We recently released an article covering our favorite MIDI keyboards, and why they’re a valid substitute for keyboards, and potentially even fully fledged digital pianos.
Depending on your musical background, buying an instrument that makes no sound might seem like heresy, but that’s a viewpoint that is somewhat outdated. Nearly everything we do in this day and age revolves around computers and software, and the music scene is no different.
This article is the first in a series where we guide you through the basics of music making with computers. This guide is aimed at pianists (and keyboardists) of all skill levels and aims to show you the proper method of working with software instruments (VSTi plugins).
Here’s a quick outline of what we’ll be covering today:
- How computers fit into music making
- What you need to get started
- How to practice with software pianos
- How to record piano playing
Why Use Computers?
Let’s start with a bold claim. Using a budget keyboard and a mid-tier laptop, it’s possible to achieve radio-ready piano sounds that rival those from fully fledged digital pianos.
It sounds wild, but it’s not so farfetched.
Many songs you hear on the radio use software piano libraries as opposed to mic’d up concert grands. Software gives the keyboardist a lot of flexibility. Forgoing software instruments because it makes performances ‘sterile’ or ‘lifeless’ is an outdated mindset and means you miss out on a lot.
If you still aren’t convinced, software is a key part of music production. If your impression of music studios still involves massive mixing consoles and archaic rack-mounted effects, you might be surprised. Many songs are in fact mixed with a simple Macbook and a pair of good headphones.
Naturally, embracing the digital side of music making isn’t simple, and it’s easy to get lost in the details. Many tutorials online seem to assume the audience wants to become professional music producers. Learning as much as you can is nice, but it definitely overshoots the needs of the general public.
If you’re someone who’s struggled with saving your songs using your keyboard’s onboard recorder, we hope you’ll learn something by the end of this guide.
On the other hand, if you’re already well-versed with DAWs and the required set up, consider this a thorough review of the fundamentals.
What You Need
A Keyboard or Digital Piano
This is the main centerpiece of our setup.
Do bear in mind that the keyboard needs to be able to communicate with your computer. For simplicity, a USB to Host port is recommended.
We’re pianists/keyboardists first and foremost, so we need a way of translating our playing into data which the computer understands. While we can theoretically sequence piano parts, we want to retain our playing dynamics and natural timing.
Sequencing: This term describes the process of drawing out notes in the software by hand. This is great for creating synth part loops, but nothing beats the natural playing dynamics of a skilled piano player.
Any keyboard works. We highly recommend working with a keyboard that has fully-sized keys, and velocity sensitivity. If you need a sustain pedal, be sure to have one at the ready.
In my case, I’m working with the Nektar SE-49, a 49-key synth action MIDI keyboard. It doesn’t have fancy features like pads, transport controls, or weighted keys; but it has fully sized keys and solid pressure sensitivity.
The only real downside to the SE-49 is that it comes with no sound generation capabilities (it’s a MIDI keyboard after all). This does make it a very portable option, and we can easily fix that issue using software instruments.
This will serve as our sound source.
In our article on the best sub-$150 keyboards, we recommended Addictive Keys, which is a popular budget-friendly option. It also includes a standalone version, which lets us skip past the complicated topic of VST hosts and DAWs. If you aren’t willing to shell out for Addictive Keys, a 10-day trial is available. Give it a shot to find if it is for you.
For the more frugal crowd, we also recommended the free combo of the sforzando sample player, and the Ivy Piano in 162 sample pack. This is an incredible piano library that rivals the expensive industry standard packs, and did I mention it’s free?
Either way, these are some good options for beginners, and both are well worth checking out. In this tutorial, we’ll be working with Addictive Keys, as it includes a more intuitive user interface and customization options.
If you’re interested in learning about other popular piano libraries, check out this article where Samantha covers some of the industry’s preferred piano sounds.
Any laptop or desktop running 64-bit Windows 7 and up or MacOS will work. We won’t be working with any overly intensive applications, so a high-performance system isn’t mandatory.
Do try to ensure that your computer doesn’t suffer from slowdowns. As a rule of thumb, having a 2-core CPU with at least 4 GB of RAM is the bare minimum, but more is certainly better.
You could technically use an iOS device like an iPad, but we’re eventually going to cover DAWs, which work best on non-mobile operating systems.
For reference, I’ll be working with a 2019 Lenovo Ideapad 320 running Windows 10.
While most digital pianos and keyboards include onboard speakers, you might need to get creative with connections in order to route your computer audio through them.
What about recording the digital piano’s own sound (Audio Out)?
