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What Do I Need In a Laptop/Notebook Computer to Do a Solo Act?
see our related question on Electronic Wind Instruments by clicking here
Q.  I need a bit of advice on what to look for.  I want to get a midi thing going and noticed when I’m in port at Miami (Mark works the Caribbean cruise circuit) that I can pick up a laptop for much cheaper than when at home.  I just don’t know what to look for.  What I want is something I can take out and play solo gigs with.  I’ve seen cats using laptops but I have no idea what all I need.  So please, I could use your advice as to what I should look for as far as memory, gigabytes, soundcards, tone generator and what have ya.  I don’t care about recording, just something I can take out and use.  Thanks, Mark …

A. You don’t need much of a computer just to power a MIDI act since MIDI work takes neither a lot of processing power nor disk space. You could get by with something considered obsolete for under $200 if you wanted (150mhz, 1 gig HD, 16mb RAM). EBay is a good place to look (category 3707). For about $400 to $600 you should be able to find a Pentium II/III 300 to 500mhz machine with 2 to 8 gig hard drive and 64 to 128mb RAM that will do anything you want in music (prices are as of 4/3/03, and are for reference only).

Most of this list of specifics will be standard on a notebook, but here are the features that will make your life easy:

  • 1) At least two PCMCIA type I slots & one type II slot
  • 2) Glidepoint GUI (Graphical User Interface) device – looks like a little window in front of keyboard. You use your fingertip like a mouse. Avoid the IBM with the little red button in the middle & Toshibas with their sluggish & slow proprietary pointing device.
  • 3) Serial port – for connecting MIDI in/out cables.
  • 4) USB port – for connecting all sorts of peripherals (cheapo obsolete machines may not have this).
  • 5) Active Matrix screen – the bigger the better … 12″ will work, but 14″ is a lot better
  • 6) Sound card – any good onboard model will do, you just want to be sure you’re wired for mic, audio in, audio out. You will bypass this card for sound generation in all likelihood, but you just need the ‘plumbing’ attached to it. You can actually use the USB & PCMCIA slots to bypass the connections if you have external soundcards hooked in there, and you can output everything you want heard through the MIDI OUT connections at your serial port, too. An internal sound card will let you play right away with no further research or investment though. Software sound cards like the Roland Virtual Canvass or MS Wavetable have some neat sounds & capabilities, but they also have a slight delay from input to output that you’ll probably never get adjusted out well enough for live performance.
  • 7) CD drive – 8x plus.
  • 8) Real floppy drive – not a ‘SuperDrive’ or ZIP drive alone.
  • 9) DVD & video out are nice, but not necessary … you could do a one-man band behind a Karaoke session with ‘em.
  • 10) You’ll get a parallel port & busses & video ram automatically with a functioning computer.
  • 11) One more thing: avoid a Mac – at least if you want any more help from this Bear … :)

You can hook to any MIDI module, synth or tone generator through your MIDI OUT cable running off the serial port. The tone generator you choose should be considered along with your EWI. If you go with a Yamaha WX5, for instance, you probably should invest in a VL70M tone generator to take advantage of your EWI’s full capabilities. There are tons of used tone generators to choose from. Here’s a link to Yamaha’s Virtual Acoustic Synthesis Instruments area. Click here for Roland.

If you just want to play the EWI as a stand alone instrument you don’t need a computer at all – just a good tone generator. With the computer though, you can generate a complete arrangement with BIAB, PowerTracks, Cakewalk, etc.  Software for a full act is another complete issue. I prefer the MIDI shorthand system of BIAB for inputting sequences, arranging and performance playback. It’s made for people who want to be musicians – not MIDI computer geeks …

Here’s a link to a couple full arrangements done strictly on BIAB & dumped off to a wave file (converted to MP3 for the web) through the MS Wavetable. If you’re pumping out live through BIAB & a tone generator for your act you just mute the piano melody & play your horn (that’s where the Glidepoint comes into play). The MS Wavetable sounds are just fine, but you can really get some great stuff live through a pro module from Yamaha, Roland, etc.

How Sweet It Is Crazy

The great thing about BIAB is that if you don’t like the style or tempo of an arrangement you can change it with just a couple of clicks. With traditional sequencers you can do tempo changes easily, but changing styles means completely redoing your arrangements. There are thousands of styles in BIAB pre programmed from which to choose, plus you can make your own styles & harmonies if you take the time to learn how. Here’s a link to PG Music, producers of BIAB. This is application software. You will still need to acquire or make individual song arrangements to use as your accompaniment. Fortunately, there are thousands of arrangements already done that you can use or adapt, and that other musicians are willing to trade with you for songs they don’t have. 

The final piece of equipment you will need is a PA system to amplify your output. We suggest not using a keyboard amp because of coverage issues. There are a number of small PA systems (by Crate & others) that work very well, are reasonably priced & offer the superior coverage of multiple speakers. The PA systems handle the mic for your sax better than keyboard amps, as well. My Crate PA-4 will handle the computer, my sax, and two extra mics for singers or other players.

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