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The Computer Connection

January 1, 2004
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I used to give private lessons to a number of students who had digital pianos in their homes. Whenever I suggested that they consider connecting their digital piano to their home computer, they would reply, “Really? I didn't know that was possible.” And after a pause, they would ask, “Why would I want to do that?” To answer all of you who may be asking the same question, let me say that connecting your computer to your digital piano or home keyboard allows you to do amazing things.

With the right software, you can perform a number of fun and useful activities with your keyboard. For instance, you can record your performances and then play them back to hear how well you did. You can also edit and arrange your music, even correcting any mistakes you made. And you can convert your music into standard notation and print it out as sheet music. If you're just beginning to play your instrument, your computer can help you learn how to play it better. If you're already a good player, your computer can act as a backup band, composing music that follows your performance. The magic of MIDI makes all of this possible. (For the basics of MIDI, see “MIDI 101” on page 47.)

GETTING CONNECTED

To connect your piano or keyboard to your computer, you need a MIDI interface. This device, which plugs into your computer, allows it to understand MIDI. Think of the interface as a translator: when your keyboard sends MIDI messages to your computer, the MIDI interface converts those messages into signals the computer can understand. Since your portable home keyboard or digital piano probably has built-in MIDI jacks, you just need to find a MIDI interface that fits your computer. MIDI interfaces can connect to your computer in various ways. Some come in the form of expansion cards you install inside your computer. Your best bet, however, is to find an interface that simply plugs into the back of your computer. This way, you avoid having to open up the computer, which can damage the delicate circuit boards inside.

You can find MIDI interfaces that plug into your computer's serial (modem) port, parallel (printer) port, or USB port. If your peripherals already occupy the serial and printer ports, you may want to go with one of the newer USB types. Your MIDI interface will include specific instructions on how to install it, so I won't go into that here.

All MIDI interfaces connect to your keyboard in the same way. When you look on the back of your keyboard, you'll probably find two connections labeled MIDI In and MIDI Out. You may also see a third connection labeled MIDI Thru, but you don't need to concern yourself with that for now. These connections are MIDI jacks, and you'll also find them on your computer's MIDI interface. By connecting the MIDI jacks on the back of your keyboard to the MIDI jacks on your computer, you can send MIDI messages between the two devices.

To make the connections, you'll need a couple of special cables that carry MIDI data. Each end of a MIDI cable has a plug with five pins inside. You'll notice that all the MIDI jacks have five holes available, which means you can plug a MIDI cable into any of the available jacks. What matters is how you connect the MIDI jacks on your keyboard to the ones on your computer's MIDI interface.

One simple rule to remember is that MIDI data coming out of something must go in to something. So if you want MIDI data to flow from your keyboard into your computer, you have to connect the MIDI Out on your keyboard to the MIDI In on your computer's MIDI interface. And if you would like the computer to send MIDI data back to your keyboard, you have to connect the MIDI Out on your computer's MIDI interface to the MIDI In on your keyboard (see Fig. 1). Don't worry if you make a mistake by connecting a MIDI Out jack to another MIDI Out jack or a MIDI In to a MIDI In. Special circuitry inside each MIDI interface prevents any damage — the connection just won't work. Don't worry either about plugging in cables when your equipment is turned on. You won't get an electric shock from a MIDI connection.

MIDI SEQUENCERS

One of the easiest things you can do with your new setup is record a performance and then have your computer play it back. To do this, you'll need a software application called a MIDI sequencer. A MIDI sequencer reads MIDI data coming into the computer's MIDI interface and then stores the data in the computer's memory. The sequencer can read the data from the computer's memory and send it back out through the MIDI interface into whatever you've connected there (for example, your keyboard). You can think of it as a kind of tape recorder for MIDI, but it can do much more than that.

You can record your music in real time, so the music gets captured as you perform it. Or, if you're not a very proficient keyboard player yet, you can enter music into the sequencer using step-record mode. Step recording allows you to enter music one note at a time by simply choosing a step size (the amount of time between each note) and a note duration (how long each note will play). To input the pitch and loudness of each note, just press the appropriate key on your keyboard. This process is simple, but recording a long piece of music can take quite a while.

Once you've recorded a performance into the sequencer, not only can you play it back, but you can edit your music and correct any mistakes as well. Most MIDI sequencers let you view the MIDI data that represent your performance via an event list or a piano roll. Some programs also provide a staff window showing your music as standard notation, but they don't have as much functionality as a stand-alone notation program, which we'll talk about later.

