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Intermezzo (case study)

April 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Cavalleria Rusticana (~1880). The stairway, lying (resting?) guy and ladies panicking are reminiscent of the last minutes in the Godfather III.

The song

Warning: If you haven’t seen them yet, the links that lead to youtube videos can be spoilers.

I wouldn’t have been familiar with this song if not for the movies or TV shows that used it. It is probably best remembered for the tragic ending in The Godfather 3. I have actually seen that scene in a black and white furniture television when I was very young, but my dad, having watched it already changed the TV channel, so I did not remember the song from that movie. Next, I’ve seen my friend playing a black and white video wherein there is this boxer warming up in slow motion. As I eventually found out, that was from the opening credits of Raging Bull. It definitely has cult appeal and  I partially remembered the tune, but I wasn’t interested enough to dig further. It was not until the 31st episode of Rurouni Kenshin, that I really got interested with this song. By that time it has reached 31 episodes, the characters and story must have grown on me, hence making Intermezzo one of my favorite classical pieces. The unfolding story, artistic animation and the music, simply made a very powerful emotional combo (that could probably make a normal person cry).

The score

Since this is an old classic, it is very likely that a computer playable sheet music is available out there. PDFs are available at IMSLP, MIDIs are available from various sources, but the best I was able to obtain was from musescore.com, creater by MaestroMoi.  Since majority of the transcription has already been done, I had the luxury of neat picking further, almost obsessively, trying to make the score look  identical to the one available at IMSLP, and incorporating the additional woodwinds parts in a much recent transcription, also from IMSLP. I could have just used one of the google-able MIDI files, but that would have spoiled the fun and learning process.

From the score, I learned that the 2nd violins and A clarinets are played divisi (divided further into smaller groups playing different parts, it would look like double stops when notated). Hence, I should balance the volume to avoid making it sound that there are twice as much second violins or clarinets. Articulations markings in the score would also help me decide how to modify the MIDI.

Anyway, here are the files:

  • MuseScore score. Size A3.  I find the A3 size compact enough but still legible when scaling to an A4 printout.
  • MuseScore exported PDF. Note: some symbols are not optimally arranged.
  • MuseScore exported MIDI.
  • Skaiju edited/tweaked MIDI tweaked and articulated with Sekaiju.  This is 4.3 times larger than the “un-articulated” version.

The complexity of the score also helped me learned more of MuseScores features like putting notes on the next staff instead of using more ledger lines, and putting beams over notes in different bars (which starts to look odd if the bar is in a different line or page, revealing room for improvement in MuseScore). I also found it helpful to modify the score layout to make it the page as long as possible so I don’t have to navigate to different lines or pages when editing an instrument part.

Divide and conquer

At some point in the working process, it is easier to use sheet music for the individual instruments, instead of the full score.  Fortunately “parts” were also available from  IMSLP.  Since I focus at one instrument at a time when tweaking MIDI, it is convenient to have the full instrument part in one page. Extracted parts also speed up work by avoiding confusion or distraction from other instruments. It is also helpful to put the bar number in each bar, not just the first bar in each line  (you may want a print out). Since parts are not always available, re-writing the score in MuseScore would also give you this advantage.

Software

The usual suspects plus AAMS:

  • MuseScore: converting the visual score to something that can be made into MIDI
  • Sekaiju: Further MIDI tweaking (expression and articulation)
  • Synthfont: Rendering the MIDI with soundfonts
  • Freeverbtoo: For reverb
  • AAMS: For EQ mastering based on a reference recording

Samples

The samples used are mostly from the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra, with a few exceptions

  • Organ. Jeux d’orgues
  • “Low harp” aCoUsTicBaSs from the Jazz Page. Since the lowest harp notes in the pieces are not audible with SSO.

I’m not very particular about these other instruments since the strings dominate the sound. The strings and woodwinds are also from SSO worked fine. I’m not quite happy with SSO’s harp, but I just let it be since it is not as loud as the rest. For reverb I used a cathedral preset in freeverbtoo. I actually thought whether I should go for an IR convolution reverb, but I probably made a “mistake” by starting out with the snappy and convenient “go-to” freeverbtoo, that it became difficult to make the piece sound the way I like with other reverb VSTs.

