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Sekaiju tutorial: User interface

September 23, 2012 11 comments

Sekaiju is an actively developed open source MIDI editor for Windows. If you are on Windows, the good DAWs cost money. The free DAWs may be a bit complex and overwhelming especially for beginners (LMMS and Macaw). So, the next alternative is to have a good  free MIDI editor and a way to render to audio using quality VSTs and soundfonts. Synthfont solves the latter. I’ve already successfully made a dozen audio tracks using these software combined with free soundfonts/samples and VSTs around the web. This tutorial gives an overview of Sekaiju’s user interface and should, hopefully, get you started into using it.

Looks (first impressions)

The first thing that makes me decide whether or not to use any software is how its GUI looks. Although GUI look has nothing to do with functionality, it has a lot of psychological effects. I personally think that Sekaiju’s screenshots have a clean and professional feel. Like a well integrated native Windows program, no fancy dark themes most DAWs tend to have*. Although the screenshot on their website shows you several child windows at a time, it is much simpler once you try it. Sekaiju has a MDI (multiple document interface) GUI, meaning that you don’t have to see everything at the same time.

Sekaiju 2.0 simultaneously showing Track View, Piano Roll and Event List windows. (Screenshot taken from their website)

Getting started

For those who prefer an English interface and are mystified by the initial Japanese menus, press “ALT + S + L” to change to a language you prefer. That is the shortcut key for Setup and Language. You need to restart the program for the changes to take effect.

The user interface

Without any background in MIDI editing, at first I thought that the interface was complicated. But eventually I observed that many DAWs have the same user interface paradigm as Sekaiju. One thing about Sekaiju is that it contains both advanced and basic MIDI editing functionality. It is not as simple as, for example, Aria Maestosa, but it is also not something that you would leave as you become more proficient and advanced.

There are four windows that show MIDI information differently:

  • Track list
  • Piano roll
  • Event list
  • Musical score

These are accessible through the “View” menu and through respective buttons in the toolbar.

Sekaiju's menus and buttons for the different windows

Sekaiju’s menus and respective tool bar buttons for the Track list, Piano roll, Event list and Musical score windows. Also seen is the universally recognized Play, Record, Rewind and Fast forward buttons.

Track list

When you start Sekaiju or open a MIDI file, this is the first window that will show. The track list is a sort of a summary, showing different instruments together as tracks. Here you see the measures/bars of the track , midi  device related information such as ports and a zoomed down representation of the notes.  The common things you can do here are:

  • Choose an instrument for the track (Program Number column). You either scroll through the list of 128 GM instruments, but if you already know the number (e.g. 73=Flute), it’s faster to type the number directly.
  • Turn sound ouput on a  track on or off , emulating typical “mute and solo” functionalities (OutputOn column).
  • Give a track a descriptive name (Name Column). It can be something other than the generic instrument name (e.g. “Stratocaster” instead of “Distortion Guitar”).
  • Drag/copy/paste parts of a song across measures or across channels (like mixing in DAWs)
Sekaiju's Track List window

In the track list window you can change the instuments, name tracks, and mix tracks.

Piano roll

For me, this is where most of the work is done. You access this by pressing “View -> Show new Piano roll window” or by pressing the button in the toolbar that looks like a , uhm..,piano roll (note that this will create a new window). Here, you will see the notes in piano roll representation and be able to edit them. Below the notes, you also see the automation, other MIDI parameters that can be tweaked like velocity, pan, pitch bend etc.

Piano roll zoom

The first thing you will probably do in the Piano roll is increase the zoom level (this was my first problem). This can be done by clicking the “+” or “” buttons beside the scroll buttons, or as of version 3.2, using “Ctrl +” “Ctrl –” keyboard shortcuts (similar to web browsers and word documents). To change the default zoom levels, go to “Setup -> Options… -> Piano Roll (tab)“, and change the Default zoom scale values.

Automation

Besides pitch and  time and duration, there are many more properties that can be altered in a note. These are modified through the “Automation” part which is also in the piano roll window, below the actual piano roll.  The most common being the velocity (related to loudness). Some properties, like velocity only applies to one note at a time. Other properties like the CC# numbers (control change events) can be changed at any time during the song and is not specific to a single note.  Examles of CC# parameters are pan, reverb, chorus and delay.

Sekaiju's Piano Roll window

Sakaiju’s piano roll and automation windows. Where most of the music is done.

