Synthesizers on the home PC
July 13, 2011 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Keyboardists: What is a good setup to go with if I want to buy a cheap vanilla polyphonic keyboard and some kind of software package that emulates one or more legendary synthesizers (Moogs, Vox Connie, Jupiters, DX-7, etc) with this keyboard on my Windows PC? Will I have to get a MIDI card or can I go with USB? Also are weighted keys worth it and what price point would these come in at? This is just for messing around at home and should be cheap... even eBay goods are fine. Thanks!
posted by crapmatic to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a youngster so I've only ever experienced these synthesizers through emulators, this is how I go about it (on a Mac, but, pretty similar).

You will (most likely?) not need a MIDI card, most new keyboards I've encountered, even those with their own internal sounds, seem to have a USB port and drivers to let your computer use it as a MIDI device.

In terms of the actual software, Arturia makes some great ones like the Minimoog or the ARP 2600. Google around for "your-favorite-synthesizer vst" - it's surprising how much stuff is out there.

I'd really recommend an Akai keyboard for messing around at home. They have semi-weighted keys, which make it so it doesn't feel like you're playing a toy, but it also does not feel like a real piano. I like Akai's semi-weighted keys better than my musician friend's really-nice-and-expensive weighted keyboard, and he agreed that the semi-weighted one was just as usable. This helps keep the price point down (and compromises key weighting instead of abandoning it).

Akai keyboards are midi controllers, not synthesizers, meaning if you don't have a computer/midi sound generator hooked up to it it will not make any sounds. This is good because it means it's really cheap, and you (probably?) don't need that stuff anyway. I'm not sure the price points for the bigger keyboards, but you can check out their selection here. If I was buying a keyboard today, I'd probably buy the MPK-61. The pads/faders/knobs also come in handy for home messing around, especially with software emulators. I don't know about windows, but on my Mac, I map the knobs to certain parameters in the synthesizer (cutoff, oscillator, etc) so that I can work on synth sounds without looking at my computer. This is really nice.

I'm not classically trained in any sort of piano so take my suggestions with a grain of salt- best of luck in your search!

p.s.: If you hadn't heard of it, I suggest getting a SoundCloud to share your experiments and get feedback from other musicmakers.
posted by ejfox at 8:05 AM on July 13, 2011

I use a cheap M-Audio USB keyboard (you can pick which keys, if you want it weighted, knobs, aftertouch, etc) for stuff. I think the semi-weighted keys are nice but probably not a very big deal for simple sound doodling.

From there you'll probably want to start using some software as a VST host. I'm a big ableton fan but there are a ton of options that do a lot less than that. You'll also have to deal with some latency, moreso if you don't have a good external sound card (audio interface). You could start without the sound card for sure though.

Then you just pick from the metric shit ton of software out there, you can start at a place like KVR. Some are free and some are expensive, windows does seem to have more free VSTs than mac. Propellorhead Reason is also pretty bad ass standalone thing, but I don't think it really tries to reproduce specific vintage instruments (I'm not sure about that, more knowledgeable reason person would know).
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 8:53 AM on July 13, 2011

are weighted keys worth it ?

No. Not unless you really care about that old time piano feeling.

A Hammond B3 does not have weighted keys, for example.
posted by ovvl at 6:42 PM on July 13, 2011

I'd find a nice keyboard first, and then you can download trial versions of most of the different synth packages, see what sticks, and buy that. (Or use free software - there's lots of amazing free audio software out there!)

Keyboards: I don't have much experience, but I don't like the cheapest ones. Semi-weighted sounds good. I'm sure there's a sweet spot not far above the cheaper end of the scale. Try to get something with a few sliders or rotaries. I think most boards these days have built-in USB and MIDI. If you find a board that you love the mechanism in but doesn't have USB, then adding MIDI is super easy, just buy a cheap USB-to-MIDI dongle and tack it on. MIDI connections are basically trivial these days.

I got myself a 49-key M-Audio board about 8 years ago. I ended up regretting my purchase of the cheapest keyboard. The tactile feel was mushy and subtly unpleasant. I ended up playing less than I would have on a nicer board. Otherwise, the M-Audio was good. It was what it was, and worked as such. They probably have something nicer; I'd have a look at that personally.

Re. synths: You can go for variety in one package, or a full-on emulation of fewer synths.

If you want many different synths: Reaktor is high-quality software. It is a synth building-block environment. It can emulate almost any synthesizer. Does a pretty good job. I think the full package is pretty expensive, but there may be lighter "player-only" versions or something. There's a totally fun Roland Juno implementation in the standard library and a very very fat Korg MS-20 too, which is IMO way better than Korg's own software MS-20.)

This one is free: ZynAddSubFX. Haven't tried it, but the demos are pretty convincing.

(Reason is popular. I don't like it. I don't like the sound itself. The interface and capabilities are amazing, but ... There's something subtly wrong with the sound engine - everything sounds "plastic" somehow. Technically, I believe it might be aliasing due to filters and such being optimized for low CPU usage rather than mathematical correctness. I'm not sure. Many people do like Reason. At least try it out and compare with other synth packages before you buy!)

If you want a really really nice sounding single synth, then Arturia and GForce make great ones. The GForce Minimonsta is ... amazing. I get goosebumps as I recall playing it. Arturia's CS-80 is superb, too. (CS-80 is the Vangelis synth.)
posted by krilli at 1:18 PM on July 14, 2011

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