After a long break from making music due to my thesis, here I am again! This time I’ve decided to share my workflow on a recent project. You can listen to the final result below:
The song is part of the Vision of Escalowne‘s original soundtrack (third CD album). I’ve seen this anime more than a decade ago, made cassette copies of my sister’s CD, and listened to it regularly back in highschool. For a cartoon, it has a soundtrack that goes beyond what you would normally expect. It’s one of the reasons I got hooked into orchestra music (as opposed to the serious and profound classics that is less accessible to my less mature mind back then). It’s composed by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi and (probably) performed by Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. The score was based on this transcription by ThePochaccos and all thanks to him/her for doing a great job.
Unfortunately it is not a public domain score, so I won’t be able to share it that easily. But basically, I transcribed the video using MuseScore. It is not that difficult, there are parts in the piano that need “voices”, but the whole piece is mostly strings (for me., that’s actually easier and more fun than emailing the youtube user). (I hope to share something public domain next time).
I’ve been itching to get Reaper for a long time already, but so far, my projects are not too complex, so this setup is still fine.
Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra
For this song, I decided to do a proper demo of SSO. I’ve always used multiple orchestra samples and layer the different results in Audacity. Using SSO by itself has also revealed some of its shortcomings. Sometimes the release does not sound well, giving an unnatural sound at the end of the note (i.e. in long contrabass notes or in violas). I work around this by shortening the note until the odd sounding part is no longer audible. The slow attacks also made it less favorable for fast short notes, making them sound mushy, and making the melody less defined. I try to remedy this by increasing the note velocities or decreasing the note velocities of the background instruments. I wonder whether using a VST SFZ player, instead of Syntfont’s native sfz support, might give better results, but I have not really explored this option.
Update: As it turns out, this manual looping workaround was unnecessary ans I should apologize for the misinformation. My mistake was to directly load the sfz file to Synthfont (an older version back then) instead of using an sfz playing VST. SSO strings loop nicely with Plogue sforzando. The text is maintained for historical purposes and as it may still be helpful for other libraries that do not have looping in them or, for another application, to hide the distinct repetitive sound of looped samples.
Another shortcoming of SSO is its lack of looped samples for some instruments, which has forced me come up with a tricky work around. The first note of the first violins is 9 bars long (31 seconds at 70 BPM!). At first I thought of editing the SFZ samples, but that seemed overkill for a single note. So next, I imgained how a real orchestra would actually play a half minute note. If it were a single violin, the maximum amount of time you could slide the bow over a string would be limited by the bow’s length and the minimum bow velocity needed to produce an acceptable sound, maybe five or 10 seconds (my imagination’s approximation). Restarting the bow slide would have made a new note. But an ensemble of more than 10 violins doesn’t have to simultaneously restart their individual bowing. So while one violinist restarts there are about 10 others who are still bowing midway, hiding the restarting guy and creating an illusion of continuity. That’s my guess.
Back to the MIDI editor, I implemented “manual looping” by making an extra first violins track (not to be confused with the second violins in the score). I broke the whole 9 bar note into shorter segments that can be played by SSO. The extra violin track continues the note when it’s about to end in the original violin track. Then the original violin track continues the note when the extra violin track’s note is about to end. Hence, by alternating and overlapping these two violin tracks for the same note, I get a manually looped violin note. To mask the attacks of this repeating violin, I align them with the attacks (note start) of the other instruments in the score. Of course, these alternating violin tracks must have the same volume and panning and go through to the same effects chain.
It may also be worth noting that the SSO updated sustain violins worked better for this trick.
Guitar = Guitar Pro
Since I can’t compete with a real orchestra, I generally avoid making inferior copies of something that it is already great (except for personal studies or demos). Who would listen to that? At the very least, I would change an instrument to give a different feel that is worth listening to. Hence, I changed the piano part into guitar. Being a more common and accessible instrument, and being a long time guitar player myself, I could relate more with the sad sound of a guitar.
