Keyboard Korner – Soft Synths: The Hookup

OK, consider this Part 2 of what I stared here.

I realized that after going on and on about using stand-alone keyboards for live performance, that I missed answering Cris’ main point – Using a keyboard to control a computer (laptop) soft synth for live performance.

I did mention in Part 1 that I have done this. It’s not my favorite, but is sometimes the most logical answer depending on one or more of the following:

– Your financial resources

– Your gear transportation ability (or willingness…)

– Your gear storage ability

– Your computer and software

– Exactly what you want to accomplish in a live setting

– Your current stand-alone keyboard’s abilities

Now let’s first start at the basics, as this was part of Cris’ question:

“How do you hook up a keyboard to a computer?”

Here’s the problem: That’s an easy question with a lot of answers. Most of the answers vary depending on the abilities of your keyboard, computer and software synth.

Let’s start with the 2 physical keyboard-to-computer connection types:




Chances are that you have a keyboard with MIDI ports. If it’s a decent keyboard made in the last 20 years, it’s got one or more MIDI ports on the back – OUT, IN and THRU. All you need to worry about is the OUT port.

The OUT port does just that – sends MIDI information OUT of your keyboard. So each time you hit a key, it transmits that information out of your keyboard and IN to another MIDI-capable unit, and eventually your computer.

Now if you don’t have MIDI ports on your keyboard, you’re out of luck. MIDI is the lowest common denominator in this realm, and if your keyboard doesn’t have them, unfortunately your keyboard is not going to work for hooking up to a computer.

OK, so you’ve attached a MIDI cable to the OUT port of your keyboard. No where’s it go? There are no MIDI ports on my computer!

Well the signal then needs to be translated into a physical form that will hook up to your computer. Fortunately there’s any easy and cheap way to do that via the USB connectors on your computer. Simple, inexpensive products like THIS MIDI to USB converter do everything you need to make that happen.




USB (Universal Serial Bus) is now an industry standard platform that connects all kinds of computing components – printers, hard drives, your computer mouse and keyboard, etc.

Fortunately for us in music, manufacturers have included these types of connectors on just about every electronic keyboard in the last 5 years. And (this part’s cool) as music production software and software synths have grown in popularity, so have USB Controller Keyboards.

A USB controller keyboard is pretty much like it sounds. It’s nothing but an input device – one that controls your computer’s soft synth. And they hook up via one simple USB cable – no MIDI to worry about.

These are still transmitting MIDI data, but without the bulk of MIDI cables or ports, and no external converters required.

Most of these devices are inexpensive since they don’t have any internal stand-alone capabilities. There are no internal sounds. They also range in price due to size (number of keys, ranging from just one octave, all the way to 88 weighted keys), and quantity of controllers. Some are just a basic keyboard, while others have stuff like multiple sliders, knobs and pads. These are all used to manipulate soft synths via transmitted MIDI data.

It seems we, the consumers, are the beneficiaries from multiple companies competing for our business in this growing market. 4 years ago I got a 49 key model that I used on my desk. Last year I got a new one with twice as many features for half the price…




OK, so your keyboard is physically attached to your computer. Now the hard part -controlling your software…

Every soft synth is different and how they use controllers can even differ from patch to patch. Some software programs are super easy, while others have a seriously high learning curve.

GarageBand, Reason and Pro Tools, for example, are pretty easy. Finale, however, is just plain nasty…

Once you’ve got your keyboard or controller attached to your computer (via the USB port), it’s time to tell your software what device you want to control it.

That’s usually done in the Preferences menu of your software. Here are a couple examples:


Picture 2.png

As you can see, it automatically detects my USB controller keyboard:

Picture 4.png


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You can have it auto detect both keyboards and other control inputs. It stores them

Picture 6.png

Other times it can be determined by individual MIDI channels:



Picture 7.png

Picture 8.png



Pro Tools:

Picture 10.png


Make sure you Record Enable the desired MIDI track…

Picture 13.png

And that it’s triggering the desired plug-in. Here I’ve chosen A.I.R.’s “Xpand!” plug-in, which I have as an insert in a stereo audio track. NOTE: Xpand! is made by A.I.R., a subsidiary of Digidesign, and is available for FREE to registered Pro Tools users. So that’s cool!

It’s their take on the sound palate of a basic workstation. A wide variety of sound and instrument genres, most of which sound great – especially the sonic textures. It also has a lot of features like syched arpeggiators, verbs, delays etc. within the plug-in, and it’s not a CPU hog.

And it’s free. So you can’t beat that!

Picture 11.png



OK, next time we’ll look at setting a few of these programs up for live performance…


One thought on “Keyboard Korner – Soft Synths: The Hookup

  1. Good stuff reide,,,nice vedio, maybe sumtimes you have to give me an example on hoe you play @northpoint.

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