MIDI is essential for every home composer and desktop maestro out there. It allows you to play and produce instruments of every kind imaginable from the comfort of your own studio. All you need is a controller and a good bit of software to get you started.
Some of this software can get expensive. But it needn’t. Most of it is simple, and that means you can find plenty of free versions that do as good a job as paid ones. So what’s the best free MIDI keyboard software for every platform? Well, that’s what we’re about to find out.
How MIDI Keyboards Work
Back in the olden days, different software developers and digital instrument manufacturers had problems communicating. They needed a unified language to communicate so producers could use various sound packs and instruments in their compositions.
The answer was MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Rather than recording an audio signal and turning it into an electronic one, MIDI instruments produce digital signals that can be recorded directly into a digital audio workstation (DAW).
The beauty of MIDI
You just need a simple piano-style keyboard to control it. Even a computer keyboard can have notes assigned to the various keys if you don’t have a real MIDI keyboard controller. You can load up the patches for any instrument under the sun and play them all using the same keyboard. All you need is the right plug-ins of recorded or digitally produced sounds.
MIDI controllers can be plugged into a receiving device in a couple of ways. Older keyboards use 5-pin connectors to connect – these are classically known as MIDI cables. However, with the widespread use of desktop DAWs, MIDI can now be transferred over USB, making things a whole heck of a lot easier.
MIDI Sound without a Computer
The original idea behind MIDI was to pull electronic signals directly from a controller/MIDI instrument into recording or editing software. There it would be translated into an instrument sound with the help of a plug-in.
Is it possible to play sound with a MIDI keyboard without a computer?
The short answer is yes, but you need the right sort of device. Some devices like synths and drum machines are set up to receive input from MIDI keyboards and play them out live as sounds.
These instruments don’t need any sort of outboard computer to play MIDI sounds. They are stand-alone instruments. Some amplifiers can also convert MIDI signals directly into sound output.
But a great MIDI keyboard should be able to connect to a computer to record or manipulate data at the same time that you play out to an instrument. So keep this in mind when you’re shopping for a MIDI keyboard. You’ll want to be sure it has all the connectivity for recording and live performance as per your requirements.
The Best Free MIDI Keyboard Software for Every Platform
Whether you’re using an actual MIDI keyboard like the Akai LPK25 or the Alesis VMini, or just the simple set-up of your computer keyboard, you’ll need software. This is the link between the keys you play on and the sounds that are produced and recorded.
Most of these apps count as DAWs, at least limited ones, though some have full editing and song-building capabilities. And most offer upgraded versions for a price. Here are what I consider the best free apps for MIDI keyboards.
Garageband – Most Popular Free MIDI Keyboard Software
Let’s start with an app that’s probably the most familiar to most people. Garageband is an app developed by Apple, and yes, it does only work on Macs.
Well, there is a mobile version of the app for iPhones and iPads, but it’s much more limited. You can still compose on these devices as long as you have some way to connect your MIDI controller to them. Otherwise, you can use the touchscreen keyboard to play right within the app.
With the desktop version of Garageband, you can do a whole lot. You can record multiple instruments into the platform from your MIDI keyboard, including pianos, synths, bass, guitar, brass, strings, and lots more. You can multi-track but are limited to 255 tracks.
Once your tracks are laid down, you can get into post-production. You can alter sine waves, move notes around or delete mistakes, mix levels, and more. However, the instrument sounds are quite plain, and, except for synths, there’s not a lot of variety of sounds to work with. But, you do get drums, percussion, classical instruments, brass, woodwind, guitars, basses, etc.
Still, if you want free and easy MIDI keyboard software for Macs, this is a great way to get started before you invest in a powerful full DAW.
- Free and easy to use.
- Can multi-track songs and incorporate loops.
- Voicings are limited.
- Only for Mac and iPhone/iPad.
MuseScore – Best Automatic Notation MIDI Keyboard Software
After Garageband, MuseScore is something completely different. But that’s why it made it onto this list. While MuseScore works to collect MIDI input from a keyboard, what it does with the data is unique.
Rather than going through the tedious process of writing out musical notation to compose a piece, MuseScore does the notation for you. All you have to do is play the keyboard to control the instrument that you want to input, and the notation is automatically generated for you.
Super simple to use
You can choose piano, guitar, and multiple other orchestral or band instruments to score. Once you input your music by playing it into the software from your MIDI keyboard, it can be assigned to different instrument voices. So you can use one controller to compose for a whole orchestra.
This is a great open source MIDI keyboard software that’s, of course, free. The main platform is designed for Windows 7 or 10, but there are also basic app versions of MuseScore for Android devices, iPhone/iPad, and even Kindle Fire.
The mixing and mastering options are limited. But, if you want to record and score at the same time, this is the perfect software to do it.
- Free and open-source with apps for iPhone and Android.
- Records different voices and scores automatically.
- Not a lot of mixing and mastering capabilities.
- Slow to develop new versions.
Aria Maestosa – Best Free MIDI Keyboard Software for Editing
Since we just saw a very powerful scoring software application, let’s have a peek at another one. Aria Maestosa is another application for recording from a MIDI keyboard that’s free and open source. It doesn’t look as pretty as MuseScore, but it has a lot more surprises.
For voicings, Aria is more limited. Giving you just piano, guitar, and drums. However, as with any MIDI song, you can always export to a DAW and manipulate the voicings there later.
But, what Aria has got a lot of is editors
You can work in the piano editor to see your notes and chords, guitar editor to see tablature, drum editor to see a beat read-out, or score editor to see and edit classical musical notation.
