Mind Your MIDI
by Jason Borisoff
Do you ever you find music running through your head at seemingly random moments of the day? Do you wish you could somehow capture the sounds in your mind, and share them with the rest of the world? This is a challenge for even the most gifted instrumentalists and composers, but there’s help. MIDI sequencers can help you realize even your most ambitious creative attempts. Interested? Read on…
MIDI, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is essentially a high-tech version of a player-piano. While paper scrolls and complex mechanisms are only found in museums and antique shops, the concept of recording only performance data, rather than actual sound, is alive and well in the world of MIDI. A MIDI sequencer is the tool that allows you to record, playback, and edit this data with tremendous flexibility.
Think about the basic physical actions required to play a piano: you have to know which key, or keys, to press, when to press them, how hard to press them, and when to let up. Now, imagine being able to change any aspect of your performance after you recorded it—the tempos, key signature, individual pitches, rhythms, even the sound of the instrument. A MIDI sequencer allows you to do this, and much more.
Here’s how it works, in a nutshell—connect a MIDI instrument (usually a keyboard) to your software sequencer. Set the tempo and time signature, then hit record, and play a little ditty (or a 20 minute masterpiece, your choice). The MIDI sequencer records your performance (but remember, not actual sound) to a time grid. Upon playback, the MIDI messages you just recorded are echoed back to the instrument, external sound module, and/or software based synthesizer to recreate the performance. The sequencer, in essence, is playing the electronic keyboard just like a paper scroll plays an antique player piano.
The inherent flexibility of this method is especially powerful for composers and arrangers, as well as solo performers looking to create custom backing tracks. Imagine having a minimum of 16 separate tracks at your disposal, with each track capable of having its own distinct musical part and instrument sound. Using nothing but a keyboard, you can build up an entire song, just the way you want it. Check out some of these common MIDI editing techniques, and you’ll start to see what makes a MIDI sequencer a powerful creative tool.
Cut, copy, and paste: Standard Mac/PC editing applies to sequencers as well. You have ultimate freedom to cut or copy entire tracks, track regions, or individual notes, and paste them anywhere you wish in the song.
Loop: Does your song have a repeating section, like an ostinato bass line or deep drum groove? Just play the figure once, then loop it for as long as you like.
Pitch edit: In most sequencing software, you have several ways of accomplishing note edits. You can either edit notes using a piano roll, which allows you to change notes using a graphical representation of a piano keyboard (simply slide the note to a different pitch on the piano), or make like Mozart and edit notes in notation view, which displays your performance in standard notation.
Rhythmic edits: in addition to changing or correcting note pitches, you can also change a note’s duration, as well as its position in the beat. Rhythmic edits are also made via either piano roll or notation view.
Velocity: This refers to the speed at which the key was struck, which corresponds to the volume of the note. Each note is given a malleable velocity value ranging from 0-127, with the ability to create dynamic effects, like crescendos and sforzandos.
Program change: This, in MIDI language, simply means to change the sound of an instrument. Using your keyboard’s built in sounds, software instruments, or an external sound module, you can change the instrument sound of any track, and at any point in the song. You can even layer instrument sounds on top of each other. For instance, a string pad coupled with a grand piano is a common pairing. The timbral possibilities are endless.
Quantize: How’s your rhythm? If you’re not used to playing to a click track, but still want the notes to line up, you can quantize your performance. This snaps the beginning of each note to the nearest point of an imaginary time grid. If you’re just a little late hitting a note, for example, quantization will automatically correct it for you.
Control change: for added expression, most MIDI keyboards come with two control wheels, one for pitch, and the other for adjusting modulation parameters (for instance, phaser depth, vibrato rate, etc.). As you manipulate these wheels in your performance, they are recorded by your sequencer as control changes. Like everything in else in MIDI, you can edit them any way you wish after the performance.
As you might be starting to realize, MIDI is a very powerful tool in the hands of a creative musician. And that’s just scratching the surface of what a good sequencer can do. If you want to dive in deeper to the world of MIDI, there are a lot great resources for beginners, like Tweakheadz.com, and MIDIWorld.com. Also, check out some of our recommendations for MIDI sequencers and virtual instruments.
GVOX Master Tracks Pro
This software features everything you need to record and edit MIDI data with a lot of flexibility. Key features include 64 independently loopable tracks and a host of editing functions.
Sampled from a 9’ Steinway Model D grand piano, Acoustica’s Pianissimo gives you an authentic sounding piano software sound module that can be played by your MIDI sequence.
Sony Acid Pro 7
This handy software is great for everything from recording and editing audio to sequencing MIDI data and building drum grooves.
Manually programming drum loops can be a pain. Geist is a step sequencers and sampler designed to easily create and tweak beats.