I’m also known among my friends for advocating Guitar Pro (GP) as a virtual guitar addition to their DAWs. Even though I play guitar well (used to?), and own many guitars (too many to remember), recording guitars with my limited laptop studio setup has never given me satisfying results. GP actually started as a tablature study program (coincidentally at the age when I was crazy about studying guitar tabs). When it started out, there was a free alternative that can do as much, Tux Guitar. But since Guitar Pro’s introduction of RSE (realistic sound engine), it has, in my opinion, left Tux Guitar far behind. GP would not integrate with a DAW like a VST or soundfont, but it’s notation based interface, optimized for guitar articulations, makes it far more intuitive than any VST I know. GP can simulate vibrato, hammer on/pull offs, ringing, chord “brushing”, harmonics and many more with a few mouse clicks and without having to tweak MIDI parameters. And the demos sound realistic enough for me (listen or download here). It’s probably the guitar equivalent of Finale + Garritan combo, but at a price below a hundred dollars. Software that unify sophisticated music notation and virtual sound production is really something we should be thankful for (although I would also hope for piano roll integration).
There’s nothing really new here, but I would be happy if a newcomer in digital music production/midi orchestration would learn something from this. Note that the only tool that costs money is Guitar Pro, although I’ve also donated a small amount to Synthfont as it is very useful to me and it was the first thing to exactly match what I was looking for before, a simple tool that applies soundfonts and VSTi’s to an existing MIDI file that is not as overkill as a full blown DAW. With diligence, passion and knowledge of what great tools are available out there, making quality music, one that you can mix in to your iPod or MP3 player, is no longer a thing that can only be done with professional thousand dollar studios.
Happy music making!
So what do you do with a MIDI file that sounds1 like a cheap toy when played with your computer? Load it on Synthfont!
There are a lot of suspicious websites and software out there when you search for “MIDI to MP3”. I doubt that most of them would improve the sound quality. They just convert the format, and you have no control over how the resulting MP3 file sounds. Although they may serve the purpose of making your arranged music more compatible to more players and devices, it is still painful to listen to. In many cases, you simply have a much bigger file.
This is why it is better to go beyond a passive format conversion and take control of the process. Give your hard work the quality it deserves. It is also a fun learning experience that can open doors to new hobbies or even new career opportunities. Knowing that you can create high quality music tracks, with just your computer, is quite empowering.
Even if you can tweak the MIDI further through automation and control changes, it is not very motivating if the instruments still sound bad (just like how having a bad sounding real musical instrument discourages you from playing it). Also, there are many instruments or instrument ensembles that are not included in the General MIDI specification. What concerns me most, is that you don’t have ensembles for violins, violas, cellos and contrabasses. Instead you have generic “strings” (instruments 48 to 51).
A Beginner’s DAW
After being initially discouraged by the complexity and bloat of other free digital audio work stations (DAWs), I eventually found something that simply does what I want to do. Synthfont makes it straightforward to apply soundfonts and VSTs to an existing MIDI file. It is “MIDI-centric” not containing audio editing/recording functions like those found in audio editors like Audacity or Wavosaur. It is also not bundled with annoying loops and samples that you’ll never use. (I find it both ridiculous and discouraging how some DAWs boast that they are bundled with gigabytes of samples).
Getting better sounds using soundfonts and VSTs
To demonstrate a simple comparison, the MIDI resulting from the previous Sekaiju tutorial was modified. Notes were made shorter than notated to emulate the player’pauses. The chords were voiced out and split to different string instruments. Slightly higher velocities were also assigned to shorter notes. Below, you can listen to two versions of the same MIDI file. One is rendered with Window’s default synth while the other is rendered using free soundfonts and VSTs from the web.
Rendered2 using GM.DLS3 found in “WINDOWS\system32\drivers\”. This is how it would have normally sounded if played directly as MIDI file with the default Windows sounds.
Now, this version uses custom soundfonts, VSTis, and VST effects.
