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Keys, Control, and Connections

Len Ovens gave a very helpful suggestion on LAU, and as a result, this article swam into focus: what about keyboards and other control? And the various connections also, have been a closely allied challenge.

It is true that my needs are probably somewhat different than many others', and in the past this has motivated me away from writing this article. But I'll think it's time.

Personal Whys and Wherefores

What you should use, depends just completely upon what you need to deliver. If you need to deliver four simultaneous parts in divergent harmony with a separate rhythm part, you will need a complex setup indeed, and possibly lots of live automation within the musical note input side. There are harmonization filters now for MIDI streams (see below under General Control) as well as for tonal output, and a great many other tools can be introduced to your setups as well.

But I was almost born and definitely raised on the acoustic piano, and my Dad's hot-rod (ahem, his painstakingly restored and wonderfully kept Mason & Hamlin) grand remains an enormous joy to me whenever I visit. And complex control structures are really not my thing: although I have played stacks of keyboards in a number of situations, my favorite all-electronic setup has been discovered as one nice hammer-action 88-key keyboard with good built-in piano sound, with reliable MIDI out to the synth box I am outlining here! Part of this is because although I do occasionally play out solo, I vastly prefer to play with my friends: when we are together the music is just dramatically more than the sum of its human parts, and that's definitely the way I love it best. Also, I wish to play just one part when we are together: I very much enjoy keeping the doors open and opening more, for so much more than my own musical self could possibly contain.

My Basics

I could easily set up a piano sound in my synth, and I could set up to layer it at will with relative volume control to every other patch. But since I need an 88-key controller anyway, I don't bother!; I just use keyboards with good piano tones built-in. The economics work in favor of this; it appears that it does not cost much for builders to add quality sound-production to a keyboard.

So thus far I have been enjoying my Yamaha MO8 and P-35, among others, very much as keyboard controllers. I just fade in the piano tone in and out at need using the keyboard's volume control, and I have Boss volume control foot-pedals both at home and at the church to fade in the synth. One of these days I'm going to add a second foot pedal for the piano as well, but on principle I try to keep the mechanical complications at minimum, to maximize the music and minimize everything else; I'm not in a rush to add anything.


One of the tougher problems to solve, has been connections of my synth to the outside world, and I cannot say it's done, it's just at a reasonable setup now, with much room for improvement. The biggest problem, has been the simple fact that USB and FireWire ports wear out!!! :-) And it is a problem. On my previous box I wore out every single USB port on the motherboard and case, and the externals on two or three PCI USB cards as well. Granted, that was a cheapie motherboard, my newer box is not so and its USB ports are showing signs of being considerably more durable. But I did wear out one PCI-E FireWire card already – actually the “shells” of its ports did not extend through the plate, and that placed enough stress on one of the ports that it eventually bent, stressing the tiny surface-mount circuitry beyond repair. My replacement is an SIIG without that problem, and so far, very good.

There have been even bigger problems. I wore out four 1/8“ stereo audio ports (motherboard, case, and sound cards), and both RCA jacks on the special sound card I ordered; it was a very sweet sound card indeed, crystal clear and smooth and fast, its successor is here. After that sad completion I sent up a request through, and thus met my good friend John Pantzer of Vanquint, who made me a wonderful front-panel plate with two Switchcraft 1/4” jacks and a shielded wire to the motherboard header, which I used until I switched hardware platforms and sought 96 kHz; my Behringer FCA202 has been performing like a champ for quite some time now.

And perhaps needless to say, I won't be thinking about a laptop as synth hardware platform, unless and until wireless MIDI and audio become possible at very high quality and low latency. This does not appear to have happened yet. There are a few sources which claim it, but thus far I have not found reason to defy some published reviews and risk the dollars to find out. Audio does appear very possible, using a number of different methods, some intended for home stereo, and others; but MIDI, not clearly so far, and we cannot risk having a tried-and-true setup which bombs out at a location which happens to be seething with others' wifi signals.

I have thought of using multiple Switchcraft 1/4“'s custom-wired to replace USB connectors, and this remains a conceivable, because good 1/4”'s have a very long lifetime. There is also MicroUSB and USB-C, both of which are said to have comparable lifetimes to 1/4“ phone, millions of insertions; if/when my FCA202 wears out I will very likely look into a PCI-E MicroUSB or USB-C adapter.

