My last track was a bit of an experiment as I was using Midi to control Alchemy. In response a few people asked for my thoughts on Little Midi Machine and virtual MIDI – so here we are:
In the past I have hardly used MIDI at all, this is simply because I didn’t really understand it. I have had some brushes with MIDI though…
<engage PoD history lesson>
Back in the old days I had only one Midi compatible device, my drum machine (Boss Dr-220 Dr. Rhythm drum machine), so no need for Midi, my MiniKorg and Logan “String Melody” string machine were pre-midi devices.
Then a couple of years later I upgraded my synth to a Yamaha DX11 and my drum machine to a Roland Tr505 – that meant 2 midi compatible items and by reducing my drum patterns to use only bass, snare and hats I found I could free up the remaining 12 parts to send signals to the yamaha.
Not very sophisticated signals I grant you, no note length, just a 16th note and volume, but by making the DX11 Mono, setting a longer release and by using velocity sensitivity in my patches I could make some pretty cool basslines. Sync was not an issue, I just had to press the button at exactly the right time when recording.
A few of years later I had a couple of Yamaha QY walkstations and found the DX11 made a really good midi keyboard to control the tiny sequencer/soundmodule.
</engage PoD history lesson>
When I think of music technology I am reminded of this Calvin quote from Calvin and Hobbes:
“Do you hate being a girl? What’s it like? Is it like being a bug?
I imagine bugs and girls have a dim perception that nature played a cruel trick on them, but they lack the intelligence to comprehend the magnitude of it.”
Like a musical bug I am dimly aware of a vast world of deep technical sophistication that exists out there, but I lack the knowledge and or intelligence to comprehend the magnitude of it. And you know what? That is OK with me.
<here he goes again with the old-days!>
I used to play guitar and bass (and sing, but that’s a whole other story) but switched to synths, in part, because I could not play a note. After 10 years of guitar I was competent, but every time I picked the thing up I would end up playing the same old blues scales and rock riffs and could not write any songs on it. I wanted to write songs, and I found moving to an instrument I could not play, but which made great sounds, was the solution. I could write a 4 note song because I was really listening to the sound and rhythm rather than letting my fingers run through their routines. Even now I consider myself an intermediate, or possibly an advanced beginner, when it comes to electronic music, I am always learning new stuff and that is a large part of the joy, but there is still a mountain of knowledge to be gained. My old punk ethic tells me that anyone can make music and I am able to do tunes I am proud of, and learn along the way. </here he goes again with the old-days!>
So, back to the subject at hand, MIDI.
When I mentioned using Little Midi Machine in my last track 3 people independently asked me to blog about it because they wanted to know more. So here is my Dummies Guide to ipad Midi, written by a dummy rather than for a dummy. I am just learning this stuff so expect mistakes in my understanding, I hope it helps some of you!
Midi is now 30 years old and seems to be going strong
Wikipedia has a fairly lengthy piece on what MIDI is… but at it’s most basic- when dealing with MIDI I have 16 available channels, each one of them can send a variety of information to a device (effectively as series of numbers from 0-128) to control various parameters on the downstream device.
On an iOS device we have 2 flavours of MIDI (yes Americans, “flavours”):
Core MIDI which is the old standard we use to get signals to and from external hardware (so if I plug in my little Akai keyboard and press a key the MIDI information for which note, how hard etc comes into the ipad on a single MIDI channel and is received by the app/apps I have open and listening on that channel. )
To see the numbers arriving and understand what signals are coming in better I would recommend installing “MIDI Monitor” by Domestic Cat or “MIDI Wrench” by Crudebyte, both free on the App Store.
Virtual Midi: an internal iOS protocol that allows you to send signals from one app to another (eg from SoundPrism to Animoog, or Little Midi Machine to Alchemy).
Now you know, you can forget about the difference because pretty much all of the serious synths that support either will support both. There are exceptions that are important, I believe Nanostudio doesn’t have virtual MIDI which is why otherwise decent respectable people feel obliged to sully themselves with BeatMaker2 (hee hee) and iMini doesn’t seem to work with Virtual Midi at all for me and, apparently, for anyone else.
Now six months ago I would have chipped in with “Well who needs Virtual MIDI anyway, I have sequencers and arpeggiators on all my favorite apps anyway” and that is a good point, you can get by without using Virtual MIDI. I write a lot of my basslines in iPolySix because I like the internal sequencer, but that functionality is not available everywhere.
