The Musician's Guide to Home Recording





The Personal Computer Based Music Studio
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)




If you play piano well at all, you will want to use MIDI ("Musical Instrument Digital Interface") to record your music into the computer. Modern personal computers and MIDI sequencing software let you record audio over top of the MIDI tracks, with the audio and MIDI parts synchronized. This way you can record a MIDI synthesized backing band and then record yourself singing or playing an acoustic instrument over top of the synthesized orchestration. This is how almost all soundtracks for movies and TV commercials are made these days.


What you need for a basic setup:


1) A synthesizer or sampler. These come in several different packages...


You can get an all-in-one keyboard synthesizer, which is a keyboard with a synthesizer built in, generally called a "synth". Make sure you get one with MIDI IN and MIDI OUT ports (MIDI THRU is nice, but not absolutely essential). Examples are the Korg Trinity, Roland XP-10, and even the old Yamaha DX-7.


A Sound Module. This is the synthesizer part of a keyboard synth but without the keyboard. Using a sound module requires a MIDI controller (see below). A sound module will usually give you the best sound quality and versatility. A module can be used with any MIDI controller or keyboard, as well as with any computer-based sequencer with a MIDI interface installed, and they're portable. Examples of popular sound modules are the Roland SC-88 and JV-1010, the E-MU Proteus series, and the Yamaha MU-10XG and MU-50.

A PC Sound Card with built in MIDI. The Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy cards have a built in SoundFont2 sampler that allows you to customize your MIDI sounds, either by making your own patches or by uploading ready-made sample sets (SoundFonts) into RAM. However, the latest software samplers sound much better than a Sound Blaster's SoundFont playback.


A Digital Sampler. These function sort of like digital recorders that only record a few seconds of a sound (a "sample") and then map the resulting 'recordings' to MIDI note values so that the sampled sound can be played on a MIDI keyboard or whatever. These (expensive) gadgets are for the advanced synthesist who wants the most control he/she can get over the musical sounds to be used. Movie scores, music for TV commercials, and slick pop music all make extensive use of samplers.


A Software Synthesizer or Sampler ("soft-synth"). This is a type of program that accepts MIDI controller messages and uses the computer to play back stored sounds. This is possible now because computers are so fast and storage space is so cheap. It's less expensive to load up the computer with several gigabytes of samples and make the gigahertz-plus CPU play back the samples – and all in real time – than it is to build these capabilities into a rack-mount enclosure. You can use two channels of your audio interface to play back the software synthesizer tracks while using additional channels to play back audio tracks. But make no mistake about it: this requires a LOT of computer horsepower. Soft-synths and soft-samplers include the Roland Super Quartet and Orchestral synths, Propellerheads Reason, Tascam GigaStudio, and Native Instruments B4 and Kontakt. There are many others.


2) A MIDI controller - Usually a piano keyboard in form, but there are also drum controllers, guitar controllers, and even wind controllers. The piano keyboard type is the least expensive. A keyboard synth can be used as a controller for an external sound module, as long as it has a MIDI Out connector. Similarly, any Digital Piano with a MIDI Out connector can also be used as a keyboard controller.


Keyboard Action - You may have heard the terms "touch sensitive" and "piano feel" used to describe keyboards. Basically, this describes how well the keyboard's keys mimic the "touch" and "dynamics" of a real piano keyboard, and how that information is transmitted to the other devices downstream of the keyboard.


Synth Action - means that the actual key is merely a switch, with little if any mechanical resistance to being pressed. This is very similar to the action of a Hammond organ's keyboard.


Weighted Action - means that the keys have a resistance to being pressed that is meant to mimic the feel of an actual piano keyboard. Some expensive controllers actually use a hammer action design borrowed from pianos, so that the feel of an acoustic piano is very convincingly reproduced. Cheaper "piano feel" keyboards have a sort of 'spongy' feel to them. A good weighted action helps the player convey more expressive dynamics in performance because the keyboard allows the player to "dig in" to the keys (for lack of a better way to describe it).


Velocity Sensitivity - describes the ability of the keyboard to transmit a whole range of dynamic touch in MIDI data transmission. The basic idea is that a soft touch translates to a lower MIDI velocity number, which in turn translates to a lower volume for that note played. A harder touch will translate to a higher velocity number (i.e. louder). Better synthesizers change the envelope of a patch so that a higher velocity has a more intense attack than the same note played with a lower velocity. This can make for some very convincing sounding MIDI performances.


