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How to use a monotimbral MIDI synth as a multitimbral

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 09, 2012 10:59 pm    Post subject: How to use a monotimbral MIDI synth as a multitimbral Reply with quote

This note is for the forum at interruptor.ch and should not be reproduced elsewhere.


Many classic reggae recordings from the 1980s feature a part, or several parts, played by a monotimbral MIDI synth. Jah Shaka is reputed to have used several Yamaha DX-7 synths at the same time, connected to the same computer or MIDI sequencer in his studio, at one point in his career. Fortunately, if today we have a DX-7 or DX-anything, as I’m sure many of us have, we don’t need to acquire several of them in order to sequence several DX-7 tracks at the same time. The old digital FM synths are astonishingly high quality - the DACs on the 7-op ones produce their waveforms at a rate of 60khz. In other words they are higher quality than most softsynths, so we should still use them. I have very simple method and technique that lets you do the following:

1) Lay down a MIDI track using any classic real pre-GM MIDI-enabled monotimbral synth, and then another, then another, ad infinitum, all in different voices;
2) Retain human feel (timing and velocity idiosyncracies when playing with up to 8-bit signed grid resolution) while correcting errors and manually altering parts, without having to erase a track and start again;
3) Have your hands free to adjust (not automate) real synth parameters on the fly;
4) End up with a real multitrack recording that sounds just as clean as something that might be produced ‘in the box’ but which is in fact produced 100% ‘out of the box’ using an old technology. **Note: sound made with vintage gear does not mean it has to sound like a 7-year old kid recording something on a crappy C90-cassette!
5) Play alongside any track at all as your ‘click’ track, all the while recording your own playing as a MIDI track.

If you already have a method to do all this, you don’t need to read further. I have decided to write this because this is the method I use and a Google search reveals no tutorials on how to do it. This note is for anyone who has a monotimbral pre-GM MIDI synth and only knows how to use it for multitracking, and wishes it had full 16-channel GM MIDI spec. Although this technique and software I shall describe is extremely good for reggae ‘versioning’, it can be used for all types of music. Personally I would like to hear more experimental synthy-type reggae music of the type now coming out of France, and less traditional sounds, but by writing this I also wish to show how exactly my own recent music in reggae and non-reggae formats has been made. This is unfortunately somewhat necessary in these times when almost all sounds can be produced by a computer, and unless one listens closely and studies the signal it’s easy to make mistaken assumptions.

Necessary gear

1) Hardware monotimbral synth that can receive MIDI note events as input. Yamaha DX, RX, certain Junos, Casio CZs, etc. Anything.
2) Hardware MIDI to computer interface: the old-school way is a direct MPU-401 connector to soundcard, the new way is a USB-MIDI cable.
3) Software: Audacity latest version. Disable software playthrough and set it to record line input.
4) Software: a good MIDI sequencer that allows you to play and record MIDI alongside an audio file.

The technique and choices you make will all be based around point (4) above. For the remainder of this note I shall explain in terms of Frieve Music Studio, as this is a full-featured free MIDI sequencer of the old-school, side-scrolling, piano roll and grid, type. I recommend it, and if you choose to follow my recommendation you will need to find the English compressed version of Frieve, and open it externally or it will not work. If you don’t already have a MIDI sequencer, you may find that your existing ‘DAW’, such as Cubase, has all the functionality needed. If you choose to use another, such as Anvil Studio, that is fine. However I shall explain only how to do this with Frieve.


Start both Audacity and Frieve. Your synth audio output is plugged in to your soundcard’s line input. Audacity should be set so that recording is from line input, however do not start recording yet. In Frieve you need to import a wav file. Find ‘audio entry’ and click ‘WAV to WAF’. Now you will need to select a path and choose a file on your hard-disk. Choose the WAV file you wish to use as a click track. At this point you should be thinking about either BPM or the track you wish to ‘version’. If you are making a version, choose that WAV file, but ignore everything I will say about BPM and quantizing. If you are making something from scratch, choose a click track you can hear audibly and which is precise to a certain BPM. When you’ve done this, the WAV file will be stored and marked with slices. You should then go to ‘Audio Track’, and using the arrow cursor enter, with a single click, your entire WAF into the first available slot, right up to the left with no gaps.

