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midi controllers, synthesizers, music recording software, and me.

September 24, 2013

MIDI.. Musical Instrument Digital Interface.. been around since the 1980’s.. or earlier. Pete Townshend from The Who has been messing about (and creating GREAT music with) synthesizers since I don’t know when.. but maybe those weren’t digital.. probably analog.. whatever that means..

No.. I don’t know much about this stuff.. at all. Most of my life, I’ve been obsessed with guitars.. electric guitars, acoustic guitars, bass guitars.. and tons of gear and accessories that go with those instruments. I never could learn to play guitar well, and I was never interested enough in playing bass to get good at it, even though I probably could have if I’d wanted to.

I finally put the last remaining guitars away. The only one I own has been in its storage box behind a couch for probably 6 months. I’ve had one or both of my aunt’s acoustic guitars in my room for sometime though. Finally put those away somewhere else as well.

So now what??

What’s a midi controller?

There are many different types of midi controllers, but they all have one main purpose, and that purpose is hard for me to articulate. Midi controllers are used to control music when using a computer. That’s not a complete definition. As I said, I’m a newbie. But.. that’s close enough.

Some mini controllers are drum beat pads. They tend to be shaped like a square, and have many little square buttons (called drum pads.. I guess) that can be pressed to trigger drums or other sounds. The buttons light up, and these drum pads look pretty cool. If you are into techno music, you have probably seen videos of Skrillex or Deadmau5 (the “5” is there on purpose, not a typo). Those two guys are modern DJ’s and masters of dance music,  who seem not to bother with turntables, but instead use computers and midi controllers.

Besides drum pads, there are various other kinds of controllers. Some of them look like synthesizers.. mini-pianos with buttons, knobs, etc. Most of these keyboard mini-controllers are rather complex, but some are very basic.

The controllers with piano keys come in different sizes. It is possible to get a keyboard controller with 88 full-size keys, just as you would find on a piano. It is also possible to find small keyboard controllers that have 25 miniature keys, and only a few buttons. There is QUITE a variety of keyboard-type controllers.

One thing some people who buy these devices don’t realize is that, unlike many synthesizers, there are no speakers built into keyboard controllers. They produce absolutely no sound by themselves. These keyboards have to be plugged into a computer, and the computer has to have speakers built in, or speakers attached, otherwise no sound can be heard (unless one uses a headphone jack attached to the computer or speaker setup).

Music software.

Using a keyboard controller makes creating music on a computer much easier than trying to do so without one. Making music on a computer does not require a controller, but it sure helps. What is essential for creating music on a computer is music software.

Last year, I did some experimenting with Apple’s music recording software called Garageband. It is the recording software that comes standard with all macs, as far as I know. Garageband is more basic and limited than most computer recording software, such as Pro Tools, Ableton, Reaper, and Logic. Logic is Apple’s professional recording software. The others were not created by Apple.

Why did I use Garageband? Why will I continue to use it?

I am NOT a techie. I am NOT a geek.. not even close. I feel anxious even thinking about trying to learn how to use software. I don’t even know how many features of wordpress work. I’ve visited other blogs and… wow. Some people have all kinds of cool images and other neat things.  I don’t know how to do all that stuff. Mostly.. I don’t want to. What I want to do is write.. but sometimes I feel I really would like to be more technically skilled.

I didn’t read anything or study anything before using Garageband. I just dove in and experimented. Occasionally I hooked up my electric guitar, and I made a lot of very short loops (sound samples with it), but I just used parts of Apple loops for most of my experimental electronic music compositions. Garageband comes with many many sound samples (Apple loops) that can be used and edited.

I got really into creating crazy stuff with Garageband, but I was always manically agitated while working on these projects. I don’t know why. I created at least 10 that sound pretty good.. except that as of yet I have not learned how to use the software well enough to master the tracks so that they sound professional. I have been told it is possible to make professional-sounding music with Garageband. I just have to learn how.

Also, creating and editing these pieces took a LOT of time and energy. I spent probably 40 hours on a track that lasted less than 4 minutes.. and I am still not satisfied with it. Eventually, last year, I burned out on making Garageband projects.

