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MMD > Archives > January 1999 > 1999.01.24 > 04Prev  Next

Drum Machine Helps Recording Pianist
By Johnny Lite

Andy Taylor wrote:

> I would be very interested to know if I am going in the right
> direction with this [step programming] project.

Andy,  in reading your posts I glean that timing is an important
factor, if not sticky problem, in your productions.  You are, if I got
it right, trying to employ step programming as a way to make a song
sound good.  I don't know what ability you have as a player, so step
programming might be the only way a limited player (not saying you are)
can "finesse" a piece into the "flow" that is music.

Not being a drummer, I have used step programming in drum computers
with good results, but would never use it to perform on keyboard,
except perhaps to correct a misplayed passage.  When mastered, the
technique is at best a "factory" -- mass production -- method.  It is
a way of producing a piece without really having to learn it; yet, you
end up doing just as much work, if not more, and your repertoire is not
any better off.

In short, it is for non-musicians, or non-players.  You might be
learning more about computers, interfacing, Cakewalk, etc., than about
music, and that is a good thing!  Any project pursued with creative
energy will result in some sort of learning, but my impression is that
music is your first love.

Please let me describe one way I approach making a "piano roll", that
is, a MIDI file.  This method worked especially great for rags (e.g.,
Hilarity Rag) which I usually perform way too fast, and without which I
could never hold a steady beat.  I use it for recording any groove type
music, i.e., rags, boogie, and stride, although I have used the method
for classical too (e.g., The Banjo, by Gottschalk).

It is simple to do, but requires that you learn to play a piece, not
necessarily perfectly, but at least with a flowing, unhesitating
rhythm.  When it comes to producing a MIDI file, wrong notes are
nowhere near as important as the "glue" or flow of the music.  I don't
think step programming can give you this flow without the result being
strange, artificial, cold.

The method requires that you synchronize the recording program --
Cakewalk -- with a drum machine, and play the piece along with the
machine.  Rehearse the piece this way, rehearse everything you know
this way.  (This is great for your playing, by the way, as is playing
with other people.)

One way of looking at a drum machine is that it is a glorified
metronome.  But it is difficult to play a piece, and thus retain the
MIDI file's timing, with a metronome.  Many drum machines (I recommend
Roland) are inexpensive, and used ones, available all over the place,
are way cheaper.  Get one (it's hard not to) with MIDI input/output

An alternative to a dedicated machine is to get a plug-in program for
Cakewalk which allows you to play drum-kits via your computer's synthe-
sizer card.  Machines or plug-ins each have their own learning curve,
but I think you will like the result either way.  Drum machines (and
plug-ins) come with pre-program beats which obviate the need for you to
learn how to program a drum machine (not that you couldn't).  You
wouldn't believe how good Gottschalk's Banjo sounds with a reggae beat!
(That, by the way, to recall previous MMD threads, does truly syncopate
the poor clod!)

All you have to do is follow instructions on how to sync (using MIDI
cables, etc.) the drum machine with Cakewalk.  You set Cakewalk to begin
recording when you press the first key(s).  You then turn on the drum
machine, which is, by the way, not being recorded -- EXCEPT for its
sync signal, retained in the resultant MIDI file.  You have already
rehearsed the piece with the machine, so it's no big deal for you to
_begin playing on time_ after however many bars you need to hear to
"get the feel".

When Cakewalk plays the piece back, the sync signal (retained in the
MIDI file) will trigger the drum machine to run just as when the piece
was recorded.  Then, if you feel like re-recording a passage, the
machine will play along with the piece and you can "punch in", or
record the new passage on another MIDI track and later pick the best
"take".  Or, you might not need the machine any more at this point,
because the piece has been performed on time.  This makes it much, much
easier to edit the piece, including quantizing it.  The piece can even
be quantized as its recorded -- and it will usually sound good (except
for certain fast runs).

There are potential problems in using a drum machine, such as learning
to play with one.  And your own natural rubato (see my other post
today) playing both before or after the beat, can create an odd
tugging, or pulling effect on the rhythm, even though the piece as a whole
is on time with the drum machine.  But this is, if you learned the
piece well enough, very subtle, and most people won't notice.

Actually, it can be cool in some songs.  It can create tension.  But
you need to practice with the drum machine for a while.  Your playing
might just change too, becoming more rhythmically precise, and, lo, you
might not need the drum machine sometimes.  I believe your time (and
timing) will be better spent playing, and practicing your ass off, and
using tools that support this, rather than focusing on step-programming.
You will end up being a much better player, and your product will be
better, and you will live long and prosper.

Also, once you get a good take this way, you will find editing to be an
easier and more expandable skill than with step-programming.  Better
apples make a better pie.  Andy, notwithstanding the bona fide craft of
step-programming, there is no substitute for muscles twitching in the
service of feeling.


Johnny Lite

(Message sent Mon 25 Jan 1999, 05:44:57 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Drum, Helps, Machine, Pianist, Recording

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