The MIDI Project

I had plans to make a lot of music in 2018, but then my laptop’s sound card crashed, and my pro­fes­sional life took a detour. Still, I started learn­ing piano and guitar, and began con­sid­er­ing com­po­si­tion as sep­a­rate from song­writ­ing. Also, when I began work­ing with a doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­tion crew recently, I decided to try writ­ing theme music for our projects.

Then, last month, with a dead­line loom­ing on the edge of my vision, I sat down behind a Mac with a MIDI key­board. There was no con­scious plan, but I sup­pose I had the sound­track thing in mind. I launched Apple’s Logic DAW, found an acoustic guitar module, and began tinkering.

I’ve been notic­ing — by involv­ing new motor skills, each musi­cal instru­ment seems to dic­tate new direc­tions. Even with years of play­ing the bass, the guitar still draws a dif­fer­ent sound out of me, because of the unfa­mil­iar tuning and pluck­ing tech­niques. Because my com­po­si­tion process heav­ily depends on happy acci­dents, I often ben­e­fit from the rela­tion­ship of body to instru­ment. On gui­tars, I hear more har­mon­ics, and I focus on the over­tones of simple chords. But I don’t know how to sus­tain notes cor­rectly on the elec­tric key­board, so I can’t milk har­monic inter­ac­tions. Instead, I focus on melodic shifts, and how to blur them. By choos­ing the acoustic guitar tone in Logic, I sup­pose I was trying to blur these two systems.

So I pressed ‘Record’, chose a plucked acoustic guitar tone, and played the first pat­tern that came to mind. I can only play in the key of C, and I don’t have a firm grasp on formal chord theory, so it was a simple pro­gres­sion. It didn’t sound much like a real guitar, so I laid a synth pad over it. The magic of dig­i­tal sound mod­el­ling took the same MIDI notes and cre­ated a new tex­ture out of them. I dupli­cated again and put a tone-wheel organ on, but shame com­pelled me to delete the old notes and play some­thing vaguely organ-appro­pri­ate. Then I set­tled down to wran­gle with the rhythm section.

Drums were my first joy. When I was 10, I cre­ated a drum kit with pots and pans. (Many leg­ends started the same way, but my drum­ming jour­ney stops there.) I did get into body per­cus­sion as a teen, but that only helped to mess up my limb inde­pen­dence. When I play key­board drums, I seem to lose even the musi­cal­ity. My first attempts on this project were pretty weird; when­ever a pro drum­mer passed by the studio, I could feel them cring­ing. Instead of com­ple­ment­ing the melodic energy, I kept mud­dy­ing it up. Finally, after an hour of wrestling with the dig­i­tal kits, I set­tled for a sparse ver­sion of one of my ear­lier takes.

When I started arrang­ing the bits into a song, I noticed the many gaps in the struc­ture. Cross-rhythms! I cried, low­er­ing my head and pawing at the key­board. MIDI is essen­tially a per­cus­sive system; you can trig­ger sam­ples of rich har­monic tones if you know how to coax them out, but with attack-heavy sounds, the rela­tion­ship is instinc­tive. So I went to town with marim­bas, harps, and tambourines.

Then, as I played through the song for the last time, I realised I didn’t have any bass. I sat back down and cre­ated things that should make a bassist blush — make any musi­cian itch, really. Then I wan­dered over to the brass sec­tion, casu­ally tried out the trom­bone voice, and ended up with the strongest bit of the project.

This song was the sim­plest com­po­si­tion of the lot, and also the warmest song. Music often works like that; maybe all art fol­lows the same rule. When artists enter the exper­i­men­tal state of mind, the intent and the process are often more sat­is­fy­ing than the result. That is not to say that pop art is always beau­ti­ful, but at least it keeps the audi­ence involved. The prob­lem usu­ally comes when pop artists mis­judge the audi­ence, or indulge their low expec­ta­tions and sen­ti­ments. (I should explain: my def­i­n­i­tion of pop art goes beyond genre. I see artists of the people in every cat­e­gory, from Oscar Peterson to Pete Seeger to Philip Glass — includ­ing M.C. Escher and Terry Pratchett.)

I try to keep the people in mind when I create, but there are lapses. It’s eas­i­est when I find some­thing spe­cial with no con­scious effort; that hum­bles me, and makes me eager to share the expe­ri­ence with other people. But some­times my cre­ation feels more pre­cious because it was dif­fi­cult; the joy was in the jour­ney, and the main emo­tion at the end is pride. When a song hap­pens this way, it feels like a trophy. Wouldn’t it be better if I treated it as such, and kept it in a cab­i­net for my pri­vate ego-tripping?

When I recorded that trom­bone and even the dynam­ics came out right on the second try — when I played the song through and felt it click — I felt a strong buzz of the first descrip­tion. On the second song, as I felt the odd time sig­na­ture soften and rumple under my spec­u­la­tive guitar line, I felt a mix­ture of both joy, and pride. On the third song, when I fin­ished record­ing the top-end piano (done at 92 BPM, before reset­ting the project to 115 BPM), I felt a rush of pure own­er­ship as I real­ized that my fusion-jazz swin­dle was paying off. I think if we are honest as artists, there is little doubt about where the audi­ence fits into the picture. 

Anyway. The project was fruit­ful in some ways, and unsuc­cess­ful in others. I chose untreated sam­ples and tones with wide har­monic ranges, so that I could learn how to mix things with fre­quency equal­iza­tion. In the end I just stuck to lev­el­ling, slap­ping mixing pre-sets on the master tracks. I never quite broke out of the MIDI-block trap, so the tracks don’t have any real nar­ra­tive tex­ture to them. The main way I tried to fight that was by laying off the quan­ti­za­tion when I could afford to. Also, I tried to over­lap my mea­sures; 4‑beat mea­sure for drums, 8‑beat for bass. I don’t know if that counts as a prin­ci­ple of coun­ter­point, but that is what I was aiming for. (I dis­cov­ered this TED-Ed video after I fin­ished, which explains cross-rhythms with a cir­cu­lar loop system; it shares a lot of fea­tures with my mental model, but does it better.)

Probably the first track was the best can­di­date for a real story, because I actu­ally under­stood that pro­gres­sion. On Track 2, I had trou­ble even find­ing the time sig­na­ture for my ini­tial bass-line. Track Three was full of Hail Mary passes and awk­ward cover-ups. The most impor­tant diag­no­sis: my key­board play needs work, both in tech­nique and chord theory. Secondly, I haven’t really started pro­duc­tion yet. I was too lazy to fix the many mist­imed phrases, and I didn’t think through some of the cross-rhythm pat­terns. But it’s a start; and all three songs are inter­est­ing enough that I can return to them in the future. 

The MIDI Project: Listen

(Right-click any track to download)

Track 1: M I D I
Track 2: M I D I I
Track 3: M I D I I I