We just published an article about our favourite MIDI keyboards and why they’re a viable alternative to keyboards and even full-fledged digital pianos.
Depending on your musical history, purchasing an instrument that produces no sound may seem heretical, however this is an antiquated viewpoint. In this day and age, nearly everything we do revolves on computers and software, and the music scene is no exception.
This is the first in a series of articles that will walk you through the fundamentals of computer music production. This guide is intended for pianists (and keyboardists) of all ability levels, and it will show you how to deal with software instruments properly (VSTi plugins).
Here’s a quick rundown of everything we’ll be talking about today:
What role do computers have in music production?
To get started, you’ll need the following items.
What is the best way to practise using software pianos?
How to make a piano recording
WHY DO PEOPLE USE COMPUTERS?
Let’s begin with a big assertion. It’s possible to create radio-ready piano sounds with a budget keyboard and a mid-tier laptop that equal those produced by full-fledged digital pianos.
It may sound outlandish, yet it isn’t so far-fetched.
Instead of mic’d up concert grands, many songs on the radio employ software piano libraries. The keyboardist has a lot of options thanks to software. It’s an antiquated perspective to avoid using software instruments because it makes performances “septic” or “lifeless.” You’ll miss out on a lot.
Studio for Music Production
If you’re still not convinced, consider this: software is an integral aspect of music production. You might be startled if your image of a music studio still includes enormous mixing consoles and outdated rack-mounted effects. A simple Macbook and a good pair of headphones are used to mix many tunes.
Embracing the digital side of music production isn’t easy, and it’s easy to get caught up in the intricacies. Many online lessons appear to assume that the audience aspires to be professional music producers. Learning as much as possible is admirable, but it much exceeds the needs of the ordinary population.
The goal of this series of guides isn’t to turn you into the next Quincy Jones or Max Martin. We’re just trying to give you a gentle introduction to virtual instruments. You’ll learn a few basic recording skills along the way, which will be all you need to share your music with the rest of the world.
If you’ve had trouble storing your music using your keyboard’s onboard recorder, we hope this advice will help.
If you’re already familiar with DAWs and the necessary setup, consider this a comprehensive recap of the fundamentals.
WHAT YOU REQUIRE
A DIGITAL PIANO OR A KEYBOARD
This is the focal point of our setup.
Keep in mind that your computer’s keyboard must be able to interact with it. A USB to Host port is recommended for simplicity.
Note that 5-pin MIDI Out connectors can also be utilised, but this requires a MIDI interface, which isn’t cheap and isn’t in popular demand. A MIDI interface is useful if you have a lot of legacy gear or synthesisers, but it’s not necessary for our needs.
We’re first and foremost pianists/keyboardists, thus we need a mechanism to convert our playing into data that the computer can interpret. While we can technically sequence piano parts, we want to keep the dynamics and natural tempo of our playing.
Sequencing: This phrase refers to the procedure of manually drawing notes in software. This is fantastic for making synth part loops, but nothing surpasses a talented pianist’s natural playing dynamics.
Any keyboard will suffice. Working with a keyboard with full-sized keys and velocity sensitivity is highly recommended. Make sure you have a sustain pedal on hand if you need one.
In my instance, I’m using the Nektar SE-49, a synth action MIDI keyboard with 49 keys. It lacks fancy features such as pads, transport controls, or weighted keys, but it does offer full-sized keys and excellent pressure sensitivity.
The SE-49’s only significant flaw is that it lacks sound generating capabilities (it is, after all, a MIDI keyboard). This makes it a relatively portable choice, and we can quickly resolve the problem using software instruments.
This will be the source of our sound.
Addictive Keys, a popular budget-friendly choice, was suggested in our post on the best sub-$150 keyboards. It also comes with a standalone version, allowing us to skip around the convoluted matter of VST hosts and DAWs. A 10-day trial is available if you don’t want to pay for Addictive Keys. Give it a try to see whether it’s right for you.
Keys That Are Addictive
We also offer the free sforzando sample player and the Ivy Piano in 162 sample bundle for the more frugal folks. This is a fantastic piano library that rivals the pricey industry standard packs, and did I mention it’s completely free?
