MIDI, The Bringer of Happiness

Using the routing method I have described in my previous blog, I have taken on the enormous task of programming Gustav Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War” for a MIDI sequenced orchestra. Why? Because it’s fun of course! Another reason is that in 2018, it will be the 100th year anniversary of the pieces premiere. In 1918 the “Planets Suite” (of which Mars is the first movement) was performed privately on the 29th of September in the Queens Hall, London and was conducted by Adrian Boult.

Whilst programming, I had an epiphany (I’ve had many actually) and thought that in 100 years from the writing of this piece, how far we have advanced technologically but how ahead of its time this suite was, for it has stood the test of time and still sounds modern to this day. If Holst only knew that within a century his epic would be performed by a machine! It makes you wonder what will be possible in another 100 years…I believe that it will be played by robots (Z-Machines anyone?).

Imagine trying to describe to Holst what I am actually doing, we would almost certainly have to describe it in terms that were known in his day. MIDI was an unknown term and concept, even the word computer did not have the meaning that we attach to it today. If I were to describe it to Holst himself, I would say that I have created an elaborate “Piano-Roll” of his score, much like a Pianola’s cylindrical tubes with notches for the musical information. With this “Piano-Roll”, a “machine” then triggers recorded snippets of the orchestral instruments and like a Pianola, the song is produced. Phew!

Let the Games Begin!

The Planets Suite has the following instrumentation.

  • 4 Flutes (3rd doubling Piccolo, 4th doubling Piccolo and Bass Flute in G)
  • 3 Oboes (3rd doubling Bass Oboe)
  • English Horn
  • 3 Clarinets in Bb & A
  • Bass Clarinet
  • 3 Bassoons
  • Double Bassoon
  • 6 Horns in F
  • 4 Trumpets in C
  • 3 Trombones (2 Tenor, 1 Bass)
  • Tenor Tuba in Bb
  • Bass Tuba
  • 6 Timpani (2 Players)
  • Percussion (3 Players)
  • Celeste
  • 2 Harps
  • Organ
  • Strings
  • Chorus of female voices in 6 parts (off stage)

He wasn’t kidding when he said that the piece was for “Large Orchestra”.

Setting up the MIDI tracks in Pro Tools
Setting up the MIDI tracks in Pro Tools

Transposing Instruments

One of the factors that we need to take into consideration is the transposing instruments, there are a number of them in this piece and potentially it could get quite confusing. If you are unsure what a transposing instrument is then it can be described in the following manner;

Horns in F means that when the horns play the written note “C” an “F” is actually sounded. This has to do with the physics of the instrument. When we notate the music for horns, it must be transposed a perfect 5th, or seven semitones higher than the “real” sound of the horn, so if you want the horn to play “F2” you must notate “C3”. For more info on transposing instruments CLICK HERE.

Computers help us with everyday life and make our lives easier, in terms of transposition they have taken the guesswork out of it and if we go into our sampler, we find a very helpful little button that does all the hard work for us!

Use the Transpose function to make life easy!
Use the Transpose function to make life easy!
Holst would've loved the future!
Holst would’ve loved the future!

Using the Transpose feature in the sampler means that we can notate exactly what is written in the score into the MIDI editor and our computer will transpose the notes for us, ensuring that the errors are kept to a minimum. There is plenty of information on the web about transposing instruments and to make sure I was inputting the correct MIDI sequences for all the transposing instruments, I had to view plenty of sites, to understand the instruments better.

Another thing to be aware of is the fact that some instruments sound an octave higher or lower than written. An example of one of these instruments is the Piccolo, where the notated C5 will result in the real pitch of C6. This means we must be aware of the physics of the instrument to input the correct MIDI information.

Uncommon Clefs

The most common clefs we use in musical notation are the treble-clef and bass-clef. These work well for most instruments however, there are some instruments whose range is outside of the treble and bass clefs. The Viola uses the alto-clef where middle-C, or C3, is the middle line of the five-line stave. When in higher registers the cello will use the tenor-clef, where C3 is the fourth “highest” line in stave. Unfortunately, our computers can’t input the information for us, so we have to work out the notation for ourselves. This means becoming familiar with different clefs and with practice becomes like reading the treble or bass-clefs.

The entire tenor-trombone line was written in tenor-clef, so your humble-blogging-host had a lot of practice with tenor-clef!

Tenor Trombone line
Tenor Trombone line

Sequence the MIDI Methodically

With so much going on with the music, it is best to just work on one line at a time. I started with the bottom line of the score (Double Bass) and sequenced the first 100 bars. Next, I moved up a line to the Cello’s and sequenced the first 100 bars of that instrument. In a week of sequencing I have input the MIDI signals for all of the instruments for the first 100 bars.

We then go from this;

Musical score
Musical score

To this;

MIDI sequence
MIDI sequence

Personally, I think the MIDI sequence looks nicer! 🙂

The first 100 bars
The first 100 bars

Make it Personal

The MIDI sequence is now in the computer and we can start to get individual performances of the instruments. To do this, solo an individual instrument and change the velocities to suite the dynamics written in the music. Also, use key-switches to alter the sound from legato to staccato, or whatever other sound is needed. Admittedly, I am still in the process of personalising the performances, everything is “on the grid” and sounds a little robotic at the moment. “On the grid” refers to quantisation and because I have step input the MIDI sequences, the computer plays back the samples perfectly in time. You may think that this is a good thing but in reality, no human will ever play “perfectly” and it is the subtle “imperfections” that give music its human quality. To make the performance “human”, we must then program the MIDI to be “imperfect” and is a process that I am currently working on.

Use Chrissy’s Routing!

In my previous blog I have described the routing method of Kontakt in Pro Tools, demonstrated by Beklee’s Chrissy Tignor Fischer. Use this to make large ensemble work possible and so your computer doesn’t melt down!

Routing in Pro Tools
Routing in Pro Tools

As you can see with picture above, I have recorded the .wavs of the MIDI sequences that are passing through the corresponding software-instrument in Kontakt (thanks again Chrissy!). Because my set-up only has 16 available MIDI channels to work with, I have had to disable the the MIDI outputs and only enable them when I am recording the .wav’s, that is why you may notice there are no outputs in the MIDI channels in the picture above. Once the .wavs are recorded, I mute the MIDI tracks and software-instruments to take pressure off the CPU.

Here is a demo of what it sounds like and looks like so far, remember that this is a work in progress so there is a great deal of “humanising” to do. Enjoy and thanks for reading! 🙂

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