The following were used:
Although the second example is far from the best possible result, it is much more pleasing than the first one. Normally, I’d spend more hours until I become happy with the results, but I have a self imposed Christmas deadline. Like any artwork, a good musical arrangement should take its time. There are also a lot of free soundfonts and VSTs out there, aside from what I’ve used. So there is plenty of room for experimentation and improvement.
Similarly, there are also other good DAWs out there, both free and commercial. But back then, when I was starting, the other free alternatives were not the easiest to learn, and were a bit overkill. Hence, Synthfont, because of it’s “plug and play” paradigm and ease of use with existing MIDI files made it a winner for a beginner “DAW-ist” like me (wow, that sounds like some kind of religion). Its website actually has a tutorial, but I never really read it as things are quite straight forward to figure out. On the funny side, I always discover something new because I never really read the tutorial. :P This just shows that I don’t have to ingest tons of information before I can get satisfactory results.
Other tools of the trade:
These are little tools frequently used for other practical stuff when creating MP3 files. Their functions can also probably be done through Synthfont, but it is just far more intuitive to use dedicated tools. Furthermore, they can be used independently of what other software you use to create MP3 files.
- Mp3 Gain: Normalize the volume of your Mp3 file, so you don’t have to adjust the volume when your player goes through different files. 92 dB is standard while softer pieces such as piano solos seem to go well with 89dB.
- Mp3 Tag: Add more meaningful extra information in your MP3 file. Let people know where it came from.
- The sounds are NOT in the MIDI file. But we commonly associate cheesy sounds with MIDI files because of the Roland GS Sound Set used by the Windows SW Synth (which dates back to 1996).
- This defeats the purpose of using Synthfont. But I think it is more preferable to do it this way compared to installing one of the many other competing not-so-well-known converters you may find online.
- It is possible to replace GM.DLS and get better default MIDI sounds.
Happy holidays/music making!
It’s been a month since I had written Part II of this tutorial back in Hungary, and Christmas is now a few days ahead. By now, Sekaiju 3.4 is already released with a few added features and bug fixes. So now, I finally had enough pressure to finish the Silent Night midi project I’m working on. One of the reasons for this great delay is that I would rather use other free music notation tools such as MuseScore, Finale Notepad or Musink which I just recently discovered. Another is I would guess that many DAW oriented users do most of their work through the Piano Roll, which was already discussed. Anyway, enough of these excuses. Let’s just finish this tutorial series and enjoy the holidays!
If you haven’t seen them yet, I would suggest you go through the following tutorials:
- Sekaiju Tutorial: User Interface to learn the basics of using the Sekaiju MIDI editor.
- Sekaiju tutorial: A simple example (Part I) which tells how to start making a MIDI file.
- Sekaiju tutorial: A simple example (Part II) which discusses note entry via the Piano roll.
Again, here is the basis of the MIDI file we’re building from scratch. Since this part would be about using the Musical score editor, we just copy the score directly as we see it. Perhaps, one motivation for using a MIDI editor instead of a dedicated notation editor is that you can further tweak the notes in the Piano roll, deviating a bit from notation to make it sound more human and expressive, since as I had mentioned before, MIDI and music notation are not equivalent. As we chose the key of C, there is no key signature indicated on the score.
Creating notes through the Musical Score
Showing the Musical Score window
If you have the file (from the previous tutorials) opened, a Musical Score representation can be shown by selecting the “Show new Musical Score Window” button (♫) in the main toolbar or in the “View” menu.
Basic editing tools
Minus the Line tool, the editing tools in the Musical Score window are mostly identical to those found on the Piano Roll. The major difference is that you can not resize a note by dragging. Instead, you select the notation symbols that correspond to the note length you want to use.
The buttons are the Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview. When selected, these buttons do the following:
- Draws a new note with a pitch determined by its position and duration by the the selected note symbol
- Erases an existing note.
- Selects multiple notes and allows multiple notes to be simultaneously moved.
- Also works for a single note.
- Allows keyboard or menu actions like Copy, Cut, Delete to the selected notes.
- Plays existing notes when the cursor is dragged on top of them (you will see a vertical line).
