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In my previous blog posts about MIDI keyboards, I always said, “Plug in your MIDI device and open your DAW software to play.” But what if you do not want to buy expensive software to write and produce entire pieces of music? What if you just need free software to practice or play around with?
So I set out to find the best FREE MIDI keyboard software available for the most popular Windows, Mac/Apple, and Android platforms, so you can plug in your MIDI keyboard and start playing right away. This article summarizes what I found.
But first, let’s get some context:
How does MIDI work?
First of all, I always find it useful to briefly explain how MIDI works. If, like me, you come from a traditional acoustic instrument like a piano or guitar, the world of MIDI and digital music production can be a bit confusing. If you already know how it works, feel free to skip this section!
MIDI is a digital signal, basically a series of 1s and 0s, that allows different electronic devices to communicate (I know, that sounds very dystopian!). This code communicates all sorts of things, from the note pressed, to the strength of the press, to when it was released.
This is different from traditional instruments, which produce an audio signal that you can hear either directly on acoustic instruments or through an amplifier on electric instruments.
Since a MIDI keyboard or other MIDI device does not produce an audio signal, it must be connected to another device that can convert the code into something we can hear. In the modern age, this is usually a laptop or computer.
Modern MIDI devices are pretty much always connected and communicating via a USB connection. It’s not enough to just plug the device in. The computer receives the code, but it needs some kind of software to produce a sound.
I hope this article will help you with that.
1) Windows 10 Piano Time
Piano Time is a good option if you just want to plug in and play the piano.
It is an “app,” but that does not mean you need a tablet or phone to use it. Windows is moving closer to Apple in the way it presents software, so the separation between computers, tablets, and phones is less pronounced. That means if you have Windows 10, you can now go to the Microsoft Store and download apps for your computer.
There are paid apps in the Windows Store, but like the Apple and Android “stores” you may be familiar with on your phones and tablets, you can download and use many of the apps for free.
Simple to use
Piano Time is really easy to plug in and get started. It worked right away when I plugged in my Novation Impulse MIDI keyboard. I didn’t even have to go into the settings.
Piano Time is kept simple and is meant to mimic the sound of a piano. For this reason, you can not really customize the sound. For example, you will not find different instrument sounds, reverb, or delay. But that might be a good thing if you just want to play the piano.
You can record and save clips of what you play. This nice feature allows you to record a part, play it back, and then put something else over it. This is handy if you want to write a few songs. Be warned, though: these clips are only saved in the free version while the program is open. You’ll have to pay a small fee for the upgrade to save or export the recorded tracks as MP3 files.
The program is preloaded with a few very simple tracks that you can play along to, such as Amazing Grace or Mary Had a Little Lamb. The keys light up to show you how to play along, and you can slow down or speed up the tempo to your liking. This feature is best for absolute beginners or children learning to play the piano. It’s useful for anyone learning to play the piano with it. There are also some basic scale exercises you can play along with.
Other features include a metronome that can be adjusted. I found the clicking a bit annoying, but it does the job.
If you don’t have a MIDI keyboard, you can play with your computer keyboard, as with most MIDI programs.I would not recommend this as it is very difficult, but Piano Time has a “Key Mapping” feature that displays the appropriate keyboard letters above the appropriate keys to help you play.
Performance and sound
I found the sound to be okay. A nice bit of sustain and reverb makes it sound quite realistic. However, the lower notes can sound a bit quiet compared to the higher notes, and the chords do not sound that great. This is particularly annoying when trying to play left-and right-hand notes simultaneously, as the right-hand notes tend to drown out the left.
This can be frustrating because a key’s quick’stacatto’ press is no different from holding the key down. This causes notes to blend into each other when you do not want them to or not sound as long as you might have hoped.
For me, the app had virtually no latency (the time between pressing a key and hearing the sound). This is partly due to the app, but I’m sure it’s also due to your computer. This may not be the case if you are trying to use the app on a computer or laptop that does not have much RAM or has a slow processor. If you experience a delay in MIDI, read this article.
Other users have noticed that the app can crash when ads load. This has happened to me before and was very annoying. You can get rid of the ads by paying a small fee, so it might be worth doing this if you have this problem.
2) Piano 10 for Microsoft Windows 10
Piano 10 is very similar to Piano Time in many ways. You can download it from the Windows App Store on any Windows device.
