original. acoustic. music.

The Joys of MIDI

Darrel and I decided to restart work on If The Stars now we are happy with the state of The Way She Looks and things have taken an unexpected but very welcome turn: We've discovered the joys of MIDI.

Darrel is a much more proficient keyboard player than I, but it has to be said we are light years away from virtuosity. I've dabbled a lot in electronica, mostly sequencing with a tracker such as the excellent Renoise but never been able to play well enough to perform a synth part - I've always programmed painstakingly event by event. I've had a MIDI keyboard for some time, but have never used velocity or after touch because, well, if you're just mashing the notes down first and finessing them later what's the point?

Having hit the wall at least four times trying to record If The Stars over the years, we finally sat down and took the song back to its roots. Darrel has spent years teaching kids to play songs in his school bands, and thus has quietly kept up his keyboard skills to the point where he can actually sit down and bash out a tune without too much provocation. If The Stars actually began life at the keyboard with a repeating figure that Darrel later translated into a guitar motif. It's taken almost 5 years, but the song has finally come back to the keyboard.

Recently Darrel sat down and plonked out the song at the end of a relatively successful recording session one night while I played my usual accompaniment on guitar. The result surprised us both, and renewed our interest in recording the song. Believe me, we thought we'd never get the damn thing down right, having gone from one version that was metronomic and soulless, to another that was so loose it almost didn't hang together at all, and all points in between. One Wednesday we sat down at my place, I handed over my keyboard to Darrel and loaded up a rather nice sounding piano patch. After a few goes getting used to Pro Tools' MIDI interface - as a tracker I'm used to moving vertically in 64-line patters rather than horizontally in a piano roll - Darrel had laid down a very humanised, sensitive set of chords over the top of the rhythm track from one of our earlier aborted recording attempts and both of us were all smiles.

With the right software MIDI is embarrassingly easy to use. Pro Tools was not a MIDI sequencer initially, Digidesign (now AVID) stapled in as many MIDI features as they could in recent versions in order to keep up with the likes of Steinberg, and Logic and their ilk. As a non-keyboard player I have never really pursued it as a composition tool but now my eyes are opened and I have to say it is great to be able to integrate audio and MIDI into the same session. I've met a few people who look down their noses at MIDI because it is so easily editable and you can tweak your way to a perfect performance in no time rather than actually knowing how, and being able to execute a perfect performance on an acoustic instrument in front of a microphone (through a ribbon mic via a valve pre-amp on a Neve desk and onto 2-inch tape).

We've always approached our recordings with the idea that we shouldn't try to come across as something we're not - we aren't Steve Vai, so hemi-demi-semiquaver sweep-picked solos would just sound wrong on our stuff - but the temptation is great to go all out and over the top on the arrangements and instrumentation. We've already had to reign in our ambitions regarding multi-tracked vocals on a couple of occasions... okay, I have had to reign in my ambitions... I guess the key is to look at what actually serves the song and what is just wank (to put it bluntly) and, once we've discovered what serves the song, serve it gently.