The event list and the piano roll show the same basic information displayed in different ways; they provide different ways to edit the information, too. The event list shows every MIDI message you've recorded, putting each message on one line and showing when you recorded the message. You can edit any part of a message by typing in new values.

The piano roll is a little more intuitive: it displays all the notes in your music in a grid format that looks a lot like a player-piano roll (see Fig. 2). Notes usually appear as horizontal bars. The vertical position of each horizontal bar represents its pitch, the horizontal position represents its timing, and the length of each bar represents its duration. You can edit notes much more easily here than in the event list. To change a note's pitch, just drag it up or down with the mouse. To change its timing, drag it left or right with the mouse. To change its duration, drag the right edge of the note's bar to make it longer or shorter.

The MIDI sequencer is the one essential piece of software you will want to purchase because it enables you to manipulate your music in so many ways. You will find a number of good sequencer programs on the market for novice and veteran users alike, and programs are available for both PC and Mac.

MUSIC NOTATION

MIDI sequencers are great once you get used to the event-list and piano-roll views, but if you know how to read and write music, there's nothing like working with standard notation. Notation software allows you to transform your performances into standard music notation and then edit the music by manipulating notes on virtual staff paper.

Think of a notation program as being a word processor for music. You can enter notes on a page, organize measures and staves, add dynamic markings and lyrics, and then print it out just as you would a letter or any other document. (See the sidebar “Joining the Staff” on page 56 for tips on choosing the right notation-software program.)

You enter music into notation software the same way you enter it into a MIDI sequencer, either in real time or via step recording. The difference here is that in addition to recording your performance, notation software converts it into notation. As you press keys on your keyboard, the notes you are playing appear onscreen with their pitch and duration values. Step recording is also a little different because instead of picking a step size and note duration from a menu, you can actually use your mouse to drag and drop notes and symbols onto the staff. You can even type in lyrics and have the syllables automatically line up with the musical notes above them. Most notation programs also let you enter chord names and will show guitar fretboard symbols, complete with fingering and fret position.

Of course, entering music by dragging and dropping notes can be just as tedious and time-consuming as step recording in a MIDI sequencer, but it's still a lot easier than writing out your music by hand. So put down your pencil and paper — notation software lets you edit your music with ease. In addition, you can do a lot of tasks much more quickly than you ever could by hand. For example, if you need to transpose your music to a more comfortable key for your singing voice, you can do so with only a few clicks of the mouse.

The other advantage is that even if you know how to read music, you may not know all of the rules for writing it. Notation software takes care of a lot of these issues, like making sure clef symbols repeat at the beginning of each staff. Good notation software lets you present your music in a variety of ways, such as booklets, standard sheet music, and even whole orchestral scores. (If you're interested in seeing what sheet music and digital scores you can find on the Internet, see the sidebar “Online Sheet-Music Sources” on page 55.)

WHAT ELSE CAN I DO?

Although MIDI sequencing and notation are among the most popular applications for a computer connected to a keyboard, they're certainly not the only ones. You have your choice of other software applications on the market to do a variety of things. For example, you can compose songs by simply specifying the chords you want to use and letting the computer fill in the rest. You type in the chords for your song and choose a tempo and a style (rock, jazz, and so on), and then the program composes a full arrangement according to your choices, complete with drums, bass, keyboards, and guitar.

Some programs can act as a virtual backup band, accompanying you while you play and performing all the supporting instruments to follow your lead. As you change the aspects of your performance, such as how fast you're playing (the tempo), the virtual band “listens” to you and makes the same adjustments. It's a very cool way to practice playing or even to give performances.

Of course, if you'd like to learn how to write your own music or play your instrument better, your computer can help with that, too. All kinds of music-education products out there can help you to become a better musician. (See “Learning to Play” on page 38.)

HAVE FUN!

As you can see, connecting your keyboard to your computer system gives you a multitude of new options. You can record performances, print out your own sheet music, compose songs, and take interactive piano lessons — all in the comfort of your own home. Sure, you have to make a few extra purchases on top of what you've already paid for your instrument, but it's well worth it when you consider how much more fun and educational your keyboard experience will be.


Scott R. Garrigus has been using computers to compose, score, and teach music since his high-school days. You can find him online at www.garrigus.com.

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