How It Works
Germany, 1988: Deep in the Schweabisch hush of the Black Forest, in a little two-road village nestled among green, ancient hills, sixty kilometers southwest of Stuttgart. On a chill night in late December, from a large, modern building now dark in the winter shadows comes the sound of a piano, and the struggle for perfection in a writer's hands...

No, it's not a John LeCarre novel, or even the story of how "Silent Night" was written. This issue, Sweetwater gives you a real-world glimpse into the ways modern music technology can transport you into "other lands" of swift, effective and progressive music recording and, ultimately, how a serious musician like yourself can save serious cash by making a relatively small investment. We look specifically today at the merits of MIDI and the benefits of linking it with the ubiquitous one-eyed servant so many of us have hired on: the personal computer.

Our story (which, as luck would have it, is my own) begins this way: I remained a guest in Altensteig for three months, primarily working on new material and waiting for colleagues in Switzerland to secure my work visa so I could return and head up a local theater and music group. In the interim, I met Andreus, a German engineer who single-handedly ran the recording studio there, and who also enjoyed my music enough to want to record it.

On the night in question, I was practicing a new song called "Along The Way," kind of an Al Jarreau meets Elton John vibe. It was near midnight, and after a week I was still having trouble playing it. The chords were mostly jazz tonal clusters that I'd never used before, and though they fit my melody wonderfully, my hands fumbled over the voicings as if they'd just tried "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" for the first time!

The next morning at ten, I reported to the studio to lay the tune down, my vocal going through a Neumann U87 and the piano part performed on a beautiful black Boesendorfer (talk about Fahrvergnuegen; I could drive that piano all night!). I only had until 1:30 that afternoon when another session started, and I definitely felt under the gun. Despite the time restraints and doing everything live, I put the song down satisfactorily in two takes and got away with a cassette and just enough time to get Andreus' lunch while he set up the next session.

That was the last we ever touched that song. Time went on, we both got busy. Other songs were recorded in much the same way, with a minimum of instrumentation and with a wish, always a wish, that we could have done more. Now, until I decide to go ahead and re-record it on my own studio equipment, whenever it's played I think of the strings that should have gone here, and the brush drum grooves that should have been there. Sound familiar?

Okay, so let's build a better mousetrap. It doesn't matter what country you're in, the song remains the same (nod to Britain). Using a modicum of today's technology you can do extensive pre-production on any song before you go into the studio. Recording the rhythm section, perfecting the groove, arranging the parts - all this can be done ahead of time, and you can walk away with a completed production without pawning a guitar, or even using one!

The method? MIDI coupled with the power and memory of a computer. So let's see how I (and now you) could have gotten all I wanted from those three studio hours and been more effective with time and money. The story, if it were to happen today, would instead go something like this: Having scheduled with Andreus a three-hour slot one week from that mild winter Monday, TJ goes off to work out the basic piano part on his MIDI keyboard. He uses a popular synth with an excellent on-board piano sound, since it gives him loads of other usable sounds plus 64 note polyphony and 76 keys, all of which are important to him.

He has the synth sitting right next to his Macintosh computer, which is loaded up with sequencing and hard-disk recording software, Digidesign's Audiomedia II hardware card and (of course) a MIDI interface. As a bonus, he also uses an Iomega external Jaz Drive that gives him a full gigabyte of memory per storage disc.

Why these items? Well, recognize that the brand names aren't the important thing. There are lots of companies with lots of products. What really matters is your particular application and getting what is appropriate to it. This is where consulting your Sweetwater rep is so beneficial; we do the work of studying the various pieces of gear so you don't have to. Articles like this one show you what is available to you as a working musician, and we inform you of the intricacies during your consultation calls.

The sequencing software enables TJ to play his primary piano part into the computer's memory, then record new tracks over it such as drums, bass, percussion, strings, or whatever other sound on the Quadrasynth he wants to use. These are stored not as sounds, but as MIDI commands. In other words, the computer remembers what keys are struck, how hard they are struck, what sound was used, etc. and then later these musical lines are reproduced by the computer telling the Quadrasynth or other MIDI keyboard, "Okay, I want you to play these notes, this fast, this hard, using this sound" and so on.

In this way, TJ produces a fully arranged background for him to sing against next week. What's more, he can actually print out the various parts in standard music notation or, if he decides he wants to change any keyboard patch, note duration, in fact anything having to do with any of the parts, he can go in and edit that "MIDI event" and in a matter of seconds it's changed. Try doing that with a taped recording!

The Audiomedia II card is present in case you actually want to record sounds live onto your computer's hard disk. This comes in handy when you want to record real acoustic instruments over your sequenced arrangements; things like bass, acoustic guitar, background harmonies and, of course, the all-important lead vocal. Four tracks of real-time high-quality digital audio are offered with this card, which provides two RCA inputs to get the sound in.

Because of this, TJ uses his mixing console to accept the signal from his high quality studio microphone (which uses an XLR cable and needs phantom power) and then runs that signal from its 1/4" output to the RCA input of the Audiomedia card. With this connection, he puts down all his vocals, a saxophone solo by his Berkley grad buddy, Res, and a oompah tuba part to make everyone really wonder!

The Jaz drive is very cool and helpful for this German recording date. Because he did everything on his computer, TJ can save all that information on his Jaz drive and on the day of the session, if Andreus has the same or similar computer set-up (most studios do) he can take just one disk with him as his "backing band" for the day. With the studio computer doubling his own, all he has to do is overdub his vocal through the studio's incredible Neumann mic (that will be TJ's first purchase when his album hits gold status!). No hauling instruments, no cracking under the pressure of snowballing dollar signs and clock revolutions, just singing the lead over tracks he created. Thus ends the session and TJ walks home a happy composer - just like you can!

There are many pluses to combining the powers of MIDI and computers, some of which we've seen here. Other possibilities are using your computer as a digital signal processor, as an editor/librarian for your synth(s), or as a means of bringing automation to your mixer. The bottom line on these possibilities? You save time and you save money! Your Sweetwater rep is well aware of how to help you save both, and is only a phone call away. So do yourself a favor: stop being disappointed with what you can't do at a session and let us walk you through what you can do. Who knows, maybe I'll see you on the Autobahn one day soon.