MIDI Music Round-Up

MIDI Music Round-Up

Byline: Frank McMahon

Music software gets better each year. Advancements make songs easier to create and allow more control over scores. You may have experimented with Sony’s Acid Pro 4.0 (or the less-expensive Acid 4.0 available at www.screenblast.com) or hit the loops with Apple’s Soundtrack or the budget version called GarageBand. They allow you to crank out broadcast-level music that that can slide directly into your desktop productions. With so many loop collections available on CD and DVD, you would probably never run out of new sounds or ways to alter your music, as these loop programs include numerous ways to bend, swap, pitch, and finesse your scores into new creations.

But what if you want to go beyond the loops? It might be time to look into MIDI, virtual instruments, and scoring software. Via MIDI, you can create sounds with a MIDI controller feeding digital notes into any virtual instrument for limitless possibilities. There are many high-powered scoring packages to look into. The best software programs can start you on your journey to professionally scoring productions, even if you have no prior musical experience.


If you need to be inspired, pick up any recent DVD by director Robert Rodriguez. Specifically, on the disc Once Upon a Time in Mexico, shot in HD and edited on the desktop, look at the tour of his home studio. You’ll notice that part of his desktop editing system is a music keyboard, hooked to a computer equipped with software synthesizers and music programs. In this behind-the-scenes moment, “The Crocodile Hunter” of the indie movie business shows how to score a scene, barely tapping out a few notes before layering and adding effects. Music is created the same way video is edited: It does not take much to let the software options take you in new creative directions. Rodriguez maintains creative control by keeping costs low, seeking creative solutions to expensive problems. Scoring productions yourself is just one way to gain creative control affordably.

MIDI control

Music programs typically handle both sound files (samples and loops) and MIDI information. MIDI may sound old-school – as in a Sound Blaster card – but the technology has advanced and now controls most plug-ins, which serve as effects and virtual instruments.

Microsoft’s DirectX and Steinberg’s VST are effects plug-ins and are widely accepted as standards. DXi and VSTi, on the other hand, are those companies’ virtual instrument plug-ins – they can be controlled in a music program via MIDI.

Keyboards function as the MIDI controller. But what if you don’t know how to play? Don’t worry. I’m no piano maestro, but I have scored several of my own independent movies and created lush soundscapes that envelop my scenes with the proper mood. I did it by layering, which entails laying down a slow drum track, then layering strings on top. Hold down one key for 5 seconds, move up a few keys, repeat. Add some strings for dramatic effect. If you really want to learn keyboard, there are many instructional DVDs (a popular quick and dirty one is Play Piano in a Flash! by Scott Houston).

Keyboards can be expensive, but all you really need is a MIDI controller keyboard. I recommend the M-Audio Keystation 49e, a full-sized but light keyboard available for about $99 at an online music store, such as www.audiomidi.com. The Keystation 49e connects to the computer via an included USB 1.0 cable. Your software will recognize the unit, so it’s ready to rock and roll. There’s no need for external power.

Another type of MIDI controller are pads, such as Korg’s KP-2 Kaoss pad ($299). It is a touch pad that you tap. Although it has effects built in, you can easily use it as a MIDI controller with your software.

A typical workflow for music creation would be to load up Acid Pro and add a loop track and then a MIDI track. For the loop track, pick a WAV sample to repeat. For the MIDI track, select a VSTi plug-in and then turn on the MIDI keyboard hooked up to your system. Among the VSTi instruments select, say, African Drums and then hit record. Your loop sample repeats while you swing over to your MIDI keyboard (or pad) and tap the keys to create drum parts in time with the music.

The most basic MIDI commands are note on, note off, velocity, and pitch. Velocity tracks how hard you hit the keys. This will add a very human element to your score: the physical movement that is not often heard in a structured, repeating sampled WAV loop.


In the past few months I have become a user of Cakewalk’s products (www.cakewalk.com), specifically Project5, its soft-synth workstation (for a review, see p. 70). The flagship software Sonar 3 offers more options for cutting audio and scoring, but Project5 is undeniable in the fun department. You create an audio track, pick a virtual instrument (the program includes several high-end, sonically deep options), and then either lay down some MIDI notes or load a premade pattern sequence. Think of the patterns as loops. But unlike actual loops, which are recordings, these are MIDI notes, meaning you can attach any virtual instrument (such as VSTi or DXi) for millions of possibilities.

Once you are ready to progress, you can step up to Sonar 3 Producer Edition, which is a complete music studio in a box for mixing, shaping with digital effects, and finalizing your music scores. I also love how Cakewalk redid Sonar’s interface in version 3.0. Previous versions were a clunky mix of Windows menus and screens, but now the whole program looks slick and is easy to move around in.

Pro Tools by Digidesign (www.digidesign.com) is a high-end program that is hardware-based, meaning the software requires either an audio sampler/mixing console or a rackmounted audio unit. Only certain hardware options work with Pro Tools. Pro Tools SE is a scaled down version that works with lower-cost hardware (the software is more or less the same as the high-end version) and can be used with a normal desktop computer. Two hardware options for Pro Tools LE are the Digi 002/Digi 002 rack, a FireWire-based mixing and effects console, or the Mbox, a two-channel, USB-based peripheral that serves as an audio in/out portal. The Mbox is the less expensive option (less than $500), and its portability makes it perfect for laptop work.

Steinberg Cubase SX (www.steinberg.net) is another leading audio program that works with sampled sounds and MIDI and has no hardware requirements. Some of its notable features include 6-channel mixing and a new Freeze function for VSTi instruments. Freeze mode takes a VSTi MIDI instrument and converts it to an audio sample, which can be edited at any time. This makes room to add more MIDI tracks, which can be CPU-intensive, by saving the notes as audio files.

