Frequently Asked Questions -- Music, Sequencing, and Tracking Questions

: How do I make a MIDI? Where can I get a program for it?

You need several things. First is a computer. (Sorry, all you WebTV-ites) Second, you need some form of musical talent (Ability to play music by ear pretty much required). Third, you need a MIDI sequencer program. Each one has its own features and requirements, some of the shareware/demo sequencers have restrictions. Very few will require a MIDI keyboard, most will allow you to enter notes using the computer keyboard or mouse.
Here are a few companies that produce MIDI sequencers that I know of:
  • Cakewalk (PC-WIN/MAC)
  • Logic Pro (MAC)
  • NoteWorthy Composer (PC-WIN)
  • Anvil Studio (PC-WIN)
  • Jazz (PC-WIN/PC-LINUX)
  • MidiSoft Studio (PC-WIN)
  • Voyetra (PC-WIN)
  • Cubase (PC-WIN/MAC)
  • Opcode (PC-WIN/MAC)
  • Brahms (PC-LINUX)
  • MusE (PC-LINUX)
  • Sibelius (PC-WIN/MAC)
  • Finale (PC-WIN/MAC)
  • ZTracker (PC-WIN)


    : That's a lot of programs. Which one is the best?

    Well, the program is up to you. As long as the output is a standard MIDI file, it won't really matter. What does matter is how it works for you, whether you find it easy to use and that it does all the things you want to do.

    The sequencers here have their own preferences. A number of them find that using an ancient, no longer produced version of MIDISoft Studio is the best. (Sorry, I can't help you find a copy.) Some others like using Cakewalk. Still others prefer Voyetra MIDI Orchestrator or NoteWorthy Composer or Anvil Studio. Basically, pick the one with the nicest sounding name and see if you like using it.


    : You have any sequencing tips? Things to do, things to avoid while sequencing?

    All of these come from our gaggle of regular sequencers around here, and may be of varying usefulness. All these tips are worth keeping in mind, however.
  • The Gunshot is NOT a percussion instrument. It is a sound effect.
  • The Orchestra Hit is not an effective melodic instrument 99.99% of the time.
  • Different people use different sound cards, different synthesisers. What sounds perfect on one may sound like absolute off-key garbage on another. Try to play a song on several different sound cards or synths and make any necessary adjustments before releasing it.
  • In GM, percussion is set to channel 10, so it makes sense to put the percussion on track 10 when sequencing.
  • Make drum rolls start quiet and get louder or start loud and get quieter. Don't keep them a constant volume and at a constant velocity and at a constant level of expression.
  • Adjusting volumes, note velocities and expression effectively and using panning effectively will make your song sound more "professional". Misuse will have the opposite effect, however. Practice using them to get an idea of what they do, and try to listen for them in "professional" music to see how they are used.
  • Learn to use controllers wisely, but don't overuse them.
  • Before setting volumes, look to see how your MIDI device's volume, computer's master volume, speaker/headphone volume controls are set. If you're having to set the track volumes very low to make listening to your song bearable, you might find that other people can't hear anything at all when they play your song.
  • Use intermediate values when pitch bending, not a direct skip to the maximum bend value. This is so the pitch truly will "Bend" rather than jump.
  • Return the pitch bend to the default value when done.
  • Reset all controller values to their default at the end of a song. It also makes sense to do this at the beginning, as some programs will not reset them between songs and some sequencers will not reset them at the end.
  • Avoid overlapping notes or duplicating tracks unless absolutely needed. Especially avoid doubling tracks or notes with the same patch, this can produce a usually-undesirable "flanger" effect, and whether it does or does not, excessive doubling can make files excessively loud. If you don't want complaints about temporary deafness (and particularly if you don't know how to adjust the track volumes), totally avoid lots of multiple doublings.
  • When you finish your song, don't upload it to the new-files right away. Wait a few days, then listen to the original track, then to your MIDI, immeidately afterward. You'll probably notice a few mistakes. Fix them. Continue waiting and fixing until you don't notice any mistakes. Your work will vastly improve if you do this.


    : You have any tips on piano arranging?