Aftertouch - describes how some synth patches will change parameters if a key is held down after the note is first struck. For instance, some patches 'swell' if the player presses the keys while the notes are sustaining.


3) A MIDI Interface - This allows your MIDI devices to talk to your computer. These range from very inexpensive models to really fancy things with all sorts of special features. The most important thing is to decide what exactly you want your MIDI setup to do, and then figure out how much you really need to spend to achieve your goal. I find that the more features a piece of gear has, the steeper the learning curve, and the longer it may take a beginner to write some music. But of course, after you become a MIDI expert you can invest in all sorts of gadgets that will allow you to do lots of exciting, tricky stuff.


What to look for in a MIDI interface:


For all MIDI interfaces:


You will need to decide if you can live with a small "one in - one out" (1x1) 16 channel interface (for a single sound module), or if you need a multi-channel interface for connecting a collection of keyboards and/or modules. Having more channels available allows you to have more individual "voices" playing in your MIDI compositions, and gives you a wider choice of sounds to choose from. If you're into composing symphonic pieces or other types of music that require a lot of different instruments playing at once, go for at least a 64 (4x4) interface.


For older Power Macintosh:


MIDI interfaces for the old Macs plugged into the modem or printer ports on the computer ('serial' ports). MIDI interfaces for the Mac have always been external.


For iMac, G3, G4 and G5:


The latest Macintosh computers lack the serial ports that have been standard on the Macintosh since its introduction twenty years ago. Instead, they use the Universal Serial Bus (USB). A new Mac will require a USB MIDI interface. Roland, Mark of the Unicorn, Steinberg, Emagic, Midiman and others offer MIDI interfaces for USB.


A suitable MIDI interface will often be built into a FireWire or USB audio interface. For instance, the M-Audio Omni Studio USB includes a built in 1x1 MIDI interface.


If you're using a Mac "tower", A suitable MIDI interface will often be built into a PCI card audio interface. Both the RME Hammerfall DSP and the MOTU 2408mkIII include built in MIDI interfaces.


For Windows PC:


A few years ago, PC MIDI interfaces used to plug into an internal 'ISA' expansion slot, which required opening up the computer's case, configuring the MIDI interface card for the correct IRQ and port address, plugging the card in, and installing the software drivers. Nowadays, MIDI interfaces are external boxes that attach to the USB ports that are standard equipment on today's PCs. Some older PC external MIDI interfaces (like the Midiman BiPort 2x4s) can connect to a PC's serial port (COM1 or COM2), though these are less common than the USB variety.

External USB MIDI interfaces for PCs include the Steinberg Midex 3 and the Emagic Unitor 8.

A suitable MIDI interface will often be built into a PCI, FireWire or USB audio interface.

You can also use a typical PC multimedia soundcard as your MIDI interface. Most of today's soundcards work just fine as a simple 16-channel MIDI interface.


Universal Serial Bus (USB) MIDI interfaces are now the standard, but you will need a PC running Windows 98, Me, 2000 or XP to use them. USB allows you to 'daisy chain' peripherals with the promise of true "Plug 'n Play" ease. Check out the Roland Super MPU-64 USB MIDI interface for example. Mark of the Unicorn, Roland, Steinberg, Emagic and Midiman have all come out with USB MIDI interfaces.


You have to decide how many channels you need. A basic 16 channel interface will do nicely for songwriting. A multi-channel interface with SMPTE will be necessary for making soundtracks for movies, commercials, etc. SMPTE allows you to synchronize external equipment such as tape decks or VCR's with your MIDI gear. There are even fancier interfaces available that can do all sorts of crazy things, from Mark of the Unicorn, Midiman, and others.


MIDI Sequencer Software:


All the current MIDI sequencer versions allow you to record audio tracks along with (and in sync with) your MIDI tracks.


The only "professional's choice" used to be Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer (Mac), but there's no one program that completely rules the roost any more. Emagic Logic Audio (Mac), and Steinberg Cubase (Mac/Win) are well-regarded, while Cakewalk makes the most popular Windows sequencers, like SONAR and Home Studio 2004. PG Music Power Tracks Pro Audio (Win), FASoft n-Track (Win) and Raw Material Tracktion (Win/OS X) give you the most capabilities for the least money.



Background Information

Computer necessities

Studio necessities

High octane options

IDE vs. SCSI vs. USB vs. FireWire

Sound Cards and Audio Interfaces

Introduction to Microphones

Basic Concepts of Digital Audio

MIDI, Synths and Drum Tracks  




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