Previously I discussed my experiences on extending my digital piano’s MIDI connection via USB extender. There is still one device though that would be convenient on top of my piano, a display monitor.
As the situation is, I already have a heavy powerful laptop (actually used as a “desktop”) that is on most of the time for work and procrastination (and blogging). But it is not located close enough to where my digital piano is, and I can’t rearrange the room yet. Booting an additional computer for a 5 to 20 minute piano session does not seem attractive, especially when there is an idle one somewhere in the house. Carrying the laptop around also does not seem an attractive option. I want things to be as easy as possible to prevent musical inspirations from fading away. I know. I’m crazy. Just like many musicians are.
Back to the topic, I wanted to place a display monitor on top of my piano to emulate having a computer close to it. It would be convenient for controlling the MIDI recording or for Synthesia piano lessons. Wireless mice and keyboards are quite trivial now, so a remote display is as good as a remote client computer. And as I see it, wireless video transmission is still in “beta” stage and quite expensive too.
I thought of several options, getting a slim LCD monitor, preferably with touchscreen capability, or a USB pocket projector projecting on the wall behind my piano. The standard monitor option would be tricky as I already have an extended desktop on my work laptop, and I have no plans of moving it away the laptop. Unlike in a desktop PC, I could not simply plug in video cards into a laptop’s motherboard. For most laptops (that I know of), the only way to add a third monitor is to use a USB to display adapter. As for the pocket projector option, I can not imagine a convenient location for the projector. The best projector position would be blocked by the piano player.
Eventually, I recalled these 10.1 USB LCD monitors made by Liliput, but while looking at them I also found out about Toshiba’s usb mobile dispaly and Lenovo’s ThinkVision LT1421. I chose the ThinkVision which is more compact, although it didn’t have a power switch like Toshiba’s. I can tolerate disconnecting USB cables though. It also has a faster response (8ms) compared to Toshiba’s (16ms).
Another motivation for getting the ThinkVision (or Toshiba’s), is that it can be used while on travel. Unlike a standard monitor, it is easily portable (more portable than a Thinkpad). It will have many uses for me when working remotely as I am most productive with two screens.
The next step is to extend its USB connection. Unlike MIDI data, video data is much heavier, so I needed a higher throughput connection. There is a DisplayLink USB 2.0 extender that is not yet widely available and just seems to be a standard USB 2.0 CAT5 extender. Adding 3 meters more to its 1.8 meter cable works. But to go beyond the 5m limit, I had to use a repeater compliant to USB 2.0.
I was able to obtain a 5 meter Trendnet TU2 EX5 repeater. I haven’t seen any reviews about it but it was available in a local dealer and it is USB 2.0 compliant claiming upto 480MBPS transfer rates. It is also cheaper than the USB 2.0 CAT5 extenders I can find.
It works! But unlike with the simple 3m extension, external power is now needed. This is provided through the second USB “plug” in the Y cable, which I plugged to a USB charger. I had to remember which USB plug goes to the computer during my initial test, so I marked it. No video output comes out if these USB plugs are interchanged. It actually looks dangerous when there is no power provided and I’m using the 5m extender. The picture gets distorted and I hear a high frequency hum, like a capacitor is about to blow.
Now, with just an easy wireless keyboard and mouse, software tweaks, and the already extended MIDI connection, my digital piano and semi remote workstation are now united as a more convenient DAW station.
The weird layout of my room and the limited space on top and behind my digital piano had prevented my workhorse laptop at the opposite wall and my Casio CDP-200R from being digitally unified for almost two years now. So I was using a much smaller netbook instead, on a makeshift cardboard mount. MIDI files I recorded were shared to my other laptop wirelessly via Dropbox. I was getting tired of this work around. I don’t often use that netbook so I had to wait for it to boot each time I want to record something. A netbook is also not powerful enough for DAW work, and is not convenient due to its small screen.
I ended up looking on M-Audio’s MidAir wireless MIDI transmitter and receiver, which would have been a neat solution. The problem though is that the CDP-200R does not have the traditional MIDI port MidAir uses, but has a USB port instead. It most likely internally converts MIDI to USB like many of the new “MIDI” devices today do, making it convenient to connect to a computer (no need for an adaptor or module), but unfortunately, not with other MIDI devices that use the traditional round 5 pin DIN MIDI connector. I tried looking for a reverse adaptor, one that will take USB output from a device and convert it to a 5 pin MIDI standard, but such a thing does not seem to exist and it’s hard to filter out the well known opposite (MIDI to USB adaptors) from search results. The MidAir might be a hundred plus dollar dust collector for my peculiar case.
Another possible alternative is a wireless USB hub, but so far I have only seen a lot of bad reviews for the existing products, so it’s yet another dust collector candidate. Reviews mention that it does not work like its wired counterpart requiring special drivers, client software, authentication and stuff, and transmission is not very reliable. For music playing, any interruption of the transmission would be unacceptable.
