Keyboard-to-Mac, minus the MIDI
January 24, 2007 11:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to connect an Alesis QS8 keyboard to my iMac, with the intention of making some music. I'd like to do a bit more than use it as a simple MIDI keyboard, though.

My girlfriend just got her old keyboard shipped out from home, and we want to connect it to my iMac (Intel core duo, if that matters, which I don't think it does). We could get a MIDI-USB converter cable and use it as a MIDI keyboard -- I'm running GarageBand, of course, and I've got Soundtrack Pro -- but it's such a kick-ass keyboard that we'd like to be able to import the sounds it can make into my machine. I know that's more or less impossible with GarageBand, but I'm not so sure about SP Pro.

How can I go about doing this? I've asked pros at various music shops, and even phoned Alesis tech support, but honestly, they seemed less concerned with helping out a beginner than with feeding their own egos by spewing a bunch of technical terms I don't know, and looking at me like I'm an idiot because I don't know them (yeah, I'm bitter). I know I'll need at least one piece of hardware and (maybe) one piece of software (though my gf would like to avoid ProTools). I'd like to save as much money as I can, but I know these things can get a little expensive.

We're willing to go the MIDI-USB converter route for now, but we'd definitely like to improve our setup in the future. Keep in mind I'm not an audio pro, though I am a pretty fast learner and can teach myself stuff if I have sufficient resources.
posted by hifiparasol to Computers & Internet (15 answers total)
Forgot to mention that I've looked here and here, and I'm still wanting things to be dumbed down for me just a little more.
posted by hifiparasol at 11:36 AM on January 24, 2007

I would route the audio out from the Alesis into GarageBand *and* connect it via MIDI/USB. When you record, set up a MIDI track (which you can mute) and an audio track that's capturing the audio from the Alesis. There may be latency issues if you do this, but if the one track is muted, you should be able to correct this by adjusiting one or the other track's position once you're done recording.
Get something small, but with a pre-amp, to record the audio from the Alesis (see here -- I use the Firewire Audiophile for small jobs, but you may not need something with so many outputs).
That way, if there *is* latency, you can reverse the MIDI connection and have GarageBand "play" the Alesis. If ther's not, you have an audio track with the Alesis's sound, and also a MIDI track you can edit/manipulate.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:42 AM on January 24, 2007

Forgot to add -- more specific, step-by-step advice is nearly impossible without knowing what MIDI/USB and audio-->digital hardware you'll be using.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:47 AM on January 24, 2007

The Alesis keyboard you have looks like a "sample based" synthesizer, which means that it stores a sound, and when you press a key, it plays back that sound, pitch shifted according to which key you pressed. This is opposed to a a synthesizer which *creates* sound via some mechanism, which some do.

Looking at this page it appears that there is the ability to transfer sample files to and from the computer using a serial cable and probable some special software. That page also has a link to download the software in question. Do you have the special serial cable? If not you can buy one from alesis it looks like, or try to make your own.

Whether or not those sample files would be "usable" on a computer, in some other kind of sampler, I actually don't know. Also, the keyboard has some on-board processing that it applies to samples when you play them, which would not be available in the raw samples. There are lots of software based effects that are probably similar though.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:47 AM on January 24, 2007

You can also always mic the speaker/cabinet you play the keyboard through, and capture the audio that way.
You'd need a preamp (even one on a cheap mixer) and mic, or one of them new fangled USB mics.
posted by dan g. at 11:47 AM on January 24, 2007

If you're going to mic the amp you play the Alesis through, I'd reccomend just running a line out form the amp to your digital/audio hardware and then into the computer. Cuts down on ambient household noise.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:50 AM on January 24, 2007

Thanks all. Great answers so far, really helpful.

In addition to the MIDI in/out/thru ports on the back of the keyboard, there's also a DIN-8 serial port, alongside a toggle switch labeled MAC/PC. Initially it seemed like this might be useful, but after talking to Alesis tech support, I'm not so sure. Any thoughts on this?

I'm also trying to determine if this might be useful.
posted by hifiparasol at 12:00 PM on January 24, 2007

Are you just trying to play the keyboard and capture whatever song you played as audio? Or are you trying to "extract" the various sounds from the keyboard and use them in some other program? The first is dead easy... you can pretty much just take the line out from the keyboard and put it into the line in on your computer. Is this the "best" solution? No, probably not. It'll work though.

If you're trying to take the individual samples from the keyboard and do something with them on a computer, probably somewhat more complicated. That's what I initially assumed you wanted to do, but none of the other answers seem geared towards that.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:35 PM on January 24, 2007

The maudio thing you linked to is basically just an external sound card with a preamp built in and some other niceties like phantom power (which you don't need) and probably XLR mic inputs (if you were using mics, which I don't think you need to for what you want). I have one very similar to it, that I use to record from microphones, and it works OK.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:37 PM on January 24, 2007

RustBrooks -- depending on the level that his synth puts out to its line out, he may need the preamp in the M-Audio device just to have a better signal-to-noise ratio.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:53 PM on January 24, 2007

You're not going to be able to extract the samples from your Alesis QS8. What you want (or need) to do, is sequence your QS8 from Soundtrack Pro via MIDI. Take the audio output of your QS8 and route it back into an Audio track in Soundtrack Pro. So:

1) Setup a MIDI track in Soundtrack Pro
2) Setup your Alesis MIDI In channel so that it's the same as Soundtrack Pro's MIDI out channel on the MIDI track you just set up
3) Setup an Audio Track (stereo) in Soundtrack Pro
4) Plug the Audio Out of your Alesis into your computer's Audio In
5) Start playback of your sequence from Soundtrack Pro, with the Audio tracked Armed for recording

You'll get some latency, so the Audio will have to be shifted a bit (i.e. there will be lag time from when your Alesis receives a note on message, to the time the audio makes its way back into your computer and into Soundtrack Pro).

Hope that helps.
posted by bizack at 1:08 PM on January 24, 2007

A USB or Firewire Audio + MIDI interface, like the Tascam US-122(which I use) will allow you to use the 1/4" stereo audio output as well as MIDI in/out. An audio interface with MIDI will be somewhat more versatile than the M-Audio unit, as MIDI will enable you to use the nicely weighted keyboard on the QS8 to control powerful software synths on the computer.

IIRC, the serial ports on the QS keyboards can be used to upload patches to the keyboard. As far as I know, there is no OS X application for this, however. (I own a QS6, but use it exclusively for live playing, no synthesis.)

When you say "import the sounds it can make into my machine," do you mean doing something beyond playing the QS8 and recording the resulting audio output? (By "playing" I would include sequencing something on the computer and sending MIDI commands to the QS8 to play back that performance sequence to record as audio on the Mac.)
posted by andrewraff at 2:24 PM on January 24, 2007

Audio pros can get obnoxiously lost in jargon, but I think most are genuinely interested in helping you. Don't forget it's your right & your responsibility to interrupt them when they veer off into jargon land, and remind them they need to put it in lay terms...
posted by lorimer at 5:55 PM on January 24, 2007

When you say "import the sounds it can make into my machine," do you mean doing something beyond playing the QS8 and recording the resulting audio output?

Let's say the Alesis has a setting that makes the notes you play sound like a Hammond organ. Maybe there's another setting that makes it sound like a pennywhistle, and another that makes it sound like a Celtic harp. What I'd ultimately like is, when I switch the Alesis to the "pennywhistle" setting, for my computer to be able to play, record, and play back the notes that I played, in that pennywhistle sound (ideally without latency, but these are details). Same with the Hammond organ setting, and the harp setting, and so on. This is why I'm guessing GB might not be up for the challenge, since GB is pretty primitive and is more or less designed only to accept MIDI data. But ST Pro might.

I'm beginning to worry that the language simply doesn't exist to express what I need to do to my novice brain; if the question has already been fully answered and I totally missed it, apologies. I may have to just learn a lot of this stuff from scratch. Thanks...
posted by hifiparasol at 8:10 PM on January 24, 2007

Yes GarageBand is perfect for this. Although I don't use it for my own music, I can assure you very little about that application is primitive. Its elegance lies in its many ways it's Logic with a facelift.

You have two options with the QS8 and GB:

1. Use it multitimbrally (multiple sounds over multiple midi channels), by setting up the QS8 to assign different programs (a.k.a. patches, sounds, presets) to different midi channels. Then disable local control, meaning it sends midi to GB, then GB sends the midi info back to the selected channel, and voila, you are playing your harp, pennywhistle, or kickass supersaw trancelord extreme solo.

2. Use it in a much simpler way (multitimbral can be annoying, but I'll let you find out why on your own), by recording the MIDI in GB, then recording audio, changing programs on the QS8, and doing that for each new sound. That's the most common way people multitrack, and a good place to start.

If you have any more questions, my email is in my profile.
posted by SeƱor Pantalones at 1:30 AM on January 25, 2007

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