In any case, these are two excellent starter options that are well worth investigating. We’ll be using Addictive Keys in this lesson because it has a more user-friendly interface and customization possibilities.
In 162, piano
Check out Samantha’s article on some of the industry’s favourite piano sounds if you’re interested in learning more about other prominent piano libraries.
Plugins vs. Standalone: Samantha’s suggestions do not always come with a standalone version. Plugins are typically utilised in host software like production-oriented DAWs or performance-oriented programmes like Mainstage. Both Addictive Keys and sforzando support both formats, but you’ll learn how to use plugins in the second half of this tutorial.
THE USE OF A COMPUTER
It will work with any laptop or desktop computer running 64-bit Windows 7 or above or MacOS. We won’t be working with any programmes that require a lot of processing power, therefore a high-performance system isn’t required.
Make every effort to keep your computer from slowing down. As a general rule, a 2-core CPU with at least 4 GB of RAM is the absolute minimum, although more is always better.
Virtual Instruments for Laptops
Although you could theoretically use an iPad, we’ll eventually cover DAWs, which perform best on non-mobile operating systems.
I’ll be using a 2019 Lenovo Ideapad 320 running Windows 10 as a reference.
Linux: Unfortunately, as a music production operating system, Linux isn’t as widely supported. If you’re a Linux user, you may try following along, although certain things might not work without some tinkering.
Writing a guide to Linux Music Production will take a thesis because there are so many different distros and setups that we can’t test them all.
Guests of Honor
If we’re listening through laptop speakers, having nice sound doesn’t mean much. It is always preferable to have a good sound system or a beautiful pair of headphones.
While most digital pianos and keyboards come with built-in speakers, you may have to get creative with your connections to get your computer audio to play through them.
What if I want to use the speakers on my keyboard/digital piano?
What about recording the sound of the digital piano (Audio Out)?
This isn’t something we’ll talk about in this series because we’ll be focusing on software instruments. Most digital pianos do not allow audio to be routed through USB, making recording them difficult.
To collect the onboard samples, you’ll most likely require an audio interface and to deal with the audio outs. Check out our step-by-step guide on recording the sound of your digital piano.
Finally, we’ll need a mechanism to link our laptop to our keyboard.
In general, I prefer to use the USB to Host port. Because most keyboards have a USB Type B connector, any printer cable you have will work.
MIDI cord USB type A to B
There have been some whispers that USB MIDI is slow and prone to delay, however these claims are false. If professional gamers can operate with USB microphones and keyboards, so can we musicians.
Check out our in-depth MIDI Connection Guide if you’re having trouble connecting your keyboard to your device (laptop, tablet, or smartphone).
PRACTICE WITH SOFTWARE PIANOS
Let’s speak about how to use the software now. We’ll go over how to set up both Addictive Keys and sforzando in detail, as well as some of the more interesting features.
Because many firms sell their keyboards as plug and play, some drivers should be automatically installed as you connect your keyboard to your laptop. If they aren’t, go to the manufacturer’s website and get the necessary files.
If you’re using a software piano that doesn’t have a standalone option, I’d recommend moving ahead and installing a DAW before proceeding.
While non-DAW plugin hosts are available for free, I find them clumsy, and most recent DAWs have a lot more improvements that make them superior. Install the VST-format of your plugin after you’ve set up a DAW.
Drivers: Having the most up-to-date drivers is usually preferred when it comes to software, as you get bug fixes and increased stability. Even if your keyboard works right out of the box, it’s always a good idea to check the manufacturer’s website for the most recent driver and firmware updates.
KEYS THAT ARE ADDICTIVE
We’ll start with Addictive Keys, namely the Studio Grand edition, which I consider to be the best of the lot in terms of audio quality.
You’re not alone in asking where the Addictive Keys installer is. XLN Audio, like many other music software businesses, has chosen the software manager distribution approach, which is simple once set up but requires some effort at first.
I’m also irritated by the requirement of installing an installer in order to use a product I purchased, but it is what it is.
Whether you’re using the Trial or the Full version, XLN’s