Towards the right of the toolbar, length indicating music symbols can be seen:
These buttons determine the length of the note that is added when using the Pen Tool. The first 6 buttons, are the (common?) note lengths.While the last two, the “dot” and “triplet” modifies whichever note you have selected among the first 6 buttons.
Entering notes through the Musical Score interface.
Continuing the flute (melody) track
1. From our previous work, look at the staff corresponding to the Flute track. It should be easy with the tracks labeled. There is no need to explicitly select the track as notes are entered on the staff that you click, and the staves are already separated for each instrument (unlike in the Piano Roll where all the track’s notes are using the same workspace). If you add a note on a staff of a different instrument, that instrument’s track gets selected.
2. Zoom to a comfortable level by clicking the plus or minus (“+” or “-“) buttons at the lower right corner along the scroll bars or by using “Ctrl +” or “Ctrl -” shortcut keys.
3. Set the position quantization. Since the smallest note is an eight note or quaver (♪) and the notes on the song are multiples of a semiquaver, we could choose 60-Quaver from Snap dropdown (third). We have to do this because, unlike other score editors, note entry is position dependent. For example, if you create a whole note on an empty bar and click somewhere in the middle, the whole note will start roughly where you clicked and go beyond the bar, causing tied notes instead.
4. Use the beat markers as guides. Note that in each bar/measure (bounded by blue vertical lines), there are 3 vertical gray lines. This indicates the beats in our 3/4 time signatured-song. Also use the measure numbers as a guide.
5. Choose the Pen tool and select a note symbol corresponding to the note length you want to enter. Since we are using a music sheet as a guide, we simply copy the note symbols as we edit. Enter the note with the correct length by clicking on the appropriate location on the staff. Remember that note entry is position dependent (like in the Piano Roll).
Dotted notes and triplets are obtained by pressing down one note length then also pressing down either the dot (“.”) or triplet (“3”) buttons to modify that note length.
Continuing the strings (harmony) track
1. The same procedures as with the Flute track, except that you will be putting notes into the Strings staff. There is no need to explicitly select the Strings track as it already has a separate staff. Notice that it is using a bass staff which makes more sense with the notes we previously entered with the Piano Roll.
As in the previous tutorial, for simplicity, I only used the root of the indicated chords in the transcription and play them an octave below the melody.
As the musical score editing behaves very similarly to piano roll editing some unusual things can happen.
- Notes can overlap. You place a note that starts before the previous note of the same pitch ends.
- There is no “page view” or “wrapping”. You have to scroll horizontally to see the rest of the song.
- There is no concept of “voices” so note entry is dependent on position. You can easily create notes that don’t have to be vertically aligned.
- Similarly, there is no concept of rests. For example, if you place a quarter note on an empty bar, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the start of that bar.
- Notes can not be dragged-resized. Just erase and replace with the right size, or use the Piano Roll instead.
- I haven’t figured out how to tie notes. The last “Peace” note in Silent Night is longer than a whole note, two tied dotted half notes. Of course, this is easy to remedy in the Piano Roll. But this is one of the expected shortcomings of Musical Score editing not a main purpose of Sekaiju.
- Likewise, I also don’t see any quick way to flatten or sharpen a note. This would be used if there are accidentals in the song. This can be done of course, but not like how you normally do it in a full blown score editor.
This is a very simplified version of Silent Night, as the emphasis is really getting familiar with Sekaiju. The MIDI file is available for further study. As an exercise, I would suggest completing the chords by adding thirds, fifths and sevenths instead of just the root notes (refer to a chord chart if necessary). Also the built in MIDI synth of Windows sounds too cheesy to be enjoyable. Hence, a big step (big in improvement, not so much in effort), is to use the MIDI file with Synthfont or other DAWs together with good soundfonts, VST instruments and VST effects.
Also, for what it’s worth: Merry Christmas! :)
Basically, MIDI input works. But there are several Windows installation related problems (not MIDI related though). If MIDI worked before (in Windows 7), I think it should be fine after an upgrade.