Musical score (notation) window

For those who are comfortable with music notation, this is another way of editing MIDI. You access this by pressing “View -> Show new Musical score window” or by pressing the button in the toolbar that looks like two eight notes (♫). I would admit that it is better to use something like MuseScore if you are serious with music notation. But there are also good reasons to have it around. If you eventually want sheet music, this is a way to see whether the notes you make are readable on standard format. Despite not having a “sheet music”-like appearance, Sekaiju actually does a cleaner job than MuseScore in converting MIDI into a readable notation. However, I would still consider score notation a transition instead of a main functionality as there are a lot more things you could do in a full blown score writing program. Nonetheless, I prefer the greater freedom in a piano roll editor.

Sekaiju's Musical Score window

Not as good as MuseScore (or Finale/Sibelius), but not bad either for a MIDI editor.

Event list

Except for the three to five rows in the event list, beginners or hobby musicians, like me, will seldom need to modify the event list directly. The event list is a more for the advanced users or sound engineers who understand the MIDI internals. The Event list reflects much more detailed information abut the MIDI file, with more precision in time. But it is difficult to imagine musical structure from the event list alone. If you’re not creating MIDI files from scratch, you may ignore the Event list for the moment. I’ve used this once to alter the tempo in a more controlled way (tempo is one thing where you need exact numbers). Event list can be accessed by pressing “View -> Show new Event list window” or by pressing the button in the toolbar that looks like a spreadsheet/table.

Sekaiju's Event List

If you know the MIDI specification, advanced editing can be done in the Event list.

Use of the Event list (update to this tutorial 05 Oct 2012)

When creating a MIDI file from scratch, some global musical properties are set here (since I always start by using MuseScore, or recorded MIDI, I did not notice this until more than a dozen MIDI projects). The following can be modified in the event list:

  • Tempo (default is 120 BPM)
  • Time signature (default is 4/4)
  • Key signature (default is C Major)

The Tempo, Time Signature and Key Signature fields will be seen in the “Event kind” column within the first few rows.  You don’t have to know the microseconds per quarter note or clocks per quarter note values as Sekaiju automatically corrects these when you modify the tempo and time signature. Some MIDI files won’t have the Key signature specified.

Recording

After setting the MIDI input device, recording looks rather straight forward. You press the record button or press “Ctrl R” and you’re ready to go. You should also setup MIDI output to hear what you’re playing (the default Windows GS if you’re not too picky, you just need the MIDI data). I sometimes use BASS MIDI to replace the default Windows Roland GS Synth. You can set the position at which recording starts similar to setting the playback position.

Switching between windows

Using the “View” menu or the buttons as described above creates a new window. This can allow you to see different part of the same file, like using split or multiple windows to edit different parts of a Microsoft Word document. If you don’t want to create a new window, you either click the window where you want to work, use the standard “Control Tab” shortcut key, or use the “Window” menu.

Quirks/Tips/Not so obvious things

  • Remember to press “ALT +  S +  L” to change the language during first time use.
  • Prior to version 3.2, zooming can only be done by clicking the “+” or “-” buttons along the scrollbar. I failed to notice this at first.
    • Ctrl +” and “Ctrl  –” ,which are more common shortcut keys, can now be used.
    • The default zoom may be a bit small, but these can be changed on the settings.
  • In the Piano roll, the Line tool which is for drawing lines on the automation also works for note entry, but not for a single note.
    • The Pen tool can make an extended single note.
  • In the Piano roll, if you want notes with arbitrary positions and lengths (unquantized) select “Free” from the note length dropdown.
  • No installer. The program is portable. Since Windows 7’s interface is type and search, I never bothered putting it in the proper “Programs” folder and making a shortcut.
  • The truck looking button opens a new track window. I still don’t get the logic behind the fish looking button (Auto page update).
  • By default the playback restarts when it reaches the end of the song. This can be disabled by toggling off the loop looking  button (Auto Repeat).
    • The play button remains pressed. So if you go  back to a part of a song, and Auto Repeat is enabled, it will keep playing. You have to manually “un-press” this button.

Moving forward

With a familiarity of Sekaiju’s user interface, you may now proceed to creating a MIDI file from scratch* which would be dealt with in the next tutorials on creating a simple MIDI example.

Foot notes:

* I have nothing against dark themes used by most DAWs. I’m just puzzled to why most of them do that. It makes me feel that they are copying each other, even in the non functional features.

* This tutorial is based (biased) on how I use Sekaiju. Other users might emphasize different features.

