Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 7 / FEBRUARY 1989

Getting Started

So You Wanna Make Music

by Rick Davies

From the moment electronics first entered the world of music production, producers and musicians have looked to technology to improve the quality of their music. Multitrack tape recording techniques revolutionized the way music was produced over the past 20-odd years and MIDI is the latest addition to the musician's and producer's bag of tricks.

MIDI ond the ST

Anything you can imagine doing with a synthesizer by hand can probably be done via MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). For example, you can manually play middle C on a keyboard, adjust the volume knob to an agreeable level, and then release the key. On the other hand, if you want to do the same thing on another instrument at the far end of the room, but don't want to walk over and repeat your actions, you could connect the two instruments with a single MIDI cable and the results would be the same as if someone else were playing the other keyboard and mimicking your every move. It's a strange feeling, and it's addictive.

Figure 7: This particular system doesn't require a MIDI Thru port, but what if
someone wants to hook a synth into your MIDI system? Fortunately, you can
purchase a MIDI Thru box or MIDI switcher to accommodate more MIDI

MIDI keyboards generally feature MIDI In, MIDI Out and sometimes MIDI Thru ports (yes, that's "Thru," not "Through"). The MIDI ports are set up so that if you connected them incorrectly, nothing would blow up. For technophobes, this is reassuring because it means that you can experiment all you like without worrying about frying any components.

(Note: It is imperative that you use "MIDI spec" cables, especially if you own an Atari ST. Instead of having a MIDI Thru port, two unused pins from the ST's MIDI Out port are used as the MIDI Thru port. But while this arrangement enables the ST to have a Thru port, it doesn't adhere to the official MIDI specification. If you accidentally use a cable with conductors wired to all five pins of the MIDI plug, your system might not function properly.)

Let's consider a very simple MIDI system consisting of an Atari ST and a single MIDI keyboard. Figure 1 shows how easy the basic connections are. The minimum requirements of the keyboard are MIDI In and Out ports -- sophisticated MIDI features are not essential. You can use an old second-hand synth (MIDI-equipped of course) that you might find in a pawn shop or garage sale, or you can use a brand new sampling keyboard. If it sounds good, use it. Let your budget be your guide.

Sequencing with the ST

There are dozens of versatile sequencer programs for the ST, and though they all differ in terms of sophistication, price and ease of use, the basic principles are the same.

A sequencer is the MIDI equivalent of a player piano, with a sequence corresponding to a piano roll. The difference is that a sequence is stored as MIDI data in computer memory, rather than as holes on a scroll of paper. A sequencer can record whatever you play on your keyboard, whereas a player piano requires specially-created scrolls for playback. Best of all, in a sequencing system, you're not restricted to piano sounds.

In the mid '70s, sequencing became popular after such techno-pop bands as Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk began experimenting with them. Sequencers were modules that fed a series of voltages into synthesizer modules to produce rhythmic sequences of notes.

When computers and MIDI entered the game, it became possible to fashion sequencer programs that were easy to understand and operate. Complete compositions could be recorded in several passes, part by part, by a single musician given the right combination of simulated instruments.

Sequencing programs let you record multiple parts on individual tracks, in several passes, one part at a time. Based on the basic MIDI system containing the components described above, a typical sequencing session would go something like this:

Start by recording the chord progression:

1. Select a track to record on.

2. Put the sequencer into record mode.

3. If the program can generate a metronome click, turn it on to keep a steady tempo.

4. Play the chord progression on the keyboard. For every note you play, the keyboard sends out MIDI data to the ST, which then records a list of the notes you played, when, how hard and how long they were played.

5. Stop recording.

6. Play back the part you just recorded. The ST scans through the list of MIDI data it recorded, and sends the list (in MIDI form) via the MIDI Out port, and into the keyboard's MIDI input. The keyboard responds by playing back the chord progression.

While the chord progression plays back, you can play another part on the keyboard by hand. You can even try out a few bass lines on the keyboard until you come up with one to add to the existing sequence.

To overdub a bass line:

1. Make sure the chord progression track is enabled for playback.

2. Select an empty track for recording the bass line.

3. Put the ST into record mode.

4. As the sequencer plays the chord progression into the keyboard, play the bass line from the keyboard.

5. When you're finished overdubbing the bass line, stop recording and play back the two tracks together. Now the ST is playing both the chord progression and bass line into the keyboard.

Almost every sequencer program has some way for you to follow each of these steps, and the controls may vary quite a bit. The main differences usually depend on the ways in which you can arrange the individual tracks for playback. These steps can be repeated as many times as you like, or as many times as the program allows. Sequencer programs usually provide between eight and 256 tracks.

So far, this process resembles tape recording. Unlike tape, however, raising the sequencer playback tempo speeds up the music but doesn't affect the pitch. This is because the sequence tempo merely determines the rate at which the lists of recorded notes are scanned through. The sounds themselves, which are produced by the keyboard, are not accelerated. For a similar reason, the sequencer has very limited control over the timbre of the keyboard.

If you were playing a piano patch on the keyboard while you recorded a sequence, but later changed over to a trumpet patch, you would hear the same notes as before, only this time they would be played by a trumpet rather than a by a piano. As you get more involved with sequencers, you discover how to control the sound selections for playback, as well as many other performance nuances, but we'll have to save that for a future article.

Saving Money with MIDI

One of the most popular ST MIDI applications is patch filing. (A patch is the definition of an instrumental sound). Most keyboards contain between 32 and 1,000 sounds, but the number of sounds actually available can be far far more. Arranging large numbers of sounds in a logical manner can be nearly impossible with some machines, but thanks to MIDI, the ST can shuffle patches around with the graphic tools for which the ST has become so popular. Consider how much you might spend on RAM cartridges for one synthesizer: the advantages of spending $50 to $150 on a librarian program and some blank disks become quite clear. The software alternative may not fit in your shirt pocket like a RAM cart, but it's whole lot more flexible.

Another breed of program that complements Librarians is the patch editor. In the past five years, the trend among synthesizer manufacturers has been to cut costs by reducing front panel controls to a nearly absurd minimum. A patch editor program provides a "soft" front panel on the ST screen, so that you can examine any or all patch parameters at a glance and edit them with the mouse. As you add more MIDI instruments to your system, it becomes increasingly convenient to be able to access all patch parameters from one screen.

MIDI has worked its way into virtually every facet of music production, and though you may not be planning to do any heavy-duty production in your own home, the skills that you can develop with a small MIDI system will work to your advantage if you ever find yourself in the midst of a more complex system.

There's a lot more to MIDI than I've even hinted at in this article, but one basic thing that's common to all ST/MIDI applications is that the ST can act as MIDI co-pilot when you run out of hands to play or control your synthesizers. MIDI makes the Atari ST an open forum for anyone who has ever dreamed of creating music, but who has been unable to audition their ideas with live players.

A musician and MIDI consultant, Rick Davies is the former editor of Music Technology. He lives in the Santa Cruz mountains of California.