What I do


What is it?

Midi - MIDI is an acronym, standing for Musical Instrument Digital Interface - is a system, or a set of rules, defining how a sound-producing device (which can be a software device as well as a hardware one) has to behave if it is to be Midi-compliant. Using Midi, commands can be sent to a Midi-compliant device, such as an electronic keyboard, to cause it to perform in a standard way, and thus give a predictable output.

The rule set defines, amongst other things, how many (and which) sound channels are used, and which instruments are included, and the order they appear in the list; for example, in General Midi, which specifies Channels Nos 1 to 16, and which numbers the instruments from 1 to 128, instrument No: 1 (the default) is a strange synthesised ping, No: 2 is a piano (an acoustic grand piano), No: 41 is a violin, No: 47 is a string ensemble (orchestral strings), No: 61 is a French horn, . . . and No: 128 is a gunshot.

Within this rule set there are a number of variations relevant to specific devices; some devices use their own set of instruments, which may be similar to but not the same as - and in quite a different order from - those of the General Midi standard. In a Roland GS device, for example, all the instruments are much the same, and in the same order, but with different names. In an MT-32 device, however, everything is completely different . . . instrument No: 2 may be a piano but No: 41 is an echo bell, No: 47 is a "bellsinger", and No: 128 is a "jingle tune". This possible diversity means that a Midi File which includes the instruction "Play instrument No: 41" may not always have the intended effect! Luckily, most devices can be set to behave as a General Midi device, and therefore most Midi Files are General Midi Files, and assume that they are going to be fed to a General Midi device.

My own device is a Soundblaster card ... specifically, a Creative AWE 64 card. It contains a full General Midi set of sound patches - samples of real sound produced by real instruments - in an on-board chip, and they're not bad. Things sound quite good with it; in general, the strings sound like strings, the brass sounds like brass, the woodwind sounds like woodwind, and so on - though it could be improved!

If you want to check what your "device" is doing, download the Midi File Check Device - click on download Check Device now - and play it (preferably using the Noteworthy Player here). The File plays a series of two-octave C major scales using the following instruments in sequence: a piccolo, a clarinet, a French horn and a bassoon, and then a whistle, a cor anglais, a baritone sax and a tuba, and finally orchestral strings (twice, an octave apart). These are the instruments I use mostly in my Midi Files; with my AWE 64 they sound fairly realistic (if you want to hear what they sound like on my machine you can download and play any or all of the 1.6MB WAV File Scales.wav, the 600KB MP3 File Scales-22kbs.mp3, or the 100KB MP3 File Scales-8kbs.mp3).

The Midi system is by now pretty ancient - it might be done differently were it designed from scratch today - but because it is quite successful it hangs on.

How does it work?

A Midi File is a sequence of instructions to your computer (or some other Midi-aware chunk of hardware/software) to generate some sound using the supplied sound-defining data. The instructions follow the lines of: "Pretend to be instrument No: 41 (in General Midi this is a violin); at a selected tempo, play a note corresponding to a quaver at the pitch of C sharp an octave above middle C, with just a smidgeon of attack and with quite a long decay, at a volume corresponding to the dynamic forte". The hardware can operate fast enough under its controlling program do this in a microsecond or three, whereupon, and while that note is still sounding, it takes in and acts upon the next instruction, and so on. In this way the instructions can tell the hardware to make noises like all the instruments in an orchestra, all at the same time. It can sound quite realistic, but ...
... sometimes the only available data is effectively no more than a formula that tells the hardware how to synthesise a waveform that's generally like that emitted by some chosen instrument. The operative word is "generally"; if it's not done well - and it rarely is - the result sounds just like ... well, a computer! The alternative is for the hardware to have available to it (usually stored in it) the actual sound from a real instrument (or whatever; a helicopter, a gun shot, a hand clapping, whatever) - a "sample" of the sound - and to use that sample, suitably modified (up or down in pitch, say) when required. So when instructed to be a violin the program running the hardware fetches the appropriate violin sample - there may be several depending what the note's pitch and dynamic is - and uses that to generate the required sound. And that can sound pretty good - even almost indistinguishable from the real thing - if the samples are good and the controlling software does a good job. The trouble is, it all depends on the hardware, the software, and the data. On your computer it may sound fine ... but it may not. In either case remember that it's nothing to do with me!

