Using a MIDI keyboard with your PC

Before MP3 files became widely popular, MIDI files (.mid) were one of the most common ways to add sound to Web pages. These files are incredibly small in size because they contain no actual audio, only information about which note and type of sound is being played, its duration, and so on. The reason you can hear sound/music when playing a .mid file is that your sound card has a built-in synthesiser capable of reproducing a set of standard sounds used by the .mid file to approximate what its creator intended you to hear.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the standard that electronic musical devices use to communicate with each other. For the purposes of this column, MIDI allows us to connect an external musical keyboard to the computer. The computer then takes any MIDI information it is being sent and records it using sequencing software.

In this article, the sequencing software we'll use will be Fruityloops (found on this month's cover CD), selected because it has been previously discussed in depth over three columns, from the August to October 2001 issues of PC World. That series is recommended reading for background knowledge. It can also be found on the PC World Web site (http://www.pcworld.idg.com.au) by simply searching for Fruityloops.

GETTING STARTED

Before you begin, make sure you have the required hardware. First of all you'll need a MIDI-out equipped keyboard. Your keyboard's manual should shed some light on this if you have any doubts. As a guide, a basic MIDI-out keyboard that will allow you to do what's discussed in this article is priced at approximately $150 and it often comes with its own software and tutorials. Plus, you'll need a MIDI cable, which can be purchased from most music shops. Last, but most importantly, you'll either need a sound card with a built-in MIDI port (such as Creative's SoundBlaster Live! and Audigy Platinum cards) or a separate MIDI interface that connects to your computer's game/joystick port. Once again, most music shops should supply these. When your keyboard's MIDI-out port is connected via one of your MIDI cables to your computer's MIDI-in port, you're set to go.

MAKING MUSIC

1. After opening Fruityloops, the very first window you will see is called Environment Settings. Select the MIDI tab (or press ). From the Remote Control Input drop-down box, select your MIDI-in source - in my case, it was SB LIVE MIDI in. From the Playing Output drop-down box, select your MIDI out - in my case, it was SB LIVE MIDI out. Under the Master Sync Output drop-down box, select None. (In case you're curious, the sync output is used to send information about tempo to another instrument/device.) From the keyboard input area, make sure Multichannel preview is not set: it should appear with two dashes (--). Close the window.

2. Next, we'll adjust the length of our current pattern to allow for more recording area. From the Options menu, select Song Settings. Under the Song tab, slide the bar length slider to a value of 32. Close the window. You can drag the window to make it show all 32 bars.

3. For the purposes of this exercise we'll use a software synthesiser. Go to Channels-Add One-3x Osc. The controls for the synthesiser will open in its own new window. At this stage, the synthesiser is only using its preset sound. To add a new sound, select the Channel Presets directory from the sample browser at the left of Fruityloops, then select the directory 3x Osc presets. Right-click the preset called Organ from the browser list to load this preset into the synthesiser. If your MIDI keyboard is set up correctly, you should now be able to hear the preset organ sound as you play the keys on your keyboard.

4. When you're ready to begin recording your playing from the MIDI keyboard, press R for record mode, then click the Play button. You will notice that Fruityloops will loop every 32 bars, so watch that you don't record over a previous note. You can use this method to record complex patterns in multiple passes/takes. Click Stop when you're done.

5. You can view the notes you've recorded by holding down the letter K, or view the more detailed piano roll by pressing -P. You can delete the notes you've recorded by right-clicking them. You can also tweak the organ sound in real time by experimenting with the controls of the 3x Osc synthesiser. If you want to play a sample or other sound using the keyboard, do the same as above but load a sample from any directory in the sample browser instead of 3x Osc synthesiser we have just used.

You've now got what essentially is a sampling set up, ready for you to experiment as the whim takes you. You can use the previous Fruityloops articles to learn to create a beat, and after combining that with your keyboard melodies, you can use Fruityloops' File-Export menu to save your creations as .mp3 or .mid - ready for public consumption on the Internet.

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Danny Allen

PC World
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