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The PV Beginner's Guide to Making Music - With Your Computer (For Video and Film People)
  • @Vitaliy_Kiselev asked if I could make a beginner's guide to making music using your computer (and possibly a keyboard) that's designed for people coming from a background shooting and editing video. So I'll be chipping away that big idea in little bits and pieces, starting today - with MIDI keyboards. But first, here's the short bio - since I'm currently working on this page instead of building up a site at http//www.perlichtman.com like I "should be" doing. ;)

    My name's Per Lichtman. Most of you know me as @thepalalias, the creator of the audio settings used in the majority of settings available for PTool in recent years. I think PV is a great resource and joined in 2011. I also compose , produce and engineer music professionally, have my B.A. in Music Theory/Composition, have consulted for several music tech companies and am editor/contributor at http://www.soundbytesmag.net and before that at Wusik Sound Magazine (WSM).

    There are users in the forum that have worked in music longer than I have and have great things they can contribute to the discussion so hopefully they'll chime in, too. Either way, we're about to help you get your feet with making music.

    Part 1: An Introduction to MIDI and to MIDI Keyboards

    What is MIDI?

    Before we get to the really fun stuff, there's a few terms to get out of the way - and the big one is MIDI. For the past few decades, writing music on a computer has most often involved MIDI. The name MIDI is an acronym: Musical Instrument Digital Interface. During the 80s the standard was created to make sure that products from different manufacturers could communicate with each other. A MIDI signal does not carry a sound (unlike a headphone cable, for instance) but instead carries musical information - for instance, what pitches to play, how long to hold them and how loud they should be.

    The thing I use MIDI for the most is to record the notes I play on keyboard into a program called a DAW. You may already have a DAW like Garageband, Reaper, Sonar, Cubase, Logic, Studio One or ProTools, but we'll cover those in a another post. The important thing about a DAW for the way we use MIDI is that it both lets you edit what you record - so that you can change notes, move them around or delete them, etc. Another important thing is that a DAW can use plug-ins to turn those notes into sounds and audio recordings. In fact you can do it all on your computer with just a mouse and computer keyboard if you want - but a lot of people (myself included) prefer to be able to play the notes in on a MIDI keyboard at least some of the time. So since you want to use the MIDI keyboard to "control" your DAW, all you really need is a MIDI "controller keyboard."

    What is a MIDI Controller Keyboard?

    All a MIDI controller keyboard has to do is send MIDI to another device (in our case, a computer). They do not necessarily have to be able to make sound on their own, though many do (like my old Yamaha P-60 "digital piano"). Since (generally speaking) a computer is more flexible in regards to adding new sounds than a keyboard is, I do not recommend spending more on a keyboard to get more sounds. That's for people that want to use their keyboard on stage and we'll talk more about it later. Just don't let a salesman convince you that you need an expensive keyboard with lots of sound to get realistic sounds on your computer. If you have a keyboard already, start by using that - the more you know before you spend money, the better you'll know what you actually need.

    *Different Types of Keyboard Feel

    MIDI controller keyboards are typically made to look like either pianos or organs, which are two instruments that feel entirely different to use. Many organs use what's called an unweighted keyboard, where the keys give virtually no resistance to your finger and our very easy to press down and play quickly. Acoustic pianos vary greatly in their feel but consistently use what's called a "weighted action" where there is a significant resistance against your fingers because the keys are actually moving hammers that strike strings - and those hammers weigh something. MIDI keyboards come with both weighted and unweighted feels, as well as a common compromise between the two called semiweighted. Finding out which of the three keyboard types is right for you is the first step in picking a keyboard.

    The Pros and Cons of Different Keyboard Feels

    Different people are going to want different things out of a keyboard so I'll try and explain the pros and cons instead of making a blanket recommendation. First, I'll cover weighted keyboards.

    If you want to go back and forth between playing your keyboard and playing a real piano, then I would advise you to get a heavy, fully weighted keyboard. These keyboards are designed to mimic the feel of a piano and the heavier they are, the easier it is to build and maintain muscles (and muscle control) that will translate into your playing on a real piano. These keyboards are generally heavier to carry than either unweighted or semi-weighted models making them less ideal if portability is an issue.

    Semi-weighted keyboards are designed to have a touch that doesn't directly emulate a piano, but still provides some resistance. If you don't plan on playing an acoustic piano much or just happen to like the feel of a semi-weighted keyboard better, then these can be a great option. This is the middle road and you'll find a huge number of options available.

    Unweighted keyboards are the cheapest to manufacture, the lightest to carry and can be made much smaller than other models. For all these reasons, many people get them as either their first keyboard, or as a second "travel keyboard". These keyboards feel nothing like a real piano at all and tend to frustrate pianists looking for "something to practice on". I know this from experience. ;)

    The keyboard weight also affects how you play. Some professional stage keyboardists have commented that they find it easier to play quick ornaments, like trills, on unweighted and semi-weighted keyboards than on weighted ones, especially in certain popular genres. Conversely, most pianists I've talked to find it much more difficult to play classical music on anything other than a fully weighted keyboard.

