Audacity is free, open-source audio software that can be used for basic audio production. The fact it costs nothing means it is a popular choice for beginners or those on a budget. As you progress to make more complex music within this piece of software you may ask can you use a MIDI keyboard in Audacity?
You can’t use a MIDI keyboard directly within Audacity. Audacity does not have the ability to record or write MIDI files or communicate with a MIDI keyboard or controller directly. Despite this, the software is capable of handling some basic MIDI information that can be used in audio production.
In this article I will briefly explain why this is the case and how you can use limited MIDI within Audacity if you require it in one of your tracks.
How Does A MIDI Keyboard Work?
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and was a digital language created in the 1980s during the rise of electronic instruments to allow them to communicate with one another.
No audio signals are sent via MIDI, it is entirely digital, so basically a series of 1s and 0s. This means musical information can be transferred between devices extremely quickly.
A MIDI message contains various information about a musical note including:
- Which note is pressed
- The moment that not is pressed and released
- How hard it is pressed (known as the velocity)
- Pitch Bend
All these categories have a number associated with them between 0 and 127. For velocity for example a number 0 would be the equivalent of no sound whereas 127 is the loudest.
How Does MIDI Work In Computer Software
So how does MIDI work in a computer and allow musical compositions to be created?
Specialised Digital Audio Workstations such as Ableton Live or Logic are designed to work with MIDI files. You can either play in notes via a MIDI keyboard or controller or draw them in using your computer mouse. These notes appear in the software on what is known as the ‘piano roll’ which looks like the image shown below.
This is a major tool in modern music production.
You can think of this a bit like a graph. The Y axis going up on the left is the note as shown on a piano keyboard and the X axis along the bottom represents time. So the longer a note is held, the longer the bar is shown on the piano roll.
This data is stored within your computer and the DAW uses plugins to convert that digital information into an audio signal which can be used in a musical track. You can quickly switch from a piano sound to a flute sound for example without having to re-record everything because the information is stored there already as a MIDI file.
Does Audacity Have the Ability To Work With MIDI In This Way?
Unfortunately not. This is because Audacity is not a full Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) like Ableton or Logic (or the many others). If you want a full explanation of why, check out this article I wrote on the topic recently.
It is better to think of Audacity as a simple audio editor. Which means it is still a very good option for basic audio work. But it really falls short when it comes to music production in many ways.
Even if you manage to get MIDI into Audacity, using the methods I will explain later in this article, you won’t be able to do much with it.
You can’t change the MIDI values associated with notes such as the velocity or length. All you can do with the MIDI file in Audacity is cutting and pasting it into different positions or moving it around on the timeline.
Can I Plug A MIDI Keyboard Directly Into Audacity?
No, Audacity is simply a basic audio editing software, it is currently not possible to plug a MIDI keyboard in and record MIDI notes into Audacity directly.
If you want that functionality you are much better off paying for one of the more advanced Digital Audio Workstations. There are so many options available now you don’t have to spend much money. There are even other free workstations that can do this which I will get onto shortly.
How To Use A MIDI Keyboard in Audacity – Some Workaround Solutions
I don’t just want to be the bearer of bad news here and tell you it simply can’t be done, I want to try and provide some solutions too!
Despite not being able to record MIDI notes into Audacity directly there are a couple of tricks you can use to record using a MIDI keyboard into Audacity.
1) Import MIDI from other free software
As mentioned already, Audacity isn’t a total write-off when it comes to MIDI. You can import MIDI files from elsewhere to use in compositions.
There are several basic Free Digital Audio Workstations capable of understanding and working with MIDI. Probably the best example is SoundBridge.
Step 1 – Download a free DAW capable of MIDI editing
Soundbridge is still free but slightly more advanced than Audacity. Download this for free and open it up.
Step 2 – Download a free VST instrument plugin
You will need a VST instrument to be able to here any MIDI compositions you make within Soundbridge. Unfortunately Soundbridge doesn’t come with any instruments built in but there are hundreds of great VST instruments available for free online these days.