MIDI tweaking

Since I’m very familiar with how the song, this proved to require more effort than my usual re-arrangements. In short, I had higher standards because I had an easy and definite way of benchmarking, i.e. listening alongside an actual recording or the my mind’s “ear worm”. The score helped me decide how to tweak the MIDI by:

  • Slightly overlapping slurred/legato notes
  • Modifying the MIDI velocity depending on the note’s dynamics (e.g. p pp ppp). Actually MuseScore will take account of dynamics when exporting to MIDI, but you would still want to make adjustments to get it sounding right.
  • Separating notes that stick end-to-end. If the same note/pitch is played in succession without a gap in between, weird buzzing sounds would result sometimes. Also, it is likely that musicians in the real would also make a short pause in such cases. Can anyone bow the same note twice without pausing in between? Probably not, but the natural reverb and decay of the sound will feel in this gap, just like when a pianist steps on the sustain pedal.
  • Modify Expression (MIDI CC11) to control loudness, e.g. in notated crescendos and decrescendos, and where ever I feel like changing the volume. CC7, volume, also works similarly, but I did not tweak this part. I also used this to minimize the piercing or ringing sound from high notes at the end (from oboe and 1st violin). This also explains how the MIDI file got more than 4 times larger (still small at 47KB) since many data points are used to draw expression curves.
  • Randomize harp note starts by a slight amount to make it sound “human played.”
  • Add the low harp work-around. As I mentioned earlier I couldn’t hear the first low notes of the harp, so I added a supposedly pizzicato contrabass for that part, which was then rendered with an acoustic bass guitar.

I also used CC11 to apply a longer fade out on long notes. Without modifying this volume, the long note will only start fading out close to the end. This release time is about 0.5 seconds for SSO. It may not always sound natural if a long note is near full volume for most of the time then, just fade out for a  short time only towards the end. Musicians may play a long fading note. Especially since, unlike MIDI, musicians know beforehand how long the note should be. This may not always be the case though, so you should trust your ears in the end. I think this applies more if there is an anticipation of more silence after the long note, or if the long note ends a phrase.

Results

We’ve had enough talking, let’s now hear the music.

One difference I notice from real recordings is that there are more pronounced solo instruments. I.e., my ears can distinguish a solo violin on top of other violins. The ensemble sound provided by SSO is somewhat more “homogeneous”, or there is no dominating solo instrument within the ensemble. This may have to do with the mic placement in real recordings.

Automatic mastering using reference recordings

I also tried out this new cool tool, the Automatic Music Mastering System. AAMS adaptively applies EQ settings on an audio file based on references or even based on other recordings you have. Unlike the usual EQ with loads of presets, AAMS first analyze the original audio file, and then decides how much of each frequency band to boost or attenuate. And it uses a lot of frequency bands instead of just a typical smoothened out curve with 3 to 10 peak regions. What I’ve done is choose a reference recording, have AAMS analyze its spectrum, and make my MIDI orchestation output have the same spectrum. To be on the safe side, I used a reference file with an Open Audio License from Wikimedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pietro_Mascagni_-_Cavalleria_Rusticana_-_Intermezzo_Sinfonico.ogg

It doesn’t have to be the same song, but it’s reasonable to assume that reference based automatic mastering will give best results if the reference is playing the same notes as your project. In most cases, it may be enough that the reference has the same style or genre or instruments, i.e. it is enough that it sounds similar to what you want. What I’ve done is closer to exactly what I want.

AAMS Intermezzo Spectra

AAMS Intermezzo Spectra. The Red and Blue plot shows the spectrum of my project while the yellow and green plot shows the spectrum of the reference obtained from Wikipedia. Overall, they look similar, even rising and falling at the same frequency regions.

AAMS Intermezzo Suggestions

AAMS Intermezzo Suggestions. How my project audio file should be equalized. Notice how there are a lot of frequency bands. I wish I understood what this plot means beyond knowing that it looks cool.

Interestingly, the spectra didn’t differ so much meaning that the SSO + Freeverbtoo combo already sounds realistically mastered enough to begin with. That may also be the virtue of classical orchestra music being more reproducible, keeping the recording setup as simple as possible and having no special effects whatsoever. But I can still imagine many cases wherein AAMS could be a lifesaver, especially if your speakers/headphones are not the best you could get, then you could still be safe if your song sounds like a professionally mastered reference song through quantitative spectral merits. It may also help if you feel that your sample libraries are not sounding the way you imagine it should.

Conclusions

Although digital MIDI orchestration  motivates us to create our own orchestra compositions, it is  a good learning experience to work on an existing that tune you know well. This raises your standards as you try to best replicate the known song. It is like the difference of drawing a fictional face you imagined, and drawing a portrait of someone you know well. The former does not impose a definite right and wrong. Making covers also makes you aware of what the tools are capable of, and what are their limitations.

Happy music making!

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An unofficial introduction to VSTs

February 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Introduction

If soundfonts are static files that gives you unique sounds in your DAW, then VSTs are interactive applications that give the same functionality. And even more. Being programs with graphical user interfaces, they are much more flexible than soundfonts. This flexibility may explain why some people believe that VSTs are better than soundfonts. But that is not always true.

VSTs commonly have the DLL extension (or other dynamic loadable libraries or executable extension depending on your operating system). The VST specification was developed by Steinberg back in 1996 (and has been updated since then). And if they ask you in class, VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology.

Different types of VSTs

VSTs may be categorized based the types of input and output they have.

VST Instruments (VSTi)

VST instruments have the same purpose as soundfonts.  They take MIDI data as input and output corresponding audio data. In comparisson, soundfonts are “static” files containing sampled data while VSTi’s allow user interaction adjusting knobs here and there and using different setting presets. Imagine tweaking the tone or gain knobs of an electric guitar or its amplifier.

Synthesizers

Synthesizers generate sound programmatically. The sounds are not stored on the disk but are calculated as needed. Various audio synthesis techniques and physical modelling are used to emulate instrument sounds. There are also dedicated synthesizers that allow you to design your own sounds. Some examples of synthesized instrument VSTs include Spicy Guitar, Cellofan and Synth1.

Romplers

Real acoustic sounds are complex in nature. Therefore it would be a challenge to accurately synthesize them, especially for real time playing. Hence, romplers or samplers share similarities to soundfonts as they also use static files that contain the sample sound data. Due to the bundled extra data they are typically larger than synthesizer based VST instruments. The VST instruments in DSK Music are examples of romplers (that’s also where I learned the term).

Why not just use soundfonts then? Romplers allow more sound parameters to be tweaked. Advanced VSTs can also automate other rendition tweaks such as legato, chord detection, key-switching, arpeggios and many more that would otherwise require tweaking manually the MIDI arrangement. Companies would prefer to program their VSTs since this allows them to use special proprietary sample formats that protect them from being ripped off. They can also protect their products using license keys or other registration methods like how it’s done with many proprietary software.

Samplers/sample players

They are very similar to romplers. The difference is that it loads other samples/soundfonts that you may already have. Are they of any use if your DAW can already load samples directly? Yes. They may offer more control and compatibility to the samples being loaded. Examples include DSK’s SF2, Cakewalk’s sfz player, Plogue’s sforzando, Beat Zampler and Shortcircuit.

VST effects

Many stereo systems will have equalizers, or bass, treble and tone knobs. Some that allow microphone inputs will often have reverb or echo. Electric guitar amplifiers and effects would have a lot of knobs and pedals that alter the sound in many interesting ways. Equalization, reverb, echo and other effects can also be done in computer audio. Encapsulating these effects as a VST makes them modular and be used across different DAWs. VST effects take in audio data as input then output them as modified audio data (which in turn can be sent to another VST effect, a process known as chaining). Since they don’t use MIDI as input, they can also be used audio editors such as Wavosaur and Audacity. Kjaerhus Audio Classic Series contains several examples of VST effects.

Special purpose VSTs

Since VSTs are computer programs, and computer programs can be anything that brilliant programmers can imagine, there are many VSTs that do not fall in the instrument or effects categories. Examples include arpeggiators, spectrum analyzers, visualizers etc. Some VSTs will also have MIDI as an output, possibly modifying the input MIDI or detecting the notes of input audio. In the case of visualizers or analyzers the outuput is neither MIDI or audio.

Using VSTs

As with soundfonts, when I am asked by other beginners how do use VSTs, I just tell them to load them in Synthfont with a MIDI file. It handles VST instruments in a similar manner that it handles soundfonts. It also makes sense to use both VSTs and soundfonts in the same program. Digital audio work stations are expected to work with VSTs. Some VST hosts applications  will also you to play, without recording and editing around using a MIDI device as input. Bedroom producers blog has a good list of free VST hosts (I use Tocca’s VST Player, but its website is gone now). Recently, I’m also finding VSTHost to be quite convenient, being a minimal/simplistic nag-less VST Host.

