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I know how to use my MIDI keyboard in GarageBand for instance and play it with different instruments etc. But what I want is to be able to play a few notes here and there even when I'm in the middle of doing something completely different. I.E. I want my keyboard to be identical to a normal piano/synth that's always available for me to play music.

Is it possible?

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Leave GarageBand running in the background at all times? –  slim Jan 9 at 14:07
    
@slim GarageBand and other DAWs use significant CPU, memory, and hard drive resources, so it's preferable to use something lighter weight if possible. –  Kevin Jan 10 at 4:48
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4 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes it is possible.

Using your Mac

If you want your Mac to be part of the system, you'll need to leave your Mac on running the software that is producing the sounds at all times, but that doesn't seem to match a "simple always-on piano".

Samplers need a lot of resources, and having one on your system 100% of the time might be impractical.

If you still want to use your Mac, I recommend you to don't leave the sampler software running all time. Just run it when you need it. There are many lightweight AU hosts that you can use to run your samplers, synths, and other instruments. Some options are:

There are stand-alone alternatives.

Without your Mac

You'll need to connect your MIDI keyboard to a a device that can interpret the MIDI data that is always on, or that can be turned on fast and easily.

There are devices designed to do this. You'll find them as sound modules, sampler modules, or synth modules.

There are modules of all the price range. Some examples are:

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+1 Keyboard - MIDI (DIN) cable - Blofeld (etc) - Monitors. –  RedGrittyBrick Jan 13 at 17:14
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I'm going to assume that you don't want to buy sound-generating hardware to replace your Mac.

Apple provides a free lightweight application called "AU Lab". It is not installed by default. Among other places you can get it at: http://www.apple.com/itunes/mastered-for-itunes/

AU Lab allows you to connect MIDI channels to sound modules called "Audio Units". Audio Units are the standard for instrument and effect plugins in the OSX world.

So you will also need a piano audio unit. It's possible that you'll find the standard GarageBand piano is an audio unit which you can access from AU Lab, but if not you'll need to find a piano audio unit you like. A Google search for "audio unit piano" reveals several, ranging from free to very expensive.

Of course, you're not limited to piano sounds, and some there will be AUs that are less memory and CPU intensive than a realistic piano simulation.

Note that any AUs you install can also be used from GarageBand, Logic and most other DAWs.

So:

Find an Audio Unit plugin that makes the sound you want. Install that. Install AU Lab. Configure AU Lab to route MIDI from your keyboard to your AU. Leave it running.

  • KVR Audio has a searchable database of audio plugins.
  • 4Front Piano is the first free piano AU I found on KVR. I have not tried it myself, so this is not a recommendation. It claims to be "small on memory and CPU usage".

However this is a reasonable amount of trouble to go to, when it seems to me that simply leaving GarageBand running would do the job. Leave it open on a song with only one track, a piano track.

GarageBand takes a while to load, but if it's not recording, playing back, or monitoring a real instrument, then its CPU load should be minimal, and it should not be doing disk IO. Although its memory footprint is large, most of it will be swapped out to disk, leaving only the blocks necessary to handle piano playing in RAM. Indeed, if you work your Mac hard with other memory-intensive tasks, then try playing piano, you'll notice a delay while it brings those blocks back from swap.

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There also are Simple Synth around here. –  Édouard Jan 10 at 13:31
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Even if the app is lightweight itself, the AU samplers it will run tend to furiously eat resources. It will slow down his system considerably. That's an important thing to take into consideration: the app is one thing, but the AUs will ask for their own piece of the pie. –  JCPedroza Jan 10 at 14:14
    
@JCPedroza "Furiously"? Surely that depends on the AU. The options run the full gamut from a simple FM Synth (should be very resource-light) to something with multiple high-bitrate samples for each note (will chew up memory). –  slim Jan 10 at 14:33
    
@Slim I referred to AU samplers specifically, not synths. Since the question was regarding both piano and synth sounds, I assumed that he'll need both samplers and synths. Samplers are inherently resource hungry, a lot of his RAM will be eaten 100% of the time. –  JCPedroza Jan 10 at 14:37
    
@JCPedroza OK, yes, if you want to make memory-intensive noises, you can't avoid using memory. Although as discussed, if you stop playing, and the system needs the RAM, the OS is likely to swap those blocks to disk. –  slim Jan 10 at 14:42
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Pianoteq Stage

I've written on this site before about Pianoteq Stage, a US$129 / €100 app that has very low CPU, RAM and hard drive space requirements and makes a wonderfully realistic and expressive acoustic piano sound. It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

It comes as a small-footprint stand-alone app, as well as a VST and Audio Unit plugin. You could run the stand-alone app in the background all the time without needing to have a resource-intensive DAW or VST host running.

Pianoteq Stage is available in a free limited demo version; download it and give it a try.

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Well its not instant but I use software on windows called cantabile. Its ment for live performance where you make instrument arrangements. I have a couple of projects with various virtual instruments configured and shortcuts on my desktop. If I want to practice I double click the project, power on the keyboard and then can play in a few second. I have everything on a ssd so that helps dramatically in loading time.

I am really satisfied with this solution and guess that a similar setup must be available on mac.

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