Most people have had some experience of learning how to play music while at school, but that rigid structure and limited range of traditional instruments can be off-putting when your own voice is more contemporary, experimental or even waiting for the right inspiration. Fortunately modern technology and affordable – even free – high-quality tutorials online mean formal education isn’t the only route.
In fact, what’s more rock & roll than ignoring the establishment and learning from other enthusiasts or experimenting on your own terms?
It’s fine watching some videos and trying to commit lessons to memory, but to learn how to play, you’re going to need an instrument. Chances are, you’re already looking at it right now as you read this blog; smartphones, tablets and computers offer the widest range of expressive sounds you can imagine – all you need is a controller and some software.
This guide isn’t written for geeks – it was originally intended for a music store’s blog, but I didn’t want to waste it!
How can I use my computer for music?
As long as your laptop or desktop is reasonably up-to-date, running a recent version of Windows or Mac OS and not a stripped-back netbook, it’ll be more than adequate to get started with music applications. Apple’s Garageband app is included with all Macs, and it’s great for beginners. Windows users can get the fully-featured Cakewalk by Bandlab for free, and it’s surprisingly powerful.
Don’t be daunted by the potential these DAWs (digital audio workstations) offer; you can limit yourself to a single instrument and track easily enough. However, there are plenty of software instruments that work as a stand-alone app if you’d prefer.
To begin with, you need little more than a USB MIDI controller keyboard. This will allow you to play virtual instruments running on the computer, and you can use the built-in audio interface at the start, either through headphones or an amplified stereo speaker. Just plug in the keyboard, select a sound, and play.
You don’t need a particularly new computer, either. It’s possible to get a secondhand computer for less than £200 that will comfortably perform as a Grand Piano, modular synthesizer, full orchestra or four-track recorder and effects unit.
Look for a minimum of an Intel Core 2 processor at 1.8-2GHz, 4GB RAM minimum and an operating system matched to the age of the machine; 2010 laptop and Windows 7, for example. Cheap SSDs can be used to make computers this age more responsive, too.
Although not suited for beginners, the Zynthian illustrates how affordable a powerful electronic instrument can be – it’s based on a £35 Raspberry Pi.
What kind of instruments can I play?
All of them! One way or another, there’s a virtual instrument for almost anything you can imagine, and some things you can’t. There’s a twist, though – what you’ll be learning is essentially ‘a piano’, because those are the most ubiquitous, affordable controllers.
Representing the most linear form of a musical scale, a piano keyboard is relatively easy to learn and use. You can get MIDI versions of other traditional instruments but they’re generally expensive and aimed at musicians who don’t want to give up years of experience to move into computer-based recording.
Arturia go beyond providing just the keyboard; the Keylab series includes award-winning virtual recreations of synthesizers since the dawn of electronic music, made user-friendly with the Analog Lab collection of sounds. IK Multimedia offer a similar scope of hardware and software.
Native Instruments provides a more pro-level package, but of modern, up-to-date and original sounds, and other brands often include bonus software that will expand what your computer can do. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, and these are always optional installations, but who can resist an authentic 1960s organ or priceless concert piano that requires no space in the house, and costs nothing?
How do I get started?
For a single instrument – say, Arturia’s Piano V that’s included with some controllers – you just plug in, install the software, connect your controller and speakers and play. YouTube is a good – proven – source of lessons for learning specific songs, techniques and instruments, though as always you’ll want to check the ratings and comments.
Your computers internal audio will probably have more lag – delay between the sound being processed, and heard – than using a high quality external audio interface, but for a single instrument, speakers and controller it won’t be a problem. Humans adapt to the lag rather better than millisecond-precise recording software can; if you start multi-track recording and mixing, lag – or latency – can become more of a problem.
What kind of keyboard controllers are best?
USB keyboards come in all shapes and sizes, so it can be a bit daunting choosing the right one. You don’t need to worry about connection, though – almost every USB keyboard will plug in and work without drivers or any additional hardware, as MIDI is a universal standard.
If you want to learn about melody, songwriting and just playing notes, then a basic controller with full-size keys will be more than sufficient. Most keyboards offer four octaves (49 notes) or five octaves (61 notes), reflecting the range of a typical organ or synthesizer. That can take up a lot of space, though, and unless you want to perform with both hands at once a two-octave, 25-key model will provide ample range for learning to read music and play tunes. Transpose will move the range of the keys, switching between bass and treble clefs in an instant.
