Get-real making better backing tracks

Making better sounding MIDI tracks

This article has been written by a guest author.  If you’re an educator or music industry professional who is interested in contributing an article to the Midnight Music blog, you can apply here.

glyn-lehmann-2015The author of today’s article is Glyn Lehmann – a professional musician (French Horn and keyboard) who spends his time composing, arranging and producing music.  Glyn is also the person behind the online resource SongLibrary – a collection of songs for teachers and choir directors.

In this article, Glyn shares his tips for enhancing the sound of your MIDI tracks (tracks that you have recorded by playing a software instrument into a music software program like GarageBand, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, or Mixcraft).

– Katie Wardrobe

How you (or your students) can create backing tracks that actually sound good

In a perfect world we’d all have access to a host of great musicians, an expert sound engineer and a top class recording studio – and make recordings that sound amazing. In the meantime, it’s now possible to get closer to this result than ever before, with minimal resources.

All you need is:

  • a computer
  • sequencing software such as Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Garageband etc
  • good quality software instruments and samples

…and some basic knowledge on how to bring this technology to life. That’s what this article is about.

I’ll be guiding you through the process I use to create the best sounding recordings I can when using MIDI. As a teacher you can use this information to produce better backing tracks for your students to perform with – karaoke style. Or you can use it as a lesson plan for your students to create their own tracks based on these suggestions.

MIDI magic

A MIDI file is a sound file that contains all the information we need to start our track, including:

  • the instruments
  • the pitch, duration and velocity of notes
  • volume, pan, modulation and other parameters

A little note from the editor:

It’s important to understand that a MIDI file is usually created by someone (you, your student or someone else!) playing a MIDI keyboard that is plugged into a computer that’s running some kind of music software (a digital audio workstation like GarageBand perhaps, or a notation program like Sibelius or Finale).  The musician presses record and plays in each track in separately: drums, bass guitar, lead guitar, saxophone, keyboard and so on.  

The benefit of creating a file in this format is that the MIDI file is very flexible – you can transpose it at the click of a button, you can change the playback sound of a track (the saxophone track can become a trumpet) and you can send a MIDI file to a different software program (ie. a Sibelius MIDI file can be opened in GarageBand).

Glyn’s excellent instructions for enhancing MIDI files below presume that you already have the MIDI file recorded.  If you don’t, you can go download free MIDI files from one of the many online MIDI sites or go ahead and record one from scratch (it’s lots of fun, I promise!).

The basics

  1. Open the MIDI file in your music software. This may be as simple as drag-and-drop, as in Garageband, or importing the file.  Note that each instrument has its own track. The data from the MIDI file should load the correct sound for that instrument. However, as in the example shown below, this is often not the case and you’ll need to change those instruments. You can see the name of the correct instrument on the region (the green parts below) within the track.  Select the track that needs fixing and change the instrument to match that of the region.get-real-image1
  1. Once you have the correct instruments loaded make sure they’re playing at the correct pitch. Instruments such as bass are written an octave higher than they sound and MIDI files may not take this into consideration. This also applies to:
  • tenor sax –  written an octave higher than it sounds (assuming the transposition from Bb has been taken care of)
  • glockenspiel – written 2 octaves lower than it sounds
  • xylophone – written an octave lower it sounds

There are others, but these are the most common. Move the notes so they sound in the correct octave either by;

  • transposing the entire track or
  • selecting all of the notes for that instrument in the Piano Roll Editor and manually moving them (see below)get-real-image2-1
  1. Drum parts sometimes don’t translate correctly. Depending on the placement of the various parts of the kit on the MIDI file, hi-hats and cymbals cause the most common problems. If you have access to the score, or a recording of the song/music, take note of where the hi-hats and cymbals occur throughout.

To alter instruments within the drum track:

  • open the Piano Roll Editor
  • locate the notes of the incorrect sound and select them
  • move those notes up and down until you hear the correct sound

While working with the drum track you might like to choose a different sounding kit. Sometimes the kit chosen by the MIDI file is not the best option for the style of music.

Now you have the correct instruments, it’s time to turn them into something more musical.

