Computer-Music.com contains articles and product reviews related to making music using computers and creating 3D computer animation in sync with music. Computer-Music.com is also the home page of  Donald S. Griffin, an experienced professional composer, sound effects designer and audio consultant with an emphasis on computer games,  video games and internet music and sound effects. For pricing and contract availability send email to: DGriffin (@) Computer-Music (.) com

Computer-Music.com  contains articles and product reviews related to making music using computers and creating 3D computer animation in sync with music.
Computer-Music.com is also the home page of  Donald S. Griffin, an experienced professional composer, sound effects designer and audio consultant with an emphasis on computer games,  video games and internet music and sound effects. For pricing and contract availability send email to: DGriffin (@) Computer-Music (.) com



 

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Choosing Powerful And Useful Software And Hardware

The centerpiece of any MIDI studio should be you. It should fit like good pair of shoes and to take the analogy a little further it should help you, not hurt you. After you the next most important item is your sequencer software. It is your pencil and paper and if it works in a way that feels natural to you then it can make be tremendously helpful to the creative process. On the other hand it can make your life a living hell. The first few sequencer packages I tried were difficult to use. I accepted the weird way you had to put in notes because I didn't know it could be any better. I am still sure the programmers thought of their software as a way for the user to put data into their software rather than as the composer's little helper who is always there with what you need where and when you need it. The programs made me do things in a way that was very alien from the way I was used to working. For me the best example of this will always be the 'piano roll' type interface. The term comes from the rolls of paper you put into a 'Player Piano' to make it play a particular song. A piano roll interface looks much like a piano roll stretched across your computer screen. Musical notes are represented as horizontal bars going across the page from left to right. Along the left edge of the screen is usually graphic representation of a piano keyboard to show you how each row represents a different pitch. Where the bars start and end on the graph shows you where your notes will start and end. MIDI note lengths stored in a MIDI file as being a certain number of ticks long. Depending on the time resolution of your sequencer there might be anywhere from 96 ticks in each quarter note to nearly a thousand. This resolution is called the PPQ or Pulse Per Quarter Note. At 120 PPQ a quarter note will be 30 ticks long and that is how it is stored as MIDI data. The problem is that most programs don't come up with a friendly way for you to convert from musical notation, the language of music, to ticks, the language of MIDI devices. This type of software would might expect me to figure out that if I want a note to start on the the second half of the third beat in 4/4 measure that I will have to tell the software to start the note on the 76th tick Since the first beat starts on 1 the second starts on 31, the third starts on 61 and since 120ppq divided by 4 beats is 30 ticks per beat and I have to add a half a beat so I have to add 15 to the first two beats which total 60 which brings us up to 75 but I want to start on the first tick of the next note so that is 76, not 75. I know this sounds complicated. It has that effect on me too. It is certainly distracting. Now if I am composing a piece with a swing beat like a boogie woogie then that "and after three" will have to be delayed a a few ticks so it might happen at 81 ticks into the measure instead of 76. Now, lets say I am reading that data to try to understand it in musical terms. What is a note that starts at tick number 50. Right, in swing time it is probably an "and after two" or the fourth eighth note in the measure but swung. Now lets not forget that you have to watch a numerical display at the top of the screen that shows you the velocity value of each note on a scale of 0 to 127 to tell you how hard that note was hit so while you are trying to follow what is going on by watching a bar graph zip by, hardly able to tell which line is in which octave let alone which pitch, you are expected to watch a display of numbers zipping by telling you the relative strength of each note. Now this is only for one instrument since very few programs are capable of displaying a single piano roll view showing several different instruments, usually color coded. Some others let you open several windows at once you have to do this with four different windows all at the same time just for a quartet! Good luck if you want to compose a symphony!

