Headless desktop (sffpc/ITX) for live playing

I’m new to cantabile and enjoying a lot. However, I’m a keyboard player and I’m more used to hardware sound modules or ROMplers.

I’m looking to play patches from 2-5 different VSTs one at a time and maybe 2 at a time at most, sometimes.

Just some Roland VSTs:

  • JV-1080/XV-5080
  • Zenology
  • SRX models

I happen to have an extra desktop PC not in use which consists of:

  • Ryzen 7 3700x CPU
  • 1TB SSD
  • 16 GB RAM
  • RTX 3090 GPU

Obtaining a laptop with similar performance would cost a lot. Now, I’ve been reading here in the forums about people using Intel NUCs in live settings with cantabile, even without screens and only using remote desktop access when needed. This sounds a lot like what I’d need for live playing, considering I’d mostly just be playing my keyboard and the only interaction with the VSTs would be to change patches/sounds.

However, my mid tower desktop is hardly portable, I’m wondering if anyone here does any mini form factor desktop pcs for live playing. ITX, sffpc and the like. Would it be a good idea for me to obtain a small PC case and mini motherboard in order to transform my desktop ? Ideally, I’d make it a dedicated headless cantabile/VST PC where I just turn it on and if everything loads correctly I can just start playing.

Another question would be internal audio interfaces with midi ports. The most important part for me is latency, I have a USB presonus Studio 24c that does an excellent job but are there any internal audio cards that would make more sense here given the added portability?

Hi there and welcome to the community!

There’s a couple of us working with NUCs and mini PCs - there’s a whole thread on that topic:


I’m currently running two ASRock DeskMini setups (main and back-up), one based on a Core i5 (9600) and the other on a more recent i7. Both run very nicely somewhere behind me, with a simple touch screen on a mic stand all I need to operate. Not quite headless, but good enough.

No useful “internal” audio interfaces for that form factor, but plenty of small-size USB options in all price ranges, depending on your budget.

I’m running a larger setup based on an RME Babyface (and a separate multi-output ADAT I/O box), and a smaller, more portable setup around a Zoom UAC-2. Both excellent in terms of low-latency performance.

Hope this helps!



Appreciate the answer Torsten. I’ll be looking into an ITX form factor and maybe stack the audio interface below the chassis.

I noticed theres an api available for cantabile for dev purposes. I wonder if I’d be able to add a tiny screen to print messages to just for general info given the headless setup scenario

…and I will say to consider adding a Stream Deck to your headless system. I can control Cantabile entirely from the Stream Deck.

Cantabile also automatically updates the SD, so you have constant display of Song/State and you can also create other buttons for control or display of parameters important to you.

I have created a POC headless VST machine just this week. It’s a mini-itx core i5 with 16GB RAM, Large but slow fan, and an HDMI dongle to create the headless operation. It runs VNC server so I can access and control it using anything from my macbook for programming or an iPad for touch selection etc.

Mostly, I have set it up as a “composers toolkit standalone rompler” at home, and I have 16 midi channels running some of my best VSTs from Spitfire, Strezov, Native (Kontakt), Cherry, Performance Samples, etc and controlled by my Sipario X Midi controller such that I’m DAWless when at the piano for practice, noodling and composing.

So far, so very good to the point I just switch on the PC without the need for a screen and I’m happy to access the 16x staple sounds it offers. A true black box!

I’ve chosen Cantabile over Gig Performer after much trialing and consideration. Simple but powerful under the hood. Whilst the POC is complete (needs some weeks of glitch-free operation), I shall upgrade my version of Cantabile.

Good luck with your headless project!

great suggestions. @TonyG this sounds exactly like what I’d like to do. If it works well enough I’d then go on to use it for live playing.

@The_Elf The Stream deck as an addon looks amazing, especially for headless setups, thanks