It's time to work on some music. You boot up your computer, start up your sequencing program, turn on your MIDI instruments one by one, and begin setting up the instruments with the sounds that you think you'll need on various channels. You take out some sample CD-ROMs to load, scroll through lists of patches on synthesizers, maybe bringing up some reverb to listen to while you're working (making certain that the instruments are routed to the reverb), and then bring up faders on your board.
In the sequencer, you create a new song and a few new tracks and make sure everything is talking over the right MIDI channels. You might set up some software instruments, as well. Time elapsed: a good half-hour.
At this point it's obvious why people who have to churn out a lot of music in a short period of time have racks full of samplers and synths, all fully armed and loaded. They leave their studios powered up all the time, and they have configured their sequencers so that they can just select the sounds they want and get to work. A well-constructed sequencer template can organize your sound palette and substantially reduce the amount of time you spend searching. If you're dealing with a more modest rig, templates can help automate the startup process so that when your gear fires up, it's all ready to go. Here are some strategies for setting up sequencer templates.
ON THE SAME PAGE
Sequencer templates are simply song files that you use as starting points. They probably don't contain any music, although they certainly could (see the sidebar “A Good Track Record”). It's perfectly legal to create more than one template for different situations.
The template can be the default sequence that opens when you start up your sequencer, but it doesn't have to be. Steinberg Cubase Audio and Emagic Logic call this default sequence the Autoload file. In MOTU Digital Performer the startup sequence is stored in the program's Preferences file. Cakewalk Sonar opens a default file called normal.tpl (the file extension is an abbreviation of template). Sonar lets you create templates for different applications; each one is saved with a TPL extension. You can load a template that is relevant to a specific project type in an instant. Renaming a file normal.tpl creates Sonar's default sequence.
You'll probably want to lock your template files to prevent them from being overwritten accidentally when you save your work. On a Macintosh, you lock files in the Finder's Get Info dialog box; then when you save your work the first time, you'll get the Save As dialog box to rename the template. To protect a file in Windows, you right-click on it in the Windows Explorer File Manager view and set it to Read Only in the Properties dialog box.
Having said that, a central feature of sequencer templates is that they're constantly evolving. While working, you'll almost certainly set something up that you'll need to add to or modify in the template. This is especially true of screen sets, which are snapshots of the arrangement of the windows you work with (Sonar calls them Layouts). You can resize and arrange windows to suit your working style and save your layout as a screen set. Consequently, your last song — minus the music — often evolves into your next template.
Without wanting to suggest that you should box yourself in by using the same tired patches over and over, it's safe to say that most musicians have core sets of sounds that they always come back to, at least within a given type of project. We all have our signature sounds, along with our favorite drum kits, bass patches, and so on. You might also have one template for orchestral writing, one for contemporary electronic music, and another for acoustic instruments. The goal is to have your core sounds load automatically at the beginning of the session.
The first thing you'll want to do, though, is decide which MIDI channels you're going to use for specific categories of sounds. For example, you may want to use Channel 10 for drums to accommodate a General MIDI drum kit. With those channels reserved for core sounds, you can dedicate different channels to sounds that are unique to the project you're working on, without disrupting your base setup.
Another approach you can take is to dedicate certain synths and samplers to specific groups of sounds. Obviously, that won't work when sounds are available on only one instrument. But if you have two samplers that can read, say, the same Akai-format discs, then you could use one for your core sounds and the other for project-specific sounds.
PATCHING THINGS UP
Getting sequencer templates to call up patches on synthesizers and other MIDI devices is easy (that's not the case with samplers, which I'll discuss shortly). Just assign tracks to the appropriate MIDI channels, and the sequencer will send MIDI Program Change messages to call them up. For this to work, however, you need to provide patch lists for all your instruments so that the sequencer knows which bank and Program Change numbers to send.
Whatever they're called in your sequencer (for example, Patchlists in Performer and Instrument Definitions in Sonar), patch lists let you call up synthesizer programs by name rather than by bank and program number. Sequencers generally come with patch lists of factory patches for many popular synthesizers, and you can usually find lists for other instruments floating around the Internet. If you cannot find a list for your instrument, or if you want to catalog user programs that you've added, you'll need to create your own.
Where you create patch lists depends on the MIDI driver that your sequencer is using. If you're working on a Mac, you probably know about Open Music System (OMS), a standard MIDI driver that all Mac sequencers either can or (as with Digidesign Pro Tools) must use. When the sequencers are not using OMS, they're using their own MIDI drivers.