I am telling you all this not to scare you (though it should) but to let you know that not all sequencer software is alike or even adequate to the task. Until just a few years ago there were only a few sequencers that made any use of musical notation at all. Until a few years ago music programs were one of two kinds. They were either called sequencers and used a combination of piano roll and event lists for composing music; or they were called notation programs and were designed purely for making printed musical notation that looked nice. Some software developers actually suggested you use one program to put in MIDI data then transfer your finished file to another program that would convert the MIDI data to very quirky notation if you wanted to see your music as notes! This is hardly any way for a musician to compose. It is much like stopping your car every few feet and getting out to walk in front of your car in order to see where you are driving. Several sequencers have added some notation capability but they often will only show one instrument at a time and only a few measures at a time or the MIDI data is severely rounded off to make the notes look nice but this causes the notation not to reasonably display what you intended to convey. This solution is usually incorporated by people who have spent years using only piano roll, often can not read music very well and are not in a habit of considering what all the other instruments will be doing when they are composing for any one instrument. Essentially they don't know how to use musical notation so they don't miss its absence and are not capable of understanding how it must function within a sequencer for it to be useful to a composer. Some of those programs are gradually getting better in fits and starts but I am happy to say that a few sequencers have been much closer to the mark all along. Specifically Logic by Emagic is a program which used to be called Notator and has had the right idea all along starting on the old Atari computers. Logic is an extremely complex and powerful program. Emagic hates it when you say that Logic has a steep learning curve. It does but the curve has been getting more shallow over the years. But this program makes even a steep learning curve worth the effort. Fortunately most people using Logic today have used it for years and are comfortable with it by now. If you are just starting in MIDI Logic may be enough to send you away screaming in defeat but if you are determined enough you will end up having learned on the most powerful MIDI program and will probably never have to learn another one. My old favorite is Musicator GS for DOS which, though not very powerful, has an extremely musician friendly layout. Musicator GS for windows in now in its 3rd generation and incorporates digital audio but some of the key features were dropped when they went from DOS to windows and they are very slowly being re-incorporated into the program though it is now much more powerful in many other ways. In recent years I have seen no new versions of Musicator so I am not sure if the program will continue to be improved. All I have to go on is that somebody saw a demonstration of a newer version in progress at a trade show a few months ago. I still believe that if a new version of Musicator does arrive it will be worth the wait. Otherwise you may be better served hitching your wagon to one of the other programs that are updated much more often. CakeWalk Pro Was in the previous category (no notation) for a very long time but they have come a long way and may be considered in the last category in recent versions. They still treat music notation as a sort of gauge that you glance at once in a while but that may be good enough for some people. Cakewalk has always been pretty friendly and easy to use and that counts for a lot. Cubase is another notation based sequencer that is worthy of note but it seems to have some of Logic's difficult learning curve while not having as many features for the trouble. Steinberg (makers of Cubase) seem to be working on this as I have read other reviewers opinions that the interface is slowly becoming more uniform.  I do not work at all on a Mac but I am told that Digital Performer (Mac only) is quite good. I would like to be able to tell you that trying a sequencer in a store and reading about it in magazines or on a web site is enough to let you pick the right one but that is sadly not true. Try to find somebody who works like you and see what they use. Then ask them what is frustrating about their software then cross your fingers and hope you made a good choice. You can't really judge what is a good package for you until you learn all the ins and outs of a couple of them. In keeping with the theme of this section remember that more features will not define what sequencer is best for you. This is true of most music hardware.

So far I have talked about making sure your new gear is useful and that should always be your first priority. It should serve a definite need and be easy to use in filling that need. Sadly, sometimes you have a definite need of hardware or software that is going to be hard to learn to use. My philosophy on this is in two parts. Avoid these gadgets as much as you can and if you have to then see if you can combine many of them into one single beast so you only have to learn to use one complex gadget instead of many. I have two devices like this that also turned out to be very popular in their year of introduction and for some time afterwards. The first is the Ensoniq  DP/4 Parallel Effects Processor. This unit has four digital effects processors that each can do a separate audio processing task and they can work independently or together in various combinations. This beast has layers upon layers of parameters you could get lost in but once you learned how to use this one unit you would have filled the requirement for several racks full of effects processors. The other device I want to mention that falls into this category is the Kurzweil K2000 sampling synthesizer. It is a MIDI controller keyboard, sampler, synthesizer and sequencer all rolled into one and it is very, very powerful, flexible and upgrade-able. It is not simple to learn how to use nor is it cheap but if you have one you won't need much else in the way of synthesizers. I should give an honorable mention to the Yamaha MU80 XG synthesizer module. It is a synth module which means it tries to pack a ton of instruments into a small amount of sample memory (ROM) which tends to severely limit the quality of the instrument sounds by professional standards but for the average MIDI hobbyist it is incredibly useful. It has 18bit DACs (Digital to Analog Converters) which give it a bit more crystal sparkling clear sound then most of its competitors that only use 16bit DACs. It is a multi-port module which means, in this case, that it has 2 16 part synthesizers allowing you to have up to 32 different sounding instruments playing at once. But one of the most useful things about this little gem is that it has analog inputs in the front for a microphone and a guitar, for example. It will supply appropriate effects for your voice and guitar then combine that audio signal with the synthesizer and send it out the back all combined into one stereo pair that can go into your sound system quite simply. The MU80 is not really a complex instrument but it does fit my philosophy of having one device do several things so you have to buy,  learn to use, and maintain fewer devices in your studio. In this sense it is powerful. Since I wrote this article over three years ago Yamaha has produced follow on devices to the MU80 but the point I make about finding a device that does several things at once is just as valid. The Ensoniq DP/4 was upgraded but I think that software plug-in modules do a pretty good job and are generally more accessibly, more flexible and easier to use than external effects units. Kurzweil has since produced later models than the K2000s but, again, the point about its variety of capabilities in a single unit is still valid. That particular unit is just as useful as it was when I bought maybe 5 years ago or more. Some things are worth a large investment because they will continue to be useful over a long period of time. Spotting them can be tough though.

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