I spent a little time working on what will be the last track on the new project: Going Home. It’s sort of an homage to Vince Guaraldi, one of my favorite jazz piano players. The concept is piano, soprano sax, upright bass and trap set played with brushes. Likely everything will be totally MIDI tracks unless I come across a soprano sax player who will work for cheap (and I like his tone).
While playing a real acoustic instrument, the player is making an uncountable number of real-time adjustments to the sound – volume, tone and pitch. To make a moderately realistic emulation or rendering requires the sample to make similar adjustments. The beauty of acoustic instruments is that these adjustments are all totally natural, and most experienced players make them completely unconsciously. In the MIDI realm, I have to do things a little differently.
I start with my trusty WX-5 wind MIDI controller, and the soprano sax sample from Garritan’s Jazz and Big Band library. Once I have something workable recorded, then the real fun begins. I use three primary controllers – sustain pedal for legato, aftertouch for vibrato depth, and CC#17 for aftertouch speed. For this song, I probably won’t mess much with pitch bend (often difficult to pull off naturally) or the timbre or pitch variation controls.
After inputing the extra controller data, the track looks something like this:
The horizontal bars are the notes. The dark blue mountain peaks in the background is the real-time volume data generated by the WX-5. My edits are light blue and yellow envelopes in the foreground.
The light blue is aftertouch (vibrato depth). I start the vibrato on the longer notes about 1/3 into the note and bring it up smoothly from 0. I vary the peak a little, with high notes getting a little stronger vibrato. On the final notes of each phrase, I fade the vibrato back out at the end of the note. I like a curve for this more than a linear change. It gets into the vibrato a little faster, but takes its time getting to the full level. It just sounds more natural to me.
The yellow controller is vibrato speed. (CC#17). I start each vibrato a little slower and speed it up as I increase the depth. Again, the higher notes tend to receive faster vibrato. The final note of each phrase has slightly slower vibrato, which comes up to speed slower, as well.
I don’t have any hard and fast rules about where to put these controllers – the only rule is make it sound good. It takes some time to program all these controllers in (some advocate playing the controllers in real time after recording the track – I can’t get that to work for me satisfactorily) but the results are well worth it. After placing the envelopes, I go back in and tweak until I’m satisfied.
The following links take you to audio examples of a section of the song. The SaxControls.mp3 sample has all of the controller data intact. The SaxNoControls.mp3 sample is the same section of music without the vibrato or legato data. It still has the volume data because that’s a pain in the neck to delete.
I hope this lesson demonstrates that it’s not that difficult, just tedious, to make a reasonable facsimile of an acoustic instrument with today’s high-powered samplers. The results aren’t perfect, but they are passable.