How to build a useful synthesizer from an old computer & MIDI keyboard
August 15, 2006 1:06 PM   Subscribe

DIY Keyboard: It's my understanding that I can take an old PII computer running, say, Windows 98, hook up a cheap MIDI keyboard to it and presto change-o have a grand piano or Hammond B-3 keyboard. Is that the case, if so what's the best way to do it (what software?), what else is there to do, or else what do I have wrong?

I don't need to get all Kraftwerkian or explore the outer reaches of sonic craftitude - I'm looking for a DIY DX-7, as it were. Basically I'm going to try to find a lot of cool jazz organ sounds. But a beautiful grand piano sound would be good too.

I'm assuming the way to spend money here is the 88-key touch sensitive MIDI controller - any suggestions?

I found How to build MIDI files and
Make Your Own Software Synth
A Harmony Central Forums, etc.
And Freeware music notation stuff

Actually I may have found it Here.

Any tips, tricks, tunes, tones, testimonials?
posted by petebest to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm looking for a DIY DX-7, as it were. Basically I'm going to try to find a lot of cool jazz organ sounds. But a beautiful grand piano sound would be good too.

A really good grand piano sound is hard to come by, and I'm not sure you'll find it from FM synthesis (i.e. something like a DX-7; incidentally, you can get one for several hundred on ebay). Organ is easier, as most of them were analog synths of various kinds. There are several really nice free soft-synths depending on your computing power (all of this are not so useful on my G3 ibook, but I'm not sure how that compares to a PII, and if you're just devoting all your cpu to the plugin it would be fine). Here are some; you will need a vst or audiounit host for all of these: automat (audiounit only), crystal, foorius. There are more of these if you look around. I don't know of any of these that gives a decent piano sound (compared to my korg digital keyboard).

I'm assuming the way to spend money here is the 88-key touch sensitive MIDI controller - any suggestions?

It depends on what you want to do in the long run -- I regularly try what free audio software there is out there (since my budget is small), and I'm pretty consistently disappointed (with a few exceptions). The free vsts are good if you have the processor power, but I haven't seen any sequencer that's nearly as nice as a relatively low-end commercial one (though perhaps someone will suggest something here), and the same goes for daw-type software. Also, there is a tremendous amount of hassle involved in getting a lot of this stuff to work. Eventually I ended up spending some money on some real software (ableton live), and it has been an extremely rewarding purchase. But if you just want to use it to play as if it were a keyboard, this kind of purchase may not be so worthwhile, and the free stuff will probably work.

By the way, have you compared the price of a decent 88-key weighted midi controller to e.g. a lower-end yamaha digital piano? Such midi controllers are cheaper than I realized, but the prices don't seem so far apart.
posted by advil at 1:43 PM on August 15, 2006

By the way, my complaints about free audio software might not extend to some of the things available for windows only that I haven't tried, like buzz. I'm mostly complaining about the open source stuff.
posted by advil at 1:51 PM on August 15, 2006

You just need a midi sequencer that can load VST's and a midi keyboard. Making Waves is a fairly simple program that can accomplish this. You can also just use midi if you have a soundfont compatible soundcard like the SB live!. Soundfonts are just wav's that are loaded in place of midi's and sound pretty nice. Some of the other programs like Live might be a little too higher end to run on your computer. The best straight piano VST's are usually gigs and gigs worth of real samples but 80's synthesizers work great. A really fun midi program is called one man band and it lest you emulate yamaha keyboard styles, but it's also a fairly featured midi program. Melody assistant/harmony assistant might be good midi sequencer apps worth looking into that are fairly cheap but let you edit your work like sheet music. Check out some magazines like future music.
posted by psychobum at 2:33 PM on August 15, 2006

You'll probably have to wrestle a little to get playable latency from softsynths on a PII. This mostly comes down to the soundcard drivers you're using, so see if you can find ASIO drivers for the soundcard you're using.

If you have a soundblaster-type card, you may find that using .SF2 samples (soundfonts) is less painful, as they're loaded and played in hardware on the card, avoiding the windows part altogether.

If you really want to recreate a DX-7, there's always Native Instruments' FM7, which is about as close as you can get - including inscrutable patch programming controls.
posted by pompomtom at 3:22 PM on August 15, 2006

I don't have any special recommendations for SoundFonts and such, but the clear standout for a B3 sound is Native Instruments B4. I don't know that it's the single best, but Syntholoy Ivory is an extremely reputable Grand sim. Both of those are for modern computers, though.
posted by abcde at 3:33 PM on August 15, 2006

It might take a bit of jiggery pokery to get some of the higher end synths / plugins running on a) a PII and b) Win98.

As mentioned, latency will be one of your biggest issues - maybe this or this will help you. (I've found the kx asio drivers highly useful fwiw).
posted by chrissyboy at 3:42 PM on August 15, 2006

TWEAKHEADZ LAB looks like a good source for synth info.
posted by SteveInMaine at 6:59 AM on August 16, 2006

Great stuff, thanks everyone. I'll see what the PII can cough up and then wait for my friends' & relations' P4's to "die"

I see that the Native Instruments B4 requires XP, so maybe I need to reconsider hardware-wise, depending on what I find.

I'm assuming the PII (or maybe it's a III, I dunno) has a SoundBlaster of some sort.
posted by petebest at 7:04 AM on August 16, 2006

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