For anyone who has a PC soundcard but no easy way to enter musical notes, this add‑on keyboard bundle could be just the answer, explains Martin Walker.
There has been a gap in the market for a low‑cost music keyboard that provides an easy way to enter note data into a PC multimedia computer. After all, nearly all modern machines come complete with a soundcard, but, even if you have music‑making abilities, it's not much fun using a typewriter‑style keyboard for musical purposes. Over the last few months, several musical add‑on keyboards have appeared in quick succession: first the Evolution Music Creator Pro (see January's SOS for a review), then the MIDI Composer reviewed here, then the MIDI Master Pro distributed by Time & Space — so manufacturers have obviously spotted this gap, and are attempting to fill it!
The 'Pro' tag is common to all three, and refers to the fact that, unlike some miniature 'pianos' that are just enhanced toys, all three of these products have full‑size keys, and feature velocity sensitivity for far more expressive playing. To succeed, such low‑cost keyboards need to tread the fine line between features and cost — too many features and the cost starts to approach that of low‑end synths, too cheap and they lose the features that attract potential users. Interestingly, all three packages mentioned have the identical price of £120 including VAT, leaving us free to compare features alone. Let's see how this one stacks up...
The MIDI Composer package is manufactured by Quickshot, a name that will be familiar to anyone who has ever bought a joystick for games use. It's distributed in the UK by BCK, whose range of keyboard accessories has helped out many musicians over the years. In essence, it is a four‑octave (49 keys, C to C) keyboard that is designed to plug into the MIDI port of a soundcard. Although, obviously, it's not mechanically comparable with the sort of keyboards found on £1000+ synths, it still features a fully sprung action with velocity response, separate pitch and modulation wheels, and a selection of extra controls which allow all of the basic parameters such as volume and program changes to be sent directly to your MIDI gear. This makes it nicely self‑contained, and saves having to launch extra software utilities or editors just to change these settings.
The keyboard comes in the grey/buff colour that most computers seem to adopt, and for this reason the MIDI Composer would undoubtedly look smart in a multimedia setup. Both of its competitors come in black, as does most other MIDI gear, so this basic choice may influence your decision if you care about colour co‑ordination! On the left of the keyboard is an angled control panel, with a neatly grouped set of additional controls. At the top is a three‑digit LED display, and beneath this four buttons: a Power switch, MIDI/Select (described below), and two buttons that allow the four‑octave range of the keyboard to be moved up or down, an octave at a time, so that the keyboard can generate the full 10‑octave range of MIDI notes from 0 to 127. To the right of the LED display is a multi‑function slider, used to set parameter values, and at the bottom of the panel is a centre‑sprung pitch‑bend wheel and an unsprung modulation wheel.
The keyboard connects directly to the standard 15‑way D‑type connector found on most soundcards (see the 'Getting The Juice' box), so I connected it to a SoundBlaster AWE32, flexed my fingers, and started playing. The keyboard action is certainly useable, but I initially found it rather unpredictable in response, with some notes emerging far louder than others. Although this was no doubt partly due to my uneven keyboard technique, I was greatly encouraged to find that the velocity response of the keyboard is user‑adjustable. Pressing the 'MIDI/Select' button puts you in a new mode (with the display now showing SEL), where pressing one of the notes on the music keyboard selects one of many functions to allocate to the 'Data Entry' slider. Each of these functions is printed on the keyboard casing just above the relevant note. So, for instance, to adjust the velocity curve, you press Data Entry, followed by 'F# below middle C' (where it says Velocity), and finally Data Entry again to confirm your choice and return to normal keyboard mode.
Real musicians do it with full‑size keys!
Once I had done this, and tweaked the keyboard response to suit my playing style, it felt far better, and I was encouraged to try further tweaks. Among the other parameters on offer are aftertouch (not available from the keyboard itself), volume, chorus and reverb depth, pan, controllers, and program changes. You select program numbers by using the top octave of keys, which acts as a numeric keypad. The keyboard's MIDI‑channel output can be set in a similar way, using the bottom octave of keys to select the channel. In practice, this is all far easier to use that it is to write about, and I was soon happily playing away, changing sounds, and adjusting reverb, chorus and pan settings direct from MIDI Composer. Both the pitch‑bend wheel and modulation wheel also worked well, feeling quite natural to use.