This isn’t something we’ll cover in this series, as our focus will be on software instruments. Most digital pianos don’t allow you to route audio through USB, which makes recording them quite convoluted.
You’ll likely need an audio interface and work with the audio outs in order to capture the onboard samples. Check our in-depth guide on how to record the sound of your digital piano.
Finally, we need a way of connecting our keyboard to our laptop.
I generally like to work with the USB to Host port. Most keyboards use a USB Type B port, so any printer cable you have lying around works well.
There are some murmurings about USB MIDI being slow and prone to latency, but these opinions are unfounded. If professional gamers can work with USB-mice and keyboards, us musicians can do the same.
Using Software Pianos – Practice
Now, let’s talk about working with the software. We’ll give thorough instructions on how to set up both Addictive Keys and sforzando, and cover certain features that might be of interest.
Once you have your keyboard hooked up to your laptop, some drivers should be automatically installed, as many companies market their keyboards as plug and play. If they aren’t, head over to the manufacturer’s site and download the corresponding files.
Plugin-only instruments: If you’re using a software piano that doesn’t have a standalone option, I’d suggest skipping ahead to install a DAW before continuing on.
While free non-DAW plugin hosts exist, I find them quite clunky, and most modern DAWs have a lot more optimizations which make them superior. Once you’ve got a DAW set up, install the VST-format of your plugin.
We’re first going to focus on Addictive Keys, specifically, the Studio Grand version, which I personally think is the best of the bunch when it comes to sound quality.
If you’re wondering where the Addictive Keys installer is, you’re not alone. XLN Audio, as with many other music software companies, has adopted the software manager distribution method, which is convenient once you get it set up, but involves a bit of work at the start.
I’m also quite annoyed with the need of installing an installer just to get a product I bought, but it is what it is.
Regardless of whether you’re using the Trial or the Full version, XLN’s online guide will help.
The Online Installer handles all of the brunt work, such as placing the files in the right place. Begin by downloading this installer and running it.
Then, add the products you wish to try or use. If you’ve already purchased the version you wanted, click on the Register Product tab near the top and type in the corresponding serial number. XLN’s website backend will handle all the rest.
Before clicking on the Install button, click on the Advanced tab to check the installation paths.
There are 3 subsections here. The Addictive Keys tab shows where the samples get installed. The VST32 and VST64 tabs show where the 32-bit and 64-bit VST plugin dynamic link library (DLL) files go.
Try remembering the VST folders. If you want to install sforzando too, you’ll need to install the files into the same directories.
Put simply, all plugins need to be installed into the same folder, as DAWs and VST hosts have a one-directory scan limit. It’s a cumbersome limitation, but it helps keep things organized.
Once the installation is complete, you should be able to find a program called Addictive Keys Standalone on your desktop or programs folder. Fire it up, and you’ll be greeted with the main user interface.
Before you start playing, you’ll need to select your keyboard as the MIDI input device. On the upper left corner, click on the Audio & MIDI Setup button, and select your keyboard under the Active MIDI inputs list.
You should now be able to hear piano sounds as you play.
An option you might need to toy around with is the Audio Buffer Size. If you find yourself noticing some delay between your keypresses and the sounds, try lowering the audio buffer size.
A smaller buffer size is more intensive on your CPU, but it also makes playing feel snappier.
Now, you’re ready to play. If you want a change in sonic characteristics, you can click on the arrows to cycle through the available presets. I personally like to use the default Studio Grand preset for practice due to its neutral, close up sound.
On the other hand, the Arena Ballad and Audience presets are my go-tos for live performances. They come with a nice natural reverb which places the piano within a believable space.
For live performers, try exploring the FX tab. Using the onboard controls, you can use an impressive hybrid reverb/delay unit with multiple algorithms to add a sense of ambience to your sound, and tame some unwanted frequencies using the parametric EQ.
If you’re someone who uses Roland’s Piano Designer or other modeling options, you’ll love the edit section. You get to mix samples from different mics, capturing the piano’s sound from different positions.
A full rundown of Addictive Keys is beyond the scope of this guide, but I want to emphasize that the greatest strength of software instruments is the customizability. Even if you’re someone who just wants to play, knowing that these options exist will always be helpful.
sforzando + Ivy Piano in 162
If you opted to go with the free option, then you’re in the right place. Plogue’s sforzando plugin is a freeware sampler that is quite popular among the bedroom producer crowd. Its main draw to fame is its support for the open-source SFZ library format, which is how the Piano in 162 library is shipped.
Installing sforzando is straightforward. Once you have the files downloaded, the installer guides you through the essentials.
