Computer Software

As mentioned briefly in the discussion of MIDI, perhaps the most powerful option that accompanies the digital piano is the ability to connect your instrument to your personal computer and enhance your musical experience by using different types of music software. Software can expand capabilities your instrument may already have, such as recording and education, or it could add elements like music notation and additional voices. While it's beyond the scope of this article to describe music-software offerings in detail, we'll take a quick look here at the different categories: Recording and Sequencing, Virtual Instruments, Notation, and Educational.

Recording can take two forms on the digital piano: data and sound. All models that offer onboard recording (i.e., nearly all of them) record MIDI data. This means that all of the actions you take when you play a piece—both key presses and control actions—can be recorded by a MIDI sequencer. But remember that a MIDI sequence, or recording, is data, not sound. Recording the actual sound of your music is a different issue, and few digital pianos can do this.

Enter recording software. Recording software ranges from basic packages—even the most modest of which will exceed the recording capabilities of most digital pianos—to applications that can handle complete movie scores, including film synchronization. The higher-end applications are called Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). These software applications cost more than many of the lower-priced digital pianos, and can be used to record, edit, and mix combinations of MIDI and audio tracks, limited only by the processing power and storage capacity of the computer. If you have an opportunity to look inside a modern recording studio, you'll find that computers running DAW software have replaced multi-track tape recorders.

Virtual instrument software can be controlled, or "played," by your digital piano via MIDI, and can also be played by recording software that resides on the computer. Virtual instruments can take the form of standalone software or plug-ins. Standalone instrumental software doesn't rely on other software, but plug-ins require a host application such as the DAW software described above, or other software developed specifically as a plug-in host. Virtual instruments can be sample sets for strings, horns, or even pianos, or they can accurately emulate the sonic textures and controls of popular electronic instruments that are no longer produced, such as certain legacy synthesizers. (A number of piano-specific virtual instruments are explored in the article "My Other Piano is a Computer," in Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer.) While virtual instruments allow you to expand your sound palette beyond the onboard voices of your digital piano, they can place heavy demands on your computer's processor and memory. A mismatch of software demand and hardware capability can result in latency—audible delay between the time the key is played and the time the sound is heard. If both the digital piano's onboard voices and the virtual instrument's sounds are played simultaneously, there could be a time gap between the two outputs that would make the result unusable. Virtual instruments can be an exciting addition, but be prepared for the technical implications.

Notation applications are the word processors of music. If you have a tune in your head and want to share it, simply recording it will allow others to hear it. But in order for most people to play your music, it must be written out in standard notation. In the early days of notation software, it was necessary to place each note on the staff individually using the computer's keyboard and mouse. The advent of MIDI created the ability to play a note on a musical keyboard and have it appear on the computer screen. Today's notation programs virtually take musical dictation: you play it, and it appears on the screen. As with recording applications, there is a wide range of capabilities available, from programs that will let you capture simple melodies, to applications that will easily ingest the most complex symphonic works, transpose and separate the individual instrumental parts, and print them out.

The final category we'll discuss is educational software. Just as there are educational programs and games to assist in learning math or reading, there are applications that use the MIDI connection between your instrument and computer to help you learn different aspects of music. A music-reading program may display a note, chord, or passage on the screen; you play the displayed notes on the digital piano and the software keeps track of your accuracy and helps you improve. An ear-training application may play for you an interval that you then try to play yourself on the keyboard. The application will tell you what you did right or wrong and help you improve your ear. Other types teach music history and music theory. While many of these applications are geared to specific levels or ages, some can be set to multiple levels as you progress, or for use by multiple players.

Introduction to Buying
a Digital Piano

by Alden Skinner

Acoustic & Digital
Piano Buyer