Hands On MIDI Song Files
How do you learn your favourite songs? Sheet music? Records? Tapes? No way, Jose. Today's musician uses MIDI song files. David Hughes reviews songs-on-disk from hands on MIDI software.
Until recently, the only way that you could get to grips with a piece of music was to learn to read a printed score, listen to a recording or attend a live performance. Alternatively, you could try to talk to the composer — a little tricky in the case of most classical ones. But now technology has offered us another way of transcribing music — it's simple, versatile and available to any musician with the right computer and the right software. I'm talking about the MIDI Standard Song File format. Although use of the format is still in its infancy — hence the conflicting interpretations which have occurred in recent times — it's a medium which is going to open up whole new avenues for the MIDI musician.
One of the first companies to take advantage of Standard Song Files is Hands On MIDI Software, who specialise in producing arrangements of existing musical material as sequences on computer disks. These are currently available only for the Atari ST, although versions will be available for other machines in the near future. These include the IBM PC and Acorn Archimedes (running Studio 24). The songs are recorded on standard 3.5" ST disks in two formats: MIDI Standard Song File format, and Steinberg's Pro-24 file format. All of the initial releases in the current catalogue are configured as 'Load And Go' packages aimed specifically at the Roland D110 LA sound module, although it's not absolutely essential that you have a D110 to use the disks.
The pieces in the current catalogue fall into two categories: the Gig series and the Masterclass series. The Gig series includes a large amount of recent chart material featuring artists such as New Kids on the Block ('You Got It') and Phil Collins ('A Groovy Kind Of Love'), some less recent chart material from the likes of Micheal Jackson ('Thriller', 'Billy Jean') and Lionel Richie ('All Night Long' and 'Hello') as well as some earlier material from the 60s and 70s such as Procol Harum's 'Whiter Shade of Pale'. The Gig series actually covers quite a wide range of material since it also includes several film and TV themes such as Al Jarreau's 'Theme from Moonlighting' and Ray Parker Jnr's 'Ghostbusters'. Finally, there are some Big Band and Jazz numbers such as Glen Miller's 'In the Mood' and 'Moonlight Serenade'. The Masterclass series features classical works such as J.S. Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue', the 1st and 2nd movements of Dvorak's 'New World' symphony (better known to most of us as 'the Hovis Advert') and 'Jupiter' and 'Mars' from Holst's planet suite.
In case you're wondering how Hands On can reproduce material by these artists without running foul of copyright laws, there's a simple answer. Each of the compositions is licensed through the Music Publishers' Association (MPA) which is allied to the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS). Consequently, all of the sequences are perfectly legitimate copies of the original works, and royalties are paid on each disk that changes hands.
The four sequences supplied for review were Harold Faltermeyer's 'Axel F' from the film Beverly Hills Cop, Michael Jackson's 'Thriller', Shakatak's 'Easier Said Than Done' and Al Jarreau's 'Theme from Moonlighting'.
Using the sequences should involve simply firing up your sequencer, connecting a D110 and hitting 'play'. I mentioned before that although it's not essential to have a D110, it does make life easier in the short term since many of the MIDI patch change messages (intended for a D110) probably won't call up equivalent sounds on any other gear you might have connected. Fortunately, each of the tracks has been given a name which tells you what type of instrument it's playing. You can then work out where patch change messages occur in any track, and change them so as to call up more appropriate sounds on your equipment.
Despite the fact that I do own a D110, and was therefore spared these kind of problems, setting everything up still took more time than I had anticipated. Cubase wouldn't read the standard MIDI files properly, although it did accept the Pro-24 format files without any problem. Oddly enough, the much cheaper Sequencer One package from Gajits would read the MIDI files correctly. These minor problems solved, I just sat back and listened. My first impressions were that the scores sound remarkably close to the originals, given that they were being recreated on a D110 rather than on the original equipment. This was especially true in the case of Harold Faltermeyer's 'Axel F', so much so that I scurried off to find my 12" vinyl version to make a closer comparison. It actually came as something of a surprise to discover that my equipment could sound so good!
After I'd listened to each of the pieces two or three times it became apparent that the material was of a very high standard, well above that of the typical demo pieces that are often bundled with computer-based sequencer packages. In fact, the review period quickly evolved from a 'sit back and watch the blinking lights' session into a 'playalong-a-Steinberg' session, and then into a lesson on the rudiments of music.
For example, I started off by muting the melody line from 'Axel F'. This piece is a good example of how something special can be created from a series of simple phrases, milking them for all that they're worth with the aid of a good arrangement. Break the piece into its component parts and it's a fairly easy song to master, but getting the timing right takes practice, and this is a skill that's often lost when you're using a sequencer day-in and day-out. With a sequencer, you play a part into the machine and, should you make the odd fluff, you can fix it later with the note editor or through simple quantisation. The down side of this is that you may start to lose your sense of timing, and that's a serious problem.
This is a tremendous way to learn new material. You can record your version alongside the existing version, and later compare your efforts. It's an alarming and revealing experience which can bring you down to earth with a rather embarrassing bump. Was it really that bad?
There are other advantages to learning material through these sequence files. Suppose that you can't keep up with the computer — it's simplicity itself to wind the tempo down, and then speed things up again once you get the hang of it. This will not affect the pitch or any other part of the sound, which is not the case if you are fiddling with the speed on a tape recorder or turntable.
Delving deeper into the sequences, you can use the edit pages to see how the MIDI data has been carefully manipulated to produce simple dynamic changes in volume.
The educational potential of these disks is obvious — it beats working from text books hands down. I wonder how long it will be before this sort of package is recognised as an essential tool in the classroom. Looking beyond schools, think of how many musicians learnt the basics by listening to records and tapes, or the radio. These sequences offer a much better way of learning than via those media, and far from being a rather facile copy of song material, they present the MIDI musician with a real opportunity to learn new techniques and styles. You can work with new arrangements, and see how someone else tackles a particular set of problems to make a piece sound exciting and interesting to listen to.
Apart from all this, using the Hands On disks is just plain fun! Someone once said that a computer is considerably more than the sum of its parts. This is one application which proves that point beyond a shadow of a doubt.
£19.95 per disk eg:
Chart Hits (any 4 tracks)
Film & TV Themes (any 3 tracks)
Classical (any 2 tracks)
Hands On MIDI Software, (Contact Details)
Review by David Hughes
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