The installer will prompt you to select what formats you want to install. This seems complicated, but uncheck everything apart from the standalone and VST2 versions for now.
AAX format: This is a plugin format that only works on MacOS. Generally, most DAWs on Mac support both VSTs and AAX plugins, but Logic Pro is the exception that only supports AAX plugins, do bear that in mind if you intend on using Logic Pro for the latter half of the tutorial.
Note that for the plugin installation (VST2), you should choose the same VST folder as with Addictive Keys.
Either way, the setup should be completed in no time, as sforzando ships with no built-in sounds. The download page does have an optional sound bank option, which you can use if you want some basic sounds to work with. However, we want sounds comparable to those included on fully-fledged digital pianos. That’s where the Piano in 162 library comes in.
The main strength of this library is the massive sample count. The download is massive, clocking in at a humungous 4.6 GB. Each key on the piano is sampled at 5 different playing intensities, twice.
This is a technique known as round-robin sampling and means that when you press a key twice, a different sample gets played each time.
Once you have the files downloaded and extracted, fire up sforzando, and set up your keyboard as the selected MIDI input device. You can access this menu via the Tool dropdown on the upper left corner, followed by the Preferences option.
To load the Piano in 162 library, click on the Instrument tab on the upper left corner, and select the ‘import’ option. Then, navigate to where you extracted the Piano in 162 ZIP file, and locate the ‘IvyAudio-PianoIn162-Close.sfz’ file. This will be the main piano sound we work with.
Loading may take a while, as the sampler loads roughly 2 GB of samples into memory. This might be a bit too much if you’re using an older computer, so do play around with buffer sizes to get the optimum between latency and performance.
Once that’s done, you’re ready to start playing. The recorded samples are a bit soft, so don’t hesitate to turn up the volume.
Personally, I’d say the sounds on the Piano in 162 library beat Addictive Keys’. There’s a lot of natural nuance you can get, and even on a synth-action keyboard like the SE-49, it feels like I’m playing a real piano.
The problem with this option is the lack of customization and user friendliness.
There’s no multi-mic mixer or flexible effect chains. You’re stuck with basic onboard effects and a volume fader. However, using sforzando means you’ve got a realm of possibilities ahead of you.
Using Software Pianos – Recording
There are two main ways to go around recording software pianos.
First, we could record the audio output of our computer. This is a bit archaic, but it keeps things simple.
The more ‘correct’ recording method would be with a digital audio workstation (DAW). Using a DAW gives you a tempo-synced grid, editing, and more robust exporting options.
We’ll walk you through both options below. The former, simple method will likely be sufficient for most people. However, DAW-based recording is an indispensable skill for any modern musician, and it serves as a good jumping off point for future articles in this series.
Basic Recording with Audacity
Audacity is a popular free program for audio recording and editing (MIDI is not supported). While the interface isn’t as slick as more fully-fledged audio editors like Adobe’s Audition, it has all the essential features you need.
Audacity can be downloaded from the Audacity Team’s website. Regardless of which download option you go with, go through with the installation process and fire up Audacity.
By default, Audacity records your microphone input. We need to set things up such that Audacity records our computer’s audio out.
If you’re on Windows, simply click on the Audio Host dropdown menu, located below the playback controls. From this dropdown, choose Windows WASAPI, and you’re good to go.
If you’re on MacOS, you need to get the Soundflower extension, which allows you to pass system audio to programs.
Once Soundflower is installed, head to the Apple Menu, and open up System Preferences. From there, choose Sounds, head to the Output tab, and select Soundflower (2ch) as your sound output device. Now, run the Soundflowerbed app, and you’ll get a ‘flower’ item on your menu bar. This means you’ve set up the Built-In Output for Soundflower 2ch.
On Audacity, go to the Devices tab, and choose Soundflower (2ch) as your recording device. You’re now ready to record.
Do remember to return your Mac’s sound settings to the default once you’re done by setting your Output to Internal Speakers or Line Out.
Assuming you already have your software instrument set up, play a few notes on your MIDI keyboard, and check to see if you’re getting any input signal.
To enable monitoring, click on the mic symbol to the left of the first audio meter, and select the Start Monitoring option. Now, every note you play should cause the meters to move upwards.
If everything works, you can simply hit the record button (or use the R-key on your keyboard as a shortcut) to begin recording, and hit the stop button to conclude recording once you’re done.
On the waveform display, you can do some basic editing. I’d recommend cutting out early silence by highlighting the unwanted parts and hitting the delete key.
If you’re satisfied with your recording, it’s time to export your file as an MP3 or WAV file. Under the File menu, click on export, and choose your desired file format.