*Not totally from scratch. The tutorials will use a sheet music for reference. I can’t teach creativity, imagination and composition :P. But the point is, we don’t start with an already existing MIDI file.

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Categories: Music making Tags: , ,

Sorting music files by date in Windows 7

September 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Windows 7 comes with many features enhanced for multimedia. One of these is that in Explorer, when a folder contains audio files, such as MP3, the columns in list view are optimized for sorting multimedia content. Specifically you will see the following columns:

  • Name
  • Contributing Artist
  • Album
  • # (track number)
  • Title

In varying order. Categories, typical to lists in media players. Cool for people listening to music. But potentially annoying for music creators!

Since I produce music files in the same manner that I produce Word documents, I want to sort them in a way that makes my work easy. In particular, I simply want to sort my media files by date to easily know which one is the newest and probably the best version of a track I’m working with. Of course, you can always add the “Date modified” column by a few right clicks here and there. But doing this in each project folder I’m working in simply makes you hate this “upgraded” features, knowing that it used to be simpler.

Solution

Fortunately, there is a way to revert to the generic sorting columns. Assuming all your music folders are within a generic music folder, you can do the following.

In the generic music folder (“D:\Music” in this example), within Explorer, right click in a blank space to show Explorer’s popup menu and select “Customize this folder…”

Customize This Folder (Windows Explorer)

Customizing folders in Windows explorer to change the sorting categories.

In the window that will appear, look for the “Customize” tab. Under the “What kind of folder do you want?”,  “Optimize this folder for”:, change the dropdown selection from “Music” to “General Items”. Check “Also apply this template to all subfolders” so that every folder within your music collection will now show the following “traditional” columns we all grew up with:

  • Name
  • Date Modified
  • Type
  • Size
General Items and Apply To All Subfolders

Select “General Items” and check “Apply to all subfolders” to remove the special treatment in your multimedia files.

If you have planned ahead before creating your folders, it would be a good idea to separate your audio files for listening (e.g. downloaded audio), and audio files that you create. This way, you can apply different folder settings and still benefit from Windows’s enhancements.

Categories: Music making Tags: ,

Adding a remote monitor on top of a MIDI piano

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Previously I discussed my experiences on extending my digital piano’s MIDI connection via USB extender. There is still one device though that would be convenient on top of my piano, a display monitor.

As the situation is, I already have a heavy powerful laptop (actually used as a “desktop”) that is on most of the time for work and procrastination (and blogging). But it is not located close enough to where my digital piano is, and I can’t rearrange the room yet. Booting an additional computer for a 5 to 20 minute piano session does not seem attractive, especially when there is an idle one somewhere in the house. Carrying the laptop around also does not seem an attractive option. I want things to be as easy as possible to prevent musical inspirations from fading away. I know. I’m crazy. Just like many musicians are.

Back to the topic, I wanted to place a display monitor on top of my piano to emulate having a computer close to it. It would be convenient for controlling the MIDI recording or for Synthesia piano lessons. Wireless mice and keyboards are quite trivial now, so a remote display is as good as a remote client computer. And as I see it, wireless video transmission is still in “beta” stage and quite expensive too.

I thought of several options, getting a slim LCD monitor, preferably with touchscreen capability, or a USB pocket projector projecting on the wall behind my piano. The standard monitor option would be tricky as I already have an extended desktop on my work laptop, and I have no plans of moving it away the laptop. Unlike in a desktop PC, I could not simply plug in video cards into a laptop’s motherboard. For most laptops (that I know of), the only way to add a third monitor is to use a USB to display adapter. As for the pocket projector option, I can not imagine a convenient location for the projector. The best projector position would be blocked by the piano player.

Eventually, I recalled these 10.1 USB LCD monitors made by Liliput, but while looking at them I also found out about Toshiba’s usb mobile dispaly and Lenovo’s ThinkVision LT1421. I chose the ThinkVision which is more compact, although it didn’t have a power switch like Toshiba’s. I can tolerate disconnecting USB cables though. It also has a faster response (8ms)  compared to Toshiba’s (16ms).

Another motivation for getting the ThinkVision (or Toshiba’s), is that it can be used while on travel. Unlike a standard monitor, it is easily portable (more portable than a Thinkpad). It will have many uses for me when working remotely as I am most productive with  two screens.

The next step is to extend its USB connection. Unlike MIDI data, video data is much heavier, so I needed a higher throughput connection. There is a DisplayLink USB 2.0 extender that is not yet widely available and just seems to be a standard USB 2.0 CAT5 extender. Adding 3 meters more to its 1.8 meter cable works. But to go beyond the 5m limit, I had to use a repeater compliant to USB 2.0.

