Getting Started with MIDI and Pro Tools - dummies

Getting Started with MIDI and Pro Tools

By Jeff Strong

Once you start learning your way around Pro Tools, you probably want to know how to start using MIDI, right? To get started with MIDI devices and Pro Tools, you first need to know just what you have to buy to do some MIDI-ing yourself. Well, sorry to inform you that you can’t do any of this cool MIDI stuff with your vintage Stratocaster guitar or your acoustic drum set (unless you do some fancy rigging to your gear). What you do need is

  • A sound generator: This device, which enables you to hear the music, can be a synthesizer, drum machine, sound module, or sampler.
  • A MIDI controller: This device controls the MIDI instruments in your studio. You’ll most likely use the MIDI functions in Pro Tools for this purpose. This may also be your keyboard, electronic drum pads, or other MIDI instruments (such as the Roland GK3).
  • A sequencer: This device records and plays the MIDI performances that are programmed into it. The sequencer allows you to program your part into the synthesizer and have it play back automatically (much like the old-time player piano). Again, you’ll most likely use Pro Tools software for this, but you can use a sequencer in your keyboard if you prefer.
  • A MIDI interface: The MIDI interface is used to enable your computer to send and receive MIDI data. Many audio interfaces also include MIDI ports. You also find MIDI devices that include USB ports for MIDI connectivity.

This sounds like a lot of stuff, but most of this gear performs more than one function in the MIDI studio. For example, nearly all synthesizers come with drum sounds, and some synthesizers even include a sequencer. In this case, this one synthesizer can do the job of sound generator, drum machine, MIDI controller, and sequencer all in one.

Sound generators and Pro Tools

The sound generator is the core of the MIDI studio. This is what produces the sounds that you hear. Without it, you may as well skip the rest of the stuff because (of course) you won’t hear any of your work.

Sound generators can come in many different shapes and sizes: a fully functional keyboard synthesizer, an independent drum machine, a standalone sound module, samplers, software synthesizers (soft-synths), and a computer sound card. Each of these devices has its strengths and weaknesses.

There are different types of sound generators. Although you may find one piece of equipment that does everything you want, here, you take a peek at all the separate features that different equipment may have to help you understand the function of each feature and decide how to configure your studio.

Synthesizers

A synthesizer consists of not only sounds but also a keyboard on which you can play these sounds. Synthesizers come in a variety of sizes and configurations. For example, some keyboards come with 61 keys (5 octaves), and others provide as many as 88 keys (the number on an acoustic piano keyboard).

syntheiszer Pro Tools
A typical synthesizer contains a keyboard and a variety of sounds.

If you’re in the market for a synthesizer, you need to consider several things:

  • Polyphony: Polyphony is the number of notes that sound at one time. Most decent synthesizers nowadays have at least 16 notes of polyphony although models that can produce 32 notes at once are not uncommon.

    Each manufacturer treats polyphony differently, and the GM standards allow some variations on the effective use of this parameter. For instance, a synth patch may use more than one digital sound to create the actual sound you hear. The synth patch that you love so much may, in fact, consist of four different sounds layered atop one another. In such a case, you just reduced your polyphony by three-fourths, just by using that one patch. If your synthesizer has 16-note polyphony, it’s now down to 4-note polyphony because each of those 4 notes has four “sounds” associated with it. If you use this patch, you can play only 4 notes (a simple chord) at a time, not the 16 that you thought you had to work with.

    Your best bet is to buy a synthesizer (or sound module) with the highest polyphony you can get, especially if you want to layer one sound on top of another or do multitimbral parts with your synth.

  • Multitimbrality: Most decent keyboards allow you to play more than one sound patch at a time. This is multitimbrality, which basically allows you to have your keyboard divided into several groups of sounds. For example, a multitimbral synth can divide a song’s chords, melody, bass part, and drum set sounds into different groups of sounds — and then play all those groups at once.

    If you do any sequencing (recording or playing back MIDI data), a multitimbral synthesizer is a must-have. Otherwise, you would need a separate synthesizer for each type of sound that you want to play. Fortunately, with the GM standards, compatible synthesizers made in the last 15 years have the ability to play 16 sounds at once.

  • Keyboard feel: Some keyboards have weighted keys and feel like real pianos, and other keyboards have a somewhat spongy action. If you’re a trained piano player, a spongy keyboard may feel uncomfortable to you. On the other hand, if you have no training in piano and don’t need weighted keys, you don’t have to pay the extra money for that feature.
  • Sound quality: This is a subjective thing. Choose the synthesizer that has the sounds you think you’ll use. I know this seems kind of obvious, but buy the synthesizer whose sounds you like even if this means waiting and saving the money before you can buy. If you buy a synthesizer that was a good deal but don’t love the sounds, you’ve wasted your money because you’ll just end up buying the more expensive one later.
  • Built-in sequencer: Many keyboards contain a built-in sequencer, which allows you to program and play back your performance. Units like these are usually called keyboard workstations or MIDI workstations because they contain everything you need to create a song. If you’re considering one of these complete workstations, take a good, hard look at the sequencer and the user interface — make sure that you like the way those work for you. Each manufacturer treats the process of sequencing a little differently; you can probably find one that fits your style of working.

Drum machines

A drum machine contains the sounds of the drum set and other more exotic drums, as well as a sequencer to allow you to program rhythms.

Pro Tools drum machine
A drum machine has drum sounds and a sequencer to program rhythms.

Most drum machines contain hundreds of drum sounds, numerous preset rhythm patches, and the ability to program dozens of songs. All standalone drum machines have pads on which you can play the part. The more advanced drum machines can give your rhythms a more human feel. Effects, such as reverb and delay, are also fairly common on the more advanced drum machines.

