Avoiding the Potholes on the Music Highway

Murphy's Law, regarding the 'behavior' of inanimate objects, is fully applicable in the world of music, as I'm sure you already know. The law reads:

If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong, and in the worst possible way.”

The purpose of this article, is to help you avoid many of the unexpected problems that can suddenly happen to you.

If you perform in public, this knowledge can change what would be a disaster, into a minor, momentary glitch, easily recovered from. We have compiled this knowledge from years of performing, and hope it can help all of you as well.

Amplifier Placement

If you're singing into a microphone, the amplifier/speaker for that microphone needs to be forward of (or the same place, but facing forward). This is to avoid getting feed-back (where a loud, obnoxious sound results).

On the other hand, when you're improvising music along with the other players, you need to be able to hear what you're playing, so the amplifier/speaker for what you're playing needs to be behind you, or your amplifier needs a monitor-speaker facing backward (into the stage area).

In a recent performance, the instrument amplifier had to be positioned to the side and ahead of me, but we made it work by tilting it partly toward me.

Given those two conflicting needs, the amplifier for your voice/singing may need to be different from the amplifier for your playing.

Audio Cables & Plugs

Be careful plugging-in and unplugging audio cables. Always hold the plug itself when you plug, or unplug the cable. Pulling on the cord can (and eventually will) cause a short-circuit, resulting in a loud, obnoxious sound, whenever you use that particular cable.

The output of your synthesizer is stereo (and there's a MIDI control, called “pan” that controls the left/right balance of the audio). There are even instrument sounds (such as 'Stereo Harp') that vary the left/right position as notes go from low to high.

Yet many amplifiers (or plugging into a shared amplifier) require a monophonic (single audio-channel) input.

For such cases, you must use an adapter that connects both the left and right audio channel output to the single monophonic input. Leaving out one of the sides can affect the sound in a bad way. There are adapter plugs (or cables) which will do this properly.

Avoid pulling on (or heaven forbid, tripping over) an audio cable, which can cause a short-circuit in the cable or its plug(s).

I have seen cases where I plug my 1/8-inch stereo audio cable into a stereo-to-mono adapter plug, where when I turn on the amplifier, I get a loud, obnoxious sound. Yet if I rotate the adapter plug to a new position (holding the audio-cable plug so it doesn't turn with it, the obnoxious sound goes away.

Turning On The Amplifier

It's a good idea, in setting up, to turn on your amplifier after all the cables are plugged-in, your system is booted, and the synthesizer used is initialized. That way, the loud sounds that can occur during audio-cable plug-in, boot-up, or even in initializing the software, don't come out of the amplifier. Very loud, thunking or popping sounds can damage the speaker of the amplifier.

Conversely, it is best to turn off the amplifier before you start shutting down and unplugging.

The “Mute” Key

Multi-media typing-keyboards have a mute-key. If you hit this key, suddenly you no longer have any sound, and you may not be aware that you hit the mute-key.

On the Microsoft Sidewinder keyboard I like to use in performing, the mute-key is right in the middle, so if you hand the keyboard to another person, guess which key is likely to be accidentally pressed? The Mute-Key – of course!

It is also possible to accidentally hit the Mute-key when pressing a function-key, so beware!

On some systems, the affect of the mute-key is not reflected in the task-bar volume-control, so beware of that as well.

No Sound

If after plugging-in the cables, and setting everything up (and remembering to turn on your amplifier), you get no sound, first try using the mute/un-mute keys of your keyboard to un-mute the sound.

If that doesn't work, try adjusting the volume on your keyboard (the multi-media volume-control rather than the MIDI volume-control, but you can check that too).

If that doesn't fix it, try clicking on the task-bar volume-control, making sure its “mute” check-box isn't selected.

If that doesn't fix it, try checking your mixer (such as PulseAudio Volume Control on Linux). Make sure the intended audio card (or USB audio) is selected.

If none of the above work, re-booting can still solve the problem. It has worked for me multiple times, though I only use that as the last resort.

Once at a performance, in setting up the amplifier, I stuck a 1/4” plug adapter I wasn't using in a plug-in of the amplifier so it wouldn't get lost. What I didn't realize, was that plugging it in where I did (and not plugging audio into that 'unused' adapter,) actually turned the input to the amplifier off, because it sensed the plug was inserted. There was no sound, and re-booting didn't help! I almost didn't figure that problem out!

Have A Backup System, Or Additional Boot-able Partition

If for some reason sound (or whatever) doesn't work on your system, it is good to have a backup machine, or another backup system on another partition of the same machine.

Having that has saved a performance for me more than once.

We once had a case where one of our machines failed (the hard-drive was going-bad), and in that case, only one of us could perform at a time.

The Space-Bar (Sustain Control)

If you're playing an instrument with a sustained sound, such as a Cello, if you accidentally hit the space-bar (turning-on the sustain-control), all subsequent notes played get 'smeared-together', which is not usually a good sound.

If you're playing an instrument sound like piano or guitar, it isn't as noticeable, but it still may not be what you want (if you hit it accidentally).

If you notice the smeared-together sound, quickly hit the space-bar again, and the problem will go away.

Unexpected Key-Repeats (on Linux Only)

If you plug in a USB keyboard on Linux after the application is initialized, when you press a key to play a note (or chord), it is possible that the note (or chord) will be played over and over again repeatedly. This is because automatic key-repeat (which has been turned-off on the existing keyboard) has not been turned-off on the new keyboard.

