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MIDI PROGRAMMING – MIDI = Musical Instrument Digital Interface


MIDI keyboard

Keystation 88 semi-weighted MIDI controller and keyboard

It is relatively unusual to find a hit record from the last 30 years or so that did not require MIDI at some point in the recording process.

The usual way to introduce MIDI is to say it’s a communication protocol to pass musical information (notes, instructions, etc) to be transmitted between instruments or devices.  Actually, it has been widely applied in other areas, such as the control of lighting equipment, interactive displays, or theme park rides.

It allows you to issue commands and have (typically sound-related)  electronic devices respond.  This is normally done against a clock, a timeline of some sort, but it does not have to be – you can simply trigger MIDI events on the fly when you feel like it, using,say, a MIDI foot-pedal or switch or button or even by whacking an electronic drum-pad with a drumstick at the right moment.

Rather more usefully, you can set up the events you want to happen, whether playing a piece of music or not, ahead of time.  You enter the MIDI data you need into a MIDI sequencer, which will be in your DAW of choice.   You can also do this with a standalone DAW, such as an Akai MPC, or your all-in-one keyboard workstation.  Data can be entered in various ways, but typically by playing a musical keyboard with MIDI Out capability.  Alternatively, you might use any number of MIDI controllers such as the Keystation range from M-Audio.  Usually, there are no sounds made by the controller, because it simply allows you to input MIDI data which will be used to play back or control another device or, simultaneously, many other devices.

You can also edit MIDI data in myriad ways, such as note lengths and pitches, correcting or experimenting with timing against the tempo grid (you did use a click, didn’t you?) or how hard you intend to hit your piano keys, note by note (the MIDI term is note velocity).

Another neat trick is called MIDI Merge, where you augment MIDI data already recorded – perhaps adding another note to a chord or a tom fill to the drums.

One of the best tricks for songwriters is that you can program one or two bars, then copy it and double the length and change it slightly in the double, trying different variations of rhythmic, harmonic or melodic information.  Get a slamming first half of your chorus, then repeat it once directly afterwards to complete your chorus in double-quick time.  Just make the minor changes in the copied half that will stop it sounding like an identical repeat – unless you want that.

Identical repeats can be hypnotic and powerful too, but they will soon get boring because you need things to be constantly changing these days if you want to get anybody to stay interested!

If you only record traditional instruments then you will not need to use MIDI at all, except for the simplest purposes, say, driving a click track.

If you want to include MIDI in your productions, you will gain access to a vast universe filled with exotic and interesting audio and you will be able to control outboard MIDI effects units or sound modules or keyboards.  You will be able to use MTC (MIDI Time Code) or alternatively use MIDI Clock to synchronize or control device transports on everything from DAWs to hardware digital recorders like the RADAR systems.

Even my veteran Sony DMX R-100 digital console happily follows MTC – the console features transport controls and extensive synchronization capabilities, and it’s MTC sent from ProTools software that has the console’s time display moving in sync with the one onscreen in my Pro Tools software.

Now, it’s important to realize that the best policy for self-producing songwriters experimenting with a song idea is to avoid recording any audio at all until you have approved the song’s key and it’s tempo and it’s structure (it’s sections, like a verse or a pre-chorus – or the ending fill that is slightly slower for added drama) and you must approve it in MIDI form for every single bar of the song.   The beauty of this is that you don’t have to keep a damn thing.  Throw away whatever MIDI patterns you like, change them, whatever.  The idea is that you can play your guitar or piano alongside the MIDI tracks you make, and record against them.  Avoiding having the headphones too loud will help keep clicks and MIDI parts from spilling into your audio tracks via your open microphone, and this will let you remove all the MIDI later.  You can have an organic, traditional recording, which you got as a result of playing along with a programmed version, later dismantled.

MIDI allows you to change key or tempo at your whim.  This is possible with complete impunity – until you add audio.  Now you have a potential problem.

The moment audio is present, it is vastly more trouble and horribly more time-consuming to deal with changes, and occasionally downright impossible.

I would urge you to stick with nothing but MIDI sounds all the way up until you can play the entire track from top to tail and it sounds correct in terms of keys, chords and time signatures and especially your tempo choices.  It’s not ideal to have to time-stretch your audio (guitar and vocal, say), by warping it into a new tempo, after you realize you’ve recorded it slower or faster than you actually wanted it.   You have to change your audio to get to the new speed or key by processing it and it typically sounds a bit less good afterwards.  Go too far with pitch or tempo changes and it sounds downright unusable.

Leave audio out of your recording process until the MIDI phase is solid enough that you know you have the song right.  You can add and change sounds after the audio arrives, and oh yes you will love that!!   Just be sure where you are first before combining forces with audio.

Start thinking like a remixer as well as a songwriter.  Cut and paste sections of your arrangement, repeat them, change them, all in MIDI, quickly and easily.   Try a key change at the end of the bridge as you drive home the hook with a chorus home key arriving a minor third lower than usual and the whole melody lifting a semitone higher to make it take off into space.

MIDI data consists of two types of messages.  Channel messages and system messages.

Channel messages include all the music performance data like notes, pitchbends, mod wheel movements, and so on.

System messages include all the non-musical things like MIDI Time Code and MIDI Clock.

A great use of MIDI is to make patch changes, for example making the MIDI instrument that plays a violin sound play a flute sound instead at a set point in the song.  Easy to do.

System Exclusive messages are a subset of System messages, in that they are aimed at a specific device with a specific numerical ID that uniquely identifies it in a chain of MIDI devices.

It says, hey, this data is for your eyes only, Device ID 22.  Everyone else, mind you own business and go on doing what you’re doing!

Tomorrow’s blog is “MIDI PROGRAMMING – WHEN TO USE MIDI”.  See you then!


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