This is the first article in a series on recording the sounds from your digital piano or electronic keyboard on the computer, and how to make MP3 files of your performances for sharing with friends or on the web.
Even though these articles mainly talk about recording on your computer, the same principles apply to other digital recording devices. So if you have an MP3 player with recording capability, or a MiniDisc, or any other device with an audio input, you can use that instead and then transfer the files to your computer.
NOTE: These articles are written with Windows in mind. If you use another operating system such as Mac OS X, the hardware directions are similar, but the software will be different.
These are general instructions that should work with any instrument. Because details tend to differ between brands and models, I’ll often tell you to refer to your instrument’s manual.
Always check with your manual first which options apply to your instrument. You can often download the latest version of these manuals in PDF format for free from the manufacturer’s website. The same goes for any additional software you may need, such as device drivers.
Inputs and outputs
All digital instruments have at least one audio output. The more expensive the instrument, the more output options it has. Recording is simply a matter of connecting an audio output from your digital piano or keyboard to an audio input on the computer, and then using a software program to capture your performance.
Typically available outputs on your instrument are:
- Line Out
- Aux Out
- (Head)phones Out
On your computer, possible available inputs are:
- Line In
- Mic In
- External recording device
NOTE: Although many laptop computers also have a built-in microphone, we won’t discuss that here. If all else fails, recording with this built-in mic is an option… but don’t expect it to sound very good.
You will get the best recording quality with a connection from Line Out to Line In. Different types of outputs have different “impedance levels” and ideally you will connect an output to an input with matching impedance. Line Out and Line In are a perfect match.
It is possible to make connections where the impedance does not match, such as Line Out to Mic In, but they are not ideal. The sound will easily distort, and you will have to lower the output volume on the instrument and the input volume on the computer as much as possible in order to avoid “clipping” (loud cracks in the recording where the maximum volume is exceeded).
Unfortunately, you do not always have a choice. Most desktop computers will have a Line In option (the blue input on your soundcard) but most laptops have only a Mic In. If that is all you have, then that will have to do.
NOTE: Mic In will record in mono only, but Line In is full stereo sound and therefore preferable.
Some of the less expensive digital keyboards only have Phones Out to connect headphones, but not Line Out or Aux Out. Use whatever is available and try to make the best of it.
If your computer has no Line In and you can spare the money ($50 and up), it is worth buying a special recording device called an “external sound card”. This is a unit that plugs into your computer’s USB or Firewire port and gives you one or more Line In sockets.
TIP: If you only have a Mic In, it is still possible to make stereo recordings. First, you record your performance as MIDI. Then you let the piano play that MIDI and capture the left channel on the computer. If you’re using Audacity, set the track from “Mono” to “Left Channel”. Repeat, but now capture the right channel. Align it with the first track, and set it to “Right Channel”. Finally, export as WAV or MP3.
Cables and plugs
Now we have chosen the input and output, we will have to connect them with a cable. Which cable depends on the types of sockets your machines have.
At the computer end we will most likely have a small (3.5mm or 1/8″) stereo jack:
Remember that Mic In is always mono, so you could use a mono jack here. You can tell the difference by the number of rings they have:
At the digital piano, Line Out is typically split into two sockets labeled L/L+R (or in my case L/Mono) and R. They take two big (6.3mm or 1/4″) mono jacks:
If you plug just one jack into L, you’ll get mono sound. For stereo sound, one jack goes into L and the other goes into R.
To use Line Out, you’ll want to use a stereo cable with two big mono jacks on one end and a small stereo jack on the other. The cable that I use actually has two RCA plugs on the source end, and I used two converter plugs to make them big mono jacks:
To use Aux Out, you need a cable with two RCA plugs (red and white) on one end and a small stereo jack on the other. There shouldn’t be much difference between Line Out and Aux Out as far as sound quality is concerned.
Phones Out is typically a stereo jack (could be big or small). Use a stereo cable, and if necessary a small-to-big converter plug on the source end:
Get shielded cables if possible. You can get these cables at any electronics or audio store.
You should now be able to hook up your instrument to your computer. The next article will explain how to record the sounds that are transmitted across these cables.
Read more articles on Piano Clues: