How to get started with MIDI on the cheap
February 16, 2007 10:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for an interesting and inexpensive MIDI instrument.

My wife and I both like to play different instruments, with her defaulting to piano and me to guitar. We'd like to try out MIDI recording for both the breadth of instrument voicings and the ability to transpose those cool improvised jams we can't ever remember. We have an imac running OS X Tiger but no midi capable instruments, (we usually play acoustic music). I know my wife can find a MIDI capable keyboard, but I'd really like to try something else, like the stuff mentioned in this recent question. I've only got $100 to spend, however. Is there anything that cheap out there?
posted by monkeymadness to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Sure. I just bought an M-Audio Oxygen8 v2 midi keyboard (via USB, so no adapter necessary) for around $100. It's not fantastic, but it does the job as a feeder for recording MIDI drum and organ parts and whatnot. If you can live without the control surface portion (ie the MIDI-assignable knobs, buttons and/or sliders) you can get a larger keyboard for less money.
posted by davejay at 10:19 PM on February 16, 2007

Argh, submitted before finishing my comment. Let's continue.

Having said that, quality instruments are quality instruments, whether they're MIDI-capable or not. When I play my M-Audio keyboard, it does the job and the small form factor lets me tuck it away when I'm done -- but if I really want to play, I do that on my Yamaha digital piano, because it feels like a real piano (I selected it specifically for the feel of the keys) and it also happens to be MIDI-enabled. Relying on a bad instrument to make you sound good in MIDI means you'll spend lots of time quantizing and otherwise making up for your gaffes.

So, by all means, get something cheap and see if digital recording via MIDI is for you. If it is, however, be prepared to spend a lot more for a quality instrument in the near future, because the musician in you will demand it.
posted by davejay at 10:24 PM on February 16, 2007

I know my wife can find a MIDI capable keyboard, but I'd really like to try something else, like the stuff mentioned in this recent question.

So not so much with the keyboards.
posted by cortex at 10:25 PM on February 16, 2007

I don't know what your electronics knowledge is, but if you have a voltage-control synth or theremin, you might be able to build a voltage-control-to-midi interface.
posted by fvox13 at 10:28 PM on February 16, 2007

Dammit, someone makes a 12-function-trigger DIY midi-controller project kit...... something you can make anything into a controller with, but damned if I can find it now...... it was a basic USB interface and had instructions on how to make the triggers work in all sort of fashions, using some parts from radio shack and basic soldering skills.....

Anyone? I thought it was made by M-Audio a few years ago but their website leaves me at a loss......
posted by peewinkle at 10:42 PM on February 16, 2007

Your question asks about keyboards but those aren't the only MIDI controllers out there.

Digging through some of my links:

• My MeFi post on homebrew OPEN DSP synths
• My MeFi post on Scrambled Hackz
Virtual MIDI Keyboard — use your keyboard and mouse to simulate a piano keyboard
Doing MIDI with a Palm PDA
• Alternative MIDI controllers
• Sherman Filterbank (okay, that's an effects box but man is it fun)

There used to be a light-sensitive MIDI controller called an Eyris, which you would use by holding your hand a certain distance away from a photosensor. Works like a Theremin except you get variable MIDI data based on how much light hits the sensor. It looks like the company no longer makes it but you might be able to find one on your favorite auction site.

I looked at i-Cube stuff when I was making music with Max/MSP. Cycling74 used to collaborate with these folks. They make various sensors (photo, temperature, tactile) which act as MIDI controllers.

• Soundbeam (another sensor-based MIDI controller)

Probably the penultimate DIY homebrew MIDI controller recipe site in my mind is Check out the gallery.

Either uCApps, Virtual MIDI Keyboard or the OPEN DSP project is probably closest to answering your question, price-wise.

• BigEye software, takes video (webcam) signal and turns it into MIDI

Do you program? You could write some controller software with the Core Audio libraries, and the developer's tools are free.

Some of this stuff costs more than $100 new, but you might be able to score used equipment on the cheap. Musicians buy and sell hardware regularly.

Good luck and have fun making sounds!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:50 PM on February 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

You don't actually record MIDI sound, it's data that you record. MIDI just tells some other machine to make noise. So if you want to make interesting sounds that aren't keyboard-like you are in luck, but if you are looking for an under $100 midi controller... that's not a keyboard? Not likely.

But if you get an inexpensive MIDI controller you can control free synths on your mac, such as the totally awesome Crystal Synth which you can host inside one of these free hosts listed here.
posted by bigmusic at 10:54 PM on February 16, 2007

You can get MIDI pickups for guitar. Last time I played with one was ten years ago when they were notoriously crappy. I imagine they're better now.
posted by wackybrit at 6:34 AM on February 17, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the ideas and links, all. I'm not actually looking for circuit bending and synth sounds, but more traditional instrument sounds. I guess what I'd like to find is a controller (?) with a form factor like a traditional instrument (guitar, bagpipe chanter, flute, etc.) that I can use to make those other traditional instrument sounds. Tools like in Wackybrit's response and those in the thread I linked to in my question are more what I'm looking for.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:01 AM on February 17, 2007

The problem with MIDI guitar pickups is the string has to vibrate long enough for the sensor to determine the pitch before it can generate the MIDI signal. So there is a pretty hard and fast limit to how much latency can be reduced, unlike a keyboard interface, where even cheap ones can have almost no latency.
posted by 31d1 at 7:02 AM on February 17, 2007

I'm not actually looking for circuit bending and synth sounds, but more traditional instrument sounds.

Controllers don't make sounds, you actually use the controller to make a software synthesizer output sounds. You can use Garageband or Kontakt etc. to make guitar-like sounds from any controller you have.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:34 AM on February 17, 2007

Here's something a bit above your price cap, but I've been having a blast with it for the past few months:

The Yamaha EZ-EG

Yamaha markets it as an easy learning guitar-type thing. It has "nine realistic guitar and eight bass guitar sounds, plus banjo, shamisen, and piano," which are pretty much the same crappy synthy General MIDI patches that you'll hear coming out of a bottom-of-the-line Yamaha keyboard.

But to hell with the LED light-up chords and $6-bucks-a-pop downloadable songs from Yamaha. The thing has a standard MIDI out (well, semi-standard, as it transmits on channels 1-6 simultaneously, one channel per "string," so getting it to play nice with your MIDI software is sometimes a little tricky). It ships with a USB-MIDI interface. I got mine (a refurb) for $140. I love it. If you have any specific questions about it my email is in my profile.

See this page for some software, info and links. There's also an "acoustic" model with no whammy bar and different action on the strings which I guess is more suited to pickless playing.
posted by drumcorpse at 10:35 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Controllers don't make sounds...
I know. Sorry if I was unclear. It just seems like most of the info out there is all about creating obviously synthetic sounds, and I'm more interested in replicating traditional instruments, so I'm looking for something with a form factor like a traditional instrument and don't need sliders, lots of knobs, etc.

drumcorpse, that looks great. I'll take a look.
posted by monkeymadness at 12:54 PM on February 17, 2007

A few years ago Yamaha made an electronic drum unit with a MIDI output, these might be availible used for under a hundered these days.
posted by yohko at 1:25 PM on February 17, 2007

If you don't mind used, you've got a lot of options.
Drums will be your easiest chioce. The Yamaha DD-55 is often available used on craigslist for $120.
The Yamaha DD-5 is often available for around $30, but it only has four pads. Both the DD-55 and tha DD-5 can be batterey powered, which is a bonus. You can find Ion MIDI drum kits dirt cheap, I've seen them as low as $75. You may be thinking to yourself, "I have no interest in playing the drums," but the fun happens when you hook a MIDI drum up to a synth that has no drum tones.

Got extra time and energy? You can buy this MIDI drum kit brain and slap some home made drum pads onto it.

You can find deals on the Yamaha EZ-AG (acoustic model) and the EZ-EG (electric model) mentioned above, but you'll probably have to find one used to meet your price criteria. Thye look good though, I plan on getting one for my sweetheart.

I have the MIDI pickup for normal guitars and basses, and I like it a lot, but they don't do anything by themselves, you have to get a $200-$800 signal converter. They're a lot of fun if you have the money though.
posted by lekvar at 2:50 PM on February 17, 2007

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