Audacity includes a good number of built-in effects, but they’re a bit cumbersome to work with.
We’ve really only scratched the surface of Audacity’s power. You can add more tracks to do overdubbing, and you can apply effects like EQ or reverb to add a layer of polish.
However, Audacity is primarily an audio editor, not a music making application. We’re stretching it way past its intended use case. If your goal is to make professional-sounding tracks, I’d recommend going with a DAW.
Recording with a DAW
If you’re serious about making quality recordings, a DAW is the way to go.
DAWs are primarily designed for music production, but modern DAWs have performance-specific features and optimizations that make them useful even for home-based musicians.
If you’re on Mac, Garageband is a great place to start. It is straightforward, and the complicated options are hidden from view. The workflow also emulates its bigger brother, Logic Pro. If you eventually decide to upgrade, you won’t need to start from scratch.
Unfortunately, plugins aren’t supported on Garageband, which means you can’t use Addictive Keys or sforzando.
Windows users will need to go with other commercial options. I personally use Ableton Live 10, and I’ll be using it to demonstrate recording in the following section. If you’re intrigued, Ableton Live 10 offers a 3-month trial period to new users, and it’s a great way of getting your feet wet.
Apart from Ableton Live, there are a ton of other great options that may suit your workflow better, and most DAWs also come with a free trial. I’d recommend checking out our DAWs shootout for a more in-depth rundown of your options.
You’re probably balking at Live’s price tag, and that’s understandable. It’s a massive investment if all you want to do is basic recording. Thankfully, Ableton Live has a Lite version.
This is a trimmed-down version of the full program, which is often included with various hardware/software purchases (e.g. audio interfaces, VST plugins, etc.)
Regardless of your DAW of choice, the guide below is made to be as general as possible and works with any DAW that includes MIDI recording functionality, so let’s get started!
Fire up your DAW, and plug in your keyboard. Since we’ve already gone through the setup process, everything should work right out of the box.
By default, your DAW should be monitoring all MIDI inputs, which is a lot more convenient than the manual setup process of the standalone plugins.
Each vertical column in Ableton Live’s default view is a ‘Track’, and the first two tracks are MIDI tracks. Play a few notes on your keyboard, and you’ll see the meter on All Channels peak based on how hard you’re playing. This means your MIDI keyboard is connected.
Most DAWs should include a built-in piano sound, so load it up and try playing a few notes. In the case of Ableton Live, a ‘Grand Piano’ preset is available under the Sounds tab, and double clicking on it will load it up on a new MIDI track.
Ableton Live helpfully collates all presets under the Sounds section, and also has a handy search function you can access by hitting Ctrl+F. Typing ‘grand piano’ shows you the default preset. Don’t worry too much if you can’t see the long list that I have, I’m using Ableton Live 10 Suite, which includes a ton of bonus sounds.
Ableton, and most DAWs, will also arm the track for recording, as indicated by the bottom-most button on the track turning red. You should be able to hear sounds as you play the keys now.
In Ableton Live, presets are loaded in as squares on the bottom section of the screen. As you can see, a few options are available if you want to modify the sound slightly, but it pales in comparison to Addictive Keys.
If you’re using Ableton Live, hit the tab key or the Arrangement View button on the upper right corner to switch to a more conventional horizontal DAW view, as opposed to the default Session Mode, which is primarily performance-focused.
Arm Recording: In DAWs, the process of studio recording is recreated. If you want to record anything onto a track, be it MIDI or Audio, you’ll need to ‘arm’ the track first, indicated in Ableton Live as a highlighted record button. When you hit the global record button, only armed tracks are recorded to.
This is the primary difference between our Audacity-based recording process. Here, we’re working with MIDI, as opposed to audio.
MIDI: MIDI is a protocol designed to let digital musical instruments communicate between each other, and it has been used in computer-based instruments as well. Whenever you play a note on your keyboard, it sends a MIDI signal containing data about the note, the dynamics (value between 0-127). This triggers the corresponding sample or sound from your software instrument.
Now that everything is set up, hit the Record button, and play away. You’ll likely notice that your playing isn’t recorded as an audio waveform. Instead, they’re recorded as MIDI notes (represented as small rectangles).
Right now, we’re not really taking advantage of MIDI’s flexibility, all we’ve really done is confirm that our set up works. Now, let’s try working systematically.
First things first, let’s set our tempo and time signature (in my case, 140 beats per minute, and 4/4). This lets us record to a metronome, and also allows us to use a pre-count (I set mine to 2 beats) to make recording less of a rush.
