It seems that everyone wants something from you these days. There’s always a catch. There’s always a gotcha. Always?
Believe it or not, there are people out there who actually care about the independents. One of them is Smashwords – easy and friendly publishing for independent authors. But what about musicians?
Where can you get your song played so people will actually hear it? Where can you rub shoulders with other people, just like you, from all across the world?
Radio Rock 92.6 The Blitz, that’s where – find it at 926theblitz.rocks, or get it on the Spreaker App. That’s Spreaker with an R.
Hosted by Tom Slick (a fellow author, by the way) and bunch of groovy cats like Frankie Mae, Arabella Fox and Simone De Haas (a fellow Aussie), you get a mix of rock, soul, pop and country to both soothe and groove.
Why am I going about the Blitz? Because independent artists need to bind together, support each other, work together to face up against the struggle of being a squeaky voice quashed underneath the noise of corporate marketing.
The Blitz is one of those places you can go to listen to good music, stuff you haven’t heard before, stuff you’ll be tapping your toe to and thinking, “Damn, why hasn’t anyone else heard this?”
The Blitz is where you can go to showcase your own tunes. Want to be heard worldwide? You bet. There are artists from the UK, from Ireland, Russia, Canada, Australia, Israel, the US, Germany… and it’s where I first heard Circe Link, Nina Storey, Blane Howard, Rick Mercer, Swami Lushbeard, Dreamkiller, Amanda Jones, the Bonazzoli Band, the Sixth Generation, A & L Music, Revulsa – Ah! The list keeps going!
The Blitz is the internet radio station I’ve got pumping through my headphones while I’m slogging away at code. The guys behind it are passionate. They give a damn. That’s why I’m doing my best to support it:
You should, too. Donating via Patreon is the way to go, even if it’s only a dollar a month. Or grab yourself Official Blitzer merchandise. Or, you know what? Just listen in and jump on the forum, shout out The Blitz wherever you can – after all, it’s for the indies.
Or, perhaps you can get in contact and ask Tommo to play your tunes?
Side note: the Blitz is on an official break for the moment, but they’ll be back on air in a few weeks. Never mind, you can still listen to latest shows and hit the archives on the Spreaker app, or cruise the website.
Remember when radio was fun? When it wasn’t about playing the same-o lame-o crud hour after hour and the presenters all for the music? It still is! You just have to know where to look.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of 92.6 The Blitz, not least because they have the chutzpah to play real world-wide indie music in favour of cookie cutter crapola. They also go out on a limb to try new things.
And when in say new, I mean old in this case: Baby I’m Yours is a trip back to the time of Radio Theatre. That’s right! The cast are all proper actors, from the stage and radio, and have given their talents to reviving that imaginative art form. The play has made its way from stage to your speakers and all you’ve got to do is kick back and enjoy the zany gags.
As I always say, though, if you enjoyed it then help out. Let others know, join in the fun, become a Blitzer (official term, mind). Check out the Indiegogo site and throw a few bucks in their direction if you can, otherwise you can catch them on the Spreaker App on your phone. In fact, I installed that just the other day and it works a treat while bottling beer in the outdoor kitchen.
Enough reading, go ahead and listen to the official trailer, spread the word and get behind the guys that get behind the artists.
Music, you see, underpins an animation or video, it brings it all together and sets the mood and the tempo, the expectations of what’s to come.
The fact that a shmuck like me, with only an old keyboard in the garage and a recorder hidden securely away under lock and key (seriously, never, never let a three year old boy have a recorder) is able to put together a ditty is remarkable. I don’t profess to be a musician by any standard, yet with the tools available I managed to have several tracks all playing together.
A piano has a rich quality about it. A well played piano can hold an audience just nicely, thank you very much. Don’t believe me? Go and put “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin into your favourite browser. You can hear his two hands working away, one playing the bass, one playing the treble.
This works well if you can compose a solid tune. I don’t know about you, but I’m not up to that level and never will be. So where does that leave a fuzzy-headed shmuck who needs to make a piece for an animation?