Sound modules

A sound module is basically a stripped-down version of a synthesizer or drum machine. Sound modules don’t contain triggering devices (such as the keys for the keyboard, pickups for the guitar, or pads for the drum machine). What they do contain are a variety of sounds (often hundreds) that a master controller or sequencer can trigger. The advantage to sound modules is they take up little space and cost considerably less than their fully endowed counterparts (the synthesizers and drum machines, that is).

If you already have a master keyboard, you may find adding sound modules to be a cost- and space-effective way to add more sounds to your system.

Using samplers with Pro Tools

A sampler is a sound module that contains short audio samples of real instruments. Most samplers come with sound libraries containing hundreds of different types of sounds, from acoustic pianos to snare drums to sound effects. These sounds are often much more realistic than those that come in some synthesizers.

The real purpose of a sampler is to allow you to record your own sounds. For example, in the 1980s, it was cool to make a drum set from unusual percussive sounds. A snare drum can be the sound of a flushing toilet (don’t laugh, I actually did this) or breaking glass. Tom-toms can be grunts set to certain pitches. You’d be amazed at the strange stuff that people have turned into music — all with the help of a sampler.

Another common use of a sampler is recording short sections of already recorded songs. This can be a melodic or rhythmic phrase, a vocal cue, or a single drum or synthesizer sound. Sampling other songs is common in electronic music, rap, and hip-hop (be careful of copyright issues before doing this, however). If you’re into electronic music or hip-hop, you may find a sampler a necessary addition to your studio.

Soft-synths

Because you’re using Pro Tools, your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software enables you to produce great sounds by using soft-synth plug-ins. Soft-synths are basically software equivalents of standalone synthesizers, sound modules, or samplers. As you can see below, a soft-synth’s GUI (its graphical user interface, the smiley face that the software shows the world) is often designed to look just like a piece of regular hardware, complete with “buttons” and “knobs.”

computer-based DAW and synthesizer
Computer-based DAW users can choose soft-synths to create synthesizer sounds.

Of course, soft-synths have their advantages and disadvantages:

  • Advantage: Soft-synths cost less than standalone units because no hardware is involved.
  • Disadvantages: Unlike regular synthesizers, soft-synths use up processor power. This can slow down your computer system and prevent you from recording as many audio tracks or applying as many effect patches as you’d like. Another downside (depending on whom you talk to) is that soft-synth programs may not sound quite as good as an external synthesizer.

Countless soft-synth plug-ins are available for Pro Tools. All AAX instrument plug-ins will work with Pro Tools. You can find hundreds with an Internet search, including a ton that are inexpensive or even free.

Sound cards

Most sound cards that you can put in your computer (or that come with a computer) have General MIDI sounds in them. Depending on the quality of your sound card, it may sound decent or border on unbearable.

To find out whether the GM sounds in your computer’s sound card are any good, go ahead and play a MIDI file on your computer. First, do a search on the Internet for MIDI files (just type MIDI into your favorite search engine). Some sites require you to pay to download a song — especially for popular or familiar tunes — but you can find many sites that allow you to choose a song to listen to without downloading or paying a fee. Click a song, and it’ll start playing automatically. You’ll immediately know whether you like the sound of your sound card.

If you bought a new sound card for your computer to record audio with, you’ll generally find that the sounds are pretty good. And (happily) with your audio program, you also have access to soft-synth patches.

MIDI controllers

A MIDI controller is essentially what its name describes: a device that can control another MIDI device. MIDI controllers come in many different formats. In fact, a MIDI controller can be anything from a synthesizer to a drum machine, or from a computer to a xylophone.

When MIDI first came out, your controller choice was limited to a keyboard, but now you can choose other options — keyboards, wind controllers (for saxophones or other wind instruments), guitars, or drums. So even if you don’t play piano, you can find a controller that resembles an instrument you know how to play. Look around, and you may find one (or more) MIDI controllers that allow you to create music your way.

Sequencers

Although you can get standalone sequencers and sequencers integrated into a synthesizer, you probably want to just use the sequencer in Pro Tools for this. The reasons for this are many, but the overriding factor is that you can have your MIDI and audio tracks in one place, and Pro Tools offers you more powerful editing capabilities than a sequencer that’s contained in a box and that uses a tiny LCD screen.

MIDI interfaces

The MIDI interface allows you to send and receive MIDI information from a computer. Many audio interfaces have a MIDI port. If you end up doing a lot of MIDI sequencing, though, and use more than one sound module or external controller — or if you have an audio interface without MIDI ports — you need a separate MIDI interface.

Pro Tools MIDI interface
A MIDI interface is necessary if you want to connect your instrument to a computer.

MIDI interfaces come in a staggering variety of configurations, so you have several things to consider when you buy a MIDI interface. Use the following questions to help you to determine your needs:

  • What type of computer do you own? MIDI interfaces are configured to connect to a serial, parallel, or USB port. You determine which one to use by the type of port(s) you have in your computer. For example, new Macs have only a USB port although you can add a serial port if you remove the internal modem. A PC has either a parallel port or a USB port (sometimes both). PCs also have a joystick port, which accepts a special MIDI joystick cable; no MIDI interface is needed.
  • How many instruments do you intend to connect? MIDI interfaces come with a variety of input and output configurations. There are models with two In and two Out, four In and four Out, and even eight In and eight Out. There are also “thru” boxes that have one or more inputs and several outputs. If you have only one or two instruments, you can get by with a smaller interface. In this case, a 2 x 2 interface — two In and two Out — would work great. If you have many instruments that you want to connect, you need a larger box.