Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 165 / JUNE 1994 / PAGE 61

How to set up a MIDI music studio. (musical instrument digital interface) (Compute's Getting Started With: PC Sound)
by David English

Surprise! You may already have everything or nearly everything you need to set up a MIDI music studio. Many of today's sound cards have a General MIDI module built in. Others let you add a General MIDI daughterboard or--at the very least--let you add an external General MIDI module to the built-in MIDI interface.

Depending on how you add General MIDI, you may have to pay only $100-$500 for what would have cost $1,500-$2,000 in a MIDI synthesizer just 10-15 years ago.

If you're looking to purchase a sound card with General MIDI built in, there are a variety of options. Some sound cards, such as Computer Peripherals' ViVa Maestro 16, use the Aria chip set to provide General MIDI. Synthesizer manufacturer Ensoniq offers a chip set that's used in Reveal's SoundFX WAVE 32, Aztech's Wave Power Sound Module, and Best Data Products' Soniq 16. Roland's RAP-10 uses the same chip set found in Roland's popular Sound Canvas. Logitech's Sound-ManWave uses Yamaha's OPL4 chip set, as does Genoa's AudioBlitz Stereo 16+ daughterboard. Media Vision will soon offer the Korg chip set in many of its sound cards.

Alternately, you can upgrade many versions of the Sound Blaster 16 sound card by adding Creative Labs' General MIDI daughterboard, called the Wave Blaster. And for external General MIDI modules, you might choose from Roland's Sound Canvas line (including the new SC50 and SC88), as well as Yamaha's Hello! Music, TG100, and new TG300.

With today's General MIDI chips, you can transform your PC's sound card into a variety of pianos, guitars, drums, violins, and other great-sounding acoustic and electronic musical instruments. Almost all the General MIDI chip sets use wavetable synthesis to re-create the musical instruments. The instruments are recorded--or sampled--and are stored in ROM, where they can be called up when needed.

Unlike traditional synthesis, where the musical instruments are re-created from a set of numbers, wave-table-based General MIDI instruments sound very close to the real thing. And as a bonus, many of today's top computer games include support for General MIDI, improving the music within these games by several orders of magnitude.

Techno Hip-Hop

So you've bought a General MIDI sound card or external General MIDI module--how about a musical keyboard? If you just want to play back MIDI music files or input notes using the mouse, you don't really need a keyboard. However, if you want to use a keyboard to play music, any MIDI keyboard should work, including portable MIDI synthesizers from Yamaha and Casio.

Yamaha (714-522-9011) recently introduced two inexpensive, yet feature-packed, MIDI synthesizers: the PSR 510 ($689.95) and the PSR 410 ($579.95). Both are General MIDI compatible and include 61 full-size touch-sensitive keys, 128 AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) sounds, 28-note polyphony, and a new stereo bass-boost speaker system.

The 510 has 102 rhythms and styles (the 410 has 80), a "sound sharper" dial (which the 410 doesn't have), and both realtime and step recording (the 410 has only realtime recording). Because both have a built-in speaker system, you can use either model as a stand-alone keyboard or an add-on keyboard for your computer-based MIDI system. With both modules, you get a lot for your money, and--best of all--they sound terrific.

Because you can tap into General MIDI from your sound card or external General MIDI module, you can also use one of the inexpensive MIDI keyboard controllers that don't have a built-in synthesizer. These are available from Roland, Yamaha, and many other synthesizer companies. Roland's PC-200 ($250) and PC-200mkll ($345) keyboard controllers are velocity-sensitive 49-note keyboards that should work with any General MIDI sound card or module with a MIDI input connector.

As for MIDI software, there are two main categories of MIDI programs: sequencers and notation programs. Strictly speaking, sequencers offer powerful record, edit, and playback features and show the music onscreen as abstract patterns, while notation programs have fewer sequencing features but show the music in traditional music notation.

In the real world, many sequencer programs include a simple notation module (which is especially handy if you read music), and many notation programs have powerful sequencing features built in. Many sound cards include a simple sequencer program; some even include quite powerful ones.

If your sound card doesn't include a sequencer or notation program, you might take a look at Cakewalk Home Studio ($169.00) and Cakewalk Professional for Windows ($349.00) from Twelve Tone Systems (617-926-2480); Midisoft Sound Explorer CD-ROM ($19.95), MIDI Kit with Recording Session ($119.95), and Music Mentor with Recording Session ($149.95) from Midisoft (206-881-7176); and Trax (149.00), MusicTime ($149.00), MasterTracks Pro for Windows ($295.00), and Encore ($595.00) from Passport (415-726-0280).

Three other MIDI programs worth noting are EasyKeys ($39.95) from The Blue Ribbon SoundWorks (800-226-0212), which lets you simulate a musical keyboard on your computer screen; MIDISCAN ($379.00) from Musitek (800-676-8055), which lets you use a 300-dpi scanner to convert standard sheet music into computer-based MIDI files; and Musicware Piano ($99.00) from Musicware (800-997-4266), a Windows-based program that includes an entire first-year piano course.

And for a complete MIDI music package, take a look at The Gravis Personal Piano System from Advanced Gravis (604-431-5020; $495). It includes an UltraSound sound card with General MIDI wave-table synthesis, a MIDI keyboard, the Musicware Piano software, a set of powered speakers, a MIDI adapter, and several Windows-based music composition applications.