Despite all that hype about the iPad and Android, I never really jumped in since that meant leaving a lot of things behind. I should admit, more than 60% of my work, or my life for that matter, is done through a Microsoft Windows machine. Being an occassional Windows programmer, there’s just so much to miss from a classic good old fashioned all purpose operating system. iOS and Android are rather specialized to phones and tablets. And doubts start to arise when USB peripheral devices come to mind. I also dislike how the iPad or Kindle devices prevent expansion through the lack of SD card slots or USB ports, which also shortens the lifetime of the built in solid state storage device.
Windows 8 on the other hand, is meant to be a successor of the Windows series. Hence, it is designed for a broad range of computing devices. Though I suspect that they might trim features here and there depending on what kind of device it is being installed on. MIDI input worked on my tablet back when it was running Windows 7 Pro. Now, I need to find out if that would be the case on Windows 8.
Although there have been reports of earlier releases of Windows 8 not supporting MIDI devices, this seems to work smoothly on my W500 that had been upgraded to a recent official release (for roughly 20 USD). My USB MIDI keyboard (Korg microKey) is recognized by Synthesia (which is the MIDI application most likely to be used with the device). As can be seen in the screenshot below my Korg microKey is recognized and used (A3 note is pressed). The Microsoft GS Synth is still also present.
It’s not completely Metro (thankfully)
Windows 8 introduced the Metro GUI which is best used for touch screen devices. But it did not remove traditional “windows” applications (those boxy things with borders and buttons on the top right corner that we easily take for granted). There is now a distinction between “Desktop” and “Screen” apps. Desktop apps are the ones we are most familiar with from previous versions of Windows while Screen apps are designed for a more recent touch interface (big buttons and fonts, support for gestures, simplified UIs, etc). If you successfully install and run a non touchscreen good old fashioned app, a familiar looking desktop and taskbar will appear behind the window of that app (the start menu is gone though, but there are alternatives). That also hints that there is a good possibility that your previous DAW/MIDI programs will still run. It’s supposed to be the next Windows after all. In fact, Sekaiju which is made with an old version of Microsoft Visual C++ (Win 9x era) works on Windows 8 (after going through some paranoid security questions).
Windows 8 installation annoyances
Something always goes wrong. Especially when trying new things.
1. My SD Card was formatted!
Both the local drive and the removable SD card in my device are 32 GB. At first I was having trouble that the installation does not want to use the disk I’ve selected and formatted. As it turns out the solution was to remove the removable SD card from the tablet. And as it further turns out, it appears that installation was selecting and formatting my SD card!!! Farewll backups. Although I had backed up the primary drive with Macrium Reflect, files that were only in the SD card will have to be restored with special means (Photorec seems to be helpful. EaseUs Data Recovery may do a better job, preserving file names and folders but it is much more expensive than Windows 8!). Moral lesson, remove SD card or any other unnecessary media before installing Windows 8.
2. Product key won’t work if you clean installed over a previous Windows.
Formatting before installing a fresh OS had always been the preferred way as “upgrading” always had issues. The problem when activating, a clean install is not seen as an upgrade, and hence the upgrade product key is thought to be invalid. “Fortunately”, many had the same problem and someone came up with a work around. Quoting from a brilliant, wonderful human being named BinaryInk as I found in the answers.microsoft.com forum
“The work around for this, while probably not officially supported for obvious reasons (they want more money), is to change a registry key. This was posted for Windows 7 update keys doing the same thing on a forum (though I had an update version AND did a clean install MULTIPLE times without having to do this) but worked without an issue on my laptop running Windows 8 regardless.
1. Run the registry editor (regedit)
2. Find the following key: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Setup\OOBE
3. Change the value for ‘MediaBootInstall’ from 1 to 0
4. Open an elevated command prompt (run as admin)
5. Run the following command: slmgr -rearm
If you already entered your key, check the activation: for me it was already activated and I needed to do nothing more. If not, type in activate windows and type in the key; it should work. Also, do yourself a favor and export this key from regedit and save it somewhere if you ever are required to do another clean install. I know I did.”
