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20 Tips On Using GM Modules

Tips & Tricks By Paul White
Published July 1998

20 Tips On Using GM Modules

Some people view GM modules as the chartered accountants of their racks — duller than Monty Python's Mr Pewty — but believe it or not, there are ways to make them interesting, and you don't even have to take up lion‑taming! Paul White and MARTIN WALKER club together to make your GM synth roar.

General MIDI tends to be frowned upon by 'serious' MIDI users, but unless your music is 100% experimental or abstract, the GM sound set contains most of the bread‑and‑butter instruments you need for pop music. The cheap sound chips used on budget soundcards often produce disappointing results, but don't blame this on GM. The truth is that GM sounds are as good as the manufacturers want to make them — program number 35 will be the same basic sound from one GM card or synth to another, but the difference in quality between a soundcard piano and the piano on a top‑of‑the range GM module is enormous. OK, 'Telephone', 'Bird Tweet', and 'Helicopter' might not be our first choices for inclusion in a set of 128 essential sounds, but you do get a useful selection of acoustic pianos, electric pianos, basses, guitars, strings, organs, brass, wind, traditional synth and drum sounds, not to mention chorus and reverb effects. In the case of GS and XG instruments, you also get alternative banks of variations on the original GM sound set, so you could have far more choice than it first seems.

Let's assume for a moment that that you don't want to make pop music — you're into dance music based on electronic sounds, perhaps mainly analogue ones. What does GM have to offer you? Most decent GM synths have envelope shapers, resonant filters, LFOs, portamento and so on, so architecturally they're little different to an analogue synth, except that you have a far greater choice of starting waveforms. With a little editing, most decent GM synths can be coaxed into producing extremely 'analoguesque' sounds, as well as interesting variations on the original GM sounds, and even on cheaper models the digital filters sound more convincing than you might imagine. With just a little experimentation, you'll discover that a GM synth is vastly more versatile than the basic bank of 128 GM sounds, which is why we've put together a few tips on getting the most out of yours. Sadly we're limited to just 20, but as you can see, there are many ways to make GM patches sound less predictable. You only have to listen to a compositional program that uses a lot of controller information, such as Koan Pro, to appreciate that even a standard soundcard can produce something weird and wonderful. Of course, we're not suggesting that you should restrict yourself to using only GM synths and soundcards — most people build up a collection of different instruments over time — but don't write off the old workhorse as being necessarily boring and dull either. If nothing else, this article should highlight the fact that you only need to make a few simple edits or apply a straightforward technique such as layering or detuning to produce radically different sounds. With most GM instruments, General MIDI is just a starting point.


  • When choosing a GM synth, listen to as many different models as you can, as different manufacturers tend to have a different sound character. For example, Roland sounds are warm and rich whereas Yamaha sounds tend to be very lively and upfront. The more expensive models generally have more waveform ROM, which usually equates to better samples. Go for as much polyphony as possible, as multitimbral use (especially with busy drum parts) really gobbles up polyphony.
  • When using sounds such as the acoustic or electric guitar, add in a few of the finger squeak noises on a separate track. Don't make these too loud or the playing will sound messy, but when you get the level right, the performance will sound much more convincing. Also, try to program the part the way a real guitarist would play — don't simply play arpeggios using your standard piano chord inversions. Various MIDI file disks are available with strummed or finger picked guitar chords, so if you're not sure how to do the job yourself, try using these.
  • When playing fretless bass parts, use pitch bend to make the notes slur up to pitch in the same way as they do on a real instrument, then add a little lazy vibrato (via the modulation wheel). If you don't feel confident about doing this in one take, record the basic notes first, then record just the bend and vibrato information on a separate track as the sequence plays through. Once you've got the feel right, merge the two tracks.
  • When playing conventional bass parts, use a bass harmonics patch on a different track to add interest. You can also mix picked and slapped bass sounds to get more of a virtuoso effect, but only if this style of playing suits your music. For pop songs, a fairly inconspicuous bass sound often works best. If you have a 'quick edit' facility for your GM sounds, adjusting the filter cutoff frequency will allow you to change the tone of the bass very easily.
  • Don't always use the sounds the way their names suggest. By moving a sound one or two octaves above or below its normal range, you can turn it into a completely new sounding instrument. For example, flutes and pipes sound huge and demonic in the bass register, while bass instruments can make interesting lead sounds when transposed up.
  • If a sound isn't quite right, but you don't want to go to the trouble of editing it, try simply layering it with another similar sound — for example, a string pad layered with a synth pad. You can also layer a GM string sound with a non‑GM string patch from one of your other synths.
  • Processing a GM sound via an external analogue or digital filter can produce unusual effects. These filters are sometimes triggered by the audio signal itself, or sometimes via MIDI. An example of an audio‑triggered filter is the Fat Resinator (reviewed SOS March 1998) which has the capacity to change a sound almost beyond recognition. Unless you have multiple outputs, this trick only really works if you are playing one part at a time then recording the result — see tip 10.
  • If you're using a computer‑based sequencer, set up a mixer map to control the main GM synth parameters from your computer screen rather than having to edit via the front panel. You may also be able to record parameter changes (filter cutoff frequency, perhaps) in real time to produce techno‑style effects. You may find that a GM map is already provided with your sequencing software, but even if it isn't, you may find one that you can download free of charge from a music web site. Users of Yamaha's XG synths working on PCs should get hold of a full copy of XG Edit as it offers a lot of editing power in an easy‑to‑use format — and at very little cost.
  • A hardware GM/GS/XG controller is even better than an on‑screen mixer map, as you can twiddle several controls simultaneously — and it so happens that the guys at Keyfax have come up with a low‑cost controller called Phat Boy that puts 13 parameters under direct knob control (flick back to page 42 for more on this). It makes sound editing quicker and easier, and you can make real‑time changes which you record in your sequencer.
  • Use other external processors to change the sound: speaker simulators intended for use with guitars can take the rough edge off a digital sound, warming up the low end at the same time, whereas a guitar distortion box can be used to create grungy drum loops or powerful bass/lead sounds. Unless you have a GM machine with multiple outputs, however, you'll either have to process all parts in the same way or solo the part you want to effect and then record it on a separate track of your multitrack, or an audio track of your MIDI + Audio sequencer. If you have only left and right stereo outputs, you can pan to one side all the sounds that you don't want to be affected and pan to the other side all the sounds that you do, then process only the appropriate output. This restriction applies to any form of external processