I’ve mentioned in previous posts about how I set off recording these instrumental tracks. I generally start with a MIDI Mock-up to set the arrangement and parts, and then replace some or all of the instruments with live recordings of acoustic instruments. This methodology has worked well for me, and had produced decent results. By keeping things in the MIDI realm I can work out parts both in Finale and Sonar until I’m happy with what I have. Interestingly (at least to me) I originally wanted to do this project entirely using computer samples and MIDI, but have changed my position over the last several years. Now I want to use as many acoustic instruments as I can.
Before I decided I wanted to record acoustic replacements for these tracks, I spent quite a lot of time tweaking the MIDI data to make the samples sound as realistic as possible. The illustration at the beginning of this article is a screenshot of MIDI data for the soprano saxophone from Going Home, the closing track on the project. The light green and light blue curves represent continuous controller data – in this case vibrato rate and depth. The long horizontal blue bars are the actual notes (looking much like the perforations in an old player piano roll). Finally, the numerous horizontal bars are volume data, generated by the wind controller I used to enter the performance into the computer. What you can’t see are the initial note velocities (the analog would be how hard you hit the piano key), which in this case controls not the volume of the note but the strength or harshness of the attack.
Other examples of MIDI parts include the bass from the same song, using samples from the DimensionLE instrument that comes with Sonar; the grand piano which is from Garritan instruments (since discontinued); and in other songs various instruments from the Early Patches collection and my own recording of an African djembe coded in SFZ format.
I thought recently that it would be a neat comparison, now that I’ve completed some of these songs that started as MIDI mock-ups, to put the MIDI rendering and the acoustic recording side by side. I’ve chosen segments of two songs where I originally planned to use the MIDI tracks in the final project so we can make a comparison.
Going Home is the final track of the project. It is a simple 4-piece arrangement done as an homage to Vince Guaraldi. Originally I used the Garritan Authorized Steinway and the Garritan Jazz and Big Band soprano sax for the mix. The problem was that I struggled and struggled with producing the saxaphone solo I heard in my head for the end of the song. After trying numerous routes using MIDI, I ended up hiring my old jazz professor from Minnesota, Dr. John Paulson, to record the solo in his home studio in Winona. This lead to me having him record the entire soprano sax line so it would all sound consistent. Then I had a chance to record a live Steinway grand piano and the live version of this song was born.
Some observations about these two recordings:
First, they sound pretty similar – I’m actually quite proud of the work I did with the saxophone. The sampled sax has some notes that are a bit strident compared to the smoother tone of the live sax, but the performance and use of vibrato is satisfactory. I also noted that the ending of sustained notes in the live performance is superior to the MIDI track – they just end nicer.
Second, the sampled piano is more strident than the live piano. Both are 9-foot Steinway model D’s, but I’ve noticed before that once MIDI velocities on the Garritan get above about 85 (out of 127) the tonality gets really bright. On another piece I manually adjusted all the velocities below 85 to get the sweet tone I wanted. I would also say that on the live version the notes blend from chord to chord better, as well. I think this is a function of the sound blending and mixing in the room as I play, which doesn’t seem to happen with the sampled version – even with an applied reverb.
So, would I be embarrassed to release the MIDI version? Not in this case, but the live is definitely better. Also, the MIDI version lacked a decent solo at the end…
My Jesus I Love Thee
When I originally conceived of this mash-up of the classic hymn with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, I didn’t think about the cello line. As I recorded it, the need for the low register counter-melody leapt out at me. I played with several sampled cellos before going to a professional, who recorded for me a sampled cello – except this sampled cello was the high-end and extremely flexible Garritan Gofriller Cello (since discontinued). Ultimately I wasn’t satisfied with it, and on top of everything else I thought that the whole piece was recorded too slowly.
When the earlier-mentioned opportunity arose to record a live grand piano I decided to completely re-record this piece. I found B.J. Griffin on Craig’s List and we set up the recording session. Here is the comparison:
In this case, the MIDI tracks are easily distinguishable from the live tracks. The sound is much harsher and more strident. The piano could probably be fixed by altering the velocities below 85, as mentioned earlier, but the cello part is a toughie. Also, since Hans sent me the rendered cello track rather than the raw MIDI data, I couldn’t alter the tempo after the fact.
To sum up, there are amazing possibilities using sampled instruments these days. Some remarkable examples can be found here. If I spent enough time I could put together an album full of music that I would not be embarrassed releasing. But, I’ve also been reminded that a large part of the fun of making music is working with other people. It’s been a thrill hearing various artists interpret the material I’ve written. From cello to saxophone to handbells to violin I’ve been doubly blessed by what other people have brought to my project. I can’t wait to hear the one acoustic track that’s still coming – acoustic guitar. It’s going to be an exciting day when that link shows up in my inbox.
Lastly, if you got here from one of the various links I’ve strewn about the interwebs, and you desire to leave a comment, please do so here rather than where you linked in from. That way the comments are here for everyone to read. Thanks!