August 15, 2006

Curious George: Build a Synth It's my understanding that I can take an old PII computer running Windows 98, hook up a cheap MIDI keyboard to it and presto change-o have a grand piano or Hammond B-3 keyboard. Is that the case, if so what's the best way to do it (what software?), what else is there to do, or else what do I have wrong?

I don't want to get all Kraftwerkian or explore the outer reaches of sonic craftitude - I'm looking for a DIY DX-7, as it were. Basically I'm going to try to find a lot of cool jazz organ sounds. But a beautiful grand piano sound would be good too. I'm assuming the price catch here is the 88-key touch sensitive MIDI controller - any suggestions? I found How to build MIDI files and Make Your Own Software Synth A Harmony Central Forums, etc. And Freeware music notation stuff Actually I may have found it Here. Any tips, tricks, tunes, tones, testimonials?

  • It will probably take a lot more power than a P-II, but Native Instruments' Reaktor 5 is probably the coolest soft synth program I have ever seen. You can use many of the premade synths or you can even wire up your own custom synthesizer from oscilators, filters, envelopes, and other goodies. Rather complicated but oh so much fun. I think they also have a high quality hammond or B5 organ product. Reaktor doesn't do any MIDI recording, though. I like Ableton Live for that, though others prefer Cubase SX. A cheap M-Audio brand MIDI keyboard should do you pretty good. They're relatively cheap-- under 200 bucks CDN. If you want realistic piano-feel for your MIDI keyboard, expect to pay a lot more.
  • Hm, Well I was thinking more of "pseudo piano" than a true patch-and-tweak synth project. I have a PII or III that I can dedicate to it (ooo 4gb HDD!) and would like a simple interface. Y'know, boot up, start playing. That kinda thing. Not really going to use it specifically to do multitrack recording or anything, just cocktail piano after dinner and groove with the band on the weekends, like.
  • It's been a while since i've played with this but i remember that a lot of the piano "sounds" you get on synthesizers sound tinkly and not at all satisfying if you're used to rich, real piano tones. If you don't mind harpsichordy sounds and electric organ sounds then you'll be happy. That's a nice list of free music resources, thanks for those, pete. You'll also need a MIDI interface card to sit in your PC. On the bright side you may already have some synthesized MIDI instruments built into your sound card, in which case it'll be plug and play.
  • I'm going out on a limb on this one but you could probably get a decent electronic keyboard with a few built-in tones for not much more than a bare controller?
  • For some reason, no. Chinese-made controllers have become ridiculously cheap, while complete synthesizers and digital pianos are still comparatively expensive. M-Audio Keystation 88es is under USD 200. Cheapest 88 key option with built-in sounds is probably the Casio Privia PX-110, which costs more than twice as much (but also has passable hammer action and is not a bad instrument for the price).
  • I've never heard a very good "synth" piano. There are plenty of decent electric piano sounds (wurlitzer/rhodes and the like) that can be made with a top-notch synth module, but if you really want to do justice to playing different sorts of stuff, you'll want something that's sample-driven for at least the piano sounds. Perhaps an old version of something like Cakewalk (I dont know if it ever had synth/sampler modules) that you could by off of Ebay? I'm certain that there were plenty of types of software used in studios in the late 90s that you could get really cheap, with their own sample libraries (and considering the vintage of those types of software, you won't be taxing your 4GB drive). USB 1.1 is plenty fast enough to play midi with, but you may have to get a special driver for it. I use the M-Audio Keystation 61, not the full 88 keys. I wish I'd gotten that one, as only the 88-key board has a decent "hammer-feeling" response.
  • By the way, most M-Audio MIDI keyboards also have a USB interface. Just plug them right into your computer and you're golden. No MIDI interface card needed. You'll have a very hard time finding realistic piano sounds for your computer, though. Especially on the cheap. Looks for the jazz organs first.
  • FWIW, I've never, ever heard a synthesized Wurlitzer sound that even came close to sounding as awesome as the real thing. I may be a snob, though. There are some great Rhodes sounds out there.