Where to get VSTs

I don’t know of a de facto website where you can get VSTs and anything would suggest wouldn’t be any better than what you can find via google search. Anyone tech savvy enough to program VSTs would likely maintain their own websites. Hence, VSTs would be scattered all over the internet. In any case, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • DSK Music. The first free VST website I knew. They have a good collection of instruments.
  • MDA. An assortment of VST instruments and effects. They are now open source, hence the special mention.
  • 4Front. Various pianos and a bass VSTi’s.
  • Acoustica. Where you may find the Kjaerhus Audio Classic Series which contain effects such as equalizer, flanger, chorus, reverb and more.
  • KVR Audio. A great community where you can find a lot of software meant for sound developers/DAW-ists/digital musicians. It lists both free and paid VSTs.
  • VST 4 FREE makes an effort to list Free VSTs and seems quite updated.

This is obviously not a definitive or exhaustive list. There’s far too many of them, that I don’t even know if I’m suggesting the best ones. Just be happy that you have the freedom of choice! (Or sad that there’s too much to choose from. Reviews and forums can be helpful.) :)

Other formats

Just like any computer program VSTs are not directly useable across operating systems. But since VSTs seldom (if not) use advanced OS specific APIs WINE can do a good job in bridging this gap. Needless to say, Apple and Linux have their own native alternatives to VSTs. These are Audio Units (AU) and the Linux Audio Developers Simple Plugin API (LADSPA) respecitvely. DAWs can also have some sort of VST-like modules that are not usable to other DAWs.

Categories: Music making Tags: ,

An unofficial introduction to soundfonts

January 10, 2013 Leave a comment

Preface

It may be weird to be discussing this article after having gone through more advanced topics before. But then again, the purpose of this blog is to inform people, especially the beginners. I have side tracked a bit as other related topics of interest come and go. Since I had temporarily run out of such topics, I now return to the purpose of establishing this blog. Hence, I will be discussing something quite elementary. Soundfonts.

Soundfonts

Soundfonts are called soundfonts in analogy with word processor (type setting) fonts. It is helpful to think of them as virtual instruments –musical instruments that exist in your hard drive (this is the future! :D ). Soundfont files commonly have the extension sf2. Just as you can change the fonts in a document or web page, you can also change the instrument for a given piece of music (e.g. piano to guitar). But you can go further by specifying a specific instrument (e.g. Fender Stratocaster to Ibanez Jem). Soundfonts enable you to do such changes digitally. For example, soundfonts can be used to go beyond the usual limitation of having cheesy sounds unfairly associated with MIDI.

The soundfont technology was developed by Creative back in the 90’s.

Usage of the term soundfont

Although it may be more correct to use the term “sample library” as a general term, the term soundfont seems to be frequently used even for other similar non sf2 formats all around the internet. The term “sample“, on the other hand, could be ambiguous as it may also include melodic more-than-one note sound segments intended for quick “copy paste” or remix music.

Beyond synthesizers

Back when memory was expensive synthesizers were used to electronically produce different instrument sounds. Doing so relied on real time processing which is also expensive back then. In short, there were a lot of technical constraints that prevented the production of realistic instrument sounds. Eventually, memory became large enough to store samples of recorded sounds, offering more realism over synthesized sounds. (Analog/digital audio synthesis still remains an important sound production tool by itself, producing new and interesting sounds that have their own appeal.)

What are all those Creative Soundblaster stuff?

Soundfonts had been around since the mid 90’s when computer RAM was not as big as we have these days. Hence special soundcards such as the Soundblaster AWE32 loaded soundfonts in their dedicated memory. The memory of these soundcards were still not so much in today’s standards, hence many old soundfonts were made as small as possible.  Today, computers with at least 2GB of  RAM are quite common allowing soundfonts to be used regardless of what soundcard model is equipped in your PC. In some cases, a soundcard is not even needed. This is particularly beneficial for laptops where you have little control over the shipped soundcard.

Using soundfonts

Based on my experience (and bias), if I would suggest a newbie, the easiest way to use soundfonts in Windows is to use Synthfont. But that is for the purpose of converting a MIDI file to an audio file such as wav, flac or mp3. Some programs that use soundfonts are meant for other uses which I will list below:

  • Converting MIDI to audio formats such as MP3
    • Synthfont
    • timidity++ (or twsynth in Windows). Not as straight forward as Synthfont.
    • DAWs with MIDI capability, but can be beginner-overkill with a lot of other features
  • Playing a MIDI device connected to your computer:
    •  Syfonone
    • Also DAWs with MIDI capability, but that may be overkill for just leisurely playing an instrument
  • Playing MIDI files without converting them
  • Overriding Windows cheesy GM.DLS sounds: BASSMIDI

If I remember correctly I first learned about soundfonts through a 2009 example in youtube that uses Winamp. Other hints I found when figuring out how to use soundfonts was to use timidity++ or fluidsynth. However, I was not yet so soundfont-savvy back then so I failed to learn them. I was already using synthfont by the time I noticed timidity++’s Windows port, twsynth, and I also already configured VLC media player to play MIDI files by using the fluidsynth library and a multi-instrument soundfont. I eventually learned that soundfonts are widely used with DAWs. But at first I only knew about LMMS which crashes a lot, ruining the musical and learning experience.

