Dream Sequences (Part 1)
Creating music on a computer
In the first of a new series on sequencing, Roger 'James' Brown boots up his computer, loads up his Cubase, and offers some tips to get the most out of your sequencing setup...
Computer sequencing has come a long way since the ZX81. Then, it had barely advanced from early analogue sequencers, and in some ways offered a less creative environment. Today, things are a little different, with faster and friendlier computers. In this, the first of a series, I shall be looking at different ways of generating and recording music with sequencers, as well as exploring the creative avenues they open up.
Good sequencing starts, as in all computer applications, with good housekeeping. Normally in computing terms, this means keeping your files in order, defragmenting your hard drive and so on. When MIDI is brought into the computing environment, these ground rules are even more important. MIDI, for all its perceived magic, is a serial medium with its own set of protocols, and a little understanding of the basics of MIDI will go a long way towards building a sequencing environment that is easy to work in.
It may seem an obvious question, but is the Master Control set to Off on your master keyboard? If it isn't, note-doubling will almost certainly occur as you play, with both the sequencer and the keyboard sending the same information to the sound module. Obviously this can also lead to note stealing, with sound devices losing polyphony as their quota is used up. Soft MIDI thru should be set to On, on your sequencer.
If you look at figure 1, you will see this checked as active, and you will also see a box below, for Thru Off Channel, set to Off. This little function is very handy if you have an older synth in your setup, with no local control Off. Setting this to the MIDI channel on which the rogue synth is transmitting, will eliminate the doubled notes phenomenon from that machine.
The other important setting here is the line to the right, marked Note Off. In common with most modern sequencers, Cubase doesn't send out standard MIDI Note Off bytes, but instead sends a Note On byte with a status of zero. Once again, this can confuse some older synths as they wait for a Note Off message that never comes, leading to stuck notes. Activating this box will ensure Cubase sends out MIDI Note Off messages, thus saving you a red face as you scramble for the Reset Devices button.
This latter feature, which no self-respecting sequencer should be without, sends out MIDI Note Off messages on all channels, thus stopping those errant sounds. It also sends out Reset Controller messages for Modulation, Pitch bend and Volume, restoring these to standard settings.
Having set our sequencer to send out MIDI Note Off messages, it is quite common to find that the drum machine keeps reporting MIDI errors. The reason for this is simple, and is also something Cubase can fix, as should any decent sequencer. Simply turn to the MIDI Filter page, and on the left of figure 2, you will see a list of Controllers under the heading Controller. By selecting All Note Off, as I have done here, then activating MIDI channel 10, which is usually the drum channel, we ensure Note Off commands are not sent to our drum machine.
Why? Drum machines commonly ignore Note Off commands, as their samples are of the fast attack/short decay variety. If too much Note On/Note Off information arrives at these devices, they can hang up reporting a MIDI error, similarly if notes longer than their minimum resolution (commonly a 32nd note) arrive in abundance. Setting your sequencer to Not Transmit Note Off bytes on the drum channel is therefore a very good idea, and should save your rhythm track cutting out just as it gets to the part where the congas, bongos, toms and high hats are having their little thrash.
It makes a lot of sense to RTFM (read the flaming manual) of each and every synth in your setup, and make sure the settings are as advised for operation in a multi-timbral, sequencing setup. As you are configuring the synths and modules, it is also time to think about planning a working setup which makes full use of the MIDI channels available to you, and set Performance patches so that you have a ready set of voices to work with.
If you're only working with the standard set of 16 MIDI channels, it's a simple matter to configure the multi patches on your modules, so that there is a clearly defined set of sounds on any given channel. You might want to set up MIDI channel one for piano sounds, and the effects, internal or otherwise, so that they are the appropriate ones for that instrument. Likewise channel two could be used for bass voices, and so on. If you are working with a sequencer like Cubase, then you have the luxury of naming the instrument which is on any given MIDI channel in a separate column. (See figure 3).
If not, then it is a simple matter to name the track either simply Piano or DX-Piano, or something similar. I generally have a series of Cubase Setup files for any given configuration of synths or if I don't, then I take the time to make a new one before beginning any playing. It may seem tedious nonsense, but when you're in the heat of a creative frenzy and decide to find that funky little bass riff you laid down fifteen minutes ago, but can't remember whether it was on MIDI channel 2 or 3, or the Akai or the Yamaha, you'll appreciate the time you took to mark tracks clearly.
Once again, if you're using Cubase, then naming the tracks also pays off in that the parts resulting from your recording will be named likewise. (See figure 4) Simply click on this, and rename it by adding a number as in figure 5. You now have a numerical record of your different takes. When arranging from Cubase's Arrange page, this makes identification of different parts a doddle.
Now we have a working set-up, it's time to get down to work. The most common question I am asked, in these days of dance music and sample loops is, 'How do I find the BPM of my drum loop?'. The answer is an easy one, and provides a good starting point for building up a tune.
Once you have the loop in your sampler, it's time to get tuning. First ascertain how many bars are in the sample, or how many bars of the loop you want to use. It's all very well to have a four bar drum loop, but it may be that you want to run just the first bar for 16 bars or so, and then allow the full loop to run. Record a part with one note which is exactly one bar long, set the loop points to a bar and cycle the mutha!
Turning off the master track so that Cubase doesn't revert to the master tempo on each loop, simply adjust the BPM while the sequencer is running as in figure 6. Start by adjusting the main resolution until you achieve a cleanish sounding loop, then move to the fine-tuning figures on the right of the Tempo display. Adjust these until your groove really starts to kick!
In the next illustration (figure 7) I've played in some hi-hats, while Cubase is looping four bars of the drum groove. I've switched the display mode to Show Events, so you can clearly see each one bar note triggering our loop, a bar at a time. The actual drum loop I've used here is from Moby's remix samples, as featured on his last single. With this four bar loop tuned to a bar, I can now trigger it as in the illustration, on every bar, or every two, three or four bars for rhythmic variation.
You may have noticed the little drumstick in the column marked with a 'c' to the left of the track name. This indicates that this is a drum track, with the in and out notes corresponding to a drum kit as defined in Cubase's Drum Map Editor. There is a very good reason for setting this to be a Drum track, before recording any percussion. What I have recorded here is a hi-hat fill live, while the drum loop is playing, and consequently the different percussion voices are all on this one track.
Cubase V3.10 onwards has a neat little trick up its sleeve which enables you to separate all these sounds into individual tracks for further editing. Go to the menu heading Structure, move down to highlight the entry Remix (see figure 8) and after a brief pause the result will be as in figure 9, with each individual drum voice on its own track. You can see the original drum track above the two individual tracks, both clearly named and ready for further editing. Simply delete the original percussion track and away you go.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted the empty track marked Tube Bass by now. That is an example of what I began this article with, good housekeeping. Having got this little groove going, I began to search for a bass voice which sat nicely, and found one on the wonderful VL1-m (see the review on p28), so I made a note of this by writing its patch name in the track listing as a reminder. I have also set Cubase to automatically select this voice, by entering the Program Change number in the Inspector on the left hand of the arrange page.
Space is running out, so I'll leave it there for now, but I shall be continuing this series and the build up of Hard Rhythm's mix of 'Every Time You Touch Me', the unreleased Moby track. The man himself supplied its sample building blocks on his last CD single. Until then, goodbye and good house sequencing!
This is the only part of this series active so far.
Feature by Roger Brown
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