Think of a band. A real band. Can’t think of one? OK, go here to Swami Lushbeard. Awesome band. Rock out to “Where the Sheep are Led” while you’re reading this. Do you see those dudes, there? There are drums, vocals, an organ, guitars. Lots of instruments, each of which can be represented by tracks.
You see where this is going? Different instruments can take a simple tune and give more depth.
Perhaps an example is in order. Go on, get yourself Anvil studio and let’s have a play. Start off by writing a simple song like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Itsy-Witsy Spider”. Nothing fancy, just the basic tune.
This is using Anvil’s Composer view. Very cool. In fact, I wish I’d known about this myself when I was doing the music for Grosvenor. You can press on the keys, and the notes get added in, and there’s a chord selector / finder and you can add decorations to the notes likes slurs, joins and syncopation and, damn it, that would have made life easier. Ah, live and learn.
All good? Great. Sound decent? Yeah. Nah. Not really. Sounds like a bad ringtone, right? Have you installed your sound fonts? Do that if you’ve got time.
OK, now do me a favour and add in some drums.
Go to the “Track” Menu, click “Create” then “Rhythm Track”. You’ll have Anvil tell you how to switch between views and such. That’s cool, now click on the “View” and click “Composer”. Now you can add in some bass. Click on the “Bass Drum” and go ‘doof-rest-doof-rest’, thus:
Hit the play button. Ooh, how about that? Your Twinkle Twinkle just stepped up a notch by the simple insertion of a bass drum. OK, now add in some tom-tom. And some snare. Needs more cow-bell!
I don’t know about yours, but mine is sounding like a march mixed with blues. Did someone say blues?
For that, we’ll need some bass, and maybe a saxophone. Well, you know what that means, right? More tracks!
Great, I’ve got a four piece band – a piano, a bass guitar, some drums and a saxophone player who is taking us on a very different journey altogether. You might want to label your tracks so you don’t lose out. Just double click on the track label on the left and type it in. It helps in the long run, believe me.
It’s not Swami Lushbeard but, you know what? It’s not bad for a few seconds work… I wonder what happens if I change the saxophone to an electric guitar and the piano to a honkytonk.
The Trouble with Lasagna
Tracks are awesome. You can build up your tune and make something quite ordinary sound extraordinary. You can add staccato to your notes. You can make chords. You can add rests, you can harmonize! You can duplicate an entire track, transpose it down an octave (no, really, you can. Just go to “Track” -> Transpose), add in an oboe and a clarinet and have it sounding like “Six Feet Under”.
There comes a point, though, when you can’t see the forest for the trees. Too much. Too much. Too many layers. Too much sauce on the plate. Too many sheets of pasta. Too much bechamel. Too much cheese. Uh, is that even possible?
Excessive tracks can make the song sound messy or overdone. Moderation is the key. In the above example, four tracks made up a very cool ditty out of nothing more than Twinkle Twinkle. The point is, if it sounds flat, chances are you only need to add in some chords (remember those two hands playing?) or adjust the volume of one track so it doesn’t drown out the other.
But how do you work with just one track at once? Ah! That comes down to the little bit in the track table where it says “On”. Simply click on the “on” bit to change the “on”ness.
In the above example (contrived), the drums are on mute. This means they won’t play when you hit the play button. This can be quite useful if you want to tell the saxophone guy to take a breather for a second so you can hear how the drums and bass are getting along. Anything set to mute won’t play.
The Bass is set to solo. This means that only the Bass track will play. You can set more than one track to solo, so only those tracks will play. This is very handy when initially writing notes, or when spotting issues within a track.
Using this feature can also tell you if a track you’ve included is even necessary: Hit mute and, if the song sounds just as good or better than with that track playing, consider leaving it out, or readjusting its role. If I add a tenor sax, for example, I might consider only having it pop its head up toward a chorus, or to highlight the end of a bar, but I wouldn’t want it knocking out an entire tune.
Try not to be overwhelmed with the bazillion features of Anvil (and of Midi in general). I’m still learning and still being amazed at its capabilities. OK, it’s 2016, I should expect that software has improved since 1980, but still, I’m stoked that this sort of stuff is even possible.
Well, what are you waiting for? Go and download Anvil and start mucking around. Save your music, work on it a little each day, visit Midi forums and spread the word. Midi rocks!