I was able to obtain a 5 meter Trendnet TU2 EX5 repeater. I haven’t seen any reviews about it but it was available in a local dealer and it is USB 2.0 compliant claiming upto 480MBPS transfer rates. It is also cheaper than the USB 2.0 CAT5 extenders I can find.

It works! But unlike with the simple 3m extension, external power is now needed. This is provided through the second USB “plug” in the Y cable, which I plugged to a USB charger. I had to remember which USB plug goes to the computer during my initial test, so I marked it. No video output comes out if these USB plugs are interchanged. It actually looks dangerous when there is no power provided and I’m using the 5m extender. The picture gets distorted and I hear a high frequency hum, like a capacitor is about to blow.

Now, with just an easy wireless keyboard and mouse, software tweaks, and the already extended MIDI connection, my digital piano and semi remote workstation are now united as a more convenient DAW station.

Categories: Music making Tags: ,

MIDI connection over a USB extender

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

The weird layout of my room and the limited space on top and behind my digital piano had prevented  my workhorse laptop at the opposite wall and my Casio CDP-200R from being digitally unified for almost two years now.  So I was using a much smaller netbook instead, on a makeshift cardboard mount. MIDI files I recorded were shared to my other laptop wirelessly via Dropbox. I was getting tired of this work around. I don’t often use that netbook so I had to wait for it to boot each time I want to record something. A netbook is also not powerful enough for DAW work, and is not convenient due to its small screen.

I ended up looking on M-Audio’s MidAir wireless MIDI transmitter and receiver, which would have been a neat solution. The problem though is that the CDP-200R does not have the traditional MIDI port MidAir uses, but has a USB port instead. It most likely internally converts MIDI to USB like many of the new “MIDI” devices today do, making it convenient to connect to a computer (no need for an adaptor or module), but unfortunately, not with other MIDI devices that use the traditional round 5 pin DIN MIDI connector. I tried looking for a reverse adaptor, one that will take USB output from a device and convert it to a 5 pin MIDI standard, but such a thing does not seem to exist and it’s hard to filter out the well known opposite (MIDI to USB adaptors) from search results. The MidAir might be a hundred plus dollar dust collector for my peculiar case.

Another possible alternative is a wireless USB hub, but so far I have only seen a lot of bad reviews for the existing products, so it’s yet another dust collector candidate. Reviews mention that it does not work like its wired counterpart requiring special drivers, client software, authentication and stuff, and transmission is not very reliable. For music playing, any interruption of the transmission would be unacceptable.

Since I couldn’t use a wireless MIDI (or USB) connection, I settled for a wired USB one. An unmodified USB connection is not designed to go beyond 5 meters.  Beyond that you need a repeater (for another 5 to 20 meters) or an extender (can go up to 50 or 90 meters). USB extenders use network cables (CAT5/5e/6, Ethernet, RJ45) in between the USB device and computer’s USB port. Extereme extenders that use optical fibers can go from half a kilometer to 10 kilometers (now you can read your USB stick from another city!).

The extender I used, made by IOGEAR, is USB 1.1 compliant so I had to check that my digital piano is not restricted to USB 2.0 before buying (here’s how to). Thankfully, it is not, as Windows’ device manager showed (view by connection). The extender is claimed to work up to 198 feet (60 meters).

It worked! I used it with a 5m CAT6 cable. No drivers were required and it really seemed that I simply extended my piano’s USB cable. I tested it with Syfonone and my favorite 20+ MB piano soundfont. There is an acceptable amount latency, which was not really surprising, and is similar to the latency of a directly plugged USB MIDI device. I notice that the audible mechanical sound made by my piano keys are a tiny bit earlier than the digital sound coming from my computer (I had an earphone cable extender, what a messy setup). I’m also not using any ASIO device/software, just the built in soundcard. Anyway, the latency was acceptable to me. I can play Bach’s prelude in C major without any problems (the only classical piece I’ve managed to memorize). Once the sustain or reverb kicks in, the mechanical sound of my keys are no longer noticeable when playing many notes (legato).

Of course, the best solution would have been rearranging my room, but knowing myself, that would take years to happen. It is also nice to know that there are alternatives. I will still wait for M-Audio to develop a MidAir that takes in USB-MIDI output. Perhaps they will make a special connector someday. Let’s hope.

Categories: Music making Tags: ,