You can also work in the “controller editor.” Rather than letting you manipulate the notes you’ve already inputted, this editor allows you to work on control of the notes, adjusting levels, envelope, sustain, dynamic curves, and more.
What you end up with are recordings that can be sent out to a DAW for further processing, as well as scores written in different forms. Aria Maesosa also runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, so whatever you’re using, you’re covered. In other words, it’s probably the most versatile free MIDI keyboard software you will find.
- Score, piano, guitar tablature, and drum machine notation are automatically generated.
- Lots of ability to control and adjust individual notes or beats.
- Limited voicings.
- More of a composition tool than a recording tool.
Cakewalk by BandLab – Best Free Windows-only MIDI Keyboard Software
If you’re looking for a powerful recording and mastering tool all in one, Cakewalk is another excellent solution. This software package was originally developed by Gibson, but the guitar maker decided to move away from this package and allowed BandLab to take over. Lucky us – BandLab also made it free.
This software is a full suite, basically a recording studio and DAW all in one, much like Garageband. And as a reflection of Garageband, which is Mac OS only, Cakewalk is only for Windows.
So what does it do?
You can use your MIDI keyboard to input tracks played on a whole host of instruments. Most of these sound decent, and I’d say, more realistic than Garageband’s set. You can build a composition with unlimited tracks (in case Garageband’s 255 tracks aren’t enough). Then the fun begins.
Cakewalk gives you multiple effects that are digitally created by synthetic-analog controlled. You can run distortion, compression, reverb, resonance, and loads more while you input or after the fact.
Of course, you can edit notes, create loops, mix, and master as you would in any other DAW. This is essentially Garageband for the other half.
- Unlimited tracks.
- MIDI input and output, plus direct publishing to YouTube, Soundcloud, and more.
- Only for Windows.
MidiEditor – Best Free MIDI Keyboard Software for Live Recording
In their own words, “MidiEditor is a free software providing an interface to edit, record, and play Midi data.”
In our words, this is a standalone program that you can either use to record live from your MIDI keyboard or input previous MIDI tracks for editing. However, it works best as a recording and editing tool before you import your tracks into a more powerful DAW for mixing.
The layout of the user interface here is unusual
And for some, not very intuitive. However, once you get used to it, I think it makes a whole lot of sense, at least for editing. The piano keyboard is laid out vertically on the left, and each note on the keyboard behaves like its own track. So each time you hit a key, a colored bar appears in the track for that single note.
This makes editing a whiz since everything is clear and color-coordinated. Each note is identifiable, and therefore, easy to get on and adjust.
After that, if you want to add more instruments (like strings or guitar), these are given their own “channels” (like tracks in the traditional sense). It’s not as intuitive as some packages out there, but this organization makes editing easy once you’re used to it.
- Easy editing once you get used to it.
- Easy to input and export MIDI data.
- Unusual user interface.
- Voicings sound quite artificial.
Piano 10 – Best Free MIDI Composition Keyboard Software
If you want to focus on composition rather than actual production, Piano 10 is a fun little app that you can use for free. It’s available for Windows and also, curiously, for Xbox. So, if you have that gaming platform, you can skip a computer altogether.
Piano 10 allows you to input data from your MIDI keyboard. You can play into the program with a choice of 100 different instrument voices, although admittedly, none of them sounds excellent. The piano sounds are probably the best. You can add voices for multi-track compositions.
The program uses a proprietary file type
Meaning you can’t export to a DAW. You can, however, use this program to quickly write music and then edit it afterward. The latest version has finally added velocity control. So, the harder you play the keys on your controller, the louder the sound you’ll produce. In this sense, playback is finally sounding authentic. And free is a lot cheaper than buying a piano.
- Free and easy to use with a computer or even Xbox.
- 100 instrument voices with new velocity control.
- Most instruments aren’t authentic sounding.
- Can’t export, but only playback in this app.
Piano Time – Best Easy to Use Free MIDI Keyboard Software
What do you do if it’s time to practice the piano, but you don’t have one? Use Piano Time. This simple plug-and-play MIDI keyboard app can turn a $50 MIDI keyboard into a fairly realistic-sounding piano in no time flat.
This is a plug-and-play app that you can control either with your MIDI keyboard or with your computer keyboard through key mapping. You get a 36-key spread that covers four octaves. You can even control the width of the keys on the display and play by clicking your mouse on them if you don’t have a MIDI keyboard.
This app is simple
You get the voice of an acoustic piano and the ability to send your data through this editor into a full DAW if you have one. You can edit tracks and add dynamics, and that’s about it.
While this is limited, it’s also simple, easy to use, and intuitive. As a result, it ranks among the best free MIDI keyboard software for every platform.
- Simple free app.
- Works on Windows and Xbox.
- Can’t save compositions – you have to export them to a DAW.
- You only get a piano voice.
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Best Free MIDI Keyboard Software for Every Platform – Final Thoughts
These days, it’s easier than ever to compose music and even fully mix and master it in the comfort of your computer workstation. All of these various apps and full DAWs can help you to compose, practice, edit, and even score your musical ideas. And they’re all free.
Just remember to consider your needs as a producer and choose the best free MIDI keyboard software for the platform you use. Whether you’re looking to write music on your Mac or PC, mobile device, or even Xbox, there’s software for you.
Most can be linked to more powerful DAWs for further mixing and mastering. So, your music can be professional and polished. Choose a software application, hook up your keyboard, and get playing.
Until next time, let your music play.