    A Few Thoughts on Keyboards I've Used

    Within each feel there's going to be a lot of variation, not only from manufacturer to manufacturer but also from model to model. In terms of the heaviest feels, I would to certain models by Yamaha and Roland (more on that in a future post), while my experience with lighter feels is less extensive. I still use a Yamaha P-60 that I received as a gift over a decade ago, so it's not like buying a digital camera. If you get one you like, you can keep it a long time.

    One of the lightest keyboards I've personally used is a Korg Microkeys with a very limited range. This is not a keyboard I play because I like the feel - it's a keyboard I use when I want something light and tiny to take with me somewhere. It's inexpensive, so I don't worry about breaking it or having it stolen in the same way I would with a "favorite" keyboard, so there's something to be said for that, too.

    *How Many Keys?

    The length of a keyboard is primarily determined by two things: the number of keys and the size of the keys. A normal full size piano has 88-keys so MIDI keyboards normally max out at 88-keys. 88-keys covers a range of 7 octaves and two semitones in standard western tuning. There are also 76-key (6 octaves and 2 semitones), 61-key (5 octave), 49-key (4 octave), 37-key (3 octave) and 25-key (2 octave) keyboards.

    The fewer keys there are on the keyboard, the less space it needs to take up. At the same time, as the number of keys decreases, so does the range you can play in. Many acoustic instruments (including the human voice) have ranges that exceed three octaves, so if you're using a 25-key keyboard, you may find that you start your melody line on one end of the keyboard and then hit the other end before you reach the top of your line. That's why many small keyboards use transpose buttons.

    Transpose buttons let you change the range your keyboard plays in at any time. This is a helpful workaround, but it still means one of your hands off the keys to change the setting - and we haven't even gotten into adding chords to that melody. For that reason, I would say that unless you really need to save space (or are very tight on money), that it's easier to play on keyboards with a minimum of 49-keys.

    Key Size

    As mentioned before, another big size factor is the size of each individual key. Standard or full size keys are designed to fit the size and spacing of a concert piano. However, some keyboards use keys that are a fraction of full size. If you're used to playing on an acoustic piano, these will feel cramped and you'll have to adjust your technique every time you go back and forth between full-size and reduced size. These are the big disadvantages.

    The advantages of the smaller keys are that keyboards that use them can be manufactured to be smaller, often at a lower cost (which sometimes translates into a lower price for the consumer). If money and/or space are the biggest part of your decision making process, then feel free to consider them. But if you have the goal of eventually playing piano, you can give yourself a headstart by choosing full-size keys.

    How do MIDI Keyboards Connect to A Computer?

    The simplest way to connect a MIDI keyboard to your computer is to get one that can use a USB cable to send notes to the computer. Many new keyboards support this method and it means you won't have to buy any additional hardware. Devices that use this approach typically either use a standard USB driver or come with one you'll have to install. As long as you have a compatible driver for the operating system you use, you can take the keyboard and a USB cable and go from one computer to another without additional hardware.

    Some keyboards have MIDI cable ports instead of USB cable ports (or in addition). The simplest way to connect these to your computer is to get a combination cable/MIDI interface, like the Roland UM-One, M-Audio Uno or Art M-Connect. I haven't used any of those models, but they run $30-50 USD a piece and allow you to connect your device directly to any computer with a USB port and operating system that the product's driver support.

    MIDI ports can also be connected to a MIDI interface within certain audio interfaces or to a dedicated MIDI interface. If you already paid money for a professional or prosumer audio interface that has these ports, you can just a standard MIDI cable - which start as low as $6-7 USD.

  • 14 Replies sorted by
  • Amazing, will be waiting for next parts myself.

    Small addition to "key size" section. Many synth have close to full size keys, but not quite, they are smaller. Yamaha synths at least.

    One of the lightest keyboards I've personally used is a Korg Microkeys with a very limited range. This is not a keyboard I play because I like the feel - it's a keyboard I use when I want something light and tiny to take with me somewhere

    I really love Korg micro keys. Very small, very fast, they invite you to play something crazy. Not very good for serious piano parts, I think.

    P.S. I slightly formatted titles.

  • Thank you! Posts (and series) like these are some of the best PV has can offer. Appreciatively...

  • I'll definitely be following this topic. Thanks!

  • Recommendations for 88-key entry level keyboards would be helpful too. Following this now :-)

  • Will you be covering all the construction kits, like the ones from Big Fish Audio and the like? Perhaps with cunning tips on how to combine genres or deal with clips in different keys etc.