If you encounter this situation, simply press the Num-Lock key on the numeric keypad of the keyboard you plugged-in, and it will start working properly.

Key Signatures

In order to do easy, trouble-free musical improvisation, it is important that the key-signature is set to match the key-signature of the piece being played.

You can use the “Transpose” button, but it is better to have a configuration file with the key-signatures (and instruments) already set up in the various performance panes for a given concert (or play-list).

When playing with guitarists, it is likely they will only use key-signatures that don't include flats, so you can easily set up all of those key-signatures in the performance panes, even having two sets of them (one set for each of two instruments).

Before starting to play a particular piece, make sure you know its key-signature, and set it to match. Ask them which key-signature if necessary.

Many times, guitarists are not aware of the key-signature. If so, ask them what chord the song (or phrases within the song) end on. That will be the key-signature.

Many times guitarists gloss-over the difference between major or minor, but it is important to get it right with the KeyMusician Keyboard. E-major (4 sharps) and E-minor (1 sharp) are not the same key-signature!

With country music, most often it will be a major key, but not always. With rock music, often it will be a minor key.

In changing the key-signature, the chord window (for a given number of flats or sharps) will show the major key in the position of the “1” numeric keypad key, and the minor key in the position of the “6” numeric keypad key.

If you don't know the key-signature when the piece starts, you can figure it out, but the process of figuring it out involves playing wrong notes, so avoid doing it that way!

Ableton Live Issues

My dual-core, 2 gigahertz, 6 gigabyte RAM laptop, is barely powerful enough to use Ableton Live. On that machine, it takes over a minute for it to initialize after starting it up.

During initialization, it will say “Not Responding” in its title-bar when I click on its file menu to load a particular live-set. You just have to be patient with it, and wait for it to respond. This problem became more pronounced after switching to Windows 10.

When you do get your live-set loaded, you need to wait for it to buffer the sound samples. If you don't, the sound will cut-out unexpectedly while you perform. Before the performance, play short sequences (including both high and low notes) with each of the instrument sounds used, to make sure the samples are fully buffered (so the sound doesn't cut-out).

Don't minimize (iconify) the Ableton window. If you do, it may release some of the buffered-samples memory, causing sound to cut-out again. Instead of minimizing the Ableton window, switch to the KeyMusican Keyboard window by clicking on the KMK entry in the task-bar. You can click the “Show Windows” button (in the F1 pane) to make the Chords Window come to the foreground as well.

When Ableton Live automatically upgrades from level 9.1 to level 9.2, you will get errors complaining that one or more DLL files are missing. The Ableton web-site tells you how to fix this. You simply go to one of its installation folders, and install the C++ re-distributables. After doing this, Ableton Live will initialize properly.

Polyphony Issues

Using DimensionPro, if you are playing a lot of notes, or if you play a glissando when holding out notes (such as notes of a chord), the held-out notes will stop playing. This is because it can only play a given maximum number of sounds at the same time, so some of the notes (probably the oldest notes) get turned-off.

You work around this problem by re-playing the held-out notes (that would otherwise go silent).

A similar thing can happen on Linux – particularly if you have a slow machine.

Qsynth assumes a maximum polyphony of 256 (though our setup instructions recommend you set it to 64).

256 is fine, but each of those 256 notes has to be produced by action of the computer processor, and as more and more such notes are held-out (such as by using the sustain-control), it bogs-down the processor. If you exceed the performance capabilities of your computer, the sound will start cutting out.

Loss of Keyboard-Focus

Make sure the main KeyMusician Keyboard window's title-bar is highlighted (which mean that window has keyboard-focus).

When you try to play notes on your keyboard, but some other window has keyboard-focus, those keystrokes will not mean what you think they mean to that other window's application, and may even cause problems with it.

Unexpected Dialog Boxes

If some unsolicited dialog appears (perhaps having to do with updating your system), the KeyMusician Keyboard window will lose keyboard-focus, and it will stop playing new notes, possibly leaving some notes playing. In such a case, restore focus to the KMK window, and if necessary, hit the escape (Esc) key.

You don't want to be applying updates during a performance, so don't connect to the wireless, even if it is available, during a performance.

Beware that hitting the Windows-key, or the Menu-key will bring up a pop-up menu, which takes keyboard-focus away from the KMK window. It seems that the F12 key on newer Mac OS X systems will do a similar thing, so avoid it on Mac.

On Linux (particularly when you aren't connected to wireless), a window can appear complaining that it wasn't able to get all updates for your system. It tries to put this window in the background (in which case it doesn't hurt you), but sometimes that window gets keyboard focus.

To avoid this, set up your machine to do updates only when you manually check for updates (and make sure you check for updates during non-concert times).

System Updates

To avoid your system getting bogged-down (and audio cutting out) during a performance or filming of a video, make sure the Internet (wireless, for example) is disconnected soon after booting, at the event. That way, the system won't find new updates to install while you're performing.

This precaution is particularly important when using Windows 10 (which gives you little or no control on when updates are installed).

I hope this information saves you from an unexpected disaster – especially while performing! May the chorus be with you...

You can return to the index of newsletter articles by clicking the link below.

Index Of All Newsletter Articles