Virtual Instruments

In the process of producing the Christmas song I'm recording this year I finally jumped into the world of VSTi's, or Virtual Studio Technology instruments. For a long time, I shied away from the idea of using MIDI for anything other than transmitting notes or other data because the first thing that comes to mind when I think of MIDI as a music format is the cheesy (albeit awesome and nostalgia-inducing) background music from Chip's Challenge back in the day, or the floppy disk full of movie themes in MIDI format I got from my friend Alex in grade school. Fun, but not really what you want for serious music.

Turns out things have changed a little bit since 1993.

After getting over my irrational fear and nerding out over how cool technology is, I programmed my arrangement of verse one of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel into Finale NotePad, along with a final chorus arrangement I plan to use. I saved this as a .mid file and loaded it into Pianissimo, a VSTi/virtual instrument I just discovered today. It normally costs about $70 but comes with a 14-day free trial. As soon as the first note played it was abundantly clear that virtual instruments are not at all what they were 20 years ago. This should have been obvious without even hearing the instrument, but sometimes I'm just a grumpy old man like that.

I may end up just doing an instrumental version of the song as the official end of my December Project, depending on how competent my voice feels tomorrow and on how much time I have between finishing my secret other projects (just a few more days until the reveal!) and enjoying my time off from work (rest is important!) At any rate, I am very much looking forward to sharing the final results with you!


Music Workstation

Yesterday I shared about a dream that finally came true, and about how fear had needlessly held me back from reaching my goals. Today I'd like to talk a little more about that project, this time from a nerdier, less reflective standpoint.

Getting everything hooked up was a simple enough affair - I simply opened up the Roland USB/MIDI interface, installed the driver from the included CD, and then plugged the MIDI ends into the PSR-6300 keyboard and the USB end into my computer. When I opened Finale NotePad, it recognized the UM-ONE and set it as the default MIDI IN device.

That's it.

I opened a blank document in Finale NotePad and when I pressed a key the note appeared before my eyes. It was a momentous (if undramatic) experience.

To my disappointment but not to my surprise, Finale NotePad (free software) is pretty limited in how it accepts and interprets MIDI data. It does not analyze note duration, song tempo (either through MIDI clock or inferred from your playing style), or other data such as pitch bend. It simply takes the pitch (MIDI note number) and inserts it on the selected staff at the specified duration. So, if you have the eighth note selected everything you play comes in as an eighth note, and so on.

Thankfully, Caitlin had a brilliant idea which eased the pain of Finale NotePad's limitation significantly: she suggested I use my ShuttlePRO v2 to facilitate note entry. The ShuttlePRO is a hardware controller that features a shuttle wheel, jog dial, and 15 programmable buttons. It's immensely useful to me when I edit photos and especially when I edit video, so when Caitlin made the suggestion I knew right away what a great idea it was (she's pretty awesome like that, coming up with good ideas all the time).

ShuttlePRO v2 from Contour Design

I programmed the five buttons above the dial to select whole, half, quarter, eighth, or sixteenth notes, the wheel to move forward or back one note at a time, the right side button to convert a note to a rest, the left side button to add a dot to the selected note, and one of the top row buttons to undo the previous action. I'm sure that I'll find useful shortcuts or macros to fill in the rest of the buttons, but just making that handful of shortcuts so easy to access without looking down or moving my left hand immediately made note entry much simpler. It's a far cry from real-time transcription as I play, but it's also way better than entering notes by using the mouse.

I quickly programmed the desired buttons using the Shuttle config panel.

Finally, to make everything easier to control at once, I removed the upper keyboard from my stand and laid my whiteboard on the top tier to act as a platform (it was the first strong-ish thing I could find that was the right size). The monitor, ShuttlePRO, keyboard, and mouse went on top of that. It worked really well and I plan to cut a piece of plywood to fit on that upper level for when I want to use a monitor/etc. or smaller gear such as my drum machine or Korg MS-20 mini.


So there you have them: all the nerdy details. I'd be happy to answer any relevant questions you might have in the comments!