  • @Vitaliy_Kiselev Thanks, the formatting definitely helps. :)

    @WalterH @Lincoln11 Thanks!

    @zcream I'll definitely devote time to this in one of the next posts.

    @andyharris That's a little bit outside the scope of the guide, at least in the early stages. However, there's a ton of that sort of coverage at http://www.soundbytesmag.net.

  • While I'm working out a few good recommendations for specific keyboard models, here's part 2.

    Part 2: Your Keyboard and MIDI Velocity

    MIDI Notes and Velocity

    In part 1 we talked a bit about what MIDI is but now it's time to look at some of the different kinds of MIDI messages that your keyboard can send to your computer. The most basic kind of information is the pitch of the note you are playing. When you play a note on your keyboard, the keyboard sends the computer:

    • The pitch of the note you played.
    • The time you pressed the note.
    • The time you released the note.

    These are the three most pieces of note information, but the computer needs to know at least one more thing - the MIDI velocity. The velocity is supposed to tell the computer the velocity at which you pressed the key, but not all keyboards are equally capable of keeping track of that. Some keyboards can only send one velocity value, so no matter whether you push the key with a high or low velocity, it will send the same thing. Think of it as the audio equivalent of a 1-bit dynamic range: just on and off. If you're used to playing a percussion instrument that goes louder or quieter depending on how you strike it (like a piano or a drum) this is going to feel pretty un-natural so pay careful attention to whether a keyboard is "velocity sensitive" or not.

    Is MIDI Velocity the same as volume?

    MIDI velocity comes from the velocity you strike a key (or potentially the value you input with a mouse on your computer) and so most people expect it to control the volume or "loudness" (more on the difference between those another time) of the note. Some people even talk about "velocity" as if it only applies to those things. This not at all accurate.

    The effect that MIDI velocity has on the sound you play depends on how that sound was programmed. It is true that the most common applications for velocity are either to control the level at which the sound is played or even to control the specific sound that is played back. For instance, you might have three recording of a performer playing the same note on a drum at three different dynamics: one soft, one right between soft and hard and one very loud. If you play an instrument in your DAW with "velocity switching" then the lower velocities would normally trigger the soft recording layer, medium ones the medium recording layer and the loud ones the loud recording layer. This has a different effect then just changing the volume of a recording. There's a more advanced version of velocity switching called "velocity cross-fading" but we'll leave that complication for another time. But that's only the start of what you can do with velocity.

    Other Things Velocity Can Be Used For - Using the Term Correctly

    Nonetheless, MIDI velocity can also be mapped to things that have nothing to do with the overall instrument level. For instance, it could be mapped to control the brightness of the sound, how far the sound gets panned to the left or right or any number of other things. If you get nothing else from the section, remember this: velocity just refers to the speed at which the note was pressed down - the effect that has on the sound depends on how the sound is programmed.

    People talk about velocity incorrectly a lot, talking about how a library needs "more velocity layers" when they really mean "more dynamic layers". This is like the way some people incorrectly say "depth of field" or "more depth of field" when they really mean "shallower depth of field". This wouldn't be such an issue except that there's a lot of other methods that can potentially be used to control the dynamic layers - so a library might have "zero velocity layers" but still have tons of layers of recordings that you could control other ways.

    That last part was skipping ahead a bit, but it's an easy mistake to make so I thought I'd give some warning. Now back to velocity and keyboards!

    Your Keyboard's MIDI Velocity Tracking

    The maximum "dynamic range" for normal MIDI velocities is 7-bit, from 0 to 127. Some keyboards can cover this range fairly smoothly while many either have a "stretched out" approach (meaning less precise tracking across certain ranges) or a truncated range (so that it's impossible to reach some of the values, typically either the highest or lowest or both). This is related to the "Keyboard Feel" issue we talked about earlier because keyboards with a heavy feel typically take more effort to play high velocities while keyboards with a "light feel" may be trickier to play low velocities on.

    Some keyboards give you the chance to customize the velocity response curve through menus, not unlike customizing a picture profile on your camera. This may allow you to smooth out transitions or skew the curve to make it easier to reach a particular range. Most of the keyboards I use do not have this feature.

    However, much like you can use LUTs to re-map the values from your camera clips, many DAW programs allow you to use plug-ins on your computer to change how the original velocities you played are interpreted by the program. For instance, when I am playing a section where I mainly need high velocities I sometimes use a plug-in in Reaper called "Velocity Control" to map the values 20 to 32 increments higher than I play them. This allows me to avoid wearing out my hands if I'm doing repeated takes. ;) Depending on your DAW, this control can be handled in one of three ways.

    • As a MIDI input effect that is applied as you record: When you use this method, you actually record the transformed velocity values from the start. It would be like rendering the result of using a LUT right off the bat. Basically, this has the same effect as if you edited a velocity curve on your keyboard - though the options and interface may differ.