Mostly I use MIDI when I dislike the sequencer/arpeggiator in an app or that app doesn’t have a sequencer/arp. Examples – I cannot get on with Sunrizer’s arpeggiator, I love Sunrizer and I know a lot of people love the arpeggiator, but not me. If I want to run a sequence in Sunrizer I use an external sequencer. Alchemy doesn’t come with a sequencer/arpeggiator (or at least not one you can get to) so I thought I would see how it sounded running a sequence and loved the result.
So my default midi sequencer to date has been the excellent, and free, “Little Midi Machine”.
This app is an emulation of an old hardware sequencer, similar to the sequencers built into iMS-20 and Magellan. You have 2 sequence banks (you can set the MIDI channel for each) and each can contain 4×16 step sequences or one 64 step sequence. You set the notes by moving a set of sliders which can be a little fiddly. You can turn a given step on or off, and you can skip a step to give crazy time signatures. Sequences can be run forward, backward or random (!). You can sequence/control notes, note velocity, note length. The routing to midi channels is straightforward and you can fast switch from one app to another. There is functionality for Midi record and transpose from outside sources that I have never used.
In short an amazing package for NO MONEY AT ALL. Get it and try it, you have nothing to lose. This is still my most used MIDI sequencer.
Next I bought Phaedra. This is another analog hardware emulator. Much of the same functionality as LMM but here you have 4 sequencers, you can set the channel for each, and each can be up to 32 steps long. each can run forward, backward, bounce forward to backward, and random.
As with LMM you can set note, length (called gate), velocity and also 2 assignable cc values that you will need to configure on your synth. I have had problems with Phaedra when I first got it because there was much I did not understand about MIDI, but even this morning I found that it arbitrarily stopped playing when I was switching between Apps which kind of defeats the object of having the damned thing. If it worked right you could use it to do some very cool stuff however.
Next up is that MIDI-head’s favorite Genome. People who know and love MIDI live Genome. I don’t.
seven 16 tracks (thanks Tim at Discchord for pointing out you can scroll down and see more!)and you can set as many patterns as you like in each, this is great if you play live and want to control multiple synths (internal and external) and program in whole songs. I don’t do that and so all that functionality is wasted on me. The programming is through a draw-bars-on-a-grid interface familiar to users of Nanostudio, BM2 etc but as I am used to Nanostudio’s beautifully executed and intuitive editor I find Genome really difficult, I have tried many times to use it but always end up getting frustrated. This probably isn’t Genome’s fault, I just don’t like the interface and it is the wrong tool for the job I want to use it for, namely running sequences on synths so I can record the output into a track.
New kid on the block is Sugar Bytes’ Thesys.
I know a lot of people have grumbles about the interface being crowded, buttons small, zoom difficult to manage etc and that is all true, I had complained to the dev about the zoom within an hour of this beast coming out. However this is a serious MIDI Sequencer. Now as far as I can tell this only has a single sequence bank, and so for the basic user could be said to have less that Little Midi Machine, and that is true, it was born of a VSTi plugin and is designed to control a single synth. But here is serious control. You can program up to 16 patterns of up to 32 steps. For each pattern you can control pitch, velocity, gate time (length).
Then there is the performance bar that lets you add ‘events’of 5 types (octave/2octave up/down, bends, split notes into a variety of stutters, Add chords on a step ?!?, or add one of 17 other events) and at the bottom there is the innocently named Modulation bar, that is actually 8 selectable modulations that allow you to sequence balance, volume, Dataentry,foot, portamento, ctrl3, breath, modulation. I am not going to pretend to understand what half of that means. Suffice to say if there is some aspect of your sound that can be pissed about with you can automate that pissing about here. Ever one of these things can be randomized, and played forward, backward, random, each 2nd, 3rd 4th… if you want.
You can chain all your sequences together into a song. of course. Nicely it also comes with an internal synth with a whole bunch of presets so if you are just noodling about you can try out your sequences without having to open up any other apps.
Most interestingly though is the ability to change the lengths of any or all of the sequences, for example I could set a 16 step sequence on the pitch, and a 15 step sequence on the performance setting the 11th step to down-octave the pitch. As I run both that down-octave would creep forward a step every time the 16 step phrase repeated. And this poly-rhythmic ability can be set across the board, so that simple sequences can evolve in very complex ways.
I am sure there are plenty of other but I don’t have them! Devs, feel free to send the codes to me!