So why am I thinking about it now?

I feel I need to do something creative. Yes, I write this blog, and I write fairly long facebook posts sometimes. Yes, I take lots of pictures. But I want to do something musical. Also, many years ago, I became fascinated with sound. I would make my own mix tapes back in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. I would make them for friends, and I would not just put songs on them, but add sound effects as well.

I listened to the radio a lot, and wondered how sounds in advertizing and promos was generated. I liked vocal sound samples from movies and TV that I heard in electronic and early rap music. A radical Christian industrial group from the late ’80’s, called Under Midnight, used many voice samples, including some famous ones from the movie “Bladerunner.” I thought that was very cool. Rap group (the only one I still really like) Public Enemy used voice samples too. This got my attention.

In the early ’90’s, for a little while, I went around the campus of the community college I was attending, carrying a tape recorder. I asked friends to speak into the recorder and say random things. My hope was to someday use samples of their voices in music projects. I haven’t gotten around to doing this yet, but I will. I have used bits of sound and voices that I taped off of radio broadcasts so many years ago. I’ve got over 400 very short audio clips of various people saying various things stored as apple loops that I can use with Garageband. It is going to take me a VERY long and tedious time to transfer those loops from my desktop to my laptop computer.

So what about midi controllers?

There are several popular brands.. the most famous being M-Audio. That company seems to be the industry standard. Akai, Novation, and Korg are also quite popular. Korg has been making synthesizers since the ’80’s. It makes sense that Korg has gotten into making midi-controllers too.  Roland, another very popular synthesizer company that has been around along time, also makes midi controllers (I guess I should be capitalizing MIDI but anyway). The Roland devices are complex and costly.

What about Yamaha?  I  have not found any Yamaha devices that are made to be specifically keyboard MIDI controllers. Yamaha made a very wide range of synths, and probably still does. I have a cheapie Yamaha synth from sometime in the ’80’s under my bed, and a larger Yamaha keyboard in my room as well. The bigger one is more a digital piano though. It only has a few instrument voices.. two piano voices, two organ sounds, and a few more.

I have seen that Yamaha synths come with MIDI in/out ports. It is theoretically possible to plug a midi to usb cable into a computer. I have done some research, and have found such cables. Unfortunately, the cables I have found online have a high failure rate, according to the reviews I’ve read. I took a chance and bought one of these cables for my Yamaha, and the cable did not work. Bummer.

Why have I been checking out midi-controllers?

Garageband has a section dedicated to virtual instruments. I can use my computer keyboard to play notes, but this is awkward. It is FAR easier to have a midi controller with piano keys. My plan is to hook up a controller, pull up the software for grand piano, or a space synth sound.. or pretty much anything, and trigger the notes or sounds by playing the little piano keys.

There’s.. kind of a problem though.. I can’t play the piano well at all. That’s an understatement. I’ve spent most of my life unsuccessfully trying to learn how to play guitars. I’ve ignored keyboards. I have to teach myself.

Without any piano playing experience, I can still make good use out of the keyboard controllers. I have the capacity to be very creative, and will come up with compositions made of strange sounds that I will create with the controllers and software. But, since I cannot play piano well, nor do I understand music theory, I am going to have much trouble creating actual songs, if that is what I decide to do. Yes, I can create music by ear, and I will do that, but perhaps it is best to spend a great deal of time learning the Circle of 5ths, the scales, different keys to play in, and all that.

But I get incredibly anxious just thinking about trying to teach myself all that stuff. So maybe I won’t.

Why do I get anxious about teaching myself to play piano and learn music theory?

Some people have math anxiety, I have music anxiety. In the past, I have found learning theory to be very hard. And I’ve found learning how to play instruments to be practically impossible. The only instrument I’ve had at least a bit of success with is the tin whistle, also called the pennywhistle. But I haven’t been practicing that instrument for years.. been focused on guitars.

Also, I have attention deficit disorder, and tend to go stark raving mad when I repeat the same short phrase of music over and over and over. I’ve been trying off and on for over a month to teach myself the first few bars of that fantastic song, “Whiter Shade of Pale,” by Procol Harem. I still can’t play the first few bars very well.