    Actually, yes. Despite the detail, they're only going to be basic, at least for the time being, but to anyone who's not a frequent player of keyboards [of any musical sort, that is] these should be at least partially useful. And please don't anyone consider these patronising, because I'm aiming this at someone who doesn't play. Yet in fact, they should be good to bear in mind when arranging (and indeed, piano writing in general) even if you just won an international piano competition, though I should hope these things would be automatic at that stage... And I'm not going to mention tracks here, because that's an archive requirement, anyway, should you be submitting here.
  • Most people have only two hands, which mostly have only five fingers on each, so make the number of notes per hand correspond to the hand. It's far from unheard of (at least as far as I'm concerned) for a pianist to use the thumb to hold down two consecutive white notes when absolutely necessary (or even C#/Db+D#/Eb, F#/Gb+G#/Ab, or G#/Ab+A#/Bb, though this is much more uncomfortable, and don't even think about a single thumb over a minor third...), but even then that's not frequently used to play six notes in one hand [six notes in one hand is not too easy to find in graded piano music]. In general, I'd advise you to stick to four notes per hand as a guideline maximum, or you'll probably end up annoying most people who attempt to play your arrangement.
  • People's hands can only reach so far. Sensibly, I can only reach a minor ninth [ie. C4 to C#5, for example] or so, though some players will be able to reach a fair bit more and some a little less than that. You can gauge a sensible range for yourself, even if you don't play or have an instrument. Spread your hand as far as it goes, and measure the distance from the tip or thereabouts of thumb to your little finger, using your favourite method for doing so. The white keys on my digital piano, which should be "full size", seem to be about 32mm [7/8"] in width, with about a 1mm [about 3/64"] or so gap between. You can write diads or chords for one hand with a massive gap between notes, but bear in mind that if they can't be reached, they will not [cannot] be played consecutively in performance. If you decided to include that in your arrangement, to get around such a situation you could use the sustain pedal to hold down the earlier note(s) [see below].
    Also, bear in mind that wildly flying between registers (for [an admittedly lame] example, like "HIGH low HIGH low" really fast in one hand while the other is in use, or, worse still, in both) can be very difficult to play accurately for many players if the distances travelled are considerably larger than the distance the one hand can reach. I think that in those cases it should be possible to tell simply by listening if this is a problem. But going "HIGH low HIGH low" between the hands is fine, if that's what you want to do.
  • People have two feet they can use. So, on a piano, you have two pedals at your disposal pretty much however you want. But only use them when appropriate (I'll suggest how to do this in a moment). In general, piano music may have a lot of pedalling or no pedalling at all, but it's not common to find pedalling on practically every note. Basically, only pedal with reason. Notes are usually added only with reason, and the same should apply to pedalling. Anyway, your two pedals are:

    Soft pedal (left foot, controller #67): This gives the piano a quieter, softer tone. It is usually used to accentuate quietness of notes, however it does not necessarily make any difference to the volume, velocity or expression [in terms of sound or MIDI controllers] (you could still bash the keys [use high note velocities] when holding it down [setting controller #64 to 127], though this is not typical of piano music and I'm sure at least some would declare it outright "bad practice").

    Sustain pedal (right foot, controller #64): This makes every note played while it's held down ["on"] to continue sounding until it's released [turned off]. This is useful for keeping notes sounding when it's not ideal or possible to for the hand to keep holding them down. But as it keeps every note sounding, changing harmonies and even playing a melody [if the notes in the melody are not in the chord being sustained, that is] is generally a bad idea, as it is likely to become unclear what the chord is [of course, if that's the effect you wanted...]. A good guide is to consider all notes played while the sustain pedal is down as one big chord. If you don't think they sound good as a chord, don't keep the sustain pedal down [on] while they play, work something else out.
    One technical issue related to usage of the sustain pedal is the polyphony limit of synths. Play too many notes with sustain on, and some might get cut out, or the whole thing might even decide to give up completely if you really overdo it... As this isn't a problem with an acoustic piano, don't worry too much if about it, but I'll use that issue to point out that repeating the same note while sustain is down [on] is generally not a great idea. On a piano it can sound kinda amateurish to a pianist, and on a synthesiser it can produce that flange effect I mentioned in the doubling notes tip above [which is not generally reproducible on an acoustic piano, by the way].

    Finally, even with the sustain pedal down, the sound of the notes won't last forever. On some synths especially the decay might be very fast (or not...), so you might to add some more notes in there to "keep the sound going", if you think it's appropriate, of course (don't just do it because of the synth).
    Regardless of the different values you might be able to specify for these controllers, on a real piano each pedal is either up [off] or down [on] (well, at least it should be considered that way, anyway...), so stick to 0 or 127.
    However! Bear in mind that keyboards often don't even have a socket to plug a soft pedal into, though most keyboards costing any money these days should have at least the socket to plug a sustain pedal into. Even so, not everyone will have the actual pedal to plug into it as well. (A piano without either one, though, is a rare-ish sight, "early instruments" aside. Of course, they might not actually work, but that's another story...)
    And yeah, there's the sostenuto pedal, but I'm not going to talk about that right now as it's not very widely supported as an actual pedal by pianos or keyboards of any sort, regardless of MIDI synth implementation. And I'm definitely not discussing programmable pedals or practice pedals.

