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I am a noob who wants to learn piano. I don't have the money to buy a good digital piano and the portable keyboards sound like toys. I read a little online about MIDI software, but a lot of it was not clear to me. I need to know if I can buy a 61 key portable keyboard and hook it up to my computer with some MIDI software like Ardour or LMMS. Will it sound a proper piano ?

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MIDI is a standard for carrying sound-related instructions like "start playing note 102 on channel 15 with velocity 187" from a producer (like a keyboard, a drum pad, or a sequencer in playback mode) to a consumer (like a hardware synthesiser, a software synthesiser, or a sequencer in record mode).

So you really have two questions here:

  • Can I buy a keyboard that feels like a piano and creates good enough MIDI output for a piano synthesiser?
  • Can I get software that sounds enough like a piano, and works with MIDI input?

The answer to both is "yes", for certain values of "enough".

The features you're looking for in a keyboard are "weighted" and "velocity sensitive".

"Weighted" means the keyboard has weights in it causing it to resist pressure and return to its position in the same way as a real piano -- that is, it feels the same to the touch.

"Velocity sensitive" means that the keyboard measures how fast the key is moving when it (virtually) strikes the piano string -- that is, how hard you struck the key -- and includes that measurement in the MIDI note event it sends.

There are lots of keyboards available that don't have any sound-generating technology in them at all -- they just produce MIDI for consumption by another device. Others do have a synth -- you can treat that as a "bonus feature" if you like. There are situations where, even if the sound isn't great, it's convenient to be able to play without hooking up to a computer.

The ones that are supposed to feel like a piano, will say so in their marketing material. Read reviews.

Modern MIDI keyboards have both a 5-pin MIDI output for traditional devices, and a USB port for MIDI-over-USB and convenient connection to a PC.

Your next requirement is some software that can accept MIDI signals and play a convincing imitation of a piano.

The piano is a difficult instrument to replicate exactly, and people have spent considerable effort producing commercial piano synthesis software, for which they charge hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, for most people, I believe that cheap software is adequate. On Macs and even on iOS, GarageBand has a Grand Piano sound which I consider good enough for all but the fussiest.

On PC, VST is a module format for adding sounds to music software. You can search for VSTs that provide piano sounds.

On Linux I found a page of piano SoundFonts.

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    There are programmes like Synthfont for playing soundfonts on Windows as well. Synthfont can also use Giga sample files (which is handy, because there's a very nice Yamaha grand sample set in Giga format kicking around the Web), import MIDI files, export to a variety of audio files, and so forth. – user16935 Dec 31 '14 at 20:21
  • I am thinking of buying casio ctk 3200 or yamaha psr 343 .. they sounded acceptable on youtube... do you have any recommendations ? – square_one Jan 1 '15 at 5:31
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Many sample library plugins also work as a standalone program for performing or practicing. So, if you want to use your computer like a piano just for playing and practicing (not recording and producing...etc) you can just get a piano sample plugin which also works standalone. This way, you will not be dealing with an intermediary audio workstation.

You can start with checking IK Multimedia Miroslav Philharmonik Classik Edition and free basic library for Native Instruments Kontakt Player. After you get the idea you can search and try limited free versions of other VST piano plugins/libraries special for piano. Then you can use the one suitable for your needs.

This way it would be much cheaper than a hardware solution.

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No. Ardour and LMMS do not include a Midi expander (Midi->PCM, namely sound files) anyway, at least Ardour is Midi-in, Midi-out and you use it for recording/assembling tracks and sessions. So your sound quality depends on the quality of your Midi expander, and the freely available sound fonts are at best so-so.

So that's the situation regarding the sound output.

A cheap 61 key portable keyboard will not have weighted keys. So the action is not really comparable with piano action either.

If piano and piano action is really where you want to go, go for some second-hand digital or electric (not electronic) piano. An electric piano is entirely different regarding its sound from a normal piano and basically only useful for non-classical music. But the action is similar, even when the range is smaller.

If you really want to learn the instrument, it is not important that you get something which has hundreds of mediocre sounds. You need a good mechanical key action, and you need one compellingly good sound fitting well into the key action. All the rest is nice but will not keep you practising (as opposed to experimenting until you get bored) an hour per day.

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    You're right about soundfonts, but with modern computers and software synthesis techniques there's absolutely more in the equation. The biggest issue is the PC required - you need a fast audio interface and powerful CPU to use a lot of software synths, but these days that is becoming less and less of a problem (except for the audio on cheaper PC's - these can introduce significant latency to the sound of your keyboard coming out of the speaker). With adequate hardware, you can get a free VST host and VST piano synthesizer quite easily that works with any MIDI device and sounds great. – Darren Ringer Dec 31 '14 at 23:26
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Well, your cheap piano very likely transmits only pitch information, not metronome beeps nor velocity information. So you can't really get high quality sound from your piano. However, you can get some good MIDI samples (buy them, find good ones online, ...) and then you get as good sound as your samples and PC speakers allow.

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