Assuming you put in a click track, adjust Frieve’s native BPM rate. You will find this near the top of the screen. Enter the same, precise BPM as your click track. Now, just beneath it there is a bar mentioning the limit to the length of the song. By default it should be set to 4 or 5. You will need to extend this to about 160 for a 5 minute track.

Go to the Track window under Frieve, click anywhere in there. Choose the channel number your synth is set to receive and send MIDI signals on. By default, channel 1. Arm the recording track by clicking to the extreme left so that a red letter ‘R’ is shown. Now you will need to click the big red ‘tape transport’ record button at the top of Frieve. Frieve will begin a countdown before recording. When the recording time starts, you will hear your ‘click’ track (in my case a thumping drum track) in the background, and whatever you play will be recorded. When you have finished playing your piece, you will need to press the stop on the tape control panel yourself. ‘Rewind’ the tape control by double-clicking the stop button, and turn the red ‘R’ letter OFF. Get used to this ritual because you will always have to do it. Let’s call it ritual A.

Make sure your freshly recorded MIDI track is selected in Frieve. You know it’s selected when a red square appears to the left. Then hit control-Q. A dialogue with several fields shall appear. I wish to show you what these mean. The most important thing to appreciate is the basic bar length, which is one semibreve, which equals a unitary value of 960. Naturally, a minim would be 480, a quaver would be 240 and a semi-quaver 120, etc. Now look to the right of this box, and find the one called 'ratio’. Here you choose the proportion to which the quantization, should you want it, should take place. Naturally, you should never choose 100%, and in my experience the timing differential is distinct at about 50%, so whenever you quantize bear it in mind. Quantization is a technique used by professional dub music producers in the UK, where the more rigid reggae sound called ‘UK steppers’ predominates. There may still be a Youtube video somewhere of Dougie Conscious’s studio using quantization moderately, in software. If you have not been playing to a digital click track but to an old analog recording such as 70s roots, quantization will be no use to you. Close this window now.

Ritual B: Enter the side-scrolling screen for the MIDI track you just recorded. Manually enter in a note (any note - it will be deleted later) right up to the left in the very first bar of the track.

Ritual C: Go into Audacity and click record. The meter will start recording immediately. Leaving Audacity recording, go back into Frieve, make sure the ‘tape control’ is set to the beginning, and press play. The synth will play back the MIDI file you just recorded. Leave your window on Frieve and let Audacity record in the background. Audacity uses some CPU power to show you the waveform as it’s being recorded. Frieve will not show you as much, so look at Frieve while it’s recording and give the computer a break. This will avoid sync errors. You can change parameters on the synth while this is going on. When you’ve reached the end of the MIDI track, go to Audacity and stop recording. Fit the waveform to the screen using Control-F, then use Control-1 and Control-3 to zoom in to that 'starting note’ you entered by hand in Frieve. Delete everything up to the very beginning of that note. Then silence that note out (don’t delete it) with Control-L. The audio file is now synced, and you should export it to WAV.

Ritual D: Go back to Frieve, go into Audio Entry, put your new audio file in there under your existing audio track(s), as before. Then go to Audio Track and put your new audio file (you will be able to select it with a drop-down list) right up to the leftmost start point, under your existing track(s). Then go back to the main Frieve track view and MUTE the MIDI track you made earlier, before restarting Ritual A.

Repeat rituals A+B+C+D as many times as you want. If you start running out of CPU/memory (unlikely) you can bounce down in Audacity whenever you like. With every subsequent track choose a difference voice.


This method I have described has the following advantages:

1) No need to buy new hardware - use existing synth;
2) All the software I mentioned is freeware;
3) If you use the exact method I described the tax on your system is extremely low compared to a semi-pro or pro DAW.

With regard to point (3), it’s important to note that MIDI is an old technology, and MIDI sequencers belong to an old class of software. As such, the side-scrolling basic MIDI sequencer that happens to be able to play an audio file has an efficiency advantage over certain other applications. As a side observation: latency is an issue that seems to get worse with every new technology. I won’t say more about that other than to point out there is no noticeable latency when I use Frieve under XP, with an MPU-401 connector on a legacy Yamaha soundcard, whereas there is on a state-of-the-art Sony Vaio with MIDI-USB interface.

Finally, my more recent music under Zutao Premium Dub and Zutao Electronic can be found here, where you can hear the results of this technique I described:


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