How are soundfonts created

Creating soundfonts would be a big jump for someone who has just started to learn using soundfonts. But it doesn’t hurt understanding how they are made, and it would also allow you to use them better. If you can, it can be very rewarding, even profitable. However, before you can create soundfonts, you should first know how to sample an instrument. Sampling involves recording individual notes, then mapping them based on their  pitches (this is an oversimplified description).

Assuming you already have a set of instrument samples, SF2 files can be created using Viena (the only existing free program I know). Traditionally, soundfonts were made with Creative’s Vienna (note the spelling differences). But I’m not sure whether Vienna is free, and all those soundcard hardware requirements are only confusing. One caveat is that the SF2 file format is gradually being superseded by other formats with more features such as the SFZ format which is much easier to create.

Is bigger better?

1. Timbre is independent of size

Audio quality is often technically defined as resolution (bitrate and sampling rate). But a real instrument’s quality is determined by its timbre. One could sample a cheap guitar at 32bit and 98kHz, but that does not necessarily make it better than a more expensive instrument sampled at half the bit and sample rate. One could sample all the white keys of a cheap piano and end up with a larger file as opposed to a Yamaha/Kawai/Steinway/Bösendorfer with just three samples per octave.  The sampling hardware and environment, i.e. the recording setup, will also affect the final sound. And if recorded properly, cheap instruments may actually sound better! Hence numbers alone are not enough, and you should just let your ear decide which timbre or tone sounds better. As an example, one soundfont I like that is surprisingly small is Cohen’s Alto SaxThe Jazz Page also contains good sounding small sized soundfonts. Of course timbre preference is complex and subjective and those are based on my preferences and biases. You should not just blindly imitate them. In fact, I still change soundfonts/VSTi’s for a given instrument from project to project as some of them seem to blend better with others.

2. More samples are needed for more realism

A single acoustic instrument can produce infinitely many uniquely sounding notes. Even the same note can be played in many different ways. And even if the same note is played in the same way, subtle differences will still manifest as you would see if you compare the waveforms of the recorded samples. Taking these variations into consideration requires the use of multiple samples for the same note or pitch. The following are common categories for mapping out the possible unique sounds of a given instrument pitch.

  • Velocity layers. In music notation terms there is piano, forte and their variants are somewhat related to playing velocity. In a real instrument, velocity has more subtle effects than just changing the volume. A piano, for example, will sound brighter when the keys are depressed faster. Many free soundfonts, however, do away without velocity layers.
  • Articulations. Articulations emulate the musicians playing techniques. For example, a note plucked on a guitar will sound different whether or not it has a vibrato. The violins and its relatives in the string section of the orchestra also have many articulations such as bowed (arco) and plucked (pizzicato).
  • Variations. Even when playing a note at the same velocity and articulation in a real acoustic instrument, it is rare, if not impossible, to produce notes that sound exactly the same. What makes human playing human is the imperfections, subtle randomness and variations. Hence high quality libraries systematically swap different recordings for the same note, a process known as round robin. One of round robin’s benefits is the prevention of the so called “machine gun” effect that happens when the same note repeated in fast succession sounds strangely artificial, breaking the illusion of realism (like in an obviously repeated segment in a dance remix).

3. Multiple instruments in one file

Some soundfonts contain multiple instruments bundled into one file. Common example are GM (General MIDI) collections and orchestral soundfonts. They may appear big, but the individual instruments contained could be over optimized, possibly having less quality than a single-instrument file. Besides, it is usually better to be picky with each individual instrument you use. Bundled GM soundfonts don’t offer variety and might be shipped with a lot of filler stuff you’ll never use. Nonetheless, some applications such as VLC media player and MuseScore can only use one soundfont for all instruments (underneath, they both use fluidsynth).

