Notes from the Shore

Work, marriage, kids and music

Control Freak

Recently I posted about my cello issues with My Jesus, I Love Thee. To recap, the problem was that once a note was played, it was static save the looping of the sample. I needed to add some movement to the note while it was playing, much like an actual cello player would.

My first answer to this was to purchase an expression pedal. I found this to be cumbersome, and will require too much practice to get acceptable results. Right now I’m pursuing the purchase of a wind controller, like the Yamaha WX-5. This allows all sorts of real-time control over all sorts of expression parameters. Granted, there will also be a learning curve, but I played sax in college and believe that this will be a more intuitive method of adding that level of control.

Until then, I’ve been messing around with adding the controller information after the fact in the piano roll editor. Power Tracks (like most sequencers) allows controller data to be drawn in with a mouse. I started with the output from Finale’s Human Playback as a sample. My concerns about only using linear control changes proved to be unfounded. While I don’t have non-linear control changes to compare to, the linear ones sound fine to my ear.

Piano Roll Velocity Now, to the nitty-gritty of the work. We’ll start with measures 16-20 as our first example. Here’s an audio file of the segment. If you click on the thumbnail you can see a full-sized screen-capture of the piano roll window. First, a point – you say that’s not controller data, but key velocity. As we get into this, you will see that I do more than just shape the individual notes with controller data, I bring the overall level up and down. Why don’t you just do this with key velocity, since velocity is tied to volume. Checking out this graphic will show you that my heavy touch on the keyboard leads to very high velocity levels. Also, I found that the two in conjunction make a good combination.

Piano Roll Expression 1 Now, here’s the controller data. As alluded to in the last paragraph, I haven’t only shaped individual notes. In beat four of measure 16, note that the swell begins on the note before the sustained note in measure 17. Similarly, in measures 19 through the first half of 20 the phrase swells and then drops as it continues. What I was trying to do was emulate the way a cellist would shape the entire phrase. As a general principal I build the volume on ascending notes, and decrease the volume on descending notes.

Another thing to note is that the swell on the sustained note in measure 17 does not split the note evenly in half. This is significant in that the Finale Human Playback, upon which I based this manipulation, does split the notes – half up and half back down. After listening to it that way, I decided that I believe a live player would instead build for more of the note and then release closer to the end. To that end, I divided the note roughly into thirds and built for the first two, releasing for the final third.

Piano Roll Expression 2 Measures 43-47 provide a great example of phrase shaping. Here is an audio file of this segment. The pick-ups to measure 44 show one of the few “discontinuities” in the data. The pick-ups are rising in volume, with a sudden drop on the next note (this is all fairly subtle, but definitely there). Then the phrase from measures 45-46, with a decreasing volume all the way through. You can also see in the note sustained through measure 47 the typical 2/3-1/3 swell.

I hope that this brings you some inspiration for your (faux) acoustic instrumental lines. Remember, I’m not a professional, and I’m really just learning all this as I go along. I would love to hear some feedback, especially from those of you who have already tried this.

Hopefully my next post will be announcing the publising of this song. Until then, happy New Year.

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