Adjusting levels

MIDI files contain information about instrument volume and panning. I prefer to delete this data and replace it with my own track automation.

You may have had the experience of changing the volume on an instrument only for it revert to the way it was the next time you press play! This is most likely caused by the volume data imported with the MIDI file. This data will override any automation you add to the track itself so it’s best to delete it at this point.

Accessing this volume and pan data will vary depending on which software you use. It may be as a MIDI event list – or as an automation (see below).

get-real-image3

Now that you have complete control over the volume of each instrument you can begin to ‘build’ a mix.

  • Assuming you have a drum track, mute all instruments except the drums
  • Using the Piano Roll Editor, adjust the velocity of the various sounds within the drum track until they create a natural balance
  • Unmute the bass track and adjust the automation volume for a good balance between the bass and drums
  • Continue unmuting instruments and adjusting the automation volume for each so that nothing dominates or is lost in the mix

Now that you have an overall balance between the instruments it’s time to give the music some heart and soul.

Refining the mix

By using a combination of note velocity and volume automation you can add dynamics to your mix.

Velocity

Providing your software instruments are velocity sensitive, adjusting the velocity will alter the sonority of an instrument. A low velocity will make it sound like it was played gently – a high velocity as though it was played loudly or stridently. This change in tone alone will convince the listener that the sound is softer or louder.

TIP: Using velocity will produce more realistic results than simply adjusting the volume.

Volume

Once you’ve adjusted the velocity of the instruments, volume automation can be used to alter both the balance between the instruments and the overall dynamics of the music.

Effective FX

What often makes a great sounding track stand out from one that’s less effective is the intelligent use of effects, especially reverb. If things are sounding muddy and it’s hard to distinguish any of the instruments, chances are there’s too much reverb or delay.

Less is best, more or less

  • Remove all effects from all instrument tracks and the overall mix
  • Assess how it sounds. Don’t jump to conclusions because it will take a while for your ears to adjust. If possible take a short break and come back to it with fresh ears
  • Only add reverb if absolutely necessary to create the sound you want. For example, if you’re creating an orchestral track and want the sound of a full orchestra in a large concert hall
  • Add reverb to individual instruments rather than to the mix. This way you can treat each instrument appropriately. Imagine how that instrument would sound in the space. A sharp percussive sound such as a snare drum will produce more reverberation than a pizzicato violin
  • Use little or no reverb on bass instruments, including bass drum. This will give more clarity in the lower frequencies and add more punch

Quantize or humanize?

All of the suggestions so far apply to any style of music. There are of course big differences between thrash metal, hip hop, acoustic folk and a huge orchestral movie soundtrack.

EDM and hip hop require absolute precision in their beats and rhythms, therefore all instruments should be quantized. On the other end of the spectrum, any instrument normally played by humans without the aid of technology will not be perfectly in time.

The most effective way to turn a MIDI file into a more human sounding performance is to avoid quantizing everything, and in fact, by adding inconsistencies.

The Humanize function is available in more advanced music software programs, where it will adjust note placement, length and velocity randomly. I’ve found this to be the single most important factor in recreating a realistic performance on drums, percussion and piano. If your software doesn’t include this feature you can move notes and adjust velocity manually in the Piano Roll Editor.

get-real-image4

The sound of music

Finally, the better the quality of the sounds you have to work with, the better your chance of creating something great. Sampled software instruments have come a long way and used intelligently can be very convincing. If you have the chance to add high quality sampled instruments to your sonic arsenal it will take your tracks to the next level. Like most things though – it’s not what you have, it’s how you use it!

I hope these tips help bring new life to your MIDI music.

About the author

Glyn Lehmann’s career as a professional musician has spanned more than 40 years. He began as a performer on French horn and keyboards and is now a composer, songwriter, arranger and producer. Composing credits include the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, major theatre companies and children’s music festivals. In 2012 Glyn launched SongLibrary – an online resource for teachers of songs for children’s choirs and the classroom.

Connect with Glyn

Glyn’s website:  https://glynlehmann.com

Glyn’s SongLibrary resource: https://songlibrary.net

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