The most radical approach I have studied, involves the synth box delivering its output and receiving MIDI input using a few different methods, over wifi, to a Raspberry Pi 2 :-) I tried it with MIDI alone first, and unfortunately even though command loss was rare, it was common enough that it was not worth trying to set up the audio. Loss of a single key-up command per hour, is frankly much too much!

General Control

There are a very wide variety of control options in the world of today's electronic music. Here is just what I understand thus far.

For quite a few years now, MIDI has been the method of choice by which one electronic musical device might drive another. The idea behind, is that one keyboard or other device sends digital “commands” – not electronic audio signal – to another device. These commands take the form of note on, note off, program changes, and quite a variety of others, with lots of options, e.g., duration, velocity, etcetera. When the MIDI commands reach the destination device, it is the destination which is told which notes to play, which tone-settings to apply, et cetera, and if the destination is designed to produce an audio signal to send to an amplifier, it does, according to the commands sent. In this MIDI sense a “device” can be a physical box of some sort, or it can be multiple items of software within one running PC or other box.

The vast majority of musical keyboards now made, will send MIDI signals, either directly through a USB cable, or through a USB-to-MIDI interface like a Yamaha UX16. I should report from firsthand experience, that there are some very popular USB-to-MIDI interfaces where the firmware is stored in a Windows or MacOS driver install, and not in the device itself, and these are often a royal pain to try to use under Linux. I can report that the UX16 does very well indeed. And I have seen much fewer problems with unwanted electromagnetic signals reaching ground, using one of these, than USB direct. My synth setups use MIDI, because it does everything I need.

There is a potential successor to MIDI out there, called OSC. An increasing number of new devices, though still relatively few compared to MIDI, are being made with OSC capability, and there is software which swings both ways and can bridge between the two; mididings is an example.

Between hardware devices, OSC is generally transmitted by Ethernet, instead of USB or anything else. It can admit of considerably higher resolution in some ways, and there are reports of broader flexibility, although there is certainly much debate on this comparison :-)

As for me, I don't care what I use, as long as my synth gets driven reliably by a good keyboard with the right feel. And the simplest, least expensive, and least noisy method for me right now is clearly MIDI, using the old 5-pin DIN cabling. Some day I might get tempted by OSC-over-wifi…but not now, things are working too well :-)

Special Control: Patch Changes and Other

One of the most confusing problems I have been working in this project, is how to change patches, and also in-medias-res volume control for the synth itself.

If one peruses any of the major vendors' web site catalogues, one will find a plethora of options involving MIDI, or OSC, or both. And clearly this is a very viable approach. But I ran into issues which have motivated me differently.

  • Keyboard independence.

I have two different keyboards at home, and there are two others at the church, and over time I expect to need to connect to yet more, as quickly and easily as possible, sometimes for impromptu and unplanned musical adventures. Just about any keyboard out there now, has MIDI, and will send note-commands to anything plugged into it; so, if I use the keyboard's MIDI for note and sustain-pedal only, and use other methods for patch changes and volume control, I have wonderful independence, I can pick up my box and migrate as needed, minimal fuss and muss. Contrariwise, if I depended upon the keyboard for patch and volume control, I would have to spend much time reconfiguring each keyboard – and sometimes someone else's keyboard – which is definitely not what I want.

  • Simplicity, and cost.

Some kind souls on LAU pointed me in very good directions towards setting up some OSC and MIDI tools to do everything I need. There are devices, creatively designed with buttons, large pads, knobs, sliders, et cetera, by which one can do amazing things indeed by MIDI and OSC, and there are pedal systems too. But it occurred to me that no matter which direction in that vein I chose, there were much simpler and less expensive methods which would work for me. So…

The Simple Way for Me!

…I am using an analog volume pedal of the guitar sort to control the volume of my synth while playing…and for patch changes, a standard USB PC keyboard!!! :-) I also have a Genovation 683-U which I am testing now for compactness, but it sure is nice to know that if something happens, all I have to do is jack in yet another inexpensive PC keyboard and it will work.

I definitely encourage you to take the time to find out what will work best for your needs. But I also encourage caution, as one can use up a lot of your capacity in widgeteering, instead of engaging your listeners in the music.

keys_control_and_connections.txt · Last modified: 2015/12/13 15:56 by jeb