Monday, September 10, 2012

Make MIDI Work for You

For the recording musician, MIDI is a staple of the process.  Very few of us are lucky enough to be able to play all of the parts on our recordings on the actual physical instruments.  So, at some point we load up a MIDI instrument to add a needed part to a song.

Some of these MIDI instruments use sampling techniques of live recorded instruments, and some are synthesizers.  Whichever the part calls for, keep a few things in mind;

1) When you are choosing a MIDI instrument, there is often more then one choice.  Try to choose the instrument based on the sound and how it fits in the song.  This will make the part sound better, and make mixing easier!

2) Resist resorting to automation for controlling a note's loudness  Most MIDI instruments, especially the sampled ones, have multiple velocity levels.  In other words, a different sample was recorded for each note depending on how that note was played.  There are often several levels, with different samples for each note.  Make use of this to create a more natural sounding part.  When musicians play, their instrument sounds different depending on how hard they attack the note.  A softly played note will sound different on most instruments from a loudly played note.  JUst turning up/down the volume with automation will not sound the same.  So, use different velocity levels for the notes for different parts of the song.  Even varying the velocity from note to note within a measure will give it a more natural feel.  This will go a long way toward making the part sound more like it was played live, and less like a "canned" part.

3) Don't get carried away with notes!  MIDI can play a lot of notes at the same time---much more than a human can play.  But this should only be done if the song requires it.  On drum parts and percussion parts, in particular, keep in mind that a real drummer has only two arms and two legs.  If you want the drum part to sound "real", then restrict the part to what a live drummer is capable of playing.  We have all heard those drum parts that are too busy, and sound frenetic in the background of the song.  Avoid that effect by keeping your parts simplified to what can actually be played by a real musician.

4) Consider recording MIDI instruments as MIDI, rather than as audio.  Having the MIDI allows very easy editing, and polishing of the part.  It allows totally changing the notes, the key, or the instrument on the fly.  Maybe you start out with a piano sound, then later decide a Rhodes sound will suit the song better---a very easy change with MIDI.  Simply select Rhodes for the instrument sound.  If you recorded the audio of the part, you have to go back and re-record it using the Rhodes sound instead.  Will you get the same performance?  Maybe.  But, if you recorded the MIDI, the same performance is guaranteed!

And MIDI might be a help even before the first track is recorded!  What about the "click" track?  Typically, click tracks are very bland and monotonous.  They use some sort of beeps or clicks to provide the timing for you to follow as you play.  But, these sounds are not what we are used to playing to.  And, this makes them unnatural for playing along as you record the first tracks of a song.  You might end up with a very sterile sounding recording because there was no natural "feel" to the playing.

So, try abandoning the typical click track and replace it with some MIDI drums.  You do not have to do any radical drum programming at this point.  Just do a basic drum beat with kick, snare, and high-hat---maybe throw in a cymbal crash or two.  Use it to establish the initial rhythm and feel of the song.  Then repeat it as many measures as is necessary to play through to the end of the song.  I think you will find that it is much easier to play along with the drum track then with a click track.  And the more comfortable you are while playing, the better your performance will be.

And, as a bonus, if you were planning to use MIDI drums anyway, you have made a good start on setting up the part.  Just modify as needed for bridges, fills, and choruses, and you have your drum part!

So, we are leveraging MIDI to not only give our song instruments it needs, but to make them sound as good as possible too. Remember, everything is in service to the song. So create MIDI parts that provide what a good musician would play! Your songs will sound better for it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Where to Start - The Performance

All of us have to decide where to begin when we record.  I'm talking about where to begin in our quest to make our recordings better.  The number one thing to do for better recordings is to capture a good performance.  Get the part right, so that what is recorded is right for the song and the mix.  A bad recording is less of a problem then a bad performance.  A marginal recording might be fixable.  But a bad performance doesn't work with the song, so it can't work in the mix with out a lot of effort...and maybe never!

This single bit of advice will go far toward making your recordings better.  Do what you have to do to make the performance a good one.  Rehearse.  Rehearse some more.  Work on the part until it is easy to play, or feels natural.  This goes for singing also---especially parts that may be slightly above or below your range.  Spend a week singing the part in full voice until it starts to sound right.

If you just can't get the part to sound right, maybe you need to re-work the part, or try something else entirely.  Arrangement is a big part of a good sounding mix.  You may need to tailor the arrangement to what is possible, rather than what you would like it to be.

Of course, you can always go out and find someone who can do the part the way you originally conceived it.  But, we are looking at things here from the perspective of the musician who prefers to do for themselves.

And remember, the arrangement, and the mix are both in service to the song.  Most songs can be arranged in many different ways.  If you are struggling with parts, maybe it is time for a re-think.  Perhaps there is a different direction from which you can approach the song.  Change instruments.  Bring in the vocals a differnet way.  Do whatever makes sense for the song to get over the performance hump.

And simplify---I realize this might not always work, but if you are struggling with performing some of the parts, maybe you should drop them, and see how it works; ---the "more-with-less" approach.  Maybe you are used to playing the song with just a guitar.  Now that you've added drums, bass, piano, percussion, and background vocals, it is not feeling the same.  Try removing some parts.  It might be that the song will work with just a simplified version that is more of a "guitar with a few short sections of other instruments" kind of a thing.  Try it.

We have the luxury of recording in our project studios without worrying about the big studio clock running.  So, experiment and find out what works for you.  In fact, your homework assignment is to take a day and try a bunch of things you've not done before.  Maybe you can try recording some parts in the bathroom, or hallway, ... or that walk-in closet full of clothes (hint: makes a pretty good sound booth).  Try recording a song with just guitar and tambourine.

Maybe those experiments work, maybe they don't.  Maybe they give you ideas.  Either way, you learn something.  And as your knowledge grows, the recordings get better.  That's what we are after here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Recording Musician

The purpose of this web site will be to provide helpful information to the recording musician.  And by that I mean a musician who records their own work.  I'm thinking mainly of individuals who do the whole process of creating a song themselves, track-by-track.  However, the information presented here will be helpful to anyone with an interest in recording.

I will have tutorials, and videos, and as much information as time permits to add to the overall body of knowledge, so that we can all make better recordings.  We'll cover everything from mic placement to using plugins, and getting that final mix to sound "mastered".

I've learned a lot over the years, and it is my turn to share what I know with others.  And that means I'll learn more too because I know a lot of you already have a great deal of knowledge.  And as we share what we know, we all get better.

If you'd like email notification of posts here, please enter your email in the box above and click Submit.

And, please note the look and feel of this site may change over the next few weeks as I fine tune the sites appearance.

I look forward to a great experience.  Thanks!