Tl;dr: MIDI keyboard and DAW software on easy mode.
February 18, 2021 1:20 PM   Subscribe

I should be able to route input from a MIDI keyboard through a DAW right to my computer's sound card. Right?

I bought a MIDI keyboard (the Alesis v49), not knowing I'd have to run it through a computer to get sound out of it. That was my first mistake.

Right now, I just want to play notes on the keyboard and have them routed directly to my computer's speaker. We'll deal with recording later. It looks like there MUST be a DAW in the middle. But hey, who knows.

Little did I know that DAW software appears to be unforgivingly complex. And the manufacturer seems to be taking a "sink or swim" approach to the buyers of its devices. Would be easy enough to record a couple of YouTube videos but hey, why bother.

I've spent as much time as I want to in hunting down how to set up one of the DAW behemoths in easy mode. Figured I would query the hive mind before I lost any more time in my life.

A little more context: I'm running Windows 10 on an Acer Aspire. The v49 shows up as one of my sound devices, and the DAW (Reaper) "sees" input from the keyboard, but doesn't bother routing it through my computer's sound card.
posted by Sheydem-tants to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The V49 is just a MIDI controller, and it produces no sounds, so yes, there must be some software running on your computer that generates the sounds (either a DAW or a standalone software synth).

I have no idea why the keyboard would show up as a sound device, since it doesn't contain any audio capabilities.

I also have no idea if Reaper comes with any VST instruments, but the V49 comes with Ableton Live lite, which includes a few. You could install that, and then you'll need to for an instrument within Live to control. Check out this video:
posted by jonathanhughes at 1:49 PM on February 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

It looks like that device is just the keyboard itself, not any kind of synthesizer, so it alone does not make any sounds that could be routed anywhere. If your software sees input from it, it is most likely just the keypress/release and velocity data coming over the MIDI channel. There should be some option to connect that input to an "instrument" plugin or VST in the DAW, but you may not have one / might be sold separately.

Depending on what your software needs, one possibility for free / testing purposes is to look for a free "sound font" (what used to be called wavetable synth) that can supply actual sounds to go with the keys being pressed on the controller. There are an assortment of these floating around so that other software (such as VLC) can play MIDI files without needing a separate synth.
posted by CyberSlug Labs at 1:49 PM on February 18, 2021

I went through this a few months ago. I picked up a Midi Fighter 3D (and later a Midi Fighter Twister and Launchpad X). Like your keyboard, these are all pure MIDI controllers that require hooking up to a computer.

I first tried Reaper (because it was the cheapest) and found it really difficult to get working. It was a huge pain in the butt getting VSTs (virtual instruments) installed, and then getting the MIDI and audio routed properly. I also struggled getting the correct audio device and drivers set up.

I ended up trying the Ableton Live free trial and loving it. Ableton makes it super easy to add a MIDI track, select one of the included instruments, and get the sound out to your audio device. It looks like your keyboard might include a license for Ableton Live Lite, which limits the number of tracks you can use, but should work for what you need it to do. If not, you can always do the free trial like I did. It's also cheaper to buy an upgrade from with an existing license if you decide you like it. Thomann sells legit keys for cheaper than the Ableton store.

Regardless of which DAW you use, make sure you have selected a low-latency ASIO driver in the audio settings. Otherwise there will be a noticeable lag between pressing a key and actually getting a sound, making it pretty much impossible to play. ASIO4ALL works for me, although it is pretty old. It takes "exclusive" control of your audio device, so you can only get sound out of the DAW while using it, meaning you can't play along with youtube videos or spotify or whatever. FlexASIO is another option, which does not do the "exclusive" thing, but it wasn't quite as low-latency as ASIO4ALL in my experience. If you have an audio interface or some kind of pro soundcard, it might have it's own dedicated ASIO drivers.

Finally, you may not need a DAW at all if you use a VST with a standalone version. This means you can launch the VST as it's own program. I have no idea which VSTs have this feature, or if they would even work with MIDI and low-latency audio, but it might me worth looking into if you really don't want to learn a DAW.
posted by arcolz at 1:53 PM on February 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

This video gives details about setting up an instrument
posted by jonathanhughes at 1:53 PM on February 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Tracktion is a DAW that has a free version.

Inside Tracktion (or another DAW), you would run a software instrument that emulates the sounds of a piano (or another musical instrument). These are also called "plug-ins".

MIDI signal from the V49 keyboard goes into the plug-in. The plug-in is what makes sound that comes out of your sound card, not the DAW.

The DAW is just a "host" where you can add these plug-ins, do some recording, add sound effects, and use other features.

Tracktion supports a few different formats of plug-ins, including a format called "VST". This is a common format for plug-ins. Many DAWs support this format.

Here are some free VST piano plug-ins you could try out with Tracktion or another VST-compatible DAW, to get a sense of how it works.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:56 PM on February 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Here's an article with some free software synthesizers to get you started.
posted by kindall at 1:57 PM on February 18, 2021

Response by poster: I gave up on Reaper and went ahead with the 1.9 GB Ableton Live Lite download... that comes free with the keyboard (blush).