Simple to use
I plugged in my keyboard, and it did not work right away this time. The menus in the app are not all that easy to find either, as there are a bunch of icon keys you have to press, so I had to click around a bit to figure out how to do it.
It’s very easy to turn on MIDI support by clicking a button that says “General MIDI.” Then, you can choose your MIDI keyboard from a list.
So once you figure out what each button icon means, it’s not too hard to use them.
Unlike Piano Time, Piano 10 has a few different effects and an amazing 126 different sounds to choose from. These include reverb, sustain, and echo, but unfortunately, only one of these effects can be activated at a time.
The auto-chord feature is pretty cool and is great for learning different chords and chord types, as the chord keys light up as you play.
Like with Piano Time, you can record short clips of yourself playing. You can save these clips, but only as.xscore files, to open them again another time in Piano 10.
A metronome with an adjustable beat frequency is also included.
Performance and sound
It was fine when testing the default piano sound, but if you press the keys too lightly, no sound is played. So if you are trying to practice playing softly, you might find this frustrating.
However, when the sustain effect is turned on, I found that it sounded much more realistic and played well.
While it’s cool to have 126 different sounds to choose from, be warned: most of them sound pretty awful. They are fun to play around with, but you would never want to use them in a performance.
The most annoying thing about Piano 10 is that you can not change the key size or display more keys on the screen. The entire keyboard still plays, but you do not see all the keys light up on the screen.
Since it’s a free app, it also displays an ad banner at the top, but that’s standard and does not really affect the user experience.
If you are looking for something more advanced to edit and export your MIDI tracks, MIDI Editor is a free program that is a great introduction to some advanced techniques.
Simple to use
As far as downloading and installation go, everything is pretty straightforward. However, unlike the previous two options, this is more traditional software that you download from a website and not from the Windows App Store.
Once downloaded, the settings are easy to find. Here you can select your MIDI device and connect.
You should then hear a simple piano sound.
So it’s pretty easy to get a sound. However, if you don’t know much about MIDI, the software might be a little hard to figure out because it has a lot of advanced features.
You will see what is called a “piano roll” on the screen. You should familiarize yourself with this if you want to use MIDI in production.
When you play your MIDI keyboard and press the record button, you will see lines appear on the screen. This is a visualization of the digital code for each note. You can see which note was played, for how long, and other parameters such as velocity (how hard you played the note).
This is what distinguishes the digital data from MIDI from a traditional audio recording. They are stored as a series of numbers (note, note length, etc.) and then “overlaid” with a sound. So you can play the original notes with a piano sound, but then replace them with strings or a flute, for example.
Features like quantization, which allow mistimed notes to be automatically shifted to the correct time, are a great gimmick.
Performance and sound
As a basic, free introduction to MIDI editing software, MidiEditor does a pretty good job.
However, there were a few things that frustrated me.
For example, when you record a track, you do not see the notes on the screen. You have to wait until you finish recording, and then they show up. This just felt strange compared to the MIDI input I am used to from a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
There are also no other built-in sounds to test other than the piano, and I could not find a way to import my own sounds. Maybe I am expecting too much from free software.
The most effective free midi keyboard software for Macs (and Apple devices) is:
Garageband is my favorite of the free music production programs. I have written entire songs on the bus with this software on my iPad and have been happier with the sound than some tracks I have spent weeks working on in the studio!
Most Apple products come with pre-installed software, but if not, you can download it for free from the App Store.
Simple to use
Garageband is a lot more advanced than some of the simple piano apps that were mentioned in the beginning of this article.
It’s the closest thing you can get to a DAW without having to pay for it. A DAW is a digital audio workstation. This is where all song artists create their songs by putting tracks together. There are many different models, and everyone has different preferences. But if you are new to the world of music recording, Garageband is a good place to start.
For this reason, it has tremendous potential, but it’s a bit confusing for beginners. For example, it did not work right away when I plugged in my keyboard. I had to navigate to the settings and select my device. I also had to change the output so I could hear the sound.
When connecting to an iPad, the process is similar, but you need to purchase a USB-to-Lightning adapter (like this one).
Still, it’s very easy to get started compared to most DAWs, which can be very overwhelming. There are many great videos on YouTube to help you out if you get stuck.