  • It's not all that great, but TinyPiano is a free fun MIDI app that sort of emulates a lot of different instruments.
  • pete, that sounds way cool. I miss my piano so much these days. I've been thinking even a cheap MIDI keyboard would be better than nothing.
  • As far as software goes, I'm a fan of Noteworthy Composer, but most likely just 'cause I'm familiar with it.
  • By the way, most M-Audio MIDI keyboards also have a USB interface. Thanks for setting me straight on that 606. Just shows how long i've been out of the MIDI world.
  • decent electric piano sounds (wurlitzer/rhodes and the like) that can be made with a top-notch synth module What's a top-notch synth module, and can I find it for free? I have Cakewalk 9, a copy of Cubase (dunno the version) and CoolEdit for simplicity's sake. Is that more or less all I need to get groovy sounds to come out of the speaker-boxen? Thanks for the key recommendations spede & chimera, but those are about $500 new and . . . well, I can also use a new road bike . . and a 12-string . . and . .and . . I'll keep an eye out for them though. I suppose I can live with a tinkly piano sound until somehow I magically find a great Bl├╝thner or some such. Question1: what's the difference between a MIDI patch and a sampled piano sound in terms of how I get it to go? Question2: what software "plays" either one? I've fooled around with the default Windows MIDI thing and gotten sounds to come out, but that's my level of experience there. Question3: is there any purpose, point or benefit to going USB over MIDI outside of the fact that my laptop doesn't have a MIDI port? Today I was thinking about six.oh.six's answer and suddenly thought "Oooohhh! Roland 606!! Ha!" :)
  • And fwiw I asked the green as well, which yielded a recommendation for Native Instruments B4 as a definitive Hammond thang. It requires XP though and at least a PIII, so maybe that's something for later . . .
  • And fwiw I asked the green as well... So, you cast doubts on my expertise!! This means war!! *plays tinkly Ride of the Valkyries*
  • I have one tip/trick to suggest: Find a Discordian whose day-job is selling MIDI gear, because he'll probably hook you up with near-employee-level discounts. Call 856-755-9511 and ask for "Dr Andy", 10am-6pm Eastern. Anything I can do to support the cause...
  • Cool, thanks Doc. As soon as I figure out the computer's limitations I'll know how much more than nothing I can spend on a sweet 88-key . . thing. . board. . controller part. (Friends don't let bass players near other gear)
  • Native instruments makes an astonishingly good piano, but each piano module takes up about 4gb of drive space and I'm pretty sure it needs more than a pIII. Their B4 is less money, and if you can run it, I recommend it highly. Obviously, an emulation of a rotating speaker is never going to sound as 'cool' as a rotating speaker, but if you get some good headphones or a roland keyboard amp to play through it should sound extremely decent. You might look for a synth that doesn't try to sound 'real' but that is still expresive. You might be able to run an early version of Absynth, another NI product. BTW, their 'Guitar Rig' is the coolest damn software, ever. I guess for the piano you could find one of those old synthesisers that used sample-CDs, and find one of those CDs. Not an expert though.
  • Well, synth you athked...
  • Fo shizzle yo here's what I was talkin 'bout (via RetroThing): "It's a good thing I didn't win a lottery in the 1980s because I would have blown my millions on a New England Digital Synclavier. It just happens to be the most expensive digital music synthesizer/sampler ever created -- a price tag of $200,000+ wasn't uncommon. What you got for your money was a massive rack (or racks) containing a custom-designed 16-bit music computer. Depending on your wealth, each system offered up to 96 voices of 16-bit sample playback, along with 32 metallic-sounding FM synthesizer voices. A 'direct to disk' recording option to capture vocals and acoustic instruments arrived in the late 1980s. You also got a very geeky looking monochrome graphic terminal to program the beast (eventually replaced by an Mac). These days, almost the same thing can be accomplished for a tiny fraction of the cost with an Apple Mac Pro and some clever software."
  • We are all 1980s digital synthesizing millionaires.
  • Well, sure, now. Where's Kate Bush then?