Using A MIDI Synthesizer – for Blind People Too!
A MIDI synthesizer is an electronic keyboard, resembling a piano keyboard, with musical sound generating capabilities of its own. A MIDI synthesizer also has a MIDI interface, where an ordinary (usually cheaper) synthesizer does not. A synthesizer has either speakers, and/or an audio-output plug, and usually has a headphones plug.
Often synthesizers are hard for blind people to use, because they use a Liquid-Crystal-Display screen for setting their parameters. But when you connect them to the KeyMusician Keyboard, it can control most of those parameters, using its windows that work with screen-readers, thereby letting blind people use them.
The MIDI performance-data of the music you play on the MIDI synthesizer’s keyboard, is sent to your computer over its MIDI interface, to a sequence-editor (word-processor for music), and/or the KeyMusician Keyboard application.
All of the KeyMusician Keyboard’s ease-of-learning features available with a typing-keyboard, are also available with a MIDI synthesizer. That includes the fingering being the same in every key-signature.
Notes you play on the MIDI keyboard, appear in real-time in the music display of the KMK, in key-signature context, along with any flats, sharps, or naturals. And your use of the sustain-pedal, a volume-pedal, modulation-wheel, or a pitch-bend wheel, affect MIDI controls displayed on the KMK’s current performance pane.
An inexpensive MIDI synthesizer can also be used to play the higher-quality sounds of the KeyMusician Keyboard, just by turning its speaker volume all the way down, or by plugging headphones into the synthesizer’s headphones plug (which turns off its speakers). Also, the KMK application with a typing-keyboard, can play your MIDI synthesizer, giving it an 84-key keyboard, even though its internal keyboard has only 61 (or even fewer) keys.
You can even add to what you can play on the MIDI synthesizer’s keyboard, by playing chords on the numeric keypad of the typing-keyboard, in combination with melody on the synthesizer keyboard, with a different instrument sound for the chords. And you can play them as sustained chords, strummed chords, or arpeggios – with no memorization required.
Where the KeyMusician Keyboard gives you 84 keys, and MIDI synthesizers give you 49, 61, or (in the more expensive case) 88 keys, it would seem there is little value in adding a MIDI synthesizer. Yet there are many useful things a MIDI synthesizer can do for you, enhancing the KMK application.
What a MIDI Synthesizer Can Do for You:
Velocity-Sensitivity (controlling how loud individual notes are, based on how hard you hit the key
Although the KeyMusician Keyboard lets you gradually change the volume as you play (similar to a volume pedal of an organ), it is easier to do quick changes of how loud each note is, by how hard you hit it, using a MIDI synthesizer. If a synthesizer you’re thinking of purchasing doesn’t have a velocity-sensitive (touch sensitive) keyboard, it is not as valuable to you.
Since typing-keyboards pass no information regarding how hard you hit each key, the only way to add this individual-note volume control to the KeyMusician Keyboard, is to play a velocity-sensitive MIDI synthesizer (or keyboard), through it.
By playing a MIDI synthesizer through the KMK application, the velocity information on each note is passed-to (and used by) the application, as well as the sustain-pedal control signal. A volume pedal connected to your synthesizer also affects notes played on the typing-keyboard using the “Expression” assignable control.. A sustain-pedal, a pitch-bender, and a modulation wheel, used on your MIDI synthesizer also affect notes played, even if the notes are coming from a typing keyboard.
In doing this, you get velocity-sensitivity, but keep the ability to have the fingering the same in every key signature (you play only the white keys, unless you need an accidental (a note not in the current key signature)), as well as the ability to play chords on the numeric keypad.
Single-Keystroke Accidentals (you can play a note which is not part of the current key signature by pressing a black-key)
If you have a lot of accidentals (notes not in the key signature) in a piece, mixed among notes within the key signature, it can be difficult to first press the Page-Up (or Page-Down) key before playing the accidental. Sometimes this is handled for you automatically by playing a chord that contains that accidental, but if not, it can be difficult (or impossible) to play fast phrases with manual accidentals.
By playing a MIDI synthesizer through the application, you can instantly play an accidental, by hitting the black-key above (or below) the (white-key) key of the key signature’s scale.