Not only will it set the mood of the animation, if I do it right it will tie into the various scenes. The first question I asked was “what’s the mood?” Well, this animation is for the book, so the mood should reflect how the book reads.
Hmm. The Bullet is slow and sad, so that’s not quite right. Adaptation is paced and new age. Also not right. No, this needs to be light, in that it’s not a horror book, it’s a ghost book, so that means a little bit of creepiness, and it’s vintage, a tad ye olde world.
“Danse Macabre” sprung to mind. Remember that? Ah, yes. And that brought me back to when I was practicing scales on the piano, and there were the majors and the minors, and then there were some of the ‘advanced’ ones that I (vaguely) remember. The octotonic (I admit, I had to go rifling through google for that one) scales had that sort of ‘unclean’ feel about them.
Before you open up a can of music-theory-whoop-ass on my posterior, just remember that I’m a writer, not a musician. Actually, add to that pile ‘producer’, ‘animator’, ‘sound engineer’, ‘post-producer’… Anyway, if you can bear with, I went out onto the organ in the garage – hello old friend – and fiddled about with scales, noting some of the chords that sounded about right.
The Bullet score came from a tune I had stuck in my head for years. The Adaptation ditty was inspired from a mix of “Ship To Shore” and some old piano exercises. For Grosvenor Lane Ghost, I’m going with something altogether different.
One big lesson from the previous projects was to start with the tune and leave the bass and beats and accompaniments for later. Secondly, choosing the primary instrument, while easily changed at any point using Anvil Studio, is best done early: While plotting music, if it doesn’t sound right, it could be because rather than a Honky Tonk piano, one needs a Flute.
So there’s me, sitting at work, trying to get raster images to print to thermal Epson docket printers with wonky Escpos (ask me about it sometime 🙂 ) while tumbling through random tunes in my head. No good. There’s me on the bike ride home, skipping between cars and ducking underneath trucks while pounding out ditties through my brain. No good. There’s me sitting at home, slurping on a coffee, letting my fingers practice Phrenology, forcing a brass band to make music inside my skull. No good.
It doesn’t matter how hard you squeeze the toothpaste tube, nothing will come out until you take the top off. Fine, not totally true. Squeeze it too hard and you have paste across the roof, but you get my drift. I needed to chill. And for that, I turned to a dusty bottle of Hennessy and a creaky desk chair.
K. I’m chillin’. Anything yet?
No. Mmm. No. Actually, yes. A quaff and a sit down does wonders. Tunes start to develop. Patterns. Memories.
Zig-a-zig-zig. What was that? Zig-a-zig-zig? The Spice Girls? Hmm, no. A violin? Ah. Zig-a-zig. A fiddle. Good. Fiddles are cool. What’s that? Well, that’s nice, too. A guitar. Hmm, a guitar and a fiddle. Not strummy, more folksy, more plunk-a-plink-plink.
And so, I state with honesty, I started writing the music of Grosvenor Lane Ghost with zig-a-zig and plunk-a-plink.
I think that’s the beauty of Midi – it’s like sketching or scribbling. You can start anywhere. You can work at it and refine it down, a bit at a time, cut out the bits you don’t like, add more twiddle-dee-woo or change tappa-ta-ta-tap to doomfa-doomfa with a few mouse clicks and see how it sounds.
I’ve got six tracks, now, with a lead in using a celesta and a nylon string guitar (plink-a-plink). The melody is with a flute, harmony with a cello (zig-a-zig) and a timpani and xylophone making up the bass and beat. Too much? Probably. But, going back to how Midi works, if it is, I can always mute a track and see how it sounds, or mix up the instruments, swap the cello to a fiddle, or a harmonica, or adjust the volume, or, perhaps, just hit the save button, finish the cognac and hit the hay.
Don’t want to overwork it. Don’t want to lose my chill.
As previously stated, I’m going to be giving love to Grosvenor Lane Ghost in the form of an animation. I’ve learnt a lot from the Bullet, and from Adaptation, about the sound, about the music, about vectors and rasters and paths.
Making a plan
It all starts with a plan. I made a story-board for the Bullet, likewise for Adaptation, and I think that helped a bunch. I could see what I needed to make / draw / record.
