Bless my soul!
MIDI is extremely helpful in songwriting workflows. You don’t have to be recording yet to make good use of it. In pre-production, MIDI is a godsend for many of us.
Using MIDI, you can generate sounds all the way up to entire backing tracks to sing over while writing a lyric or melody. It’s easy to make changes to rhythms (more or less swing factor, for instance), tempi, key signature, time signatures and so forth when you are only dealing with MIDI sounds. Naturally, you can pass a riff around a bunch of instruments and see which sounds the best with that riff, MIDI bassoon or MIDI tuba.
This is obviously a very helpful thing to be able to do, and even better, once you’re finished with this process you can simply use the MIDI parts you came up with to begin your recording process. There is no need to retain any of it in a final mix, but it makes a great map for what you are going to do, and when in the song it will happen.
Think of MIDI arrangements as scaffolding. You often want to put it there to build a song structure reliably, quickly, and professionally, although obviously you don’t HAVE to. It makes life faster and easier in the studio. As the song takes a more full shape with audio elements like vocals and guitars, you can gradually remove the MIDI elements, replacing them with things doing the same task or not, as you see fit. Or keep the MIDI elements, and experiment with alternative sounds.
Another thing you can do is layer multiple sounds. Use the same MIDI part on a MIDI track to trigger playback of multiple sounds, either at once or one at a time, recording each one’s output to an audio track of your DAW. You can build up a few layers of the MIDI string parts, for example, by triggering various string sounds and maybe other types of sounds like ethereal synth pads or glockenspiel or whatever else takes your fancy. In using different but complementary sounds to mix in at will later, you are adding texture to the recording, sonic depths if you will, by varying the level of the “now committed to audio” recordings of the MIDI parts in your mix.
Perhaps the most useful time to use MIDI is when you are attempting to determine what sounds to use. Discover which sounds will have the right emotional impact or ruin the mood in your song by trying different patches as the DAW loops a song section.
Learn to save sounds you have edited to a session folder that is kept with the song – see your DAW manual. Patches for MIDI virtual instruments are saved either at a root level to the DAW, meaning a folder the plug-in references to access sounds. You get the choice of that location to save to, or you can opt to save to a session folder instead. The plug-in should be set to access a folder in the DAW session file location instead, so that the settings are saved with the song session file in the same folder, when backed up for safety or stored for posterity. This way, when you save the settings for a plug-in, they will be stored that way, on the audio drive you store audio to, and not with the plug-in’s original installation files, which are usually on a system drive. You don’t want to record audio to your system drive if you can avoid it. It impacts performance in many cases.
A very useful MIDI area is system messages. These are messages that are non-musical, and control MIDI devices or plug-ins at a system level. Things like routing sounds to specific outputs on the back of a MIDI sound module, or changing the patch on a song’s main reverb so it loads and starts using a different reverb patch at a set time in the song.
System Exclusive messages are a subset of MIDI system messages, and they are very useful. They just talk to a set device or plug-in, and to nobody else. All other MIDI devices but the one addressed in the system message will ignore these messages, since there is a unique ID assigned to all the MIDI devices in a set-up. Very handy!
The availability of system exclusive data (so-called sys ex data) means the DAW sequencer doesn’t have to be used simply for starting and stopping recordings and playbacks or editing musical data.
Here’s a neat trick for sys ex data for those who roll their own sounds in synths. You can use it when you edit un-stored sounds in a hardware MIDI synthesizer, knowing you won’t lose the best version of the sound as you try tweaks. It can take quite some time to build sounds to your satisfaction for a particular song, and it’s easy to lose track of what you create as you try to improve it. Sometimes you don’t manage to get a better sound from the synth, making manual tweaks to settings and moving knobs or sliders, and then you find you can’t get the great sound back. This can happen easily.
This is because whenever you are programming your own synthesizer sounds or drum sounds from scratch (or from suitably close presets), you will make lots of parameter changes as you do so, stepping through countless subtle variations of sounds. More decay, less decay, more resonance, lower cut-off, changing envelopes, etc, etc. Then you stumble across it – THE sound.
Wow! THAT sounded good. Great, but maybe there’s an even better sound? You tweak settings a bit more.
Sadly, after making quite a few changes, you realize you can’t improve on it, but now you can’t quite find the sound again, the one you liked in the first place. You can solve this problem by running the sequencer in record as you tweak (for hours at a time if you like), recording all your moves as sys ex data into the DAW. All the notes you play will be ignored, unrecorded, if you set the track’s MIDI Input filter to do so. All the changes to controls you make will be recorded and can be played back into the hardware synth to recreate whatever you were doing at any point.
Set the MIDI Input filter in your DAW settings to filter out everything except sys ex data. Channel messages (the musical stuff) are not recorded, but all the changes to sound parameters you make will be captured one after another. If you get into trouble, you can stop the DAW, go back a way, and replay the sys ex data back into the instrument. When the magic sound is back, stop the DAW and store the patch as it is, right at that moment.
Many hardware synths from the golden era of synths (the 1980’s) are perfect fodder in this situation. All of this works on plug-ins, of course, but it’s not really necessary to do it since the plug-in allows you to save settings at any time. You simply save the plug-in settings whenever you like a sound, using a different name each time.
MIDI is very handy when you want a sound to vary over time, since you can use MIDI to change a filter envelope over time. This happens all the time in EDM (electronic dance music). The pulsing sounds get darker and darker and almost disappear, then they come blasting back with the filter wide open again. Contrasts like this work so beautifully in record production. Just insert a plug-in filter (almost all EQ plug-ins can do this, but ones that can Kill EQ are particularly fun) and automate it to behave as you desire.
The most important time to use MIDI is when you are experimenting with production ideas, typically in pre-production, and when you are controlling automated changes or playing of MIDI sound modules or plug-ins. Certainly, you will want to stick to MIDI until you are sure the key and tempo and structure from top to tail is right. You can play with it all you like throughout the process, and even run it live in the mixing session, never committing it to audio at all.
It is wise to commit to audio when you archive the song, since you may not be able to get the same sound from later versions of the plug-in, if it is even still available. Any number of issues may arise, so “print” the MIDI parts to audio with the sounds you used. This is the only safe way to proceed.
Join me tomorrow for “MIDI PROGRAMMMING – DRUM MAPS, SAMPLES AND SLICES”. This is another very useful thing MIDI does and you will find it invaluable in songwriting to have a way of generating any rhythmic feel you can think of with any sounds you feel like using today. If you cope with writing drum parts into a drum map (also called drum grid) you will be miles ahead of the game! And it is so easy to get the hang of, you will be amazed.