Practicing piano you may want the full 88-key range, and you’ll definitely benefit from velocity sensitivity that detects how hard you press the keys. If becoming a pianist is your goal, the ideal is to find a hammer action, 88-note keyboard that can replicate the feel of a real piano – there are several options, including buying an entry level digital piano and connecting it to your computer for lessons, recording and extra sounds.
For composing music and building sequences, rather than playing live, you can save space and get a minikey controller – often with extra features such as phrase recording or small drum pads to tap out a beat.
Specifications to look for
- Velocity sensitivity – more or less volume depending on how hard or fast your playing is. Essential for piano and synths alike, less crucial for organ.
- Aftertouch sensitivity – detects pressure applied to the key when it’s held on for long notes. Very desirable for synthesizers.
- Poly (phonic) aftertouch detects the pressure of each key individually, but requires software or a synth that supports it.
- Pitch and mod controls – usually two wheels, but sometimes a joystick or touch faders, these allow the pitch to be bent in a style similar to the bend on a guitar tremolo, and an extra control to be used to change the sound – such as adding vibrato or changing the filter
- X-Y touch pad or joystick – many synths allow control of several parameters at once with these. Korg’s Wavestation, for example, uses an X-Y joystick to morph between voices in the vector synth engine. Pressure sensitive touch pads can control three features at once!
- Ribbon controller – a flat, pressure-sensitive area that can control different features
- Pads – these are usually assigned to notes for drums, but can also be programmed to trigger chords or show steps in a sequence
- Knobs and faders – self explanatory, these control software or hardware by sending MIDI data. Knobs are traditionally used for panning, EQ and synth programming, faders are frequently associated with mixing and shaping sound, but also double as drawbars. Motorised faders can recall the settings of a preset patch or mix for you.
- DAW controls – The basic stop/play/record feature, plus loop and punch in/out, and other features depending on hardware and software. Let you control your recording software without leaving the controller.
- Sequencer – a recorder for notes that can play back automatically. Your computer can act as a sequencer, but having one in your keyboard can help with performances and composition
Connections: How does it hook up?
- USB – every controller mentioned has USB. Most will be the original USB, not 2.0, 3.0 or C, and will be compatible with a wide range of computers and ‘smart devices’
- MIDI – Musicial Instrument Digital Interface. MIDI is both a port, and a way of communicating, so all of these are MIDI keyboards, but some will have MIDI ports – a five-pin DIN. MIDI out allows the controller to connect to older instruments and interfaces without USB, MIDI in allows it to act as an interface to your computer
- CV – control voltage. Used to connect to modular and analogue synthesizers
- Pedal inputs – usually there will be two. Sustain is a simple on-off switch, expression is a variable value like an organ volume/swell pedal that can usually be assigned to different roles. Some may have patch up/down inputs for live performance too
- Bluetooth – wireless connectivity suited to smartphones and tablets as well as laptops.
As this article was originally written for a music shop, they wanted lists of products to point to items in their online store obviously. I have only briefly seen many of these keyboards, and I was shopping for a controller for myself at the time. They’re just pointers – so I urge you to make your own mind up about what’s going to work best for you; I chose the Arturia Keylab II because of the build quality, feel of the keybed and control layout, as well as the integration with V-Collection synths.
Starter USB keyboards
- M-Audio Oxygen 25 – low cost
- Alesis Q25 –
- Alesis V49 and 61
- Novation Launchkey
- Arturia Keylab Essential
- Native Instruments A-series
This section will be expanded when I’ve spent more time with them and can say something useful!
USB keyboards for electronic music
Compact and affordable, the V25 is a great entry-level controller for a compact setup. It’s got 8 pads which offer velocity and pressure sensitivity as well as 25 full-size keys.
Novation’s SL range is a higher-end keyboard that’s immensely powerful, containing a sequencer and performance controls. It has large, clear displays that make it easy to interact with software, too.
It is only offered in 49 or 61 key models now, and the price reflects the level of sophistication; secondhand SL MK II models are less sophisticated, and require a layer of software – Automap – around VSTs, which can feel a little clunky. They’re worth buying as long as the price is good.
