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midi-files

How to standardise volumes for midi files

Make all Your Midi Files the Same Volume & Gig Ready ….Part One….

Standard Midi files (SMF) appeared after the largest producers of multi timbrel sound modules and keyboards agreed on a standard set of 127 General Midi sounds and Controls that would be in the same locations on each brand and model of keyboard showing the General Midi (GM) badge.

This gave birth to companies like TransTrax, BandTrax, Midi Magic, Hit Trax and a many others who could supply completed midi reproductions of popular songs that would play on any GM sound source.

Not to be out done many years back I to started a business (which I later sold when my band started touring) called Mister Midi making and retailing midi files.

As well as creating and selling midi files I was asked by many clients, who had a lot of tracks from a mixed bag of other producers, if I could standardise the levels of all them to match one consistent playback volume.

Before I write out my techniques for doing the job, I would like to say that it’s not necessarily bad programming that leads to midi files being at different volumes. In most cases it is the guiding principle of all good producers to stay as true to the original feel and sound of the song that means that an old Elvis song played on a brush kit and an upright bass won’t be the same intensity and level as a current rock or dance track.

Having said all of that there is a way to make them all the same without losing too much of the original feel.


Warning the following is not a quick trick method and to date I haven’t seen a piece of software that will do it automatically, so hang onto your brain as we dive into it.

STEP 1. Understanding what’s under the hood?

You will need to view your midi data with an editor to see the following information on your track. In cubase it’s called a “List Editor” on the old Roland MC sequencers it was called “Microscope” If you can’t find the midi editor on your DAW drop me a line and i’ll help you out with it.

At the beginning of all commercial midi files the 1st measure (or bar if you like) of the song will contain all the setup commands for how the midi file is to sound. (NEVER DELETE THE FIRST MEASURE).

From the setup measure the two commands that will tell a mid file how to alter its volume are as follows…

  • CC7 (Volume) This is the master volume of the channel and is repeated on every channel in the track as needed from 1 – 16.

(CC stands for Control Change) 

  • CC11 (Expression) This is a harder one for most to understand it almost seems like there are two (CC’s) doing the same job but their not and here’s why…… Imagine your guitar volume knob for a moment (that’s CC11),  now see that the amp it’s plugged into also has a volume knob (that’s CC7),  the volume knob on the amplifier sets the max output, while the volume knob on the guitar can turn it’s level up & down within the range set by the amp but can’t exceed it. CC11 is used to swell instruments up & down within the track and is the smooth way of doing so (trying to use multiple CC7’s as a swell technique is wrong so if you see them being used like that change them to CC11).

 Three other things will also have an affect on the final volume and they are the following…..

  • Velocity This is a value between (0-127) that indicates to the sound source (module) how hard or soft the keyboard has been struck to trigger the sound. (Touch Sensitive).
  • The actual tone of the sound.. All the instruments in a standard GM 127 voice library vary in volume simply by the nature of what they are. An upright acoustic bass (program Ch32) has more natural bottom end depth than the pick bass (program Ch35) and will have more output. The same is true in varying degrees across the whole sound set.
  • CC93 (Chorus effect) Excessive amounts of this effect will add more volume to the track.

Just one last small thing.. if you don’t run your midi files in stereo  (that is left & right output to, left & right inputs that are panned hard left & hard right)  you could run into a little bit of trouble with CC10 (Pan). If your instrument is panned a lot to the right and you are taking only one side of your outputs from the sound source (in this case left channel) that instrument could be lost.


STEP 2. SOUND CHOICE

Decide on your band…

Assuming you are after a consistent sound, the next step is to decide on who’s playing drums & bass with you and make sure you always give these guys the gig on every song.

The drums & bass will be the foundation for every song from here on out and standardising them will go a long way to achieving the desired end result.

Please Pick

  • One Drum Kit you like.
  • One Bass Sound you like.

Then from the Drum kit pick

  • The same Kick Drum (C1 or B0) & the same Snare (D1 0r E1) to be used in every song.

 


STEP 3. SETTING THE MASTER VOLUMES

Lets start with the drums.

I like to set my drum kit at a volume of 120, to do this…

  • Go to the drum track on your midi file (it’s always channel 10 but the track number might be different).
  • Open the midi editor.
  • Look in the first measure & find CC7.
  • Change the value of CC7 (next column over) to 120.

Now you need to check the value of CC11, (it should have a value of 127) to do this…

  • Look in the first measure & find CC11.
  • Change the value of CC11 (next column over) to 127 .

Now check your pan (CC10) is at a value of 64 (which is dead centre), to do this….

  • Look in the first measure & find CC10.
  • Change the value of CC10 (next column over) to 64 .

Now check to see if there is a (CC93) Chorus effect on the track to do this…

  • Look in the first measure & find CC93, (if it’s not there don’t worry).
  • If it is there delete it.

Now check (CC91) Reverb, this is part is up to you. Some like a lot, others don’t. I usually set mine around 50 – 70 depending on the type of song. Ballads can have a lot more than heavy rock or dance but be careful as reverb does send your instrument back into the mix a bit….. To do this….

  • Look in the first measure & find CC91.
  • Change the value of CC91 (next column over) to 60 (or what you like).

Ok now we go onto setting the velocity of the kick drum

Stay in the midi list editor or go to the piano roll editor.

Here you will see that the producer of the midi file is using either note number C1 or B0 as the kick drum. (personally I like B0 as it has more bass in it)

Firstly select all the kick drum notes in the entire song and shift them (if needed) to the note choice you like, (remember it must always be the same kick note in every song).

The next thing to do is a bit tricky but if you do it a few times it will get easy………….

You need to check the velocity range of the kick through the song. A real drummer plays the kick on the primary down beat the same way each time but the up beat kicks are usually a little softer (down beats are the 1, 2 ,3 ,4 hits in each bar). Also in a drum fill kicks can be a lot softer.

What we want is for the kick on the primary down beats to be the same from song to song, I like to set it at 125. The softer kicks on the up beats & fills can usually be left as they are.

(Now do the same as above for the snare drum…) I like E1 for the snare sound…


Other kit sounds…..

On crash cymbals I always recommend the exclusive use of note number C#2 and at a velocity of 80 on all primary hits.

As it is the kick & snare that will drive your song, all the other drum parts such as high hats, ride cymbals & percussion need to be pulled down under the kick & snare via velocity.

This is just the beginning of what you need to learn about this technique and we will visit this topic again in our next issue with part two.

© 2015, Musictech Australia. All rights reserved.

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Damien J Cotton

DJ has been a music producer since the late 90's. He has designed and built several recording studios and produced many artists across the entire musical spectrum with a focus on R&B and electronic music. As a multi instrumentalist & music educator DJ performs throughout Australia both as a session musician and teaching & lecturing on music technology in various schools & private studios.

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