My homebrew digital piano

Today I got all the issues with my home-brew digital piano resolved. Everything now works as it should and is very stable.

Parts List

  • PC
    • Gigabyte GA-73PVM-S2H motherboard
    • Intel Core2 Duo CPU @ 3.16 GHz, 3167 MHz FSB, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard disk
    • This is the PC that I built solely for audio use, i.e., for audio recording and for hosting a software piano.
  • Operating System
    • Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 3
    • If your PC comes with Windows Vista I strongly suggest that you ‘upgrade’ to XP, or you’ll be sorry.
  • VST host
    • Cantabile Lite
    • Most software pianos available today can be run either as standalone applications or as an instrument plug-in for DAW software such as Steinberg Cubase.
    • Absolutely free (you pay for the Pro version, but its not needed for this simple use).
    • I use Cantabile Lite because it allows me to easily record and playback MIDI files with it so that I can listen to my own performance. Simple audio recording is also possible.
  • Software piano
    • Pianoteq.
    • After I posted about it previously I bit the bullet and bought it online. And now I wish I had come across this first before spending money on the competition. Of course it is not a real piano, but for what it is, Pianoteq offers an amazing amount of nuanced control, and the half-damper feature works really well. I have played on the high-end Yamaha digital pianos, and Pianoteq (when used with a good weighted keyboard) more than holds it’s own.
  • Keyboard
    • Roland A-80 MIDI controller keyboard. Made in 1989. Has a weighted ‘piano’ action that is still considered to be among the top three of all time. Play any currently available weighted keyboard or dedicated digital piano, then play the A-80 and you will know why. I tweaked my lower back slightly when carrying it. The beast weighs all of 30kg!
    • Roland DP-10 damper pedal. Supports half-damper capable software pianos.
    • An old Roland DP-? for the soft pedal.
    • Roland KS-7 keyboard stand.
  • Digital audio/MIDI interface
    • TC Electronic Konnekt 24D
  • Loudspeakers
    • Blue Sky EXO.
    • I perched the two satellite speakers on the flat top deck of the A-80. They are angled in to get the flatter on-axis frequency response.
    • The subwoofer is placed on the floor underneath the A-80 and to the extreme left and angled inwards.

I haven’t tried it with my Mac laptop yet.

PC/Windows Optimization

Windows absolutely must be optimized for audio use. The best starting point is a completely fresh installation of Windows XP, with its registry in a clean, pristine state. You then have to do the following:

  • Disable all services that are not used. (But leave networking alone. Just enable/disable the network adapters as and when you need to got on the ‘net.) You will need to have some working Windows knowledge to do this, or get one of the Windows XP optimization books, or get help from someone else.
  • Disable all audio drivers that are superfluous.
    • In my case, I am using the Konnekt 24D outboard digital audio interface. It has it’s own ASIO driver. The motherboard has two on-board chipsets that are no longer needed – the ‘standard’ Realtek HD audio chipset, and the on-board Nvidia graphics chipset’s HD audio bits. One or both of them was interfering with the Konnekt24D’s driver and was delivering poor quality audio from Windows Media Player to the Konnekt24D. So I zapped both, and Windows now detects only the Konnekt ASIO driver on boot, and uses that by default. No more problems!
    • You can of course use your PC’s on-board audio driver. But if you have more than one audio chipset on the motherboard, make sure that only one is used, and disable the driver for the others.
  • When you are recording. make sure that only the requisite audio applications are running. Disable all network connections.

Setting up the damper pedal

This one stumped me for a few days.

I bought a Roland DP-10 sustain pedal. A small switch on the side allows you to select either ‘switch’ (on/off) mode, or ‘continuous’ mode (for half-damper support). But something was wrong. Even when the pedal was not depressed I could hear a little bit of sustain, like about a quarter pedal. Pianoteq’s support people (they are wonderfully responsive!) took a look at some MIDI files that I recorded for them and discovered that the DP-10 was sending MIDI values 24 (when not depressed) to 127 (when fully depressed). It should be 0 to 127.

What to do?

  1. Disconnect A-80 from MIDI interface, and power it down.
  2. Plug in DP-10 into appropriate port (FC3 in my case).
  3. Power up the A-80.
  4. Connect the A-80 to the MIDI interface.

That allows the A-80 to figure out what voltage from the pedal should be recognized as MIDI 0, and then present this to the MIDI interface.

[Edit: This doesn’t work. See the next post why.]

This doesn’t work for the Yamaha FC3 sustain pedal though. This one has its polarity reversed, where fully depressed = off!

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