I have to remind myself that just about all musicians have gone through a time of serious awkwardness and frustration while trying to learn an instrument. It’s a normal thing. I shouldn’t think so much that my having difficulty is a result of a disability has something to do with it, and remind myself that most musicians have struggled a great deal with what I am struggling with.

Will I learn how to play the piano.. at least somewhat? Will I learn some music theory? I don’t know. But regardless..

I have two midi-controllers on order.

Both of them are quite small, and have miniature keys. One has 32 keys, and one has only 25. I decided to get two small ones instead of one large one with more keys, because, considering the fact that I am not, as yet, able to play piano, I don’t need a lot of keys and a wide range of notes. Also, there are octave buttons on both the controllers I’ve ordered, that will jump an octave or more up or down. I can get to high and low notes by hitting that button.

Why did I order two and not one?

I did lots of research, and tried out some controllers at Guitar Center. I decided that I wanted a controller that is small and portable enough to put into a good-size laptop computer bag, along with my laptop and peripherals. Also, I want a controller that will fit on my desk, in front of my desktop mac, without taking up much space.

The two controllers are somewhat different from each other, and neither one is very expensive.

The first one I ordered is the Korg Microkey 25. $69.99 on most websites.  I tried a far more advanced Korg controller at GC, and really liked the feel of those microkeys.. quite small, but comfortable to play. Also, the Korg model comes with the usual up and down octave buttons, but also has a sustain button built in (works like a sustain pedal) an arpeggiator (I’m not sure what that one will do..I am guessing if I play a chord, it will play the notes individually, and if I play a note and hit that button, it will play notes for a chord that go with it.. but maybe not) and a programmable joystick that can be used with certain features that I haven’t learned about yet. Also, the Korg comes with some (hopefully) excellent software. I can (hopefully) add tons more sounds and instruments to Garageband.

If the Korg Microkey is so great, why did I order another controller?

I plan to program a lot of drum beats. As far as I can tell, on all keyboard midi-controllers, the keys for the lower notes.. the ones on the left of the keyboard, are used for kick drum and snare sounds. Pounding away on the same keys for long periods of time can wear out the keys. I thought it best to have two controllers to use, so I don’t damage to the keys on either of them by over-using them.

Also, the Korg, although portable, isn’t as portable as another model I found. The other controller I ordered is the M-Audio Keystation Mini 32. (prices range from $49.99-$79.99). That one is more portable, and has a few different features. The sensitivity (called “velocity”) of both keyboards can be programmed, but the Keystation has a setting just for drum beats. And, the M-Audio is programmable in other ways that the Korg isn’t (and vice versa). In what other ways.. that I shall find out.

So yeah.. two little, portable midi-controllers.

USB powered.

One cool thing about many controllers is they require no AC adapter.. no need to plug in an extra cord. They are USB devices that are powered by the computer via USB cable. I read that it is a good idea to buy a powered USB hub (a device that many USB cables can be plugged into). Powered USB hubs provide.. power. They are plugged into the wall or surge protector. It is possible to plug a controller straight into a computer, or into a non-powered USB hub. However, I figure I will sometime be using my desktop, and like to have both controllers plugged in, as well as a mic, the mouse, a pen drive, and maybe a guitar.. all at once. Best to have more juice for that.

When I will be using my laptop, I will just have one controller plugged straight in, and the mouse, and that’s it. I can fit that stuff into a carry bag and go places like coffee shops.. nice to get out of the house sometimes.

Some final thoughts..

The controllers I’ve ordered will have their advantages and disadvantages. The Korg comes with a software suite and comfortable keys. The M-Audio has stiffer keys, but those keys are likely better for drum beats, and I can carry around the M-Audio more easily, because it is thinner and flatter than the Korg.

I am hoping to have both keyboard controllers by this time next week. After I have learned how to use them somewhat, and have tried them out for a little while, I shall write a post about them, and let you know what I think.

What I think now is that I am going to have a LOT of fun with both midi-controllers. This will give me something creative to do, and I will not sit and watch TV for so many hours, like I’ve been doing lately.

I really need to be creative. These controllers will really help.

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