OMS comes with lists of factory patches for a good number of instruments, and you can create your own lists using OMS Names, a free utility program. MOTU's equivalent to OMS is called FreeMIDI, and it comes with even more lists of factory patches. FreeMIDI can run under OMS if necessary, and by tossing out a couple of OMS items you can force OMS to use FreeMIDI's patch lists. (See the support section of MOTU's Web site, www.motu.com, for step-by-step instructions.)
FreeMIDI patch lists are text files that you can create in any word processor or text editor. A great feature of FreeMIDI's patch lists is that they can organize programs into folders, so programs can be grouped into categories such as keyboards, basses, and strings (see Fig. 1).
The Mac versions of Cubase and Logic can run under their own MIDI drivers and under OMS. Cubase can be instructed to use OMS patch lists when it's using OMS; Logic requires that you create a text entry for each patch name one by one directly in its Environment window. Typing in a list of individual patch names is a tedious process. However, some programs can use MIDI System Exclusive (SysEx) commands to ask synthesizers to let you paste names in a bank at a time.
There are lots of programs that can perform that trick. The best tool for it — and for program management — is a patch editor-librarian. Emagic's SoundDiver is a good one that used to come in both Mac and Windows versions (the Windows version is due to be discontinued by the time you read this); MOTU offers Mac and Windows versions of Unisyn; and Sound Quest's MIDI Quest is a prominent Windows editor.
SoundDiver and Unisyn work hand-in-hand with their manufacturer's sequencers and automatically update your patch lists. Moreover, they can transfer SysEx data from your entire system to your sequencer as a bundle, so you can retrieve a new bank of patches and the new names will show up in your patch list. MIDI Quest is independent, but its integration with Sonar is extensive. For one, it can save patch lists in Sonar's master.ins file, which keeps track of instrument definitions. More than that, it comes as a Cakewalk plug-in that can be assigned to a Sonar track, where it can send blocks of SysEx data to your MIDI instruments. Because all of MIDI Quest's windows are available from the plug-in, you can fine-tune your patches on the fly.
Don't make a big investment in an editor-librarian just to grab patch names for your sequencer; there are lots of inexpensive and free instrument-specific editor-librarians and utilities. For example, FreeMIDI is freeware and comes with a utility called Patchlist Manager that requests patch names. Jeff Glatt's freeware MIDI Patch Lister (Win) lets you grab patch names from your synths and paste them into the sequencer of your choice. You can download the program — and much more — from his Web site (www.borg.com/~jglatt).
You'll find scads of editor-librarians at any of the music shareware Web sites, and many will let you pull patch names en masse into a text file to import into your sequencer. A casual glance at the Shareware Music Machine site (www.hitsquad.com/smm) revealed editor-librarians for BeOS, DOS, Unix, and Atari as well as Mac and Windows operating systems.
SAMPLE LOADING ZONE
Getting samplers to load programs when they're powered up is nothing new. As far back as 1985, the Sequential Prophet 2000 would load the floppy disk in its drive when you turned it on.
Many modern instruments are capable of doing the same thing, often in a more advanced way. For example, Kurzweil samplers from the K2000 on up have Boot Macro, which loads all kinds of data on powering up. It will even prompt you to insert missing media if necessary.
You can also record Kurzweil Macro files as SysEx data into your sequencer templates; play the data back, and your programs will automatically be loaded on the correct MIDI channels. The Roland S-760 has almost identical functions. Korg's Triton samplers let you save everything related to a project in a single folder. They do not automatically load sample data on startup, but once a Triton is on, the folders let you load related samples, programs, combinations, internal effects bus assignments, and global information data in one fell swoop.
E-mu EOS machines have an autoloading feature, as well as the Magic Preset feature, which can load a bank on the fly when it receives a Program Change message. Most Akai samplers have an autoload feature, and most older Akai models have a feature just like the E-mu Magic Preset. Clearly, it's well worth a trip to the manual to find out whether your sampler (if it's not one of the above) can load sounds automatically.
Digital Performer offers a Samplers window from which you can store samples with your sequence and send them out to your samplers. However, the transfer provides only raw sample data; keymaps, envelope parameters, filter settings, and such are not transmitted. In order to have your sampler ready to play, you'll need to store the raw sample data in Digital Performer and capture SysEx data as it pertains to the programs you require.
SOFT MONEY WELL SPENT
Software-based instruments make child's play out of this whole endeavor. You just arrange the instruments on tracks with the patches and samples they should have, and the entire snapshot is saved with the sequence file.
Digidesign Soft SampleCell and the original PCI card-based SampleCell let you create Banks, which are groups of instruments that all come up when they're loaded (see Fig. 2). This is a great way to load lots of instruments at once, and these Banks are independent of your sequencer templates.
