Sekaiju tutorial: User interface
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.