Something that always enters into the equation with bundles is the value of the extras. MIDI Composer comes with the 15‑way D‑type lead between keyboard and soundcard, a MIDI cable, a sustain pedal, and the promise of lots of bundled software, which includes Cakewalk Home Studio. The sustain pedal, though pretty basic, is functional, and a very useful extra for pianists, but I was initially a little disappointed with the software. The box shows screenshots of eight additional software packages, including Power Chords Pro and Musicator version 2.1, but on closer inspection these all turn out to be demo versions, which might mislead a few people. The only full package included is Cakewalk Home Studio — easy enough to use, but what you get is only version 3.01, copyright 1994. Although it works perfectly well under Windows 95, its age is rather apparent when you notice that the accompanying Virtual Piano program (which is a computer‑key piano player, and really what MIDI Composer is designed to supersede) has an option for PC speaker support. I haven't seen anything like this for years! The User's Guide even has warnings about not using Windows 3.0 drivers.
Having got that minor moan out of the way, I found Cakewalk Home Studio 3.01 actually not only useable, but quite comprehensive. Although the Arrange window is rather more graphically basic than some, editing options include piano roll, event list, controllers, staff (notation), and lyrics (text entry). There are no audio‑recording facilities, but you can trigger WAV files at any point in a song, and, with a little thought, this can work very well. A user's guide is also supplied, and this is helpful, informative and concise. There is a range of demo tracks in the standard Cakewalk WRK format supplied with the program, but there are also an additional 347 standard MIDI files on the Demo CD, and these are great fun to wade through if you like pot‑boilers such as 'The Yellow Rose Of Texas' and 'Air On The G String'. Once I got going, Home Studio proved far more accomplished than I'd initially expected, and pretty well in line feature‑wise with the competitors' offerings (Evolution Audio and Steinberg MusicStation).
Of course, this software is effectively being supplied free of charge. If you want something more up to date or advanced, you may already have had another software sequencer package supplied with your soundcard bundle. As it stands, the only full package in this bundle is Cakewalk Home Studio version 3.01, and it's rather cheeky to claim that this is worth £99, as that's the full retail price of the newest version 5.0, currently being distributed by Et Cetera. However, Et Cetera did tell me that anyone wanting to upgrade from 3.01 to this latest version would only be charged £35. This could be well worth doing, as version 5.0 includes a 32‑bit native Windows 95 edition, and both the Windows 3.1 and 95 versions allow up to four tracks of audio to be mixed with up to 256 MIDI tracks — in contrast with the 3.01 version, which allows only a single WAV file to be inserted.
MIDI Composer is first and foremost an entry‑level keyboard, and at £120 it would be good value for anyone who already has a soundcard, but needs a way to start actually producing music. The action of the keyboard is perfectly adequate, and should suit most people — especially once you've tweaked the velocity response to your satisfaction — but I would advise you to try it out to see if you're happy with it. The other controls work well: although some people might prefer to have additional buttons in order to avoid using the musical keys for control functions, in practice you get used to this very quickly. Including a basic sustain pedal is a nice touch — even £1500 synths are unlikely to come with these. If you want to get started on a 'real' keyboard, then have a good look at this one, especially if you already have a sequencer. As I'm sure it must say in the back window of somebody's car — Real musicians do it with full‑size keys!
The keyboard can be powered in three ways — the two obvious ones are by batteries (for those with large bank balances) or using an external power supply (the back‑panel socket needs a source of between 7.5V and 9V DC). A power supply is not supplied with the package — but before you reach for your pens to write those letters of outrage, let me mention that the third option is to power the keyboard direct from your soundcard. All you do is connect the supplied cable between the back‑panel 15‑pin D‑type connector, and the similar connector that appears on many soundcards (normally used to attach joysticks or MIDI‑socket adapter leads). The keyboard then takes its power direct from the PC, and I'm sure this is the way that 99% of people will use it.
A second 15‑way D‑type connector appears on the back panel of the keyboard, and you can use this to plug in the cable previously disconnected from your soundcard to make way for the MIDI Composer. The standard MIDI In and Out sockets provided by the soundcard lead will then reappear. In addition, a standard 5‑pin DIN MIDI output socket is provided on the back panel of the MIDI Composer for directly attaching further MIDI devices.
- Good value for a full‑size keyboard.
- Touch sensitivity.
- Comes complete with basic sustain pedal.
- Bundled software is old but functional.
- No mains adapter provided.
An entry‑level keyboard and software bundle that should get plenty of people started, with the added bonus of starting you on the Cakewalk path.