What I didn’t see was exactly how much was involved in each scene. This is because my plan wasn’t fine-grained enough: “Brother Holland in the bathtub” doesn’t capture all that was eventually required to make that scene. So, too, “Crabman in front of building” or “Assault on Sanitation Facility”.
Sure, it helped break things down into manageable chunks, but each of those chunks was broken down on the fly. OK, I’ve worked like that before. Sometimes there are just unknowns. It’s a fact of life. However, if I sit and think about each scene, I can picture each bit that is necessary:
“Oh, I’ll need a sniper’s scope. And figures in uniform. And a background. And waymarkers. And text.” Right. That’s a whole lot more concise.
To ease the production, I’ve taken the story board, made scenes and, for each scene, detailed the rough time (it’s very loose at the start), the voice-overs, the sounds, the backgrounds and the props required.
And I came up with this:
Scenes on the left, assets on the right. And from here I can pick and choose the bits I need to make. Only got twenty minutes left on lunch? Make a differential thermometer. Have a couple of hours to spare, crank out the laboratory scene. Got a quiet (Yeah. Right) room? Record some voice-overs or sounds.
I’ll not working from start to finish, rather it’ll be a bit of this and a bit of that as I can fit it in. In an ideal world, I’d like to concentrate on one thing at a time. In a real world, that ain’t going to happen.
Besides, with technology today, I can work on (most) of these things during lunch, before bed, between dodging telemarketing calls or while watching tv.
Cool, Jez. What’s first?
Ha. Ha ha. Haaaaaa. Yeah. Meat or potatoes, right? Well, you know what? I’m going to have a little fun and start with the music. That’s right, I’m skipping to dessert.
Why? Because it’s fun. Really. It sets the mood for the pictures to come. And I think it’s important to have background music for a video rather than just sound. Not only that, if I’m going to make a bunch of these (one for each book in Paranormology), then I’ll want to have a ‘theme’ going, a tune that is associative with the series, not just the book.
Which means making a ditty. And since MIDI is such a wonderful way for a single shmuck to make music, and considering I already have Virtual Midi Synth installed, I’m going to go bury myself in my earphones.
Frustration. That was the key experience to take away from that exercise. Oh, I think I got there in the end, but, clearly, making up tunes is not my strong point.
I think the problem lies in that for every tune, there’s a an established tune that sounds very similar to it. Don’t know if there’s a term for that. Should be if there’s not: “The tendency for a new pattern to align itself with an existing pattern.”
The Beat or the Bass?
I tried a few approaches to getting something going. First I thought about a march, one-two, one-two, bump-ba-bum, bump-ba-bum, tiddly-tiddly-tum. Yeah. Nah. Why not? Everything ends up as the Liberty Bell March. Or the William Tell Overture.
So then I tried laying down some bass, trying combinations of chords to give me something to work with, and that helped a little. I could hear how the tune might change as I adjusted the interstitial notes (A, A, D#, G | G, D#, D#, G). It was tempting to add in accidentals and staccato and whatnot, because, hey, it’s a boring patch of what, really, is a combination of four notes.
Besides, does the bass drive the melody? Does the beat? No, not it doesn’t. Nor the accompaniment, nor the harmonics. These things support the melody. No point laying down foundation if one doesn’t know what the house looks like, right? Right? Ah, I dunno, it sounds good so I’ll run with it.
Back to the Melody
I came full circle, then. As a plan: First I shall work up a couple of tunes, then I shall refine one or two of them, then I shall place these choice few into Anvil Studio to tweak, add a beat and listen.
Let me just… almost… going to… bear with…
Annnnd there. I think I’ve settled on a ditty. It’s simple, which isn’t altogether a bad thing, and it was inspired from a tune I remember from when I was first learning how to play the piano. Playing it over a few times, I think it needs a couple of rests, but, all in all, it’s workable.
I’ll not throw the other ditties out. May as well put them into Anvil and store them in midi format for next time. Anyway, let me add a quick beat and bass to make it a bit more solid.