Creating notes through the Piano Roll
Having set the song’s general properties in Part I of this tutorial. We’re now ready for the most involving part, editing notes. If you haven’t seen the previous parts of this tutorial series, please go to the following links:
With a sheet music for reference, we can now see the value of Sekaiju’s Musical Score interface. But for now, we will discuss another commonly used note entry method in DAWs and other MIDI editing programs, the Piano roll. We will be “manually” converting a sheet music of Silent Night into MIDI.If you can read music, then you can interpret the notation and convert it to piano roll (I also realized that this is a great way of practicing sight reading without a musical instrument in hand). Each major division is a measure/bar and the minor divisions are quarter notes. Since we are using 3/4 time signature, we see 3 divisions per measure. For reference middle C is MIDI note number 60 which can be located in the sideways keyboard in the left.
As I mentioned previously in the introduction to Sekaiju’s user interface, zooming is done by pressing the little plus and minus (+ -) buttons along the scroll bars, or by using “Ctrl +” and “Ctrl –” keyboard shortcuts. (I have to rewrite it here as it was not obvious to me back then). Also, the Piano Roll window is shown by selecting “View -> Show new Piano roll window” or clicking the button with little purple rectangles looking like a piano roll.
Basic Piano Roll editing tools
I find it difficult to tell someone how to draw without telling him what the drawing tools do. Hence, I have to go through a few basics before we can create a simple song. Feel free to skip this section if you want finding things out through your intuition :).
The buttons are the Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview. When selected, these buttons do the following:
- Draws a new note with a pitch determined by its position and duration by the set or previous note length.
- Extends an existing note by dragging a note if it is close enough in the left or right edge of that note.
- Moves an existing note by dragging when it near the middle of that note.
- The note is played in the process, even if it is not moved to a new place.
- Draws a series of connected notes with equal lengths connecting a starting point and an end point. As it goes through the chromatic scale, I seldom use this for note drawing.
- Does the same in the automation part below the piano roll (where it is most probably intended to be used). Useful for making linear volume ramps.
- Erases an existing note.
- Selects multiple notes and allows multiple notes to be simultaneously extended to the left or right, or to be moved.
- Also works for a single note.
- Allows keyboard or menu actions like Copy, Cut, Delete to the selected notes.
- Plays existing notes when the cursor is dragged on top of them (you will see a vertical line).
Entering notes through the Piano roll interface.
The flute (melody) track
1. We start by selecting the flute track (second) in the right panel. This means that notes we will be drawing will belong to the flute track. We may also select the flute track on the Track dropdown just beside the Preview button.
2. Set the snap length. Since the smallest note is an eight note or quaver (♪) and the notes on the song are multiples of a semiquaver, we could choose 60-Quaver from Snap dropdown (third). (I normally ignore those tick numbers when working as there is enough visual information in the piano roll).
3. Choose the Pen tool and start drawing on the piano roll grid area. Create notes by clicking on the grid. Each new note’s size will be the same as the previous note’s size (or the default size for the first note). Resize the notes by dragging their edges with the pen tool.
You may play your work at any point using the Playback button in the main toolbar or hitting the spacebar in your computer keyboard.
Adding the strings (harmony) track
1. Select the strings track from the right panel or the Track dropdown list.
2. Since there is only one chord per measure in the song, we can use a larger snap like 120-Quarter note.
3. Proceed with the Pen tool, just like when editing the flute track.
For simplicity, I only used the root of the indicated chords in the transcription and play them an octave below the melody. This may look quite boring as the first few measures use C chords. But there you have it, just repeat the steps to finish the song and you will get MIDI song file from scratch!
The next and final part of this tutorial will deal with using the musical score window which may be easier if we are copying directly from a score as in this example.
Perhaps the best way to learn any software is to start with a simple step by step example that users may replicate.
I will be dividing this tutorial into several parts to avoid cluttering a single web page (and to publish the whole tutorial in smaller installments).