Another crucial factor is the care put into generating the sequence of Midi Instructions to make the most of how the sound can be produced. Midi Instructions can be formed in two main ways. One involves using a Notation Program the primary purpose of which is to provide a representation, on the computer screen and on paper, of the music in standard notation form; lots of black and white blobs, with or without tails and joiny-up bits, littered over sets of five thin horizontal lines (the staff). Noteworthy Composer is a Notation Program; one of the best - and most expensive - Notation Programs is Sibelius. The other way involves using a Sequencer Program the primary purpose of which is to provide almost infinite control of exactly what sounds come out of the chunky hardware bits. Midisoft's Recording Session (and its recent relative Studio) is a Sequencer; a rather better-known one is Cubase. Generally, Notation Programs have some Sequencer capabilities (and can output their Files not only in their own internal File Format but also in the standard Midi Form), and Sequencers have some Notation abilities (and similarly utilise both their own and the Midi File formats). If you want to see it you use Notation software; if you want to listen to it you choose a Sequencer. I find it easier to use Noteworthy Composer to enter the notes into the computer, and Session to adjust the Midi File output subsequently - which is at least one reason why my Midi Files sometimes sound a bit ... computerish.

What I do

Computer Files

I use two different bits of computer software to prepare Files - Midi Files - to "synthesise" a computer version of each Work that I'm going to sing. The first bit allows me to create a representation of the Work in the computer, while the second allows me to save that representation in a form - as a Midi File - that can be "played" in any modern computer, whether Mac or PC, and whether running Windows, the MacOS, Linux, or some other Operating System.

First, I use Noteworthy Composer (see the Noteworthy Website here) to create on my computer screen a representation of the music score I'm working on. I start with a set of staves appropriate to the Work - for a Choral Work this is usually four staves for the four SATB Voices (Soprano, Alto/Countertenor, Tenor and Bass) plus another four staves for the piano reduction (a piano score usually has two staves, treble right-hand and bass left-hand, but in fact each such staff is effectively two staves overlapped one on the other, treble1/treble2 and bass1/bass2). Occasionally the Work doubles up the Voices (sometimes SSAATTBB, sometimes SATB/SATB), so I then need eight Voice staves. And sometimes the Work requires Vocal Soloists, so then I may need another set of Voice staves.

Each staff is going to carry a line of music the notes of which will usually have to sound quite independently of any of the notes on any other(s) of the staves, which can only be achieved if each staff is assigned its own Midi channel. This can be a problem with twelve Voice staves and four Piano staves - sixteen in all - because not only are there only 16 Midi channels but one of them - usually channel 10 - has a special purpose (playing percussion), and can't be used for other instruments. In such a case it will be necessary to double up - to give two or more staves the same channel - and hope that the "side effects" of doing this are not too extreme.

I naturally assign suitable instruments to the various parts, and I usually try to turn the piano reduction accompaniment into something more like an orchestral accompaniment (with strings, woodwind and brass, and so on) so that listening to it I get used to a sound vaguely like that I'll experience during the actual performance (though obviously I could leave it as a piano!). And so that the several voices stand out more clearly I invariably use instruments - rather than "voices"; the computer's Choir Aahs and Oohs are truly horrible! - for them ... thus, a piccolo or whistle for the sopranos/trebles, a clarinet or cor anglais for the contraltos/altos/countertenors, a French horn, trombone or baritone sax for the tenors, and a bassoon or tuba for the basses.

Next, the individual notes must be entered onto each staff, bar (or measure) by bar, staff after staff, until the Work - or the chosen section of the Work - is complete. Like most notation programs, Noteworthy Composer allows notes to be entered either from a Midi electronic keyboard or - and this is what I do - from the computer keyboard. I usually enter a page's worth at a time, working down the page staff by staff, and testing - i.e., listening - to each fresh staff's worth as I finish it, to check for mis-keying (detecting them is relatively easy with Handel or Mozart, but not so easy with Walton or Britten!). I then adjust the dynamics and other features as required, listen to the whole page as another check, and then move on to the next page. A standard page of score for Messiah, say, will take me from 30 to 45 minutes (though some piano reductions can be fiendishly complex, especially in older scores, and so take much longer); working for four or five hours a day I can complete note entry for most Works in a month or so.