Now, I did get an invite from a certain muso with a certain flair for musical advice to give me a helping hand. Let this be a lesson to you indies out there: If someone who knows what they’re talking about offers you help in relation to something you know nothing about, you’ll do well to accept.
One needs to eat the meal before one tastes the dessert. Yeah, but it’s kind of tantalising, isn’t it? That’s kind of how I’m feeling when it comes to the music. Besides, I justify, I’m going to need to do it eventually, why not look at it now? Not to mention, I add, the feel of the music and the images presented need to match, so one will affect the other. Also… ALRIGHT!
I give in. Pencils and Gimp down, I’m going to divert to score the theme for Adaptation.
Bring on Anvil Studio
Learning from the animation for The Bullet, I’m not even going to bother trying to sing or play an instrument. Midi is the way to go, and I’m a little wiser this time around. For starters, I’m not even going to bother with mucking about with the instrumentation or beat until after I’ve got the basic melody in place.
I had to reinstall Anvil Studio after the upgrade to Windows 10, no biggy, just an inconvenience. It works alright, only the Virtual Midi Synth, too, is knacked. It’s just a matter of downloading and reinstalling and… I’m done.
Now, the big question is where to start. I’m not writing a song for radio, after all, nor is it muzak to go with an abstract DIY YouTube clip, nor will it have words. It’s a theme. It’s musical. It needs a tune. Last time I had the tune stuck in my head. This time round I’m going to have to start from scratch.
John Williams I ain’t.
Humming doesn’t do it for me. Any indistinct tune tends towards an established one within a matter of bars. Da-dum-dum dum-da da-da-da bop boopeti-bop… and I’ve hit the Superman theme. A few attempts later, it’s Indiana Jones. Dammit! Lawrence of Arabia! And now Doctor Who.
You know what? I’ve got my old Yamaha keyboard in the garage that I’ve recently spruced up.
Let me go out there and tap on it for a bit and I’ll get back to you…
Getting back to you
Ah, that brings back memories. I wasted a bit of time remembering how all the bits worked. You know, the white keys and the black ones, chords, scales, tone-tone-semitone, tone-tone-tone-semitone. *sigh* back to business.
What did I find out? I found out that I’m not after anything hugely complicated. A simple 4/4 time, coupled with a simplistic tune is what I’m after. To reaffirm this, I went to YouTube and had a listen to some sci-fi themes to get an idea.
Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator, Doctor Who, Terra Nova, even Flash Gordon! It seems that the space related ones, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and Stargate, are grand, epic themes with big cymbals, orchestras and drums. Alien, Terminator, Blade Runner and Flash Gordon are less about the overall tune, and more about the beat, sound and underlying feel.
Where does Adaptation sit between these two? Probably more toward the latter side.
So I figure what I’m after is a sci-fi ditty that I can prop up with a thumpa-thumpa beat or a jika-jang of a distortion guitar to bring it back down.
Ah, phooey. I might as well stop typing and start on the melody.
Making the music for the The Bullet Animation was definitely one of the more fun aspects. I had a general tune going, I’d made a rhythm track and mucked about with the instruments.
Playing it back, it didn’t sound right. Sure, the tune was fine and the timing was correct, but there was something definitely NQR. It wasn’t until I played it back on my phone that it twigged: The instruments sounded tinny.
No, not what one calls when a tree is cut down. I’m talking the quality of sound, the richness. If the sound coming out was colour, it would be a pastel, muted shade, not a rich, vibrant one. The instruments used sounded very much like those I was playing with back on the ol’ 386, probably because (and please correct me if I’m wrong) they were the same ones.
The ‘instruments’ used to play the midi file were the issue. Windows comes with a set of sounds that can be used to play midi files which is, well, average. So the piano, the harpsichord, the bass guitar, all sound like they’re supposed to. Kind of. Ish. If you squint.
“OK,” I reason, “It’s just a matter of getting a better quality set of instruments.”
In a way, yes. Only the correct term is Soundfonts. You can think of it like text-fonts. You’ve got your standard set of Arial, Times New Roman, Courier, Helvetica. Throw Comic Sans into that mix. They serve a purpose, they’re a good, vanilla set, and you can make them bold, italic, underlined, yeah, but they aren’t particularly interesting. Now you can get a whole bunch of fonts, of all different shapes and themes to suit a bunch of purposes. Different fonts make things interesting.