    • As a non-destructive MIDI effect, running live: When you use this method, you can see the original velocities you played and edit them as you see fit, but the MIDI effect is applied in real-time to playback. Think of it as using a LUT for monitoring with the option to either apply or omit it when you render or export the final result.

    • As an off-line destructive process: Once the MIDI data has been recorded, you can make all sorts of changes to it. You can increase the values, decrease the values, set them all to be the same, etc. Practically every DAW created supports this type of editing.

    Not all DAWs support each of these three methods: some support one and some support all three. But every one of them supports at least one, so as long as your keyboard can send a range of values, you can usually tailor them to what you need. Of course, if your keyboard can only send one velocity value, then you would have to either change the velocity values manually after you record... or leave them all the same.

    Remember that much like in color grading, if you bring a range of values past the maximum or minimum value, you'll start to decrease your dynamic range. Pay attention to this the same way you'd pay attention to over-saturation.

    That's probably enough for right now - I'll try to make the next entry a bit more succinct and post it a little more quickly. :)

  • Great stuff. Please keep posting. This is one area I want to get intout but don't know anything about it right now. This helps tremendously.

  • @thepalalias

    This is something I've been looking for. Great Stuff! My new journey starts from here. Thank you!

  • Btw, if you choose midi keyboard or synth, always check Katsunori UJIIE :-)

  • @mpgxsvcd @tommyboy So glad it's helping you guys. :)

    @Vitaliy_Kiselev Checking his YouTube out now. Also heading to audition a few keyboards I haven't tried yet later this week.

  • Part 3: Do You Want Aftertouch?

    What the heck is aftertouch?

    We talked in the last section about the most basic information a keyboard can send but now I want to talk about one of the less common types, called aftertouch. A keyboard with aftertouch capability lets you push down a key to send the note on message (just like any other keyboard) but also lets you push the key further down past that point.

    On keyboards with aftertouch, the extra range past the point you play to trigger a note, the keyboard tracks how far down you push the key, with a maximum possible value range from 0 to 127. You can apply more pressure or decrease pressure dynamically at any time between the maximum and minimum values to change the sound during playback - something you cannot do with velocity.

    However, just like velocity can be set to control just about anything, the aftertouch range can also be set to control all sorts of different things - like increasing or decreasing volume or the intensity and rate of vibrato (which is a cyclical pitch modulation, where the pitch goes slightly above and below the target pitch). If you'll forgive the quality, here's a vintage example of acclaimed composer using polyphonic aftertouch on an analog keyboard called the Yamaha CS-80 (which he used to create the score for Blade Runner among other things).

    Aftertouch Types

    Aftertouch comes in two flavors: monophonic and polyphonic. Monophonic aftertouch is also called "channel aftertouch", "channel pressure" or just "pressure". The difference is that with monophonic aftertouch a keyboard sends one aftertouch value for the whole keyboard. In other words, as you push down into the aftertouch range for one key, it affects the sound of all the others. This is done using a simpler and less expensive approach than polyphonic aftertouch. With polyphonic aftertouch, the keyboard senses the aftertouch for each note you play individually and records not only how much pressure you're applying but also what note that connects to.

    Polyphonic Aftertouch - A Unique Level of Control

    If the you record polyphonic aftertouch into your DAW software and use it with a sound that supports it, you can dynamically control every note that you are playing individually. To the best of my knowledge this is completely unique as far as MIDI goes: no other MIDI method allows dynamic control of each note you're playing simultaneously in real-time and only a handful of programs support it as an offline process. All other methods we'll discuss of controlling MIDI (beyond the basic MIDI note, on and off) are per channel, so they affect all the notes you play on that channel at once.

    Normally, if you want to control each note individually (for instance, to have more vibrato on one note than another) you would have to put it on a separate track or channel. So if you recorded a part with multiple notes playing at once without aftertouch, you would have to assign to different tracks or channels after the fact to get that level of control.

    An Uncommon Feature

    I mention aftertouch so early in the guide because unfortunately it is an uncommon feature. If using it is important to you, it will give you a very narrow range of keyboards to choose from. When looking for it, you need to know whether you want polyphonic aftertouch or monophonic aftertouch/channel aftertouch/channel pressure and be aware that when a keyboard advertises just having "aftertouch" it could mean either one. I'll discuss my thoughts on a few specific models in a future section.

    That's it for this section and be sure to check out http://www.soundbytesmag.net for additional music tech. articles while I work on the next one. :)

  • Polyphonic Aftertouch is very very rare thing. Monophonic one is quite common for good keyboards or synths.

  • @Vitaliy_Kiselev Agreed - although I would qualify that somewhat: monophonic is also quite rare for 88-key keyboards or ones with certain weighting.