Simplify the task of playing multiple independent parts by having a single, continuous, left-to-right row of keys
Learning to play multiple, independent parts, is probably the most difficult part of learning to play the piano. Playing melody with chords is much easier, and takes much less time to learn.
Although the reversing ascending/descending direction of the notes played by each keyboard row, is no problem when playing a single melody part, when you add two or more independent melody parts, that reversing note-order adds complexity, even exceeding the simplification of always playing within key signature.
If you need to play more than two independent melody parts, using a MIDI synthesizer makes this task easier, because it’s a single, continuous row of keys.
Add a foot-controlled sustain-pedal (in addition to the space-bar toggled sustain control)
Although it's fairly easy to toggle the sustain-control on/off by hitting the space-bar with your thumb, it's even easier to use a foot-controlled sustain pedal. Though a sustain pedal often isn't included in your purchase of a MIDI synthesizer, you should always purchase one as a necessary accessory. Make sure the MIDI synthesizer being evaluated for purchase has a plug-in for a sustain-pedal.
Another way of adding an additional player to playing the same instrument
In the same manner as you can add an additional player (like piano four-hands) to the same KeyMusician Keyboard melody instrument, by plugging in an additional typing-keyboard, you can also add such a player using a MIDI synthesizer. One advantage of doing this with a MIDI synthesizer, is the MIDI synthesizer keeps playing, even if keyboard-focus is lost by the KMK application window.
Add a totally independent instrument, simultaneously playing different instruments on the same laptop
If you have a competent keyboard player, who can play in any key signature without the aid of the KeyMusician Keyboard application, you can connect the MIDI synthesizer directly to one or more of the instruments in your VST instrument rack (or another software-synthesizer), while another person plays other instruments of that VST rack (or synthesizer) using the KeyMusician Keyboard.
Your laptop very likely is capable of handling this simultaneous music, even with a pianist pounding away at a very fast piece! You can have two band-members, playing simultaneously on two different instruments, using the same laptop.
Better accuracy in playing, especially for the blind
The keys of your MIDI synthesizer are larger, and don’t have other keys above or below them, compared to a typing keyboard. So when you’re playing without looking at the keys (or can’t see the keys), you’re less likely to miss your target key. You don’t have to watch your hand position to see if you’re about to hit the end of a typing-keyboard row. With your MIDI synthesizer, there is just one continuous row of keys, and if you run off the end of it, your finger just clunks down on the cabinet, rather than playing a wrong note, or accidentally hitting the wah-wah (Enter) key, or left-shift (flat), or right-shift (sharp) key.
Play as many simultaneous notes as you have fingers
With an ordinary typing-keyboard, some key-combinations won’t play together, unless you use a gamers’ keyboard with anti-ghosting of at least 10-key rollover. Your MIDI synthesizer’s keyboard has no such limitation. The only limiting factor of this, is the polyphony limits of the sound generator of the synthesizer you’re playing.
Using a MIDI synthesizer as the musical-sound generator, eliminates latency (the delay between pressing a note-key, and hearing the note play). Eliminating latency makes it much easier to play fast music.
How To Connect a MIDI Synthesizer
Most MIDI synthesizers sold nowadays, use a cable with a USB plug for the computer, and a device USB plug for the synthesizer. Such USB MIDI interfaces are class-compliant, meaning no special device-drivers are required. The picture below shows the USB plug, and its socket in the synthesizer.
Other MIDI synthesizers may just have the round sockets for MIDI plugs, as shown in the pictures below:
Plug the MIDI output plug from your computer, to the synthesizer’s MIDI input plug. Plug the MIDI input plug from your computer, to the synthesizer’s MIDI output plug. A MIDI Thru plug, if it’s there, is used to connect to another synthesizer. For synthesizers having only the round MIDI plugs, I use a USB MIDI interface cable, such as the iConnectivity mio USB to MIDI interface. It works on Windows, MacOS, and Linux, with no special drivers required.