Since I couldn’t use a wireless MIDI (or USB) connection, I settled for a wired USB one. An unmodified USB connection is not designed to go beyond 5 meters. Beyond that you need a repeater (for another 5 to 20 meters) or an extender (can go up to 50 or 90 meters). USB extenders use network cables (CAT5/5e/6, Ethernet, RJ45) in between the USB device and computer’s USB port. Extereme extenders that use optical fibers can go from half a kilometer to 10 kilometers (now you can read your USB stick from another city!).
The extender I used, made by IOGEAR, is USB 1.1 compliant so I had to check that my digital piano is not restricted to USB 2.0 before buying (here’s how to). Thankfully, it is not, as Windows’ device manager showed (view by connection). The extender is claimed to work up to 198 feet (60 meters).
It worked! I used it with a 5m CAT6 cable. No drivers were required and it really seemed that I simply extended my piano’s USB cable. I tested it with Syfonone and my favorite 20+ MB piano soundfont. There is an acceptable amount latency, which was not really surprising, and is similar to the latency of a directly plugged USB MIDI device. I notice that the audible mechanical sound made by my piano keys are a tiny bit earlier than the digital sound coming from my computer (I had an earphone cable extender, what a messy setup). I’m also not using any ASIO device/software, just the built in soundcard. Anyway, the latency was acceptable to me. I can play Bach’s prelude in C major without any problems (the only classical piece I’ve managed to memorize). Once the sustain or reverb kicks in, the mechanical sound of my keys are no longer noticeable when playing many notes (legato).
Of course, the best solution would have been rearranging my room, but knowing myself, that would take years to happen. It is also nice to know that there are alternatives. I will still wait for M-Audio to develop a MidAir that takes in USB-MIDI output. Perhaps they will make a special connector someday. Let’s hope.
Although, to a beginner, it is helpful to see the similarity between notated music and MIDI as opposed to sampled audio, such as wav and mp3, differences start to matter once you start making music.
Nuisances not expressed in notation
Even if software may successfully convert from one to the other, MIDI, just like human players, does not have to strictly follow the notated music. One ordinary example is MIDI created by recording real time performance. Unless you’re a robot, this will normally look like a mess when imported to many score editors [http://www.skytopia.com/project/articles/notation.html ]. Playing “perfectly” as notated, is not very expressive. Whether one can play “perfectly” or not, one would likely add nuances and “feelings”, playing notes a little earlier or later, or shorter or longer, or louder or softer, than what notation indicates.
A direct MIDI export from many notation editors (e.g. MuseScore), will give an unnaturally clean and “perfect” sounding output. Many of the processes of “MIDI orchestration” or “humanizing” deals with correcting the transition from a printable readable score into a MIDI arrangement to trigger samples in a DAW.
Piano roll vs notation
At first, I exclusively used notation because of how it enhances your, “ahem,” notation skills Notation has it strengths being compact (a whole note is not drawn four times bigger than a quarter note), legible (16th notes are not 16 times smaller, likewise), and standard. The main issue for me is the work flow. Starting notation from scratch enforces quantization and strict rules. Frequently, when starting from scratch, it is tedious to adjust note positions and lengths to get a measure sounding the way you want it to sound (which is most likely filled with nuances). I think I can only reliably notate up to quarter notes, then the smaller ones are trial and error. This trial and error procedure takes long if your notation editor takes many little steps to put notes in place.
Imagine moving a quarter note back in time by 1/16th of a note. One way to do it in a notation editor is to trim off the note or rest before it by 1/16th, delete the note to be moved,then making one in the new position. Whereas some editors allow dragging notes horizontally in time, adjusting the rests surrounding it, this approach is still constrained and a bit tedious if there are already surrounding notes. Not surprisingly, a piano roll editor that only sticks to notation-like quantization/snapping to grid can also be a headache. Although quantized MIDI is good if you eventually want to convert to notation.
Another complexity in notation is voices (not to be confused with the human voice or instrumental timbre). What are voices? Imagine your right hand is on a piano keyboard. Each finger may play different notes at the same time, for the same duration, forming a chord. But it is also easy for each finger to play independently. So your thumb may play a whole note, and while that whole note is playing your index finger plays a succession of four quarter notes. How to notate this is seldom explained in beginner books as it may be confusing to look at, appearing to violate the conservation of time. In music notation software, voices are treated like layers in graphics software like Photoshop or GIMP. It will take several mouse clicks to go from one layer to another. In a piano roll interface, there is no concept of voices, making such note entry simpler.
So in the end, I gave up trying to create a nice looking sheet music and edited freely via piano roll, adjusting notes little by little until they sounded right together. This means that you should choose a MIDI editor that can break away from quantizing or snapping to the time grid. Good piano roll editors have the feel of MS Powerpoint or Inkscape vector graphics editor, wherein resizing or moving shapes is straightforward dragging. As we are more perceptive to when a note starts, you would likely focus on the left side (note on) part of the note. Actually, I feel that my ears became a little sharper after editing MIDI this way.
A free MIDI editor I tried that can do this is Sekaiju (which I plan to review some time). It has it’s many quirks, but is quite powerful once you get the hang of it.