This is where GarageBand stands out from the other, simpler applications. The possibilities are almost limitless.
You can choose from hundreds of pre-installed MIDI sounds. There are pre-made drum loops that you can add and play along to. And if you want to add even more sounds or effects, you can download free “plug-ins”.
Since it’s a DAW, you can layer multiple tracks, MIDI, or audio to create entire songs. There are also great built-in features like EQ and compression, so you can even try your hand at mixing yourself!
Performance and sound
The pre-installed sounds sound pretty robotic, and it’s hard to compose a complete song that sounds professional with just the MIDI samples. Of course, that depends on your genre, but you can pull it off quite well for electronic music.
You might not mind this if you just want to practice piano.
Performance is pretty good; I rarely experience latency when playing. It depends on the age and specs of your laptop.
This option technically applies to Windows as well, but I could not find any other free app in the Apple App Store that was not either terrible or trying to give me a virus.
Pianu.com is a web-based keyboard (MIDI) and is a great option if you don’t want to bother with downloading software and just want to start playing right away.
Simple to use
This software is so easy to use (at least it was for me!) Just go to the pianu.com/keyboard page and there you will see a big yellow button that says “Detect My Keyboard”. Press it and you will see the following screen.
Pianu is not very complex and does not give you all the features of Garageband. But many people have written to me that they do not want anything that complicated and just want to play some piano. For that, it is perfect.
However, the real purpose of Pianu is to help you learn how to play the piano. Because of that, it has a lot of built-in lessons that start with the absolute basics and build you up from there. I especially like that you can play along to a lot of modern songs (Coldplay, Taylor Swift, etc.) and not just the usual Ode to Joy or Amazing Grace that you find on most apps.
Performance & Sound
You would never want to use this piano for recording or live performance, but for learning, it sounds fine. The only thing that bothers you is that the notes do not sound completely and eventually just stop suddenly. But that’s a minor problem if you are just practicing.
I expected the performance to be less than optimal for a web-based application, but it really was not. In fact, I’d say I noticed less latency than with many other applications, and my laptop fan was just whirring away.
The Best Free Midi Keyboard Software for Android
Yes, that’s right, these days you do not even need a computer to use a MIDI device. You can now connect your MIDI keyboard directly to your phone or tablet and make music with it.
For less than $10, I bought this simple USB-C to USB adapter that lets me play my 49-key MIDI keyboard through my phone.
As with the other devices mentioned above, you need to download software (an app) to do this, and there are many great free options to choose from.
1) Excellent piano
Simple to use
You may already know how to connect your Android device to a MIDI keyboard, but in case you do not, it’s quite simple (check out this step-by-step guide to find out).
Once connected, the Perfect Piano app should automatically detect that a MIDI keyboard is connected, and it should work right away without you having to mess with any settings! A real bonus for those who just want to plug in and play.
The app has a keyboard that is set to a piano sound by default. But beyond that, you have a choice of many other sounds, from strings to synthesizers, and plenty of additional free sounds to download.
If you want to make the sound of a piano pedal, there is a sustain button that you can press. You can record your efforts either in MIDI format or in audio format.
The app has some nice additional features, such as “Learn to Play.” Here you can play along while notes appear on the screen, similar to Guitar Hero (if you remember that game), except you are learning to play a real instrument.
Performance and sound
I had no noticeable lag with my Android phone (which is a few years old), which amazed me. Over the years, I have had many problems with latency on computers and laptops. I cannot guarantee you will not have problems, but if your phone is newer than mine, I am sure it will work fine!
The sounds are really quite impressive. The piano does have that programmed sound, but no more than most other MIDI pianos on the market. The synthesizers and strings are also a lot of fun.
I like that you can adjust the number of keys on the screen. A feature that is missing from many mobile MIDI apps
These days, there are many free MIDI apps and software programs to choose from these days. The most important thing to ask yourself is, “What do I need the software for?” If you just want to practice the piano or play around, you should probably get something simple. But if you think you might want to create complete tracks or use more advanced techniques, there’s probably something for you, too.
When you are ready to progress, it’s best to switch to a DAW of your choice. My suggestion would be to download a free trial, watch a few tutorial videos, and see which program you find best.
Guest post by Aliya Sumrijt