I’ll also activate the metronome to have a point of reference (as indicated by the button with two circles being yellow).
To assign any software control to a keyboard key, simply right click it and choose the Edit Key Map option. This works in every DAW I’ve used, but terminology might differ.
Let’s assign the record button to a letter key on our computer keyboard (not the one with piano keys). This means we don’t need to reach over to our mouse every time we want to capture an idea. I personally assigned it to the ‘R’ key.
Record some playing to the metronome. You might notice that our playing is synced up quite consistently to the grid. This enables us to do some MIDI editing.
I personally like to edit MIDI in full screen. Simply drag the edges of the MIDI edit section upwards to resize the editor.
Double click the recorded MIDI track to enter MIDI editing mode. From this menu, you can move notes around, change lengths of notes, and even change how hard the notes were pressed (with the bottom part of the screen, indicated by the red lines of differing heights).
Try playing around and modifying a few notes, and listen to the changes by hitting play (or the spacebar shortcut).
Hang on, isn’t this cheating? – Well, it depends on your perspective. I personally do consider MIDI editing to be ‘cheating’, but it’s a nice feature which is both useful and helpful. Even if you’re a purist who will never accept anything less than perfect one-shot takes, just consider this a learning process.
The debate of whether techniques like overdubbing, quantization and vocal editing are ‘ruining music’ is a rabbit hole I’m not jumping into.
Since your recordings exist as MIDI, you also aren’t locked to your plugin settings. If you decide that the chosen preset isn’t to your liking, you can switch presets or sounds, and even make tweaks without needing to rerecord the whole part.
Bear in mind that you can start recording from any point in the timeline. You don’t have to start from the first beat. This allows you to easily do overdubbing or retakes.
Most pianos included in DAWs aren’t really radio ready, and if you’d prefer to use Addictive Keys or sforzando, you’ll need to load the corresponding plugin.
Addictive Keys installs the plugins by default, and if you opted not to install the VST2 plugin format with sforzando, just rerun the installer and select the corresponding options.
You’ll probably need to set your DAW’s plugin folder. In Ableton Live, you can find the settings under ‘Preferences‘.
Then, under your DAW’s plugin menu, you should see the installed plugins. If you don’t see them, you might need to change the plugin directory to the one where you installed your plugins.
Once the scanning is complete, click on the Plug-Ins tab to access your plugins. If you’re like me and have hundreds of plugins, make full use of the search bar!
Let’s try swapping out the default piano sound, which sounds a bit cheap, with Addictive Keys. Simply double click on Addictive Keys, and it’ll make the swap.
Note that each MIDI track can only have one software instrument at a time, which is why Ableton swapped its built-in piano with Addictive Keys.
You’ll see that it’s loaded as a bland box, and that your plugin covers the whole screen. You can minimize the plugin window to work with your DAW by clicking the X on the upper right of your plugin. If you need to make further changes, just click on the spanner icon on the plugin instrument box to bring the user interface back up.
Hitting play now will playback the same MIDI we previously recorded and edited, but through Addictive Keys’ superior samples. This is the power of working with MIDI. You get to capture nuanced performances without locking yourself into sound selections.
Once you’re satisfied with your recordings, hit the File dropdown and select the export option. Most DAWs only allow you to export as lossless WAV or AIFF files for maximum quality, so you’ll need to get a separate MP3 encoder to complete the process.
Why not MP3: Put simply, MP3 don’t sound great. MP3s achieve their small file sizes through heavy compression, which reduces the audio fidelity. MP3 compression is smart though, and most differences from the source audio aren’t really noticeable unless you’re listening hard. Exporting WAV files, which are essentially source-quality, lets you choose whether or not to apply compression in the future.
If you’ve gotten through the whole guide, congratulations! You’ve now gotten your feet wet with proper recording and editing. We’ve only scratched the surface, and there’s a lot more ground to cover.
In the next guide, we’ll teach you how to make some basic song arrangements by adding a few more software instruments. We’ll also limit ourselves to free plugins, just to show that you don’t need to spend the big bucks to get good quality sounds.
In the meantime, try exploring the other features included in your DAW. As with any software application, you’ll get better with experience. Try making a few recordings, try out some different other built in sounds, and try using the audio effects in Ableton Live to tailor your recordings to taste.
As I mentioned previously, DAWs are really powerful. If you’re already intrigued by the capabilities of DAWs, try maximizing the trial period to learn as much as you can.
This concludes this basic guide. I hope you’ve now gotten to grips with the fundamentals of computer music, and I really hope I’ve managed to pique your interest about using software as an instrument.