Improving Your System – Things Applicable To All Operating Systems


Note: The information on this web-page is general for all operating systems. Look it over, keeping in mind it suggests possibilities for things you can do. For specific information (which will be easier to understand), refer to the web-page for improving your specific operating system (Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux). Hit the browser's “back” button to access that information.


Attaching An Amplifier And Speakers

Having a quality sound is one of the best ways to inspire a budding (or experienced) musician. And one of the first very-effective things you can do is attach an amplifier and good speaker system to your computer. The speakers internal to a laptop are guaranteed not to inspire.

A good set of headphones can get you started when you're on a budget.

With the right adapter cable, you can attach your computer sound card to most home stereo systems.

There are sound-systems designed to attach to your computer (or an MP3 player). I recommend you get one that at least has a sub-woofer. But the lowest cost system of that sort is only adequate for using in a room, and won't carry in a performance-hall, if you plan to perform.

Stores will try to sell you stuff that costs $200 - $300 per-speaker for that, but you don't need to spend that much money. I have successfully performed in a performance hall using a modern boom-box (with a plug for attaching an MP3 player).

When I have performed, all I have to bring now, is my laptop (with a USB typing keyboard), and a modern boom-box. No MIDI keyboard or keyboard stand is now required.

With a desktop PC, you plug the cable to your amplifier and speaker system into the green plug of your sound card. If you're recording an audio track on your computer, you hook a microphone into the pink plug, or an amplifier (line-level input) to the blue plug.



Using the Numeric-Keypad On Laptops

On laptop computers, the numeric keypad (used for playing chords) occupies nearly half of the keyboard.

You could live with it by re-mapping the keyboard with shorter rows, but it is better to simply attach a full-size typing-keyboard to the laptop via a USB port.

That way, you get longer keyboard rows, avoiding many cases of more-complicated fingerings required for keyboard-row transitions.

Attaching a USB numeric-keypad does not solve this problem, because half of the regular keyboard is still unavailable for the melody.



Eliminating Keyboard Key-Combinations That Won't Play Together

Though with most keyboards, in many cases, you can play multiple notes at once (having multiple keys depressed simultaneously), the typical typing keyboard was after all, designed so that a typist could type one character at a time. So unfortunately, there are cases where certain combinations of keys cannot be played together.

A cheap and easy way of working around this problem, is to plug-in an additional USB typing keyboard (one for each hand). This also gives you 'piano 4-hands' capability. Add another keyboard, and it gives you 'piano 6-hands' capability.

Probably the best solution is to purchase a keyboard that supports more simultaneous key-presses.

Computer gamers have dealt with this keyboard deficiency for a long time, and there are a lot of keyboards manufactured for gamers that can support our need for higher numbers of simultaneous key-presses. For information on keyboards with this capability, click on the following link:

Keyboards With High Simultaneous Key-Press Capabilities



Soundfonts – Collections Of Instrument-Sounds

A soundfont is a collection of instrument-sounds, which can be loaded into a Soundblaster Live or Audigy sound card, and also, into the Java Sound synthesizer.

Which soundfont you use is like the difference between the sound of an upright spinet piano, or a grand piano costing thousands of dollars. As a composer, I can personally vouch for how much a quality instrument sound can do to inspire you to create! If your instrument doesn't inspire you, it isn't a good enough instrument.

Do an Internet search for “soundfonts” or “soundfonts free”, and check out what you can get. Though this is something worth investing in, there are some really outstanding soundfonts available for free.

I highly recommend the Fluid Release 3 (FluidR3_GM) soundfont, which can be used in all three operating systems. It works great with VST-instrument soundfont players, and can be loaded into soundcards that have hardware synthesizers (the emu10k1 and emu10k2 chips).

You can find out more about the FluidR3_GM soundfont, which is included as part of the KeyMusician Keyboard.



Sound-Cards With Hardware Synthesizers

If you have a desktop computer (rather than a laptop), you have the option of adding sound-cards with the emu10k1 or emu10k2 on-board hardware synthesizer chip. These sound-cards will reduce latency to an imperceptible level, and you can load quality soundfonts into them.

These are PCI cards, so they work only on older machines. Newer machines require PCI-Express card-slots.

My Soundblaster Live card, which uses the emu10k1 chip, has four hardware synthesizers, each of which handles 16 MIDI channels, for a total of 64 simultaneous instrument sounds, which is nearly a complete symphony orchestra! And it does this with no perceptible latency (latency is the delay between pressing a key, and hearing the key's sound). It cost me about $34 (or less second-hand), which is a bargain.

These sound-cards can't be used on a laptop, because the required PCI card interface (allowing the on-board synthesizers to access the computer's RAM) is not present.

Also, only certain models of sound-cards (even though they may have the Soundblaster name) have the emu10k1 or emu10k2 chip (which is what supplies the hardware synthesizers).

