Key Issues: Printing MIDI Instruments

Recording keyboards via MIDI rather than audio not only lets you get good sounds very quickly, it also gives you maximum flexibility for making lastminute changes. However, sometimes it’s useful to print these sounds— meaning, record them as audio alongside your other audio tracks. Here’s why.
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In Sonar, the “Keys Funky” track is provided by MIDI data driving an instance of Rapture LE. After selecting both the MIDI track and the one that plays back audio, the Bounce to Track(s) option has been called up to bounce the resulting audio to a new track, thus converting the virtual instrument output into a hard-disk audio track.

This applies only if you’re recording to analog tape with a MIDI sequencer or drum machine and aren’t using a sync tone. If so, you’ll need to print the MIDI instruments’ audio signals. How many tracks you use is a tradeoff. Printing them to stereo tracks saves tracks, but you’ll never be able to adjust the instruments’ blend afterward. However, using up four or five tracks may not leave you much room to work with for recording other audio.

If you want a MIDI organ sound and an electric piano on your song, but you have only one keyboard and it can’t do both sounds at once, print one of them. Set up your program to play one of the sounds via MIDI— preferably the less important one— and connect the keyboard’s audio output to one or two of your recording inputs. Then, run the song while recording the keyboard’s audio to a new track or tracks. (Make sure no other audio is accidentally getting onto the new track.) For the rest of the tracking process—and during mixdown—you can let the other keyboard sound via MIDI, blending the first keyboard’s audio track into the rest of the mix.

Assuming your system can’t handle dozens and dozens of high-quality MIDI sounds being generated at once, you can thicken up the sounds by printing MIDI. For example, you could make a more complex string sound by printing several different string sounds that are playing the same notes, and blending them with a realtime MIDI string sound during the mix. Pan the various strings differently if you want them to sound broader overall. Just make sure the sounds are sufficiently different from each other. If one sound is just a slight variation on another one (perhaps the same sound with a slower attack), it’s not going to add anything, and it could potentially harm the blend through frequency cancellation.

Suppose you want a cavernous reverb on a string sound, but you want to use the same reverb unit on the vocals with a different reverb sound. The solution: Print the string sound onto two tracks in stereo, along with the cavernous reverb. Alternatively, you could print just the cavernous reverb, and run the dry strings in real time, which would allow you to alter the reverb blend easily whenever you need to. The tradeoff is a minor one: If you need to mute the string sound, it’s a two-step process, because you have to mute the dry strings and the reverb separately.

Maybe you have a MIDI track with fader, pan, or EQ moves that you can’t automate for some reason. Rather than repeating these moves each time you make a pass at mixing the song down, perform them while printing the instrument to two tracks in stereo. That way, each time you run the song, the moves will be there—almost as if you had automated them. Actually, this technique applies to any tracks— not just MIDI instruments. For example, if you want a lead vocal’s reverb to undergo complex panning and level changes that can’t be automated, print the reverb (only) to two tracks with these moves in place. Then, they’ll be there each time you run the song.

Whatever you do, don’t delete the MIDI tracks for any instruments you print—just mute them. You never know when you’ll want to go back, tweak a sound or a blend, and reprint. Keep your options open. A muted MIDI track takes up virtually no disk space or processing power, so why erase it?

Excerpted from Karl Coryat’s Guerilla Home Recording, and reprinted with permission from the Hal Leonard Corporation. Visit for more details.