In this example I downloaded Sforzando, a very simple keyboard VST instrument which can be downloaded from here https://www.plogue.com/products/sforzando.html.
But if you want other instruments a simple google search will lead you to many great ones.
Step 3 – Setup your MIDI Keyboard
Plugin your MIDI keyboard to your computer via USB. Then go to Preferences in SoundBridge and select MIDI on the left as shown in the image below. From here you should be able to select your MIDI keyboard as the MIDI input device. Click the switch to turn it on.
Step 4 – Add a new MIDI track
Add a new MIDI track and select Sforzando (or whichever instrument you downloaded) from the instrument box and record your MIDI file.
Step 5 – Edit the MIDI
You can then edit the MIDI file within the piano roll by double clicking on the track you’ve just recorded. You can change the note lengths, velocity and all other aspects of the MIDI in here.
Step 6 – Export your MIDI file
Once you are happy you can go to File > Export MIDI Tracks and export to a location of your choice.
Step 7 – Open your VST Instrument On Its Own
To get this to play in Audacity. Make sure you have your MIDI instrument (Sforzando or similar) open before you open Audacity. Simply open it like you would open any other piece of software on your computer.
Step 8 – Open your MIDI file in Audacity
You can then drag and drop in your newly saved MIDI track and it will appear in Audacity as shown below.
Step 9 – Playback your MIDI in Audacity
You can get this to playback in Audacity by going to Preferences > MIDI Devices and selecting the VST instrument as the playback device.
That was extremely complicated but I wanted to show it can be done. The reality is even then you will end up with potential issues in Audacity with latency and creasing. So unless you specifically want or need to use Audacity then you may simply ask yourself if you’d be better using other free DAW software such as Soundbridge instead. It is much easier to work within one piece of software for the whole project.
2) Via an App on Your Phone Or Tablet
Audacity may not be capable of understanding MIDI directly from your MIDI keyboard, however, most phones or tablets are with the use of simple free apps.
This means if we can find a way to connect our keyboard to out phone or tablet, we can use this as a way to translate MIDI into an audio file and record that into Audacity.
For this method you are going to need a couple of pieces of equipment.
- A USB to USB C (or other type depending on the phone or tablet you have) OTG Converter
- 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable (if you have a microphone input on your computer) or
- An audio interface
Step 1 – Connect the MIDI keyboard to your device
Using the OTG converter cable connect the USB from your MIDI keyboard to your device.
Step 2 – Download a MIDI app
Use an app such as ‘perfect piano’ which will convert the MIDI notes you press on your keyboard into an audio signal. Perfect piano has many different instrument sounds included for free, from a simple grand piano to an organ and much more.
Step 3 – Connect the phone or tablet headphone output to your computer
You then need to get that audio signal from your phone into your computer so you can record it in Audacity.
If your computer has a 3.5mm microphone input (such as the one shown below). You can simply use a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable to connect.
If you do not have this you will need to use an external soundcard of some sort. An external soundcard is also known as an audio interface. There are many very cheap options available now for under $50 in many cases and are an essential item in any music studio, so well worth the investment.
As you can see the inputs on an external soundcard/ audio interface are 1/4 inch inputs so you will need to buy a 3.5mm to 1/4inch cable to input from your phone to the interface. The interface itself connects to your laptop of a computer via USB.
Step 4 – Open up Audacity and select your device
When you open Audacity you should see a bar at the top where you can select your recording device. Here either select your microphone input or your audio interface.
Step 5 – Hit record
Once you have the correct input device selected you can hit the record button and anything you play on the keyboard through the phone app will be recorded into Audacity.
So it is possible to work with MIDI in Audacity, importing tracks and even playing them back. But it is a very long and complicated way of doing things and with so much other software available for very cheap (or even free) such as Soundbridge. Perhaps you are best looking elsewhere if MIDI is something you want to use regularly.
Audacity is still a great piece of free software for basic audio production and if you simply need to add some MIDI to an existing project then I hope you can use these tricks to do so.