Making Tracks: Tighten It Up

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FIG. 1: In the Quantize Setup box in Steinberg Cubase 4.5, you can set the percentage strength of the iterative quantization (a Cubase-specific term), select a non- quantize area (visible in red) within which note-on events won''t be moved, and more.

I''m not a good keyboard player. When I try to record anything complicated, my MIDI sequence tracks are full of little problems. Fortunately, my sequencer''s piano-roll editor has some slick tools for making performances presentable. But be warned: The process is not magic. Close listening and hand-editing are required (see Step-by-Step Instructions on the next page).

Before hitting the Record button, I practice the part a few times. If I had an 88-note weighted-action keyboard, the raw recordings would be better, but I have to make do with a 5-octave synth keyboard. It''s harder to control finger velocity with an unweighted keyboard, and that means more editing of velocity data. I usually record only a few bars at a time, then stop and practice the next few bars. As a result, my average finger velocity may change between takes—another reason to edit.

Several things can go wrong during quantization. If you quantize the start times of the notes completely, the track will sound rigid and robotic. That can be a good thing, but not for tracks that you want to sound as if they were played by a human. If you need to quantize human-sounding tracks, use strength-based quantization set to about 50 percent. This will move each note halfway from its recorded position to the nearest quantize gridline. If the track contains various rhythms (such as a passage in triplets), you''ll need to set the quantize grid to the appropriate rhythm values and then quantize groups of notes rather than quantizing the whole track at once.

Notes that were recorded too far from the desired gridline can go further astray when you apply quantization because the computer will drag them over toward the wrong gridline. After quantizing, solo the track and listen to it entirely all the way through—these errors are easy to miss when you listen to the full mix.

Quantizing note lengths always sounds bad to me, so I don''t do it. I always set the quantize preferences to leave the note durations unchanged.

Changing the note start time (either by quantizing or by hand-editing single notes) may affect the sound of any MIDI control-change or pitch-bend data that you''ve recorded into the track. If the control data stays at its original location while an associated note moves, the musical expression may be warped. Conversely, if your sequencer automatically changes the timing of controller data when notes are moved, editing a chord can make a mess of the controller data. Check your owner''s manual for details on how your sequencer handles this. (In Fig. 1, note the Move Controller checkbox, which tells Cubase whether or not to move controllers when the sustaining notes associated with them are quantized.)

Some sequencers have macros for editing the velocities of a selected group of notes or of the entire track. For instance, you may be able to set all velocities to 50 percent of their current value and then boost them by 40 or so. If your original velocities vary from 12 to 90, after this process they''ll vary from 46 to 85. This type of data compression will give you a smoother-sounding performance, but it can produce a sort of “steel fingers” effect, especially if the synth preset you''re playing doesn''t have a deep velocity response to begin with. All velocity editing should be done while listening to how the synth responds. This is especially true with sampled sounds such as electric piano, where a small velocity change can cause a different sample to be triggered.

You can create crescendi and diminuendi very easily by drawing with the pencil tool in the velocity lane below the piano-roll. Another good use of the velocity lane is to leave most of the velocities unedited but examine the graphic display for isolated notes that stick out because the velocity is too high or are getting lost because the velocity is too low. You may be able to get a good performance by editing a few wayward velocities and leaving the rest of them alone.

Note Lengths
If you record a few bars at a time, either connecting your takes end to end or punching into the middle of long takes, check the piano-roll display closely for overlapping notes. A short note can be completely hidden in the piano-roll behind a longer note of the same pitch. On playback, the note-off message for the short note may cut off the long note before you expect it to. If you suspect this problem, drag the long note up or down (being careful not to change its start time) to see if something is hiding behind it.

Note lengths are often irrelevant with sequenced drum tracks, but not always. If the envelope release time of the drum sound is short, shortening the note can cut off a portion of the sound. This can be a cool way to do gated drum sounds or just tighten up a flabby kick drum sample, so you''ll need to know the features of your drum sample player to make the best use of MIDI drum editing.




Select and delete any short notes that your fingers brushed accidentally.

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Select the whole track (or a portion) and use 50-percent strength quantization to bring the notes closer to a tight rhythm without locking the performance completely to the beat.

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Listen to the track while watching the piano-roll window, checking for sloppy rhythms. After turning off the snap grid, use the mouse to drag individual notes closer to the desired gridline.

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Adjust velocity values as needed. In chords, you may need to edit individual notes by entering numeric data because it can be hard to grab a single note in a chord for graphic editing in the velocity lane of the piano-roll.

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Leaving the snap grid switched off, lengthen or shorten individual notes with the mouse to produce uniformly played chords and smoothly articulated legato or staccato in melodies and bass lines.

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If you''re recording a piano-type part that was played with the sustain pedal, you may need to move pedal-down and pedal-up events to conform to the newly edited rhythms of the notes.

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