New Life for an Old Synthesizer

The KeyMusician Keyboard can give new life to an old synthesizer.

How is that possible? With its 84-key range (where most synthesizers have only a 61-key range), you can play very low, and very high notes at the same time, without having to switch octaves up or down, as you would have to do with a 61-key keyboard.

Also, with the capability of playing chords using a different instrument sound, and single key-stroke instrument changes, your old synthesizer gains a lot more flexibility.

But the favor can reach both ways. If your old synthesizer has a velocity-sensitive keyboard, it can be used to add expressivity to your KeyMusician Keyboard, as well as single-key-press accidentals.

If you have an old synthesizer lying around, collecting dust (because it's not fun or inspiring to play anymore), take heart, and learn how you can give it a new lease on life.

If you don't have one, such synthesizers can often be found at yard-sales, or thrift stores, for a bargain price!

For it to be useful, it needs to have a MIDI interface. Here's how you can tell if it has one. Look for MIDI interface plugs on the back side of the synthesizer, as in the picture below:


This synthesizer's back panel has MIDI In, and MIDI Out plugs, fitting our USB MIDI interface's MIDI plugs in the foreground. We can use it!

Simply plug your MIDI interface's input plug to the synthesizer's MIDI Output plug, and your MIDI interface's output plug into the synthesizer's MIDI Input plug. Then your computer's MIDI output goes to the synthesizer's input, and your synthesizer's output goes to your computer's MIDI input.

An Example

In the 1980's, I bought a Roland D-20 synthesizer, shown in the picture below:


My Roland D-20 Synthesizer Computer Work-Station

Back then, sound generation via synthesis was the established technology, and sampling technology was only beginning to take over.

The Roland D-20 was a very good synthesizer at the time, but it used the older synthesis technology. So the sounds aren't as good as you now get using sampling technology, as most synthesizers today offer.

The only way you can play multiple instruments at the same time with it, is to do a keyboard-split. With only a 61-key keyboard, that doesn't give much room on either portion of the split-keyboard.

But it has an on-board sequence editor, and good sounds, with a lot of flexibility. It only has a 61-key keyboard, but it is velocity-sensitive. It has some unique, and beautiful sounds, so I still like to use it.

I composed a lot of music on it for many years.

Given its limitations, I now seldom play it, having a newer, better synthesizer that uses sampled sounds. But with the KeyMusician Keyboard, it's fun to play my Roland D-20 again! Being able to do different sounds for chords and melody, is especially useful in playing it.

I had to create an instrument definition file for it (the link goes to an article telling you how), but it was well worth the effort.

It's also still useful as a velocity-sensitive MIDI keyboard.

To use it to play the KeyMusician Keyboard's synthesizers on the computer, I simply turn the D-20's volume all the way down (so it doesn't make its own sound), and use its keyboard to play the synthesizers on the computer.

You can learn how to use a synthesizer this way by reading the KMK Newsletter article telling you how to use an external synthesizer or MIDI keyboard, which you can read by clicking the prior link.

In this case, I connect my MIDI interface to the MIDI “In” and “Out” plugs on the back of the synthesizer.


MIDI Out, and MIDI In Plugs, inserted above at lower left.

This synthesizer also has a “MIDI Thru” plug, which passes all MIDI messages coming in on the “MIDI In” plug out through the “MIDI Thru” plug.

To show you what I can do with the old Roland D-20 synthesizer, using the KeyMusician Keyboard, I've included an MP3 file of an improvisation I did with it.

It first goes through most of the performance panes, playing chords and melody, and it finishes with both hands on the melody section (of the typing-keyboard used to play it), showcasing the greater keyboard range, with two different instrument sounds.

Give it a listen by clicking the link below, and see what you think.

Improvisation On A Roland D-20 Synthesizer

Pretty good for a synth from the 1980's!

I hope this article gives you some ideas for making use of older synthesizers you might have lying around, or might see in a thrift-store or yard sale.

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