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5 Tips for 5 Pins: Make the Most out of MIDI

May is MIDI Month!


Story by: Craig Anderton



Granted, the 5-pin DIN connector is becoming less common for MIDI as MIDI-over-USB becomes the norm. But it's important to remember where we came from: Over 3 decades ago, MIDI proved that competing companies could get together, put aside their differences, forget about the "Not Invented Here" syndrome, and collaborate on a protocol that ended up being tremendously beneficial to their customers, the industry, and the companies themselves. (Or at least, proved that such a thing was possible in the music industry!)


Far from fading off into the sunset like other protocols of that time (how's your SCSI hard drive doing...and is that BetaMax still connected to your RS-422 port?), the MIDI spec has been maintained to reflect changes in technology. But now, MIDI is poised to take some giant leaps forward. MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) and MIDI CI (Capability Inquiry) have already been ratified; the former allows for more expressive music, while the latter makes setting up and using MIDI setups far more transparent. Musicians, artists, theatrical people, DJs, and more are doing fascinating things with MIDI, as one trip to The MIDI Association -  a non-profit, all-volunteer organization - will show once you start perusing the site. It’s free to join, and members can access downloads of the complete MIDI specs (including the newest ones like MPE) and well as  in-depth MIDI tutorials.  


TMA is celebrating "May Is MIDI Month" and because I do pro bono work for the organization, volunteered to write a MIDI tip every day during the month of May. Athan Billias, who does extensive work with TMA, then added more material to the tips and deserves credit for helping transform them into their final, published form. As of this writing May isn't over yet and there are more tips to come, but here are five of the favorite tips so far.


May 1: Hum a Few Bars, and I’ll Fake It


Celemony Melodyne has one foot in audio, but the other in MIDI because the analysis that it runs on audio ends up being easily converted to MIDI data. If you can sing with consistent tone and level, Melodyne can convert your singing into MIDI.


In Studio One, MIDI data has been extracted from the guitar track at the top, and is now being edited in a piano roll view editor.


This has other uses, too. For example if you’re a guitar player and want a cool synth bass part, you can record the bass part on your guitar, extract the MIDI notes using Melodyne’s analysis (how you do this varies among programs, but it may be as simple as dragging an audio track into a MIDI track), transpose the notes down an octave, and drive a synth set to a cool bass sound. You may need to do a little editing, but that’s no big deal.


Here’s a link to a more detailed article on how to convert Audio to MIDI in three different DAWs - Ableton, Cubase, and Sonar (now Cakewalk by BandLab). Also, check out this video on Audio-to-MIDI conversion in Ableton Live.




May 3:  How to Limit MIDI Velocity


Audio compression can give more consistent levels, but it doesn’t give a more consistent touch; that has to happen at the source, when the instrument plays. Some recording software programs have either MIDI FX or editing commands to compress data by raising low-level notes and/or or reducing high-level notes. But if your program doesn’t have velocity compression, there’s an easy solution: simply add a constant to all velocity values for “MIDI limiting.”


For example, suppose an instrument’s softest note velocity is 70, and the highest is 110—a difference of 40. Add 35 to all values, and now your softest velocity is 70+35=105, and your highest is 110+35—which can’t go any higher than 127 regardless, so now your highest-velocity note is 127 and there’s only a difference of 22 between the highest and lowest notes. If you want to go back to making sure the highest-level note is 110, then subtract 17 from all values. Your highest-level note is now at 110, but the lowest-level note is 88—still a difference of 22 instead of 40.


The blue notes show the original velocities. The green notes show what happens after applying the changes described above, including subtracting 17 from the limited notes so that the highest-level green note is the same as the highest-level blue note.


This doesn’t preclude adding audio compression, but you’ll find you need to add less of it, and the sound will be more natural.



May 4:  Create More Realistic MIDI Bass Parts


Don't Let Notes Overlap. Most bass lines are single notes, and because bassists lift fingers, mute strings, and pick, there's going to be a space between notes. Go through your MIDI sequence note by note, and make sure that no note extends over another note's attack.


The orange notes have overhanging decays and attacks. The gray notes to the left and right have had their lengths trimmed to prevent overhang.


Limit MIDI velocity. Really great bass players are known for their "touch"—the ability to play notes consistently, in terms of timing and dynamics. In some ways, it can be harder to play keyboard notes as consistently as bass strings, but the MIDI velocity limiting technique presented in the tip for May 3 is a fine solution.


Use slides. Real bass players use a lot of slides in their playing, and using pitch bend to create slides can benefit MIDI bass as well. Set the bass synth's pitch bend range to plus and minus a fifth or an octave, depending how much of a slide you want—I use plus and minus one octave.


Take advantage of synth parameters. Use velocity not only to control dynamics, but brightness—have the filter cutoff lower at lower velocities, and higher at higher velocities so that hitting the keys harder creates a brighter sound. 


For bass parts with a highly realistic sound quality, check out IK Multimedia's MODO bass. It uses physical modeling so you can change a variety of bass characteristics.




May 13: Why You Need a Controller with More Octaves


If you think of a keyboard as playing only notes, four or five octaves may be sufficient. However, many virtual instruments (e.g., FXpansion Geist, Native Instruments Kontakt, EastWest’s Play engine, etc.) use MIDI keys not only to play specific notes but also to trigger articulations or variations on a basic sound. If your main USB MIDI controller doesn’t have enough notes, no worries—trade it in for that deluxe 88-note weighted keyboard you’ve always wanted (hey, you only live once). But if you lack the space or finances, add a second USB MIDI controller for doing switching—even if it’s just something like a little Korg plastic keyboard designed for mobile applications. Your sequencer probably won’t be able to merge incoming MIDI streams, but no worries there either: MIDI Solutions’s Merger will merge two data streams to a single output. There are also several DIY circuits for MIDI mergers on the web.


When you need more notes than a single keyboard can provide, merge the data streams from two keyboards with a MIDI Merger.



May 15: Arpeggiation Meets Percussion


Most people of think of arpeggiation solely in melodic terms, but arpeggiation has additional uses.


General MIDI instruments include drum kits where the top notes are percussion sounds, and many virtual instruments include percussion presets. Setting up an arpeggiator in a random mode to trigger various percussive sounds can create a really cool effect. The wider the octave range, the more instruments the arpeggiator will play—which you may or may not want, if there are some annoying percussion sounds in the mix. Restricting the range, or using a non-random arpeggiator setting, can create a more “compact” set of sounds.


The arpeggiator in Cakewalk by BandLab is generating random arpeggiation over three octaves based on the notes held down to trigger percussion sounds.


This can also work well with multisampled instruments. Instead of stacking the multisamples on one key and triggering with velocity, spread the multisamples across multiple keys and use an arpeggiator to trigger them. You can end up with some delightful surprises this way. Just make sure that your program is always in record mode, because if a pattern is truly random—good luck duplicating it!









Craig Anderton is a Senior Contributing Editor at 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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