- Part I: Setting up basic song properties
- Part II: Creating notes through the Piano roll.
- Part III: Creating notes through the Musical Score.
Since the cold lonely season of gratuitous money spending is approaching, I decided to use Silent Night for this tutorial. I will use score found in Wikifonia as the basis for the MIDI file. I’ll also use the friendly key of C version so we don’t have to worry about key signatures. For the instruments (not specified in the score), I chose a flute for the melody and strings for the harmony. For those new to Sekaiju, please check my overview about its user interface. And for those who do not have it yet, download the latest version from the Sekaiju website.
Part I: Setting up basic song properties
Before creating notes, there are some basic things you have to define in a song. Hence, in this first part you will learn how to:
- Give descriptive names to the tracks
- Choose instruments for the tracks
- Set the tempo
- Set the time signature
- Set the key signature (if you want to)
If you’re the type who doesn’t like reading, you can zoom on the pictures below. I’ve made them as informative as possible. Now, here we go.
1. Creating a new track. Sekaiju starts with a MIDI file with 17 tracks without by default (16 used for storing notes). You can also create a new track from the File menu or pressing “Ctrl N“or clicking the “New File” button in the toolbar.
2. Name the tracks (optional). On the “Track list” window, enter names under the “Name” column. I just wrote the title of the song in the first track. I then named the second and third tracks “Flute” and “Strings” respectively (they can be any other valid name). Naming tracks is not strictly required, but it is a good practice and it will make your work easier in the long run.
3. Choose instruments. Either click the little arrow buttons Under the “Program Number” column or enter the instrument number directly. The flute and strings are 73 and 48 respectively. The first track can not contain notes and can not be assigned to an instrument since it has a special purpose for containing general properties like tempo, time signature and key signature and other author specific information.
4. Now may be a good time to save your file. Saving is standard, just like in most Windows programs. If you wish you can use Sekaiju’s skj file format instead of mid. It has some extra features on top the standard midi file format like keeping the colors of your tracks if you decided to change them (double click the boxes in Color column). You’ll eventually need to save as MID though for interoperability with most audio/music programs.
The next steps are done through the Event list window. To open this window, go to the menu and choose “View -> Show new Event list window” or click the button on the toolbar that looks like a table/spreadsheet.
5. Tempo. This is modified through the Event list. The tempo in this example sheet is not specified meaning that it is the default 120 BPM [Citation needed?]. By default, Sekaiju also uses 120 BPM, but lets use a different tempo for the sake of learning. A bit slower, like 100 BPM. Within the first few rows, you will find an “Event kind” called “Tempo“. In the Value (1 2 3) column on the same row, change the 120 to 100. Note that the Microsec / Quarter note part automatically changes from 500000 to 600000, so you don’t have to worry about this.
6. Time signature. For this you have to look for the Event Kind called (you’ve guessed it already) “Time Signature”. Silent night is in 3/4 or Waltz as the score also indicates. Most songs (that I know of) are in 4/4 and Sakaiju also uses this by default. As with the tempo, you only need change the 4/4 part to 3/4 and the other numbers are taken care of.
7. Key signature (optional). This is specified by the number of sharps (#) in the “Key Signature” Event Kind. The default has zero sharps being the key of C Major (as with anyone beginning to read sheet music). You have to replace the word “major” with “minor” if you want the relative A minor. I decided that key signature is optional as it will not affect the actual pitches of the notes in the song. However, this will affect how the song will look (with accidentals) in the Musical Score window or if you eventually import the midi file into score editors.
These general properties, tempo, time signature and key signature are stored in the first track. They are also seen in the first few MIDI events as this information are necessary before the notes can be interpreted. People who have a fair amount of MIDI know how would notice that Sekaiju is tightly developed around the MIDI file format.
The next part of this tutorial series will discuss the creation of notes through the piano roll.
My apologies if you’re reading this and later parts are not yet available online. Nevertheless, I hope that the information available here and the previous tutorial is enough to help you learn the rest on your own. (These apologetic sentences will be deleted soon, hopefully).
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.