Beginner's Guide to MIDI - page 5

MIDI topics

Producing and Editing MIDI files

The internet is a fantastic resource for MIDIs: simply type [the name of the song] +MIDI in Google, or use a search engine such as Van Basco's. You may find, however, that the song you want is unavailable, or in an arrangement you don't like: the orchestration may be too fussy, you might want to change the instruments used, vary the tempo and volume, and so on. Sometimes a piece of music simply isn't out there. The good news is that even the tackiest MIDI can be altered without much trouble, and making your own needn't be rocket science either. `

MIDI files are properly called MIDI sequences, and are often made by connecting a MIDI-capable keyboard to your computer soundcard or a USB port, and recording the sounds in a sequencer. Popular commercial sequencers include Cakewalk and Cubase. There are free alternatives, (see below) worth checking out first, especially if you only want to do some simple editing.

The traditional method for creating MIDI sequences is to turn on your keyboard, click on the "record" button in your sequencing application and start to play. This will generate MIDI "events" which will show up as notes in your sequencer. If you are an accomplished pianist, then this may be a good way to start, but it is not the only way, or necessarily the best. A popular way of producing MIDI sequences is by "step note entry", where separate notes are entered individually, either by pressing the appropriate note on your keyboard, or by drawing the note on-screen with the computer mouse. If you don't own a keyboard don't despair: You can install an on-screen "virtual keyboard" on your computer. Virtual MIDI keyboard This will produce sounds on its own; to communicate with your sequencer you need to download and install another piece of software called a virtual driver such as Maple Virtual Midi Cable. Virtual keyboards can be played either using your computer mouse or with the computer's own qwerty keys. A freeware Virtual Keyboard can be downloaded here.

If you can read music you may prefer to use a Notation Processor to make a MIDI sequence from scratch. Most of the MIDIs on these pages were produced using a program called Mozart. This is to music what a word processor is to words, ie you type notes on a musical stave, producing a score you can print out, and also play back on the computer. A useful feature of the program is the ability to export MIDI files which can be edited further using a dedicated sequencer. Other well known notation processors are Sibelius and Finale, with price tags that will make you gasp, and the somewhat cheaper Noteworthy Composer. Entry level Finale Notepad,which used to be free, now costs $10, but does include MIDI import and export, whereas earlier versions could only save music in Finale's own format.

Another popular method for producing MIDI sequences is an automatic music creation program such as Band-in-a-Box which require you to enter a series of chords then choose a musical style and let the program do the rest. There are literally millions of MIDI files available online which were produced by these programs, and many, it has to be said, sound pretty formulaic. "Real" musicians need not despise these programs, however: used judiciously they can be very good. Indeed you may find a combination of methods works well for you: eg a notation processor to generate the melody, Band-in-a-Box for harmony and and percussion, and the whole creation tweaked in a traditional sequencer.

Links to free MIDI sequencing software

Anvil Studio. Quite a nice program for beginners; can be used without an external keyboard. Piano roll and score windows as well as a virtual keyboard. The eccentric interface is somewhat off-putting, but you can download a manual from the makers' website, which also has a link to a very good tutorial. Some desirable editing features, such as tempo variations, are unfortunately only available as a paid add-on.

Music Studio Producer Combined MIDI and audio sequencer, a cut-down version of Music Studio Independence. This looks like an ambitious program, however the program interface is cluttered and confusing, and the helpfile is anything but!

Superjam A freeware curiosity: an old Amiga program ported to Windows which could be used instead of Band-in-a-Box, useful for producing "quick and dirty" arrangements in a variety of musical styles, and great for making drum tracks.

MuseScore An open-source notation processor, originally written for Linux, but recently ported to Windows. Still in development, so slightly buggy, but well worth checking out.

Karakan A quick and simple karaoke editor for MIDI files.

MIDI Transform A useful online program which offers basic MIDI editing: adjusting volume, volume contrast, key, instruments etc.

Jazz++ MIDI Sequencer

This is my favourite MIDI editor. The original developers described Jazz++ thus:

Jazz++ is a full featured, audio capable, cross-platform MIDI sequencer. Jazz++ offers a lot of functions normally only found in expensive sequencer software, and is used by professionals and hobby musicians all over the world.

Unfortunately the homepage of Jazz++ MIDI sequencer is no longer available. A new version is currently being developed at Sourceforge.net. In the meantime, an earlier version of Jazz++ can be downloaded here. Users of Vista and some versions of XP may encounter difficulties running the program. Problems may be overcome by running the program in Windows Compatability Mode, set for Windows 2000. The program's own helpfile is rather esoteric, but a very good tutorial for some basic MIDI editing in Jazz++ can be found here.

Next Page: Transferring MIDIs to audio CD