Getting from zero to USB MIDI in as few steps as possible
August 15, 2017 4:28 AM   Subscribe

I have (a) a USB MIDI keyboard, (b) a licensed copy of Reaper, and (c) kind of an understanding that there are things called VSTs that make the keyboard go 'boop'. What's the best/fastest way of understanding how all this works?

I'm pretty much okay with Reaper/DAWs at a basic level... recording, blocks, editing, and so on. But MIDI and synthetic instruments are 100% new to me, and when I load up a VST in Reaper, they often pop an interface that looks like it can fly the Space Shuttle.

There aren't a lack of resources out there on VSTs, but searching is getting me stuff that's either for entirely different software, or really old, or made for people who are already pretty far along the learning curve. Can you recommend some resources for people who are not new to DAWs in principle, but entirely new to MIDI and virtual instrument plugins?
posted by Shepherd to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of sounds are you hoping to make?
posted by STFUDonnie at 4:50 AM on August 15, 2017

Best answer: Get a copy of synth1, the highly regarded free VST that started as an emulation of the Nord Lead 2.

For references, check out the 63 part series 'synth secrets' from Sound on Sound magazine. Virtually all the techniques will be accessible on synth1. Despite the name, it can be used as a good introduction and tutorial if you start from the beginning.

Also, bleepy bloops are fun but if you want anything like regular piano, epiano, real orchestral sounds, etc, you're far better off using sample libraries. Reaper may come with a few, there are zillions more out there, from free to $$$.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:27 AM on August 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I was in the same basic situation as you awhile back, so I'm just going to sort of list where I go when I need to research things.

Here's a good primer on MIDI. Your MIDI controller is like a mouse or QWERTY keyboard right, it just sends data, it's the software that interprets that data and makes sound.

With Reaper I've found the (not official) reaper blog to be pretty solid: with the warning that everything's a video entry, and I usually have to pause to google a term or two that he throws out there.

Virtual instruments are bit trickier to find basic resources for, because there are so many and they're all different (make sure you're googling Virtual Instrument and not just VST, because there's VSTs that are just effects). In general I've found Sound on Sound to be a great resource for reviews of specific products and general explanations of effects and how you may want to use them. There's two basic types of VI, synths and samplers. Synths use software to create the sound wave, and Samplers use software to play recordings of sound waves (although confusingly some of them are recordings of analog synths).

I've been happy enough with this synths presets that I basically ignore the control panel and cycle through till I get to a sound I like. Saltysalt's link is something I keep meaning to go through, but just haven't had the need to yet.

If you want samplers, like say you REALLY want it to sound like a piano or violin when you play a note, things get trickier and potentially more expensive. There's a bunch of different options out there for players, and different file formats for the samples. To make things easy, I would try the free versions of the two big players a try, you may want to upgrade later, but the sounds included are o.k. and it'll give you a pretty good idea of which you prefer. I tried sample tank 3, and it has a free version here. It worked well and was easy to set up. I ended up going with Kontakt by Native instruments (and if you decide to go that route, me-mail me and I'll walk you through getting the cross grade price, it's all above the board, just complicated and I don't have all the links handy). It's just about as easy to use, and had a much wider range of third party libraries (seriously, I found a guy who's sampled himself walking in snow and tuned it to create a sort of percussive instrument). Many of the companies making them produce good free libraries to show off their chops (but you need the full priced kontakt player to play them). Here is the free player. Both companies seem to also have a pretty good community built around their products.

There's some free players\sound libraries out there but they tend to be way more work to set up and, the quality of sound files generally isn't as high. It's a lot of work to make the boop sound exactly like a piano instead of a boop, so people generally want money for that.
posted by Gygesringtone at 7:59 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, on the topic of sample-based real instrument sounds: If you happen to have a Mac or iOS device, then you likely already own a copy of Garage Band , which has a pretty good set of (e)Piano, organs, strings, basic synths, etc. Something to check out before you pay for something similar, and you can pipe audio from there out to Reaper.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:07 AM on August 15, 2017

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