  • Instruments have limits, too! A "full-size" piano keyboard usually has 88 keys [A1-C9] or thereabouts (and don't even mention the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand... do you actually have one?), so you should stick to that as an absolute max limit. Many people may be using keyboards with 61 [C3-C7], 49 [C4-C7] or fewer keys (though octave transpositions can be useful in those situations). Bear in mind that those example keyboard ranges exist because that is the range most commonly used (or at least so it seems). Therefore it could be an idea to stick to somewhere near those ranges for the most part, but then again it might not be at all! It depends on the piece and what you want to do with it, really. Not that it's remotely practical to discuss that here... Anyway, keyboard ranges are definitely something to think about. I'm not going to actively encourage anyone to stick to a certain range, since I was talking about piano arranging in general, I think, but think about it. Decide for yourself. Just don't go beyond the "88 key" range [A1-C9].
  • Vary the note velocities! Only someone playing on a keyboard without touch response (or with it off, I guess... and no, I'm not talking about organs or anything...) is going to be able to play something as evenly as a MIDI with no variation in note velocities would sound, and that doesn't count. People have marvelled about the expressive qualities of the piano for, well, centuries, and you try that excuse? In general, MIDIs sound better with variation, anyway.
    But my reason for mentioning it here is so that the performer can get some idea of how quiet/loud the music should be at certain points. Yeah, I know I talked about evenness... articulating each and every note can certainly be a pain, but provide at least some variation. Make it clear through note velocities that this bit should be really loud and that bit should be fairly quiet, that sort of thing. I guess you could even add text markers, since sequencing programs don't necessarily come up with dynamic marks on their own... (hey, you could add all sorts of instructions that way...) Quite arguably, though, since the result will be a printed score and the actual MIDI won't necessarily (but it might be, though...) be a reference [and the performer wouldn't be able to replicate the note velocities exactly, anyway], aside from making the MIDI sound nearer to how it would sound if it was actually being played on a piano [sounding "nice, good" etc] then perhaps there isn't too much point of messing with every individual note velocity.
    If the original of the song you're arranging doesn't seem to have any variation in volume at all, at the very least set the velocities to an appropriate level (on a "loud", "quiet" or "medium" basis would be a start). But even better, "arrange" some variation in there if you can. That will make for a more interesting piece and, if effective, will make you a better arranger.

    I might find some more to say here later, but I'm going to take a breather for the moment.


    : Can I copyright my work?

    (As with the other copyright section, this reflects US Law as I understand it, it should not be accepted as the definitive interpretation of the law as I have absolutely no legal training. Your kilometrage may vary in other countries, but chances are your laws are very similar or even identical in meaning to those described here.)

    Sometimes. You can copyright your original works, anything that's entirely your creation, no problem. You can copyright your arrangements of music that's in the public domain. You can copyright any bits of remixes and medleys that's wholly and uneqivocably your work. You cannot, however, in general copyright covers of someone else's work, without the original's copyright holder's permission.

    When a work can be copyrighted, the copyright exists from the moment of creation and there does not need to be any kind of mention of this fact in order for a work to be protected. However, for added protection, displaying a copyright notice and registering the work with the copyright office is recommended.


    : What is an RMI/RIFF MIDI and can I upload them?

    A RIFF MIDI, file extension RMI, is a hideous bastardardization of the MIDI file format. I recommend full-scale, outright destruction of this file type. As for what one is? It's an ordinary, everyday MIDI file stuck inside a RIFF chunk. RIFF is Resource Interchange File Format, and it was designed to be used to facilitate transmission and use of various file formats and resources. It would allow for programs to read a large data file containing many different types of data, MIDI, images, and sounds, for example, and only use what the program understood, ignoring the rest. Sounds like a wonderful idea, eh? It never really caught on, though. Sure, MS got it to stick on WAVs and AVIs, then again, when you're pretty much the first to provide something to a wide audience, you have a good chance at getting your standard adopted. Those who come later are more likely to fail. That's what happened to RMI. You see, AVIs and WAVs were the first videos and sounds most people came across, but MIDI was a different story. People already had a MIDI standard. They had purchased expensive high end studio gear that dealt with standard MIDI files, and weren't about to stand for a major change in the way they had to do things just because a bunch of techheads sitting in a room getting their brains fried by EM radiation 80 hours a week thought that adding a 20 byte header which added no practical use to their files was a good idea. And so RMI never went anywhere.

    What does this all mean? Software incompatiblies. Basically, the RIFF chunk is wrapping paper. Cheap, thin, flimsy wrapping paper. Some programs may understand what the wrapping paper is and proceed to unwrap and use the file as they should. Other programs may simply see through the wrapping paper directly into the file underneath. They may or may not complain that there's something not quite right about the file. And a third group will see the wrapping paper and not have a clue what to do about it. It can't tell the difference between this wrapped up MIDI file and a gift from Aunt Floyd. As such, it will simply throw the file away and refuse to deal with it.

