The Performing Art (Part 1)
One of the consequences of MIDI recording is the loss of musical performance. In the first of a short series, Ollie Crooke and Simon Thomas look at the performance applications of MIDI controllers.
ONCE YOU HAD TO BE A KEYBOARD PLAYER TO USE A SYNTHESISER, NOW YOU CAN CONTROL SYNTHESISED AND SAMPLED SOUNDS FROM GUITARS, SAXES, VIOLINS, DRUMS - AND ALL IN REAL TIME.
THERE ARE PROBABLY very few people who program entirely in step time, and so it may seem strange to those of you with sequencers that you're reading an article on "live" MIDI recording. Let me explain (Manuel): we're actually talking about sequences where drums are played by drummers, guitars by guitarists as well as keyboards by keyboard players. In short, we're talking about the actual use of all those weird and wonderful non-keyboard MIDI controllers that have come onto the market recently.
Since opening a pre-production studio seven months ago (Thomas Crooke, in London), Ollie Crooke and Simon Thomas have been actively involved in this area - using a Simmons SDX for drums, The Wal MB4 MIDI Bass, a Yamaha G10 Guitar controller, a Yamaha WX7 Wind Controller as well as countless other MIDI gizmos.
The idea of this series of articles is to discuss MIDI instruments other than keyboards and drum machines and how best to sequence them, to give a few pointers about the general principle and problems of recording various types of controllers into various types of sequencer and to discuss an actual session that took place involving the SDX and the MIDI bass. This will demonstrate a few of the sort of problems you're likely to encounter and some methods of getting around them. This, then, is their story...
AS FAR AS we at Thomas Crooke are concerned, the main criteria for judging MIDI controllers of any form are threefold. Firstly there is the question of how like 'the real thing" it is; drum pads are always harder and therefore more bouncy than a stretched skin; a drummer needs to adapt to this in exactly the same way as a pianist has to play more accurately on an unweighted synthesiser keyboard. Guitarists, a notoriously conservative (and oft-derided) bunch, are frequently horrified to discover that the strings on a Yamaha G10 MIDI guitar are all the same thickness. The more unlike a normal instrument the controller is, the more practice the player will need to get the parts right. This also overlaps with the second point which is how accurate it is. Obviously, any delays, glitching or lack of sensitivity are problems encountered both while playing and recording. The third question is one of flexibility; just what can you do with it? Is it easy (and relatively natural) to add modulation, pitchbend, aftertouch and so on, and to change patches?
All these criteria overlap to a certain extent and all controllers are compromises to a greater or lesser extent in their combination of these factors. For example, the G10 makes up for having all its strings the same thickness by tracking better than any of the more guitar-like instruments. In fact, the G10 is a very good example of a controller which has gone a long way towards accuracy and flexibility but which as a result has sacrificed a lot of 'guitar-ness". It's a remarkably sensitive and versatile MIDI controller, but guitarists hate it when they first pick it up. At the other end of the spectrum is the Wal MB4 MIDI bass which is a bass guitar as well as a MIDI controller, so there's very little culture shock for players coming to it for the first time. Then again, all it sends is MIDI Note On and Off and Velocity information (there's no string bend information for instance).
"COURTNEY PINE WAS HAPPY WITH THE SOUNDS HE WAS ABLE TO ACHIEVE USING A KORG Ml AND THE YAMAHA WT11 IN HIS RECENT APPEARANCES ON THE PET SHOP BOYS TOUR."
We've recently been putting some sounds together for Steve Levine's SDX and for Courtney Pine's WX7 and we took the opportunity to pick their brains for any input they could give us on this subject.
As far as MIDI guitar controllers go, Steve had found that most guitarists felt more comfortable with the Stepp guitar controller than the SynthAxe, especially when the Stepp was playing its own sounds, in which case it was 'really very, very good". However when it was playing sounds from an external synth, the tracking and general playability took a bit of a tumble. For a similar reason we had, a few months previously, decided not to buy the Casio PG380 MIDI guitar - great for its own sounds but not for any others. The problem with most guitar systems is the same as for any pitch-to-MIDI converter - it needs to receive a whole cycle before it can ascertain the pitch of the note and, with low notes, it can take a relatively long time for a whole cycle to arrive at the pickup. Steve had similar feelings towards the Akai EWI wind synthesiser which, in effect, has its own sounds which it plays beautifully but didn't really cut it as a MIDI controller.
Steve also recommended the use of an Atari Mega ST, especially for instruments which generate a great deal of controller information, a point which Courtney endorsed, saying that he was fed up with his Dr T's KCS sequencer running out of memory whenever he plugs his WX7 into it - the WX7 puts out a continual stream of Breath Control information, MIDI Volume and Pitchbend whenever it's played. So save up for those Mega STs, everybody.