Video producers will want to look into Nuendo, the desktop production studio version of Cubase SX. Nuendo offers the features of Cubase SX but also includes film and television features such as 10.2 surround sound, networking, audio restoration, Dolby Pro Logic and AC-3, and TimeBase, as well as integration with Avid and Adobe Premiere Pro, in video formats such as MPEG, AVI, DV, and QuickTime. Steinberg includes drivers that allow Nuendo to work with Digidesign’s hardware-based Pro Tools setups, such as Mbox.

Live by Ableton (www.ableton.com) is a great program for jamming, a desktop music addiction. Live version 4 includes new features that deal with MIDI. Drag-and-drop MIDI sequencing is as easy as dragging a MIDI instrument over to a track. You can also now drag and drop MIDI effects right on top of a track. Another new feature is MIDI clips, which now offer small MIDI sequences as building blocks of scores. The clips can be layered and the instruments associated with them can be swapped on the fly. Live was built for live recording and mixing; you can load up MIDI clips and samples, hit record, and start banging out a melody in realtime. Well-suited for scoring, this functionality represents the freestyle end of the creation spectrum.

Reason by Propellerhead Software (www.propellerheads.se) is one of the most popular music creation programs and has a huge following. The program is fairly easy to learn, but runs deep with options and features as you advance. Some of its best features are the synths and effects. NN-XT, Malstrom, Subtractor, Redrum, and BV512 Digital Vocoder are just some of the included virtual instruments and effects. The company also offers a great training CD called “Producing Music with Reason.”

Propellerhead’s biggest advance for the music community has to be the development of ReWire, the connecting technology that allows producers to hook up two music software programs, using one to record the output of another. This technology is used not just by Reason but many other programs including Live, Sonar, Project5, Pro Tools, Acid Pro, and Cubase. Think of it as a digital patch cable. Once you collect a suite of different music programs, you’ll see the advantages to hooking several up to each other.

There are many other software add-on options that are powerful additions to your music creation arsenal. I have been using SampleTank 2 (www.sampletank.com) a lot lately. It is a whopping 4.5GB virtual synthesizer instrument plug-in that packs more than 1,500 sounds. The beauty of this plug-in is that it allows (and encourages) layering of sounds with its three powerful synth engines. Unique to this package is that it uses audio sample loops and creates fully realized, playable instruments out of them. Once you start stacking up the instruments, you’ll be amazed at the sonic variety and complexity.

Spectrasonics (www.spectrasonics.net) has only a few virtual instrument plug-ins, but boy, are they sweet. Stylus RMX, Atmosphere, and Trilogy cover different genres with hundreds of preset instruments. Trilogy is the ultimate bass instrument, featuring everything from four-string to fretless and every other kind of bass instrument. It’s a powerful addition to any music creation program and is the ultimate if you are looking for any type of bass sound.

Prosoniq’s Rayverb and Morph (www.prosoniq.com) are two unique plug-ins that produce amazing reverbs and complex morphing sound. Rayverb uses advanced ray tracing algorithms to digitally recreate the sonic atmosphere of any type of room for the ultimate in reverberation sounds. From a garage to concert hall, this plug-in uses science to create audio art! Morph on the other hand kicks it old school with multiple ways to morph two different sounds, with unexpected and dense results.

Native Instruments (www.nativeinstruments.de) offers one of the most diverse product lines available, and a trip to its website is highly encouraged. Kontakt is the most advanced sampler available for editing and creating your own instruments and sounds via an easy drag-and-drop interface. A 3GB library is included, so you can dive into the realtime stretching, pitching, and altering of your sounds. Great for users who want to veer off into uncharted music territory. Also check out its Xpress Keyboards for legendary keyboard sound recreation and bow to the power of Absynth 2, a massive program for creating expressive, dreamlike rhythmic sounds that are textured and complex. Combining a synth and sampler, the program blows other soundscape sculptor programs out of the water.

Melodyne from Celemony (www.celemony.com) takes audio tracks, vocals, and music, and manipulates them as if they were MIDI: dragging out notes, extending and contracting vocal performances, and mapping audio up and down multiple octaves, all while keeping the natural performance intact. This is the one program I’ve mentioned that allows users to tweak audio at a digital-molecular level.

Definitely worth investigating are the packages from Sounds Online (www.soundsonline.com), especially Stormdrum, a 6GB mix of multi-sample drumsets with thousands of music beds for backing tracks. Quantum Leap Hardcore Bass is an impressive multi-gigabyte virtual instrument for creating any type of bass sound you can imagine.

Sounds Online also offers vocal synthesis, which will be the next big market. Vocaloid Lola from Sounds Online is a “virtual soul vocalist” that uses singing synthesis to create an audio instrument of a human voice. With all the power in music software, it’s no wonder that virtual vocalist programs are now appearing. You can have a whole band, complete with lead vocalist, on your laptop or desktop computer.

In addition, there are new vocal synthesizer plug-ins on the market. You sing into a microphone, and the software converts your vocals to MIDI notes, such as with Kantos from Antares (www.antarestech.com) and Digital Ear from Epinoisis (www.epinoisis.com).

If you want to bang out some quick backing tracks, a loop program will definitely fit your needs. If you want to explore some more expressive options, get a good MIDI controller, decide on a robust software package, and add a few virtual instruments and singers along with a robust audio sample collection. You’ll quickly build a powerhouse of creative music options that can rise to any desktop video-scoring occasion.


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