Other sample library formats

Having been around for decades, it is understandable why SF2 is automatically implied by the term soundfont (a relationship similar to bitmap and bmp). But today, the SF2 format is only one of the many sample library formats. Many new formats take advantage of the increased computing power not available in the days of SF2. Since some are not directly usable or not 100% compatible to some DAWs a sampler/sample player VST is needed to use them.

  • SFZ. Introduced by Cakewalk. Use Cakewalk’s sfz player or Plogue’s sforzando. It is easily constructed requiring only the wav sample files “as is” and a text file containing definitions and instructions on how the wav samples are used.
  • GIG. Tascam’s Gigasampler. The Linux Sampler (also available for Windows) is originally built for this format.
  • DLS. You may not be aware of it, but if you play a MIDI file in a Windows computer, what you hear, by default, is based on the gm.dls file.
  • Formats that require a commercial/proprietary player (consequently I’m least familiar with).

Where to get soundfonts

There are a lot of soundfonts available in the internet so using a search engine is probably the most practical way of getting them. Listed below are a few websites that contain lists and links to soundfonts.

You can find more orchestral instruments on my dedicated and updated list of free orchestral sample libraries (sf2, sfz, etc).

Legal issues

Why should a beginner care about such things as legal issues? Can’t we just download and enjoy everything the internet has to give?

It’s up to you. I’ll just state what I think about it. The remainder of this article may be optional.

If you care about the legality of your project, then you should be careful that the soundfonts you use are not a rip-offs of a commercial (or even free, yet uncredited) soundfont. This is likely to happen with “repackaged” soundfonts built from multiple sources. Sometimes people will make a smaller version of a large soundfont or modify it in other ways, then distribute it. Doing so might violate the original creator’s copy right terms. For example, the Squidfont Orchestral soundfont is said to be a rip off of Miroslav Philharmonik.

Even worst, some shady “companies” will rip off others’ hard work and profit from it. Such ripping off had happened to the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra. Although it rarely happens (or is rarely reported :( ), buying does not necessarily ensure that you’re getting clean legal guilt-free stuff. Hence, it is best to check your sources especially if you want to share or sell it to others.

Sekaiju tutorial: A simple example (Part III)

December 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Introduction

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:

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.

Silent Night

Silent Night by Franz Gruber, from Wikifonia. [Published by benoit on December 14, 2006 © reserved by Musicopy]

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.

Sekaiju: Pen, Erase, Select, Preview

Toolbar Buttons found in both Musical Score and Piano Roll windows. From left to right:Pen, Erase, Select and Preview.

The buttons are the Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview. When selected, these buttons do the following:

  • Pen:
    • Draws a new note with a pitch determined by its position and duration by the the selected note symbol
  • Eraser:
    • Erases an existing note.
  • Select:
    • 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.
  • Preview
    • 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:

Sekaiju: Musical Note Symbols

Buttons for selecting the note length: Whole Note, Half Note,Quarter Note, Quaver Note, Semi-Quaver Note, Demi-Semi-Quaver Note and Dotted/ Triplet modifiers

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.

Sekaiju: Musical Score Note Entry

Note entry through Sekaiju’s Musical Score window.

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.

Silent Night: Measures 10-21

Silent Night: Measures 10-21. Flute and strings. The whole song is available as a MIDI file.

Quirks

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.

Moving forward

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! :)

Categories: Music making Tags: , ,

Sekaiju tutorial: A simple example (Part II)

October 23, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Silent Night

Silent Night by Franz Gruber, from Wikifonia. [Published by benoit on December 14, 2006 © reserved by Musicopy]

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 :).

Sekaiju: Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview

Toolbar Buttons in the Piano Roll. From left to right:Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview.

The buttons are the Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview. When selected, these buttons do the following:

  • Pen:
    • 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.
  • Line:
    • 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.
  • Eraser:
    • Erases an existing note.
  • Select:
    • 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.
  • Preview
    • 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.

Creating notes on the Piano roll.

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!

Silent Night in Flute and Strings.

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.

Categories: Music making Tags: , ,

Sekaiju tutorial: A simple example (Part I)

October 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Introduction

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).

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.

Silent Night

Silent Night by Franz Gruber, from Wikifonia. [Published by benoit on December 14, 2006 © reserved by Musicopy]

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.

Sekaiju Tack List

Track names and instruments are modified through the track list window. (For steps 2 and 3)

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.

Event List window

Global song properties like tempo, time signature and key signature are modified in the Event list window. Note that these parameters are stored in the first track.

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).

Categories: Music making Tags: , ,

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.

Categories: Music making Tags: , ,