Courtney is getting on very well indeed with his WX7 as far as playability is concerned - as he demonstrated brilliantly when he came to the studio. He didn't really like the Akai EWI either, but he knew several people who did. Apart from the problem with Dr T's KCS (he has just got a copy of C-Lab's Creator, though), his main gripe was with the actual sounds. Despite the continuous stream of Breath Control data spewing forth from his instrument, he found that there was disappointingly little that he could do with all this information, although he was happy with the sounds he was able to achieve using a Korg M1 and the Yamaha WT11 in his recent appearances on the Pet Shop Boys tour. The WT11 is the new Yamaha sound module built specially for the WX7 and WX11. Simon has been working on some weird and wonderful noises for Courtney on the DX7II to improve this situation using Notator's real-time mapping of system exclusive messages.
"THE BEAUTY OF THE ZETA VIOLIN IS THAT SYNTH VOICES TAKE ON A NEW DIMENSION WHEN PLAYED WITH THE EXPRESSIVE CAPABILITIES OF A VIOLIN."
Ollie then remembered that an old friend of his, David Cross, has a MIDI violin. (Some of you might recognise David's name from King Crimson record sleeves.) Dave has always been a technologically-minded violinist, having had several electric violins made for him, and put them through as many effects boxes as possible, getting some really unusual sounds in the process. (Hear them on his solo LP Memories From Purgatory). He had heard that the Californian company Zeta Systems made a MIDI violin, and was sufficiently excited by the thought to order one without even seeing it. Appropriately enough, it arrived in the Christmas post, and since then he has been playing it constantly, mainly through a Korg M1R, which he is happy with "especially on the brass sounds'.
The instrument itself is superb, with five strings, producing an electric violin sound as well as the MIDI signal. Being a pitch-to-MIDI conversion system, the tracking suffers when played at speed on the lower strings, though it's excellent on the top two. The beauty of an instrument like this, though, is that synth voices take on an entirely new dimension when played by an instrument with the expressive capabilities of a violin. The interface offers quite comprehensive MIDI facilities including some rather clever ways of dealing with slides and pitchbends.
The best and the worst? A personal and subjective choice would put the Simmons SDX as the best all-rounder (which it should be for £10,000), and the Digigram MIDIMic as the worst (but great fun). And the strangest? Well there's a lot of it about as they say - the Silicon Mallet, the MIDI Chapman Stick, violins, flutes. Perhaps the MIDI accordion is the strangest. But the best idea for a new one came from Martin Rex (who has engineered for Neneh Cherry and the Beatmasters recently) and who wanted some MIDI shoes for tapping in bass drum parts...
WE WON'T GO too far into the subject of getting the right sounds for your MIDI instrument in this article (you'll find it in a later one), except to say that we have found that at least half of the playability of a MIDI controller is determined by the sound that it's playing. It is not possible to simply transfer a keyboard patch onto another controller and expect it to play perfectly without any adjustment. Guitar controllers generally work better with a separate voice for each string (on a different MIDI channel) and preferably with each voice in Mono mode - which, precludes them from use with a surprisingly large number of synths. Also, and here's a tip for all you manufacturers out there, we have only managed to find one sampler that goes into MIDI mode 4. This means that when two notes overlap the attack portion of the second note is not played and so a slur occurs. Courtney Pine lent us his Yamaha TX16W sampler to experiment with this and, on the version 2 software we were indeed able to get it to go into Mono Mode 4. One of the problems with the TX16W is that it takes one minute forty seconds to load a sound in and that it is about as user friendly as a Polaris Missile. We're still experimenting with it and trying to decide if the hassle of using it is worth the money and Mono mode 4 - maybe if we were to write an editor...
THE IDEA OF all this hardware is ultimately to get a more "human" feel into a sequencer, and so it's probably worth pausing for a word or two about humans. Basically they are the opposite of synthesiser modules; they should not be screwed in 19" racks and they do like coffee and lager. The object is to get a performance out of the person and so try to make life as easy as possible for them (even if it happens to be you), and make the sound that they hear as they perform as good as possible. (It's suspiciously like a recording engineer's job, really.)
You'd be well advised to take some time editing the sound in use to minimise the glitching before you sequence the part rather than accepting second best and hoping to edit it afterwards. The better it sounds to the musician, the better will be the performance you get out of them. As far as you possibly can, you should make the technology transparent to keep the relationship between the player and the noises as close as possible. Sort out all your technical stuff before the session starts - get your MIDI patching arranged to minimise the button pushing and make sure any MIDI merging that you want to do is going to work - before we got C-Lab's Notator we merged through a Philip Rees box which used to heat up over the day and get blocked, especially when we merged a MIDI clock with an instrumental performance containing lots of controller information. The most important thing, of course, is to make sure that it all works before the session starts, because it can be very embarrassing to find that the Best MIDI Wind Controller Solo In The History Of The Known Universe was still patched to the TX802 and not to your Atari ST.