The Ableton help is actually helpful to a newb (!!!!) and I HAVE SOUND without having to flail around to make that happen. I can record or not as I want, and it's clear how to do that.

I was almost tempted to ask the mods to delete this question, but I see there are some good answers here, so should any errant MeFite need the info, here it will be.

On a side note, MuseScore also generated sound output from the keyboard without extra config.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:07 PM on February 18, 2021 [4 favorites]

It appears that you have a "MIDI controller" which is different from a synthesizer. A synth would be something that produces sound itself. I haven't owned a MIDI controller but I think they just provide MIDI input, which would just be a signal, not a sound.

To get something audible and record-able in Reaper, you'll need to add in a virtual or software-based instrument (not sure the actual term) in order to make the MIDI signal into something that can be heard.

I'm a Reaper fan, it's the only thing I've found that is even remotely affordable and it does a ton of cool stuff. Reaper comes with a basic synthesizer called ReaSynth you can try out.

I'm relatively new to actually getting things working in Reaper but here is what I would try:

It sounds like you're already getting MIDI input but if you want to test and confirm what's happening:
In Reaper, Go to Options -> Preferences and go to "Midi Devices" under the Audio section. Make sure your controller is "enabled" in the top section "MIDI inputs to make available." Hit Apply (very important) and close the prefs window.

Make sure your controller itself (the keyboard, not the Reaper software) is set to send MIDI output out on Channel 1 (default channel). Well, this might not actually be essential at the moment but is good to be aware of for troubleshooting purposes - new Reaper instrument tracks default to listening to MIDI coming in on all channels (at least on my computer). Channel 1 is likely the default set channel on your controller. I don't know the specific info for setting the output channel on the Alesis v49 but you likely have a manual or can search for this.

In Reaper, go to Insert at the top and select "Virtual instrument on new track". This will bring up a plugin selection screen. Under "All Plugins" on the left, select "Instruments" and then select "VSTi: ReaSynth" and click Add.

Ideally now you can hit a key on your controller and get audio, as well as a yellow bar that appears when you hit or hold down a controller key (signifying MIDI signal) and an orange bar (signifying sound signal).

If this doesn't happen right off the bat - time to troubleshoot:

Make sure Reaper is set up to send any audio it generates to your computer audio output: Check Options -> Preferences -> Audio -> Device to make sure your sound card is selected (I'm on a Mac which is a little picky about this)

Make sure the new ReaSynth track has the little "FX" button activated in green (so the MIDI signal gets sent through the ReaSynth Instrument FX). Make sure record mode is "Armed" (click the circle on the left side of the track so the circle is red). Make sure mute (the M on the right of the track box) is off. Make sure your general computer sound isn't muted :) You also might need to futz with the Options -> Preferences -> MIDI devices settings.

I'm not sure what other troubleshooting tips to give at the moment because it all ends up getting really specific really fast! At least for my Mac something that was helpful was installing an external/non-Reaper program to see what MIDI input was happening (like, am I actually getting MIDI signal coming in to the computer at all?) I also found searching the Reaper newbie forum to be helpful but it takes a couple of days for them to approve new accounts so you can post there.

This "virtual instrument on new track" setup should put the MIDI signal and the audio on the same track - so if you record, it'll record both MIDI and audio on the same track.

(The next level of "fun" would be to route it so you get MIDI coming from the controller recorded on track A, and then send the MIDI signal from track A to track B which has the synth attached to it, but record audio only on track B. Then you can use Reaper's MIDI editing and mess with the notes after you record them, and then re-record the audio from just the recorded MIDI notes.)

On preview, looks like you gave up on Reaper :) Anyway I hope this is helpful for someone else in the future!
posted by ghostbikes at 2:20 PM on February 18, 2021 [4 favorites]

I've just started on Ableton Live Lite recently. There's a lot o' learnin' to get up to speed, it's like goin' back to school. But it's really flexible when you start to get in the groove.

(I've found most DAWs that I've tried have a learning curve. If there's an exception with a quick user-friendly jam-right-away vibe, I'd like to hear about it. Korg Kaosillator hardware unit layers nice jam beats right away for starters, but limited editing and flexibility. iPad GarageBand also has some easy loop layering, but with limited flexibility. It's always a trade-off.)
posted by ovvl at 3:23 PM on February 18, 2021

Seconding the recommendation for Tracktion. It's powerful, it's easy to use, and the free version is quite feature-rich. There are lots of free VST softsynths you can use with it and your keyboard.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 3:31 PM on February 18, 2021

Helm is a really fun freeware synth, if you just want to make synth noises and don't need the rest of a DAW's capabilities.
posted by lhputtgrass at 4:42 PM on February 18, 2021

Don't feel bad, I have had to spend an hour or two flailing around trying to get signal many times when trying new audio hardware or software.
posted by thelonius at 4:46 PM on February 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

google* "Best Free Plug-Ins 2021" - have fun

*other search engines are available :)
posted by burr1545 at 1:17 PM on February 19, 2021

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