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If you're a musician on the go, check out this virtual keyboard




by Craig Anderton


Being a fan of laptops, I've always wanted a utility program to convert the laptop's QWERTY keys into a virtual MIDI keyboard. I've used various freeshare/shareware options, but all of them had a fatal flaw: If the focus wasn't on the virtual keyboard, I couldn't play any notes. Imagine the frustration of trying to, say, adjust a filter cutoff: As soon as I clicked on the program to adjust the cutoff, then I couldn't trigger the note to hear the results of the change until I clicked on the virtual keyboard again to give it the focus.

But the cross-platform Chirp keyboard utility has an option, "Send Notes Always," that neatly solves the problem by letting you use the QWERTY keyboard to generate notes even if Chirp doesn't have the focus. But, I'm getting ahead of myself: Let's start with the basics.


When there's no physical keyboard to control your laptop programs, use a virtual one.



Chirp maps up to 21 keyboard notes, as well as ten trigger pads, to the QWERTY keys of your choice. The assignment process is simple: For example, to assign keyboard keys, you call up the Assignments menu, and specify Key.


The Assign Key screen lets you assign QWERTY keys to the virtual keyboard. Click on the square that corresponds to the keyboard key, and type the QWERTY key you want to have trigger it.


The ten trigger pads can trigger notes, but they can also trigger program changes, control messages, or even sys ex. Doing assignments for the pads is similar, except that if you go into Expert Mode, you can assign the parameters other than notes.


In Expert Mode, the pads can do more than trigger notes.


Note that both assignment options have a "Restore Defaults" button if you get too out of control with your changes.



Because QWERTY keyboards don't sense velocity, there are two ways to deal with generating notes with different velocities. The first is to simply vary the velocity slider to the desired value before hitting the note. The second is to use the number keys 1-8 to choose a velocity range. For example, if you use the defaults and type 1 before hitting a note, you'll get a velocity of 15 and if you type 8, the velocity will be 120. However, you can go Assignment > Velocity and change both the keys that create particular velocities, and the velocity values they create.


Eight keys can be assigned to velocity values.


While this is a decent attempt to overcome the limits of the QWERTY keyboard, I'd like to see an option where you could drag the mouse as you play to change velocity. That way, you could (for example) play a melody line with your right hand while moving the mouse with your left hand to control velocity. Perhaps you could also choose whether the mouse controlled velocity or pressure, and get another option for control. Admittedly, if you're on a plane with a laptop you probably won't be using a mouse, but it would be nice to have this option when you're sitting in a hotel room.


You can assign the virtual wheels to controllers, and the space bar to switch controller options.


The final assignment option is for the two virtual wheels, which you can manipulate with the mouse. They can generate standard MIDI continuous control signals, or of course, pitch bend. (Perhaps the solution to the mouse-for-velocity control would be to include velocity as one of the wheel options.) Even the space bar gets into the act, letting you send All Notes Off, Sustain on/off, Reset All Controllers, Poly mode on/off, etc.



Chirp is pretty easy to install. You just need a serial number, and an internet connection as it seems part of the installation process involves downloading a file. Once you've done that, you do need a MIDI loopback connection but if you haven't already installed something like Hubi's loopback, the installation process can download a suitable loopback utility.

Upon calling up the program, you need to make two settings: One within the host, specifying Chirp as the MIDI input, and one within Chirp. Usually if you just select "Chirp MIDI out" at Chirp and "Chirp MIDI In" within your host, you're good to go. I've used Chirp in Reason, Project5, and Sonar, all without issues. The Help file gives specifics on using Chirp with several software programs (currently Pro Tools, Reason, Sonar, GarageBand, Cubase, Live, Logic Pro, Digital Performer, Project5, and Acid).



That's not all there is to Chirp; you have other options, like being able to hide the labels that show which virtual keys relate to which QWERTY keys, change the size from small to large (which is pretty darn large!), save and load setups - very handy if you want to create different setups for different hosts or virtual instruments, send an All Notes Off "panic" command, or call up Help. I might add that the Help is very thorough and useful. There is one feature I'd like to see: The ability to assign chords to single keys. For example, if you checked a "Major" box, then hitting a C# would trigger a C# major chord.



As I said at the beginning, I've been looking for something like this and since it does what I want it to do, I'm a pretty happy camper. The price is right, too; it's certainly one of the more affordable laptop accessories. It didn't hiccup in use, and it's kind to your CPU. If you have a laptop and can't carry a mini-keyboard with you, Chirp will let you play, not just program or step-record, your parts. Pretty cool, eh?


CraigGuitarVertical.jpgCraig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

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