Here’s a picture of the back of another synthesizer having only the MIDI plugs, also showing the plugs themselves:
Here (below) is a screen-shot of my connecting the Yamaha YPG-625 (Portable Grand) MIDI synthesizer to the KeyMusician Keyboard application, as a MIDI Input device:
The “Thru” radio-button selected above the MIDI Input drop-box, indicates its input is passed-thru the application to the connected “MIDI Output To” device, which in this case is the Yamaha ‘YPG-625 portable grand’ synthesizer.
If instead, the "Display" radio-button were selected, notes played on the MIDI synthesizer would display on the performance-pane graphics display, in a red color. This can be useful for an instructor to play something for the student to match (playing the KeyMusician Keyboard).
So that's how you connect it to the application (assuming you have its USB cable already plugged-in). But there is one more step that is very important to take care of.
The input from the MIDI input device, is only received by the currently-displayed performance pane (on its particular MIDI channel). All other MIDI input channels are filtered-out.
Since MIDI synthesizers respond to MIDI Program-Change messages, the easiest way to accommodate this, is to configure all your medody performance panes to use MIDI channel 1, which is the usual default MIDI channel for synthesizers to send on. Then, when you change performance panes, a MIDI program change message is sent to change the synthesizer to use the performance pane’s bank, and instrument, so each performance pane can have its own unique instrument sound.
The Chords pane tab, which you don’t normally select, uses a different MIDI channel (such as 2), so that the chords sound can be different, and has a different volume level from the other performance panes.
This way, when you switch performance panes, you can play notes on the synthesizer’s keyboard, and it will use the instrument sound selected by the performance pane. You can even change instrument sounds while playing on the synthesizer keyboard, just by pressing a function key on the typing-keyboard.
Other Important Things To Take Care Of
There is a MIDI parameter on your synthesizer, called “Local Control”, or maybe just “Local”.
When you play notes on the synthesizer keyboard, that go to the KMK, and are sent back to the synthesizer to be played, you need to set this parameter to “Off”.
This ensures that when you press the synthesizer key to play a note, it doesn’t instantly play, then play again (milliseconds later) when the MIDI Note-On message is sent back to it from the KMK, which could result in an overly-loud, or even distorted sound.
If you are playing in a key-signature other than the key of C, it could be even worse if this parameter is not turned off, because the note would instantly play in the key of C, and milliseconds later play in whatever other key-signature you are using, which could sound like a chord (rather than a single note), and possibly an unpleasant chord!
If you don’t play the synthesizer’s sound generator from its keyboard, you don’t have to turn off the Local Control MIDI parameter.
Playing Your Synthesizer In General-MIDI Mode
Most synthesizers support General-MIDI mode, which has a certain set of instrument sounds, each selected by the numbers 1 through 128.
The Java Sound (Gervill) Synthesizer, used by the KeyMusician Keyboard, uses General-MIDI mode.
So if you just connect the KMK to your synthesizer, using the same instrument definitions as you used with the Java Sound Synthesizer, they will play on your synthesizer pretty much the same.
Some sounds played this way on your synthesizer may be better, and some may be worse, in a hit-and-miss fashion. The FluidR3_GM soundfont distributed with the KMK is pretty good – better than most entry-level synthesizers.
Just set your melody panes to use MIDI channel 1 (the synthesizer’s default MIDI channel), and the Chord pane’s MIDI channel to something else (such as 2). The Chords pane needs to use a different MIDI channel, so that its volume can be set lower than the melody, and also so that its instrument sound can be different.
But one good difference you’ll find in playing your synthesizer’s sound generator, is that you can use the Modulation MIDI control (in the performance-pane’s “Assignable” drop-list), with a good effect. It controls the amount of vibrato in the instrument sound. As you hold out a note, try a few clicks of the up-arrow key, when “Modulation” is selected in the Assignable drop-list, noticing the difference in the sound.
In most cases using the FluidR3_GM soundfont, the modulation control distorts the sound, because the vibrato is part of the sound itself.
Synthesizers, on the other hand, usually respond in pleasing ways to the modulation control, and many even have a modulation wheel on the synthesizer keyboard’s left side.