The default Windows soundfont is decidedly average. In Anvil, it was the default midi synthesizer. I looked through the help and it seemed easy enough to add other synthesizers as well, and with the free version of Anvil, I can have up to two. Hey, I’ll settle for one good one.
I went online and downloaded VirtualMIDISynth (http://coolsoft.altervista.org/en/virtualmidisynth), which acts as a virtual midi endpoint, something that can render the midi files. By itself, it’s just an empty sound studio – I needed to fill it with instruments (I needed to download a soundfont).
Back to the web I went, seeking out this new ‘soundfont’ beast. Turns out they come in all shapes and sizes (just like normal fonts) and range from a few megabytes to a few hundred. What’s the difference? Well, I started with the ‘few megabytes’ option and ended up with a single instrument, a piano. It sounded nice, a lot better than what I had, but I was after a lot of instruments, not just one.
Have a look on the VirtualMIDISynth webpage for links to soundfonts. I eventually went with the Fluid Soundfont (http://www.synthfont.com/soundfonts.html), after trying a bunch of others, and I got a tiny glimpse into the world of sampled sounds. If time permits (Ha!) I’d love to revisit this and play around with some of the really cool soundfont sets I downloaded.
To use it, I opened up VirtualMIDISynth and chose the Fluid GM Midi soundfont set to use. Then, inside Anvil, I went into the synthesizers tab, chose to import a new synthesizer and picked my VirtualMIDISynth. After that, it was only a matter of selecting the instrument for the track and listening to how much better it sounded.
If only I could have done the same kind of thing for my sound effects.
Not really a complication in a technical sense, more so that when I finished composing the main tune, I played it against the animation. Who would have guessed? It was too long. I had the choice of either upping the tempo, which made it sound ridiculous, or removing a slab of twiddly bits from the middle.
It wasn’t a complicated task, removing some notes and pushing the ones over that side to over this side, except that the twiddly interlude bit that got ripped out was a sort of bridge between two different keys. Playing the resulting set revealed a dissonance that highlighted the rift between the two parts. In the end, I highlighted the offending section and, using the power of Anvil, shuffled them down a tone or three. Job done.
I wanted the musical piece to run from a simple tune and get incrementally built up to a crescendo. The short animation time meant I was left without a lot of run-up space, so I broke the music into parts and added the rhythm track and the accompaniments in varying stages, putting it all together at the end.
The accompaniment tracks started off sounding very boring and flat: Just a single note played for each beat. To spice it up, and to allow a bit of dissonance as it progressed, I changed them to alternate between Oom-pa-pa and (rest) Ba-da-ba.
So they go Oom-pa-pa, (rest) Ba-da-ba, Oom-pa-pa, (rest) Ba-da-ba. Then, as I like, I can adjust one pa to bring the piece up to another key, or replace an Oom-pa-pa with a Ba-da-ba to add a bit of urgency. I’m sure there’s a musical term for this, can’t tell you what it is so don’t ask.
Lastly, by the time we get to the last phrase, there wasn’t enough behind the crescendo. Sure, it hit the high notes (better than I could!) but because everything had gone up by an octave or so, there was no bass left. To round it out, I inserted some simple bass notes to keep the whole thing grounded.
Whew! How about that! Music is done. Now what? Well, in my next post, I’ll show you how I brought it all together.
Having moving images and sound effects for the animation wasn’t enough. After toying with layering sounds upon sounds to build to a crescendo, I figured out that what was needed was not more crappy sounds, but music. Actual music. It sets the scene, it binds the flow together, it lends to the atmosphere of it all.
First, I came up with a tune. It’s one that’s been stuck in my head for ages, I don’t know if it’s an actual song or not, but it’s what I chose to run with. So I sang it. Ha! Bad move. Firstly, singing in the shower is one thing, singing into a microphone is something else. In fact, I did try recording it in the shower. It didn’t turn out much better.