I also often - but not always - try to model my effort on some real performance of the Work, so that it bears some resemblance to how one will actually sing it - well, to how some professional Choir has sung it, at least! This means spending some hours listening section by section to a recording of the Work, comparing it with the computer's output, and then fairly carefully implementing in the computer version all the dynamic and tempo changes of the real thing.

With Noteworthy Composer, as with most notation software, it is possible to enter lyrics into the on-screen representation of the score, and to arrange that the lyrics fit the notes, and "play along with" the notes (and it is normal for the lyrics to be included in the corresponding Midi File, so that they can be seen when using an appropriate Player). However, I do not avail myself of this possibility, for when I listen to the Work - and particularly when I use the computer's output to help me rehearse and learn the Work - I always read my printed score whilst listening to the computer play the File. Though not everyone agrees, I think this is best, because not only is it a lot easier to read a printed score than the screen but in addition it's on the score that there are all the scribbled notes in pencil reminding me how my Choir Leader wants me to sing the piece!

Midi Rehearsal Files

At this point the computerised representation of the Work can be saved, in one format or another, as a computer File, and of course thereafter played back (on the computer) whenever one wants to listen to it. One such format is as a Midi File; this has the advantage that it can usually be played on any other computer using the latter's in-built Midi File Player, and so without the need for extra (or the original) software.

And very tuneful the computer output can be, too, but not necessarily all that useful as a learning/rehearsal aid unless one happens to be a Soprano, because inevitably, as with a recording of the real thing, what one hears on playback tends to be the Sopranos belting their little hearts out, whereas by contrast the other voices, and especially the Contraltos, tend to get lost within the overall sound. What is needed, then, is a playable version of the computer File that is somehow emphasised to bring out the voice one is particularly interested in while pushing all the rest slightly into the background (so that they still provide all the cues one needs but without masking the chosen voice). This can be done with Noteworthy Composer, but only with some effort. For much greater easy and flexibility, therefore, I use for this "emphasis" stage a different piece of software, namely Midisoft's Recording Session (see Playing Midi Files ). Session provides an on-screen Mixer Board, much as found in real recording studios, which allows, for a File loaded into it, each track/channel to be faded up and down, the instruments to be changed, the reverb and chorus effects to be modified, and the overall tempo to be adjusted - and the result to be saved as a new version of the original File. It is perfect for producing the desired voice-emphasised Midi rehearsal Files, even though it does have a few problems of its own (see the Problems with Session).

And then what?

I can make audio tapes or CDs from the Midi Files output from Session, and I listen to these whenever I can - in the car, while doing the washing up or ironing, while out jogging. I find that being able easily to hear my part helps me drive it into my memory, and the more times I do it the better I know the piece. And of course, not only can I make Tenor-emphasised versions, suitable for me, but I can just as easily make versions emphasised for any of the other voices. And this I do, and many of my fellow Singers have in the past expressed appreciation for the tapes I have provided for them.

And then ... I thought it would be a useful service to the world to make the basic Midi Files available to anyone who needed them ... and this I now do. You should bear in mind, though, that when you play them on your computer you won't necessarily have a wonderful musical experience! The problem stems for the combination of what a Midi File is - a sequence of instructions to your computer (or some other Midi-aware chunk of hardware) to generate the sound using the supplied sound-defining data - and the nature of that data, as explained above. As I said, it all depends on the hardware, the software, and the data. On your computer it may sound fine ... but it may not. In either case remember that it's nothing to do with me!

Final words

You may find it useful to read the FAQs File.

You may be interested to know that many modern composers do their initial composing using Sibelius - examples being, I understand, John Rutter (former Director of Music at Clare, Cambridge, and a very well-known modern composer) and the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.

Back to opening Page

Last updated by John on 12/Nov/08