Serious Music Production for Awesome Pianists with No Audio Engineering Skills, Part I

A Pianist Takes Up Music Production

In the previous post, I reminisced about how I got started producing tracks using free software, oftentimes with the aid of a digital piano. What I had not mentioned was that I was a classically trained pianist but with the minimal set of tools at my disposal, it was not really possible to take advantage of my piano playing skills and infuse it into the music production. To better explain what I’m talking about, here is an outline of my music production process from start to finish.

  • Conception: A musical idea is conceived at the piano. This can be either a short (4 to 8 bar) melody or a full song, depending on my mood. This may need to be recorded depending on complexity of the musical idea and how good my memory is at that moment.
  • Transcription: The musical idea is notated using MIDI editing software, such as Anvil Studio. This step also includes setting the desired velocity (volume) for each MIDI note.
  • Conversion: The MIDI file is used and combined with audio data in a SoundFont to produce an audio file. This is achieved with the free software program SynthFont.

Transcription is very time-consuming, but the biggest disadvantage of “transcribing” a musical idea into MIDI notes is that it loses the natural feel of the originally conceived idea, which may have been flowing beautifully when played on the piano but sounds more rigid and mechanical when transcribed into MIDI by hand. This is a huge loss in both time and artistic expression. Fortunately, some, if not most, digital pianos are equipped with a MIDI interface that can connect to a PC and this allows the pianist to go from Conception straight into Conversion, completely bypassing the pain-staking and imperfect process of Transcription. As a pianist who had limited experience with music electronics and hardware, I was unaware of the capabilities of MIDI and the idea that I could play notes on the piano and they would be transcribed on the computer completely blew my mind. Not only did the notes appear as they were played, the volume of each note was also being recorded so the natural expression (and hence the emotional impact) was being preserved.

Mystery Revealed

     So this is the where I finally reveal the mystery product that revolutionized the process in which I was producing music. That product is…the USB MIDI Interface Cable! When I finally came to the decision that this may be a wise investment (around $35 or so), I ordered the most popular and best reviewed cable I could find on Amazon (Creative EMU XMIDI 1X1 USB MIDI Interface) and a few days later, it arrived. Up until that point, I still did not know or understand the magnitude of how much simpler my life would become from that day forward. I opened the package, pulled out the interface cable, made the connection between my laptop and the digital piano, then sat on my piano bench. I clicked record in Anvil Studio and I breathed one last breath before letting my fingers just take over the process. Transcription was no more! It was a freeing moment as I watched the midi notes appear in real time as I was just doing some simple improvisation on the keys and I felt like I could churn out an entire album that day. When I had finished the recording session, I played back the MIDI files and I was ecstatic with what I was hearing. Despite the MIDI sound, I could hear the human quality of the sound, which made it so real and so palatable. By this time, I had a few favorite SoundFonts, one of which was a Steinway Piano, and I used them on these MIDI files to generate what I thought were very decent piano tracks. It was a breakthrough moment for me, a significant victory. Probably one of the best $35 I’ve ever spent.


     Here is a sampling of some of the tracks I produced shortly after integrating the USB MIDI interface into my music production.

Equipment Used

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