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How to use virtual instruments with your digital piano

If you have a digital piano, electronic keyboard or MIDI controller, you can easily get access to many more sounds by hooking it up to the computer using a MIDI interface. Instead of being limited to just the on-board tone generator of your piano, you can now use an almost infinite number of “virtual” instruments.

In this article we will look at this quick and relatively inexpensive method to make your digital piano sound even better. Some of this software will cost money, but we’ll also look at free options.

In another article, I explain how to convert a MIDI recording to MP3 using software instruments. Although the idea is similar, the article you’re reading now focuses on live playing: you press keys on your piano and sound comes out of your computer in real-time. Of course, you can also record your live playing and we’ll talk about that too.

NOTE: The article was written with Windows in mind. If you use another operating system such as Mac OS X, the directions are similar but the software will be different.

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How to convert MIDI files to MP3 and make them sound good

This article explains how to convert MIDI files — music files with the extension .mid or .midi (or .kar for karaoke) — to MP3 and/or WAV.

The advantage of MIDI files is that they are very small — easily 1000 times as small as an MP3 of the same music — but the disadvantage is that they usually don’t sound very good. And you can’t put them on your iPod either.

So if you want to learn how to convert your MIDI files to MP3’s and how to make them sound good doing so, then read on.

NOTE: The article was written with Windows in mind. If you use another operating system such as Mac OS X, the directions are similar but the software will be different.

(For live playing with software instruments in real time, read how to use virtual instruments.)

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How to convert MP3 (or WAV file) to MIDI or sheet music

You can’t. At least not without a lot of work.

The idea is seductive: it’s easy to convert MIDI to sheet music, so if it were possible to extract a MIDI file from an MP3, then you would have easy access to the sheet music of your favorite songs.

The problem is this: An MP3 — or WAV or any other type of audio file — is like an apple pie. It’s easy to make apple pie from apples: you cut them up and put them into the pie. But it’s impossible to get back the original apples once you have the pie!

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How to record MIDI, part 4: Playing your MIDI recordings

Red Dot Forever can only play what you just recorded, it cannot load existing MIDI files. To play MIDI files, use any of these programs:

If you like to fiddle with sheet music notation, you’ll find that most notation programs can also import MIDI files and convert them to sheet music. However, unless you played perfectly in time, you’ll need to perform some manual cleanup to make your score look good.

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How to record MIDI, part 3: Recording with Red Dot Forever

If everything is set up, you will need to get a program to record MIDI. There are many available, commercial and free, but I prefer to use Red Dot Forever.

This is my favorite program because:

  1. it is very simple to use
  2. it is free
  3. and I wrote it myself ;-)

Click here to download the latest version of Red Dot Forever (1.04)

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How to record MIDI, part 2: Connecting to the computer

You can expect to find these connectors on your digital piano or electronic keyboard:

  • MIDI OUT. You will at least have a MIDI OUT port, for sending MIDI data to other devices.
  • MIDI IN. Usually you will also find a MIDI IN port, for receiving MIDI data from other devices.
  • MIDI THRU. Some instruments also have a MIDI THRU port, for passing MIDI data from one device to another. This port mainly exists to reduce the cable spaghetti that results from tying many different devices together.

To connect your instrument to your computer you either need:

  • A direct cable connection
  • A MIDI-to-USB interface
  • A MIDI input on your soundcard (game port connector)

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How to record MIDI, part 1: What is MIDI?

This is the first article in a series on recording MIDI from a digital piano or electronic keyboard.

MIDI stands for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface”. It is a standard communications protocol for electronic instruments.

The main difference between audio recording and MIDI recording is that MIDI does not store the sounds you make, only the names of the keys that you pressed. It is like sheet music or the old piano rolls — but in electronic form.

Most digital pianos and keyboards have MIDI capability: at the very least they can send MIDI messages to other equipment (“MIDI OUT”), but usually they also have the ability to receive MIDI messages (“MIDI IN”).

NOTE: You can also install MIDI into an acoustic piano, but we won’t consider that in this article. Google for “MIDI piano strip” if you are interested in this.

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How to get the chords of almost any song (for free)

If there is a song you’d like to play on the piano but you don’t know how, then you can either:a) figure it out by ear; b) buy the sheet music; or c) try to find it online.

You’ll be happy to know that the internet has an incredible amount of simplified sheet music, either in the form of chord sheets or tabulature, a type of simplified notation that guitar players use.

Real sheet music of popular songs is seldom available for free. However, if we can find the chords (and the lyrics if you want to sing along) then we’re already half-way there.

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How to use the examples from this blog

To illustrate certain concepts on this blog, I usually include a recording. These recordings are in MIDI format, not MP3.

There are two reasons for using MIDI: 1) the files are very small so they download quickly, and more importantly 2) you can follow along with my playing on your computer screen.

MIDI files are not audio recordings. They are more like sheet music in electronic form. In other words, MIDI does not capture the sound waves coming from my digital piano, but rather which keys I press and how long I hold them down.

You can play these MIDI files directly from your web browser. But there is a better way:

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