Like standalone samplers and SCSI hard drives, an inexpensive IDE hard drive inside your computer can hold immense sample libraries. The latest disk-streaming samplers take full advantage of that capacity to access samples as large as you need them to be.
There are five disk-streaming samplers available today: Tascam's Gigasampler series (Win), which started the phenomenon; Steinberg's HALion (Mac/Win); Emagic's EXS-24 (Mac; the Windows version is scheduled to be discontinued by the time you read this); Bitheadz's Unity Session (Mac/Win); and Speedsoft's VSampler (Win; distributed by Cakewalk). Many people run Giga-series samplers on a standalone machine: they can practically set themselves up. The same applies to any computer being used as a standalone soft-instrument machine. Windows offers an Autoexec folder; anything put inside the folder will launch as soon as you turn on the computer. The Startup Items folder serves that purpose on the Mac.
Propellerhead Reason (Mac/Win) is a popular pattern-based sequencer that controls several soft instruments you load into its rack. Using a system called ReWire, it can stream its output into another sequencer. If you use it, be sure to assign tracks for it in your sequencer templates.
If your goal is to be able to sit down, click on a track, and start recording on it, your only solution is for the template to have a list of tracks set up with all your sounds. The problem is that long lists can quickly become unwieldy, especially if you're using large sample libraries and you need to have, say, 15 different string articulations alone. (Because this scenario is so common, the top-of-the-line Giga Studio 160 can access 64 MIDI channels.) It helps to map multiple sounds onto the keyboard when possible rather than using separate MIDI channels for each one. Not only does that make sounds more playable and reduce the track count, it conserves MIDI channels.
Cubase and Logic both have a Folder Tracks feature that lets you pack multiple tracks into a single track that only opens when you double-click on it. That would allow your hypothetical 15 string tracks to take up only one space in the list. You can use these tracks as palettes in Cubase; when you find the one you want, you can “unpack” it onto the main track list.
Logic can unpack only the entire folder, but you can get around that limitation by opening two Arrange windows, which are the same as the standard track windows at the heart of every sequencer. In Fig. 3, the main Arrange window shows the entire piece of music; the second Arrange window is linked to the first so that it shows the contents of the string folder when you click on the folder icon in the main Arrange window. A second monitor can really come in handy here.
Another way to organize sounds in Logic is to use separate Environment layers for each category of sounds (see Fig. 4). For example, your strings would all be in one layer. Rather than using a Multi-instrument (in which all 16 MIDI channels in a multitimbral device are represented by one icon) for a device, you'd use regular single-channel Instruments for each sound. You could even choose violin icons for the string sounds. Then you would simply locate the Instrument icon for the patch you want and drag it onto a track in the Arrange window; the track will take on the correct assignment.
In any sequencer, it helps to consider the order in which you place your tracks. Most people put them in score order, but any system that makes sense to you is as good as another.
MIX AS YOU GO
Working with audio and MIDI tracks side-by-side can blur the lines between what used to be separate stages (such as writing, performing, editing, mixing, and mastering) in the production process. It has become normal to do a lot of the mixing as you go.
Just as it's helpful to ready sounds for writing in a sequencer template, it's a great idea to include effects and signal processing the way a mixer would set them up initially. This is particularly easy if you're using plug-ins, but almost all hardware digital-effects processors can have their programs called up by patch changes. The effects and processes will almost certainly need fine-tuning for each piece of music, but there's no reason not to get a head start.
A typical rock mix might have a large-space main reverb; a plate or smaller reverb; depending on the style, some tempo-synced delays set to various musical values; and, of course, EQ and compression on all the mixer channels. The mix might also have a “spreader” program consisting of dual hard-panned delays set to about 15 and 40 ms and possibly detuned a couple of cents from one another. That simulates walls in a room to add some dimension. Spreaders are great for a lot of things, including mono synth programs that need some depth. If appropriate, you can then send the whole thing, wet and dry, through the main reverb.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
There are all kinds of other conveniences that you could easily include in a good sequencer template. Maybe you need a switch that remaps Breath Controller messages to another MIDI controller number that your sampler understands, or perhaps one of your keyboards puts out too high a velocity for another instrument. Just about any sequencer today will let you create a control that can transform one MIDI message into another, and you can store that as part of a template.
Additionally, all of the sequencers mentioned here provide control panels that you can customize to let you animate synth parameters in real time. Merely save the sequence file with your new control panels as your default sequence, and they'll be ready to rock from the start. As sequencers develop more features and your working style evolves, you'll find more ways to save time and energy.
Nick Batzdorfwrites articles and music in Los Angeles. Many thanks to Andrew Keresztes for inspiring this article, and to Mark Ayers and Andy Hardwake for their help.
Tascam tel. (323) 726-0303; Web www.tascam.com