The following sound-card models have this capability:

SoundBlaster Live

SoundBlaster Pro, 16

Audigy 2 Series

Audigy 4 Series

Audigy 2Z5 Series

Another good thing about these cards (at least, with the Soundblaster Live card, and with some Audigy 2 Series cards), is that they also provide a MIDI interface which you can use to connect an external synthesizer to your computer with.

You will probably have to order the cable for going from the sound-card's game-port plug to MIDI-cable plugs. When I ordered my Soundblaster Live card online, it didn't come with that cable. The cable didn't cost very much, at least at that time.



VST (Virtual Studio Technology) Instrument Plug-Ins

On Windows and Mac OS X (and to a lesser degree on Linux), the software providing low-latency, quality sounds, is in the form of VST plug-ins.

Plug-ins can either provide a software instrument (in which case they are called VSTi plug-ins), or effects on the sound (such as reverberation, flanger, and other effects). You can chain plug-ins together, with successive plug-ins acting on the output of the prior plug-in.

There are some very good instruments available in this realm, but it can easily cost you a lot of money.

Fortunately for us (allowing ease-of-use, and training that works on all of the supported OS's), there are VST instruments that use soundfonts as the basis of their instrument sounds, and the soundfonts used are ones of your choosing, such as the excellent FluidR3_GM soundfont.

I highly recommend the bismark bs-16 soundfont-player VSTi, which works on both Windows and Mac OS X. This player supplies a full 16 MIDI channels, and responds to MIDI program-change messages. This VSTi will cost you a modest amount of money, but it's worth it. The same web-site has a free version (the bs-0 or bs-1), but it doesn't have enough simultaneous-sound capability (polyphony) to handle the chords produced by the KeyMusician Keyboard.

In order to use VST instrument plug-ins, you need something called a VST Host.

On Mac OS X, I recommend (in this role) the “Garage Band” application. On Windows, I recommend Cantabile Lite. These should be fine for most people, are easy to learn, easy to use, and have the functionality needed for the KeyMusician Keyboard.



Connecting A Sound-Module

The low-cost sound-cards with on-board hardware synthesizers, have 'evolved' to high-cost (but quality) sound-modules. You need a keyboard to play them, but the KeyMusician Keyboard gives you that capability. They are essentially a synthesizer, but without the keyboard.

These will give you high-quality sound, with imperceptible latency, which is very good, but they cost a lot of money. I recommend trying one out in a store before purchasing it, to see if you especially like its sounds.

One thing to watch out for with these, particularly if they connect to your computer with a USB interface, is whether or not Java can access their interface. If Java can't, you'll need to get a USB MIDI interface (such as those available from M-Audio) to connect it. The M-Audio USB-MIDI interfaces are accessible from Java. The MIDI interface supplied by a Soundblaster or Audigy card will work too.



Connecting A Synthesizer

Connecting a synthesizer will give you quality sounds, with imperceptible latency, and it will also give you a traditional music keyboard.

One thing to watch out for with these, particularly if they connect to your computer with a USB interface, is whether or not Java can access their interface. If Java can't, you'll need to get a USB MIDI interface (such as those available from M-Audio) to connect it. The M-Audio USB-MIDI interfaces are accessible from Java. The MIDI interface supplied by a Soundblaster or Audigy card will work too.

If they only connect using a MIDI interface, you'll need a USB-MIDI interface (such as those available from M-Audio) to connect it.

The KeyMusician Keyboard application is more than just a keyboard. It's also a complete music-training tool, and a synthesizer (with its keyboard, connected to your computer) is an excellent tool for interfacing with it.

If you get a synthesizer, try to get one that plays a note louder if you hit the key hard, and soft if you hit the key softly. These are a bit more expensive, but that capability is worth a lot, in performing music.

The KeyMusician Keyboard itself, is only partially velocity-sensitive, so connecting such a keyboard will give you full velocity-sensitivity.



Connecting A MIDI Keyboard

A MIDI keyboard, unlike a synthesizer, has no sound-generation capability. They are about the same cost as on entry-level synthesizer. It allows you to play a software synthesizer, or a hardware synthesizer in a sound-card, and it will interface with the KeyMusician Keyboard application in its role of music training.

Their USB connection will probably interface with Java. My M-Audio Keystation models do. But at worst, you might have to purchase a USB MIDI interface for it, which is not an overly-high cost. The MIDI interface supplied by a Soundblaster or Audigy card will work too.

One thing to consider with a MIDI keyboard, is how many keys it has. For playing popular music, a 61-key keyboard will be all you need, and you can probably get by in most cases with a 49-key keyboard. But if you play classical music, you really will need the full-size (88-key) keyboard.

The KeyMusician Keyboard itself, is only partially velocity-sensitive, so connecting such a keyboard will give you full velocity-sensitivity.

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