Arturia Keylab II – my choice (in black)
Stepping up from the Keylab Essential, the big leap is aftertouch; but there’s a lot more to like about the full-blown Keylab II. Build quality is better, it’s metal with wood side panels, and the keys are very pleasant to play – taken from the flagship Matrix synthesizer.
It integrates with V-Collection and most DAWs and doesn’t involve any fiddly extra software layers to work – there are overlays to label the buttons for specific software where necessary.
Keyboard action is smooth, fast and consistent with nice weighting, and you can adjust the response to suit your touch – aftertouch does need a reasonable amount of pressure and doesn’t have the notched feeling that some keyboards have.
User templates allow mapping non-Arturia software and hardware – for example, direct access to the internal synths on a Novation Circuit via the sliders and knobs.
This is the one to get if you’re into repetitive electronic music. The Keystep is a tiny, affordable keyboard that can be programmed to play back sequences and controls software and hardware synths easily; it’s a popular controller for things like Behringer’s analogue modules.
The Keystep Pro does all that, but with larger keys and four tracks, including extensive CV connectivity, in the style of the Beatstep Pro.
This unusual keyboard is flat, like a laptop keyboard, and designed to be very portable. Made of aluminium, its strong and ideal for playing on-the-go. It’s notable because it’s one of the few controllers to send polyphonic aftertouch, making it ideal for softsynths like Animoog on iPad, or Arturia Pigments.
CME’s web presence seems to be a bit flaky, but you can find spec, details and offers on Amazon for the X-Key 25 and 37. Air models include bluetooth, but the reviews suggest it’s not always stable…
USB MIDI keyboards for pianists
- Arturia Keylab 88 II
- Roland Go:Piano 88
I’d like to sing too, what else do I need?
Recording audio can be done with the built-in interface, but it’s not going to be of high quality and you can’t plug a good microphone in directly. Keeping it simple, you can buy a good quality microphone with USB, but it’s better to get an audio interface.
A simple USB interface will provide direct connections for a microphone, usually with 48V phantom power and adjustable gain that will allow you to choose the best microphone for your needs and recording environment. Some will include a particular quality of preamp, or even simulations of classic hardware, but at this stage just getting audio into the computer is all you need.
Most will include high-quality connections for a pair of studio speakers, a headphone output and an extra input for a guitar or other instruments.
You don’t need this to plug your USB keyboard in and play music, but you’ll almost certainly notice the improvement in quality if you use studio speakers. As a rule, virtual instruments will also feel more immediate and natural to play, too, as the time to turn your keypresses into audio is reduced by a dedicated audio interface.
Spending more will, on the whole, add more inputs and outputs rather than improving quality, until you get to the really high-end studio gear. Make sure your computer is supported – some firms are better than others at updating drivers.
What’s the best audio interface for a beginner?
Providing the required stereo output for speakers, microphone, instrument and guitar inputs and a fast USB interface, there’s a selection of highly competitive models. We’d recommend the Focusrite Scarlett Solo or 2i2 for the majority of musicians, which is also available with a microphone and headphone bundle ideal for video, vocal and voiceovers.
I don’t have a computer! What else can I use?
Reading this on a smartphone or tablet? Good news! With an appropriate adaptor (the Camera Connection Kit is the most obvious), you can connect most USB music keyboard and controllers to Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad devices, gaining access to thousands of music apps. Interactive music lessons, games and tutorials are incredibly effective here, with a direct link between sheet music and keys that students 20 years ago could only dream of.
For electronic musicians, tools like Korg’s Gadget and i-series synthesizers are particularly good, but there’s an endless array of recreated classics from brands like Moog, and totally new ideas too. There are plenty of Android devices with the same capabilities, but it’s too broad a market to cover here.
You can record multi-track audio from more than one instrument at once with an appropriate interface; many are supported by apps like Cubasis for professional audio production in a deceptively small, and affordable, package. For jamming with friends, simple mixers that will accept a keyboard, guitar and microphone are under £100 – or you can look for secondhand analogue items for less than half that.
You can even get Korg Gadget for the Nintendo Switch – so there’s really no barrier to expressing yourself with music these days.