC for live (VSTi)

Post Thu May 31, 2018 2:32 am

Caroozo wrote:The problem is to find mobo small enough to fit inside controller and mount PSU INSIDE :ud: . I don't think desktop solutions will do, 'cause the PSU is too big (even those slim ones used in Dell/HP workstations).
Looked at the Intel NUC systems? These ones go from i3 to i7 in a box smaller than 12cm x 12cm x 4cm...

https://www.scan.co.uk/products/scan-of ... win-10-pro
"The bearer of this signature is a genuine and authorised pope."

52 posts since 9 Mar, 2012

Re: MIDI Controller with build-in PC for live (VSTi)

Post Thu May 31, 2018 1:09 pm

Marsu, great stuff! I know about V-Machine, but they screw it up by telling they release more powerful version (inside was VIA 1GHz CPU which was pretty weak). I have mainly Keyscape in mind and a couple of less demanding VSTi (no need for running big projects, as I play mainly live with a band). I don't want to use the Mac - but dual-boot machine with Windows/MacOS (Hackintosh) is an option (for rather "academic" reasons). I'd like to build this project around Windows only, as my all soft and workflow is based on this OS (I didn't ever used MacOS for pro-audio). My interface is quite good and stable for my needs - especially under moddified OS (3-4 ms real latency and rock-stable performance - virtually just Kernel+most basic services, host and plugins).

Whyterabbyt, the NUC is a good idea, I was thinking about one, but they are kinda overkill for my project (at least the one You linked :)). I have old thinclient HP T5720, which has 1GHz AMD CPU and 512 MB RAM (+80GB ATA drive instead of 512 MB DOM)- it barely runs Korg Legacy Collection, but it's fun to use such cheap device for audio purposes :). I bought it mainly for Win98SE nostalgia project (for what this little box is more than enough). But for VSTi it's too big, too slow. I thinked about using thinclient or NUC, but they're a) too slow or b) a bit overpriced. So I thinked instead that taking a mobo from laptop should be enough - especially when working C2D laptop can be bought for 30$+, and i5 Haswell mobo with CPU and RAM can be bought under 100$. I really want to put it inside of controller - heck, even putting it inside something like bulky Yamaha PSR-XXX or Casio CT-series :). I have rather good-sounding gear for playing live (Motif XS, Korg Extreme, Roland RD700GX + couple of modules and Juno-Di for quick runs), but nothing will beat the moment I install such crappy-branded keyboard on my stand, the comments of technical crew and the sight of their faces after soundcheck :hihi:

Maybe I should build this project on 2in1 tablet with i3/i5 or Core M CPU instead? Or do You know powerful-enought-yet-cheap NUC/thinclient for this purpose?

52 posts since 9 Mar, 2012

Re: MIDI Controller with build-in PC for live (VSTi)

Post Fri Jun 08, 2018 1:24 am

Hm... It seems my idea is hard nut to crack... I made my research and:
1. There's simply no powerful enough thin-client for this purpose, because most of them don't have strong IPC - at least there's no good perf/$ ratio. Maybe for less demanding VSTi, but for 2018 scenario, minimal requirements should be x64 OS, 8 GB RAM, 2 core/4threads or ideally 4 core CPU - and there's also a problem with repurposing them
2. A very good solution will be NUC with low-voltage Skylake CPU - their TDP is 15W, which paired with tiny fan should be enough. For example - in the PassMark CPU Single Thread Benchmark (which is very good source from the use of VSTi's point of view) i3 6100U has 1300 points, where my i5 4300M has around 1800 points, and my old Penryn P8700 has around 1000 points (and was good enough to run Diva and other more demanding plugins). It is possible to buy mobo only:
or to buy entire NUC:
https://www.newegg.com/Product/Product. ... 6856158049
From my point of view the best option is to get device as small as possible, so the less, the better :lol: .

My main concern now is the way to control plugins. I plan to use several VSTi to play live - no sequences, no macros itd. The key is ability to fast change plugins and route through presets, or - ideally - to make snapshots of projects. I had this function in old LiveProfessor, there's something like that in Cantabille Performer (which I don't have), and as for Reaper - my main DAW - there's SWS extension, which is not the most pretty solution (although it works). So - anyone have experience with simple-yet-elegant solution to instant change VSTi and presets - or ideally, to change preset with already ready-to-go preset?

My problem is with some plugins, which don't show their presets name - changing them is possible only through plugin's GUI, and for some of them (for example Roland D50) I don't know how to change patches (at least by KeyStation Mini 32 - Program Changes doesn't work, and I cannot use this little board as a controller - the plugin shows it's inactive, although it's connected). I didn't (yet) tested it on my RD700GX, as I'm on holiday right now :). This can be problematic - but by taking "snapshot" of plugin, which I want to use, I can open several instances of D50 with already-open patches I want to use - with the use of CC or exact PC by some kind of wrapper.

Sounds complicated - but I'd like to just make "favourite" patches, like for example in Juno Di :). If I plan to use external, tiny LCD (5-8"), I'd like to use something easy to read, yet functional. Ideal solution should be something like "scenes" of "projects" (songs?). I play mainly jazz, business events etc and don't use many sounds - but sometimes (for example playing the other day Rock With You with jazz band I had to use one sine lead from M1, instantly after it arco strings from another plugin, e.piano from KeyScape for first verse and e.piano with pad from D50 for the second one, and for solo OP-X II Pro - on bottom RD700GX, on top Juno Di as MIDI Controller). It was mess to change it swiftly :D.

I'm VERY happy with my plugins - I want to use them live all the time, as I'm owner of Korg T3EX (M1 on steroids), WAS the owner of D50 and D550 and other legacy stuff and I just simply know those presets all too well and possibility to use them on the fly, in compact MIDI controller instead of laptop will be my personal dream come true :-). For now I use laptop + interface + controller and although the sound is right, the workflow is somehow laggy. I NEED help from more experienced users, as me - musicians, who wants to use digital world to just simply play music. Deep thanks for any help :) !

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