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To Midi, or Not to Midi..........

Part 2
Now we know how to sound great without using all the automatics and external enhancements available to us, I will clamber over the fence, avoiding the compost heap and nettles, and discuss how great you can sound if you do use them.

“Will he make his ruddy mind up once and for all?!?”

“He’s lost the plot....one minute he’s telling us to switch everything off and play properly, now he wants us to switch it all back on again and cheat!!!”

Calm down, my good people, I will explain.  But first of all, the purveyor of the last comment uttered the ‘magic’ word........”CHEAT”.

There are many out there in ‘Organland’ who believe that using Midis, backing tracks and all manner of automatic paraphernalia to help us to sound good is nothing short of sacrilege.  If you want to play this ‘king of instruments’ then you should play IT to the best of your ability and not let IT take over, leaving you as just a bit player (excuse the pun) in the performance.
And I would agree......

“What????”

.......IF.... I were a professional organist entertaining hoards of adoring fans and showing off my skills and prowess at the keyboards.  If you’ve paid good money you’d quite rightly assume the performer would work his, or her, socks, or stockings, off trying to convince you they were the greatest organist of all time.  20 or 30 years ago that would have been the case, due mainly to the restraints of the organs and technology of the day.  The Pros back then, some of whom are still tickling the ivories to great effect today, HAD to perform and HAD to have the skill and talent to use the Organs’ limited features, compared to today’s beasts, as an aid to their performance.  THEY had to entertain.

Take, for example, the one and only Klaus Wunderlich: a pioneer in the field of multi-tracking.  He didn’t have the luxury of midi files to enhance his performances, oh no, he did it the hard way.  To create his ‘sound’ and record songs as they had originally been done, he had to record each part separately, much like you would do if you wanted to create a midi file today.  Some people viewed this as ‘cheating’ and not playing the organ as it was intended to be played.  Others, most of us probably, just sat back and marvelled at what we were hearing.  The argument still rages today.  Klaus just wanted to produce songs that sounded good, were as near to the original as possible and were enjoyed by his audience.  Job done, I say!  The difference between Klaus and many of today’s professionals is the fact that, although Klaus produced his own backing tracks, the organs he played live were not really capable of playing them so, when in concert, he had to actually play!  As we know, the organs we own today are capable of playing those backing tracks (midis, WAVs), and we find that they are used fairly extensively on the concert circuit!!

A few years ago, I went to see a local duo (keyboard and vocals) and was fortunate to be sitting at the side of the keyboard player.  This was during my 15 or so year ‘break’ from organs when I literally didn’t touch a note and lost contact with what was happening in the organ world with regard to technology and how far it had advanced from the analogue organs I’d grown up with.  While watching the keyboard player it didn’t take long for me to work out, about 5 bars actually, that he wasn’t playing much of what I was hearing.  Taking away the sound produced by the accompaniment and the various instruments playing counter melodies, his contribution amounted to ‘very little’!!

During the break, I tactfully asked how he could produce such a good sound with ‘minimal’ effort.  His answer was that he used midi files and just ‘busked’ away to them.  Cheating or not??  The audience were happy and the duo had built up quite a following so......?

Nowadays, since the introduction of Midi files, WAVs, VSTs and style accompaniments that, more often than not, sound more interesting on their own then when backing a song, the Pro, semi-pro and even Aunt Ada in her parlour have an endless source of performance enhancing drugs that......did I say drugs?......sorry, I meant features, that can turn something like “Merrily We Roll Along” into a fully scored concerto!

All very well if you like that sort of thing.  And why shouldn’t you?  If it’s good enough for the Pros, the majority of whom regularly use such features, and Aunt Ada, then it’s good enough for the rest of us too.

So.....how do we attack this monster called ‘Midi-file’, and what can it do for us?

Midi files are easily obtainable from various internet sites, (see the Downloads > Midi Files page for a few examples), Wersi have included some in OAS-6 and OAS-7 which, if you have a listen, show what a great sound can be achieved when using one as a backing.

I should probably explain, to those of you who might not be ‘au fait’ with what a midi file is, what a midi file is...?!?!?....I hope my old English teacher is not reading this, I can sense the cane rising now!!...  It’s a file made up of tracks containing the parts of a song as played by individual instruments.  If, for instance, two guitars, a bass guitar, drums and a vocalist made up the instruments for a particular song, the midi file would be made up of 5 tracks. If you opened the file in a music notation program such as Midi-Notate, you would see 5 lines of music depicting the notes played by those instruments.  This music could then be printed out as a whole or just the melody line if you prefer.

A midi file contains a lot more information, such as what notes are played, how long they were played for, the dynamics of the note etc, etc, etc.  Far too much for us to worry about; all we’d be interested in is the music itself.  Each track is recorded one at a time until all the ‘instruments’ have been added to make up a complete file.

Once we have our file we can load it into a sequencer, such as that installed in OAS-7, or Cubase for those with earlier versions of OAS.  Now the real work begins.  You need to decide how much of the song you want to play and how much you are prepared to let the midi file play. Let’s say you’ve found an awesome midi file of “Merrily We Roll Along”.  A full count Basie style Big Band rendition with saxophones playing counter melodies under rhythmic trombones and a trumpet solo to match anything Satchmo could blast out....not forgetting the 48 bar drum solo!!!  To make things easy for us, Judy Garland added her vocals to the mix.

Now, how much do you want to cheat....I mean....play yourself?  How about the vocals with jazz organ sounding chords?  All you need to do is, with the file loaded into your sequencer, mute the vocal track and save the file into the midi section of OAS (touch Save, allocate an empty slot in the save file window, rename the file then save).

Go to Load, Midi and find your file, then press Load.  Hit the rhythm start button and you’ll hear the file play minus the vocal track.  You can now play “Merrily We Roll Along” using whatever solo instrument (or drawbar sound) you want and just fill in the chords on the lower manual. Record it if you want and sit back and listen to how, with the minimum of effort, ‘professional’ you sound.  

That was a relatively simple example.  You can mute as many tracks as you want, change the instruments used in the tracks along with volume, reverb etc, something which we may go into more detail in for a future article.

The track which accompanies this part, Lady Is A Tramp, was ‘created’ by the following method:
Using the sequencer in OAS-7, I muted the lead (vocal) track, changed a couple of instruments by pressing the instrument name on the track which opens the OAS sounds list window.  I scrolled to the instrument I wanted and pressed OK/Load.  That instrument now appeared in the track on the sequencer.  I then altered some of the volumes of the other tracks and set the tracks volume control to ‘free’.  (Which then allows you to vary the volume of parts of the accompaniment via the volume sliders; as you would do with a normal style accompaniment).  I then saved the file and exited the sequencer.

When setting up the Total Presets for the piece, I selected the midi file as my style and split the lower keyboard to allow me to vary the solo instruments used, (trumpet and piano), and, as they say Bob’s your Uncle, Ada’s your Aunt.  Or something like that.

The one drawback of playing with a midi file is you can’t stop it and continue from that point if you make a mistake.  If you were to stop the rhythm then re-start it, the file automatically goes back to the beginning; a small price to pay for the admiration and wonder you’ll see on the faces of your ‘audience’ when you, accompanied by Count Basie, his big band orchestra and Buddy Rich on the drums, blast out the swingiest version of “Merrily We Roll Along” they are ever likely to hear.


Terry Bolger
October 2008

© Terry Bolger
To Midi or Not To Midi...
Part 2