Using Your Synthesizer’s Unique Sounds (Beyond General MIDI)
Most synthesizers have their own unique voices/sounds, that are more beautiful than the General-MIDI voices. They have in the appendix of their manual, a list of all these voices, and the numbers used to select these voices. With a copy of the manual online, blind people can access this voice list.
Most synthesizers have a sort of number keypad, for entering numbers, or even an array of buttons for selecting the bank, and instrument sound (patch).
On the lower-cost synthesizers I’ve used, any number you enter on the synthesizer’s number keypad, is assumed to be selecting the voice.
So after the KMK is initialized, connected to the synthesizer, and set to a performance pane using MIDI channel 1 (the default channel), you can specify the voice for the synthesizer to use, and play it, either on the synthesizer’s keyboard, or on the typing-keyboard through the KMK.
The KMK won’t send any MIDI Program-Change message to change the instrument, unless you switch to a different performance pane, or hit the Escape-Key (used to turn off any notes that in rare cases may keep sounding).
Defining Your Synthesizer’s Unique Sounds Within the KMK
The Rosegarden digital-audio workstation/sequence-editor, on Linux, maintains a list of synthesizer definitions that users have submitted. Over 200 synthesizers are defined in that list.
The KeyMusician Keyboard supports the Rosegarden synthesizer definitions you can get from that list. You can download the most recent definitions in that list, but they are GZIP archives, which are not easy to extract on Windows.
I have provided, in this article, distributing it as per the GNU General Public License, the definitions from that list, as of early 2022.
You can download these definitions, as a zipped archive, by right-clicking (or option-clicking or activating) the following link, then choosing “Save Link As” (or whatever similar entry your browser presents in the popup-menu). Here is the link:
Rosegarden’s Synthesizer Definitions
In the folder you downloaded it to (such as Downloads), extract the RGD-XML folder contained in the zip-archive. Then search in the folder’s contents, for the definitions of your particular synthesizer. If you find it, copy that file to your KeyMusician-Keyboard folder, and the next time you run the KMK, you can select it in the “Instrument Definitions Used” drop-list of the F1 pane. Then save your KMK configuration file, and you can use it every time you use that configuration.
Having done that, each performance pane (as well as the Drums Pane, and the Chords Pane), will show those banks (in the Banks drop-list), and those instruments (in the Instrument drop-list) of each performance pane. In the KMK performance panes, they are accessible for the blind, using a screen-reader.
You can now configure your favorite sounds of the synthesizer, in each performance pane, and your synthesizer will change sounds to the specified sounds you configure, when you change performance panes.
What If My Synthesizer Isn’t In The List Of Synthesizer Definitions Above?
It’s fairly easy to create a text file defining your synthesizer, using a text editor, from the voice-list in the appendix of your synthesizer’s manual. If you have that manual on-line, you can copy/paste to aid you in creating that definition.
Follow the link below, to learn how to define your synthesizer’s voice-list, in a text file:
Configuring A Custom Synthesizer
Beware that the instrument numbers (patch numbers) start with zero, rather than one. If your synthesizer’s voice list has them starting at one, when you go to use the definitions (.sid) file, the instrument you choose, will be the next one beyond the one you selected.
But don’t despair – simply e-mail your definitions file as an attachment (you might need to append ‘.txt’ to the ‘.sid’ of the filename) for your e-mail system to let you attach it), to:
We will convert it to make it zero-relative, and send it back to you. We have a computer program for doing this.
In fact, it would be good for you to send it to us anyway. If you do this, we will maintain a web-page with all of the synthesizer definitions people have sent to us, making them available for other users.
Connecting a MIDI synthesizer is a way you can easily add capabilities to your KeyMusician Keyboard. And where the KMK is accessible to the blind, this unlocks a world of synthesizers that are not very accessible, to the blind.
It's the easiest way to add touch-sensitivity to your performances, which is especially important if you play percussion sounds. It also gives you a way of more-quickly playing accidentals, and making it easier to play multiple independent parts.
All of the ease-of-learning features of the KMK, are also available when using a MIDI synthesizer, such as the fingering being the same in every key-signature.
The capability of using MIDI synthesizers was designed-into the application from the very beginning, and is just waiting for you to 'tickle the keys'. Give it a try.
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