One thing you really need for your instrument is a virtual instrument sound pack. The built-in midi sounds that go along with the windows sound engine are OK for practice, but they are the musical equivalent of plastic cutlery. By the way, although the Microsoft GS Wavetable SW Synth sounds a bit better than the basic Microsoft Synthesizer, it seemed to introduce a surprising amount of latency and problems on my Acer D250 netbook. Be warned.
The one I use and currently recommend is Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO), in its latest incarnation with the new ARIA sound engine. I do not recommend anything to do with the Kontakt product line they used to use. The Kontakt products, while I’m sure they have their good points, are complicated to use, finicky to set up, and have fussy preferences. I found it and the old GPO to be real time burners. The old package was also quite pricey. The Aria sound engine loads much faster too.
The new GPO/Aria is now better priced, at a $150 for a new version, and the upgrade price is a decent $50. If you have the old GPO and didn’t use it for the reasons above, I suggest trying the new one.
Now, many of the orchestral sounds don’t work that well with a keyboard – the keyboard, having only velocity as a expression variable, produces a flat sounding trumpet, violin etc. For these instruments two work well, one will need a thumb control. I tried it briefly (using the pap on a Korg Nanopad, and was able to play a not-too-crude version of Taps. Time didn’t allow me to delve deeper, but perhaps next year I will "learn to play the trumpet". These reservations aside, the piano, harpsichord, harp and like instruments are very good in this pack.
The Aria sound engine loads much faster, and has:
The Songsmith Analog Synthesizer pack 1 is also decent. At $10 it delivers quite a few cool organ (and some truly weird) sounds to use when one gets bored with the sounds of an orchestra.
I use now GPO and the Synth pack on my HP netbook just for practice: to use, I set it to:
Then I load the little Max/MSP program called Axis Tweaker (again at startup) that takes the Axis-49 input and makes the Axis work the way I want (with key remapping, velocity curve tweaking etc.) Note: the Axis has to be plugged in before Tweaker loads – most midi applications are funny this way.The basic idea is to turn the machine on, plug in headphones or speakers, and be ready to go in half a minute, all without thinking about anything other than music.
This setup is not perfect – I’d really like it if Aria would accept input parameters (in the shortcuts) so it could be loaded with different things by clicking on customized shortcuts.
I would also wonder why they only allow it to read the midi input stream, and not the midi output stream as well. That would allow us to skip using LoopBE to divert the tweaker output back to the input stream, just so it can be read by Aria without using LoopBE.
The Axis Tweaker program I plan to enhance to make it very much more powerful. It will become an instrument integration system, which will integrate several keyboards, controllers and the PC keyboard into a single virtual instrument, using simple configurable table files and assignable buttons on the PC keyboard and/or whatever controller one chooses.
Doubtless there are better virtual instruments out there - if you know of them, please let us know! But GPO is more good enough for now.