    So, as you've probably gathered, no, you may NOT upload RMI files. In fact, the upload script won't even allow you to upload them, so you couldn't if you wanted to.


    : What should I sequence?

    This question is easy. There's a group of wishlists, all with about a month of requests on them. Try one of them. You'll make someone happy and make our variety of songs even larger. Or go through your game library. Pick a song out of that obscure game no one but you has ever heard of.

    I do have a request of my own to make here, though. Please don't do anything that's been done many times before. For instance, we really don't need a fifteenth copy of any one of the hundred songs from the latest Final Fantasy. Do something DIFFERENT.


    : What is tracking?

    Tracking is the fine art of laying out phat beatz, rhythmz, and soundz. (I apologize for the language, just had to show I'm down with the scene. Even though I'm not.) It's pretty much the same idea as sequencing, expect modules are being made. Modules (For those of you who have not been paying attention) are basically the same idea as MIDIs with attached soundfonts for instruments. Unlike in MIDI, there are no set instruments, which means the sounds are only limited by your sampling capability and tracker's sample limitations. You can use actual voice samples, if you wanted. You can even make a capella techno songs (I've heard it done...). You also don't have to lay down every note. You can pre-make a drum loop, for example, turn the whole thing into a single sample, then put it into your song with a single note. There's also the ability to create full patterns and reuse them in any order, so there's no need to copy and paste the chorus into the song multiple times as with MIDIs.

    Of course, a tracker is usually very different than your average MIDI sequencer. Sequencers tend to be laid out around some form of traditional music notation, working on one instrument at a time. Trackers, on the other hand, are focused on a set of tracks. All the tracks can be worked on simultaneously, setting up a pattern, a segment of the song a few seconds in length.


    : Where can I get a tracker?

    Some of these trackers may be dead and defunct, but I still feel like listing them here. Be warned that each one of these probably produces a completely different file format, so you may want to look in to how common the format is, as well.
  • Modplug Tracker (PC-WIN)
  • Impulse Tracker (PC-DOS)
  • Octamed (PC-WIN/AMIGA)
  • MadTracker (PC-WIN)


    : Where can I get samples? How do I make them?

    Yeah, I suppose you will need some samples before you start tracking, won't you? Well, there's four primary ways to obtain samples:

    -Rip them out of other people's modules. Unethical and just plain not nice, but hey, it involves very little effort on your part. Best way to get them if you don't mind being known as a sniveling little thief.
    -Ask if you can use the samples out of someone else's modules. Still involved very little effort and you're not going to be known as a sniveling little thief.
    -Make them yourself. Some trackers will probably have the ability to create samples. There's also sample editors available. Of course, the trusty Windows Sound Recorder can also be used to produce samples for most trackers, if you're so inclined...
    -Go to a sample library somewhere and download a whole mess of well made and fine-tuned instruments. Two are Samples in Space and Analogue Samples, but there are many, many more out there, waiting to be found by those who look.


    : Why is everyone calling me a MIDI Thief?

    Could it possibly be because you stole a MIDI? The Archive and MIDI Sequencing forum are for showcasing your own work. People really do not appreciate it when you say their work is yours. People who do so are considered MIDI Thieves and are instantly placed on the hit list of pretty much every regular at the forums. Unless you want to be instantly hated by people from around the world, it is advised you avoid stealing MIDIs. Basically, stealing a MIDI means you took credit for sequencing, implied that you sequenced, or failed to properly credit the original sequencer. The single easiest way to avoid being tagged as a Thief and shunned from society is to never upload anything that is not 100% your creation. That means don't upload someone else's file and ask for comments, don't upload an instrument change remix (In fact, don't even make instrument change remixes ever. They're a complete waste of space.), and don't randomly attach files to your posts. If you ever upload someone else's file, be absolutely clear that you did not sequence the file, you had nothing to do with the sequencing of the file, and give full credit to the original sequencer if you have that information.


    : How do I loop a MIDI?

    Well, to make it simple, you don't. There is no standard, accepted way to do it, that's why many sequencers make their files loop twice (Usually through copy and paste), then end. Some programs allow looping to be specified, but they're extensions to GM that are not likely to be available elsewhere in any other programs, so a file that can loop with one of them probably isn't going to loop somewhere else. One program uses controller #111 in a file to set the loop point, while another uses text markers labeled "loopStart" and "loopEnd". Neither one is actually guaranteed to work anywhere.

    Please don't copy and paste and paste and paste and paste and paste, and so on, to make a ten minute long song that's just a 20 second loop repeated 30 times. That's a waste of space. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a 40 second song that takes up 1.5K. You don't need to artificially inflate it.


    : Your song ain't a remix if...

    If a song that you are calling a remix falls into any of these categories, it is not a remix, it's just a bad song and we probably don't want it here:


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