Not everyone has been blessed with an early childhood of fervently forced piano lessons. For those with no memories of running scales from the womb, there are now software shortcuts to help compensate for any lack of keyboard experience and skill. These programs play a significant role with non-piano-playing musicians, as they are most commonly the ones picking up synths as secondary instruments due to the fact that MIDI controllers have become a staple of the producer’s tackle box.
The tools that make hiding these technical sins possible are called “MIDI plug-ins,” and they process MIDI data in a way analogous to how audio plug-ins process audio data. Most DAWs, like Cubase, Sonar, DP, and others can accept MIDI plugins (although these tend not to be standardized, and therefore, work only with the programs for which they’re designed).
For example, Ableton Live offers some easy-to-use MIDI solutions that can reshape a poor-playing keyboardist into a reasonably consistent and presentable performer. So put those heavy-handed, herky-jerky clam hands to work, and check out the array of Ableton’s performance “safety buffers.”
If the song arrangement is a dynamic flatliner, but the synth disagreeably jumps up and drops in volume, a quick adjustment of the synth’s velocity curve will smooth over any dynamically errant notes that continue to crash the party. Simply go to the Ableton browser, open MIDI/Effects, and drag over a Velocity patch. Set Compand to -1 for a brutishly desensitized experience. (For the opposite effect, set Compand to +1 for an exaggerated dynamic range that’s touchier than Tipper Gore.) This can be particularly helpful with synths and controllers that only have a few velocity stages, and subsequently peak in volume and tone with minor keystrokes variations. For a one-size-fits-all volume range, change the mode to Fixed.
If dynamics are the least of your worries, and incorrect notes are the primary offenders, consider some serious airbags with the Scale effect. While it’s always possible to play wrong notes, this patch allows users to eliminate any unused and potentially hazardous notes, thereby making the offending key silent, or reassigning it to a neighboring safety pitch. Unless the tune has chromatic runs, this is a wonder gem for all things diatonic, pentatonic, and monophonic. All scale programming is done through the note matrix, which can be daunting at first, but remember that the Xaxis (horizontal) represents the physical key on the controller, the Yaxis (vertical) is for the assigned pitch, and every block moves in half steps. The bottom left corner represents the base pitch. (Hint: If finger splits aren’t a favorite pastime, it’s possible to assign octaves only a half-step apart.)
Beyond offering basic musicianship fixes, Ableton Live provides additional MIDI madness for fattening up a performance. The Chord patch—the sherpa of all MIDI effects—is a great tool for those with many fingers, but little time. By dragging the device to a MIDI channel, a synth is immediately prepped to automatically add harmonies to individual notes. This is particularly helpful for playing single-digit octaves, fifths, fourths, and so on. If parallel chords aren’t ideal, insert it before the Scale effect in the signal chain, and it’s easy to tailor harmonies of each note to fit a specific key. Now, anyone can become a one-fingered, chicken-pecking virtuoso. Letterman, here I come. . . .
Arp Arp Arp
The Arpeggiator is the Excalibur of Electronics, the Ginsu of Gizmos, and the Tragedy of Techno. Perhaps that last jab is a little south of the equator, but there is no denying that arpeggiators have dominated and empowered the techno sound. Oddly enough, Ableton’s arpeggiator falls short of its competition. For basic on/off rhythms it works fine (although there is a latency issue due to the fact that striking a key doesn’t restart the cycle, thus making it impossible to use on stage), but it doesn’t accept user patterns. For any arpeggiating depth, it’s best to switch over to Reason, as Propellerhead has developed a much more versatile and powerful arpeggiator.
Don’t Get Too Perfect
All of these tools make it much easier for players who have adopted keyboard as a “second language” to lay down consistent- and professionalsounding synth tracks. But don’t get too obsessed with crafting perfection, as it’s often the beauty of inaccuracy that makes for an interesting listen. Binary gets old real fast!