This quick tip should help you to achieve more interesting MIDI sounds. It’s an idea that can help bring more life to any MIDI pattern and give interesting results. It’s also a concept borrowed from the world of Classical music.
MIDI is an incredible technology and a powerful tool. It give us the ability to get creative in our workflow in a ways that wouldn’t be possible with audio files. MIDI offers many options that aren’t possible with traditional editing.
Although there are a host of benefits to working with MIDI, there are also a few drawbacks and limitations.
Principle among them is the tendency for producers who maybe can’t play keys to either draw or type in their musical ideas straight into the MIDI piano roll. This can be a great way to compose without being shackled by dogmatic keyboard-based thinking. For example ‘what’s this chord?’ ‘whats the correct voicing?’ ‘what would Herbie Hancock have played here?’ etc.
I’m never going to attack this approach, as there are times where I personally love the sound of uniformity that drawn MIDI gives. A big part of the sound of some modern electronic music comes from this ability to create uniform digital sounds. Ironically, classical piano players would spend countless hours in the 1800s trying to refine their technique to play scales more evenly.
One of my favourite quotes in music is:
“There are no rules, only rulers” (Anon)
If you accept that uniformly even MIDI notes is one possible sound, you should also want to explore the opposites. The ability to create more depth in the final sound using different volumes or velocities.
To achieve this effect we are going to borrow from the world of classical piano players.
Virtuoso piano players have extraordinary technique on their instruments developed through 1000s of hours of practice. They are masters at working with the velocity of the notes they play using touch to bring out musical ideas and depth within a musical performance.
The following piece of music is a good example of a concert pianist bringing out the melodic line of a very intricate polyphonic part while supporting the melody with their other fingers playing an arpeggio part underneath:
How to borrow a little of this Magic
Here’s a quick way you can try to emulate a little of this magic to bring an extra layer of depth to your own MIDI parts.
First up is an example of a MIDI chord part I created using the piano roll and drawing the MIDI notes in. All MIDI notes are the same velocity and the part is as uniform sounding as it could be (fig 1).
Idea 1 – Highlight the upper melody
The first idea we’ll look at is selecting the upper note of each chord and bringing out the main melody which is the highest note of each chord (fig 2 below).
Here I’ve selected the top note of each chord in Ableton and then used the velocity sliders to make this melody more prominent.
Idea 2 – Highlight an inner melody
A second idea you could experiment with is to try to bring out an inner melody within the chords by making some of the middle notes higher than the rest. This is also sometimes used in Classical pieces where the left hand or a middle voice will take the melody role (fig 3 below).
The possibilities here are endless. I just experimented and selected a few of the inner notes of the part then boosted their velocities to see what I ended up with.
This technique should help you achieve more interesting MIDI sounds using the classical piano analogy.
- MIDI is an incredible creative tool for writing and producing
- However drawn-in MIDI parts can often lack dynamics and depth
- Classical musicians use incredible skill to bring out melodies from polyphonic parts
- You can emulate this by using velocity to highlight the top line of your MIDI
- You could also try bringing out an inner melody within your part
Here’s a quick video breakdown of the above technique:
Have fun trying this and let me know how you get on or any questions you have in the comments below. For more ideas on working with MIDI check out this post.