There were a few problems. Firstly, I had no musical backing, no metronome, no drums or pianos or violins or guitars. OK, I thought, I’ll just hum it out as a chorus and layer my voice over itself in Audacity. Yeah. Nah. Not good. After a few solid attempts tucked away in the garage, I recorded myself a few times in different keys, mimicked a ‘pom pom-pom’ for the beat and opened the recordings in Audacity.
While it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great. It wasn’t even good. Passable might be a stretch. I adjusted the pitch and tempo to get two tracks into line, which helped a bit, but the overall result was underwhelming and unsuitable. Why? Because of a second, larger problem.
While Audacity allows one to increase or decrease the apparent tempo, there’s only so much it can stretch before it starts to sound distorted. So unless I fluked it and got my recorded tune to be pretty close to the timing of the animation, I would have to record it all again. And I was still without instruments.
Back in the day, when we first got a Sound Blaster, I was introduced to the world of Midi. This topic is pretty huge, but the concept is pretty straightforward. In a similar fashion to Vector versus Raster graphics, using Midis frees one from actually having to play or, in my case, sing a song. Rather one provides instructions for playing the song. Consider a record player versus a sheet of music. A record player plays the record placed upon it. It cannot play an abstract piece of music unless that music is encoded onto a record.
A sheet of music, on the other hand, is similar in that a tune may be derived from it, yet it cannot be used to create that song. Instead a musician, acting as an interpreter, and an instrument, upon which to play the tune. Give the musician a different instrument, and you get a different sound. Up the tempo, change the key, and it’s just a matter of the musician playing the same tune differently.
Not only that, you can give different sheets of music to different musicians and, hey, presto, you’ve got yourself a band. OK, not exactly the same thing, but you get the idea. It allows musical plebs, like yours truly, to slowly create a piece of music, assign instruments, even put in a rhythm track, and make music. You can use your midi to ‘talk music’ to devices like electronic keyboards and sample pads.
Nuts. I don’t have my Sound Blaster anymore. And Midi-mapper, a tool that one could use to define the output device for playing midi files, that used to be in the control panel of Windows 3.1 just isn’t there in Windows 8. A bit of poking about on the web, reading up on a few sites, yep, it’s gone. No! Surely not!
Fret not! For midi, as I came to find out, is alive and well and not going anywhere soon. As with everything else about this whole project, it took a bit of reading of forums, blogs and how-tos to get my head around it all, but I’m glad I did.
I downloaded a few nasty midi composers, not to my liking. They were too clumsy, or they wouldn’t even install properly. Finally, I settled upon a great piece of software called Anvil Studio (www.anvilstudio.com) that enabled me to, from scratch, knock up a tune, add a rhythm track, add a couple more tracks for harmony and, tada! Music!
Alright, maybe it wasn’t that easy. First I had to fish out my old music books and remember things like ‘Middle C’, 4/4, 3/4, 2/4 time, rests, quavers, semi-breves, sharps, flats, chords, staccato, keys. After struggling for a solid hour, I discovered that Anvil doesn’t force you to do things solely with sheet music. For example, I found that there is a ‘view’ of a ‘piano roll editor’, shown on the right here, that let’s you mark out your tune in a graphical format. Purists, look away!
Not only that, if you’re a guitar buff, you can plot your music on a tablature view.
With each track, I can pick an instrument I want to use to play that tune. It’s kind of cool, really, to see how a song sounds when played with a piano, or a guitar, or a glockenspiel. Best of all, no need to re-record.
What about percussion? I added a rhythm track. First, I played with adding some bass and a crash symbol, just to see how a backing rhythm would sound, then proceeded to fill that in all the way across the tune. Whoa, there’s a better idea. Loops.
Anvil allows me to make a loop, of the various percussive sounds and I can then instruct it to play that over the next portion of a tune. Now that’s handy. No copy and paste errors, and no tedious filling out of a rhythm.
So that’s great news! I had got a veritable orchestra at my disposal, right? Right. Almost. It certainly solved most of the problems outlined above. I can adjust the tempo of the song to fit into the timing of my animation. I have a musical score that I can tweak. I can apply musical instruments to different tracks.
Above all, I don’t have to sing. You can thank me later.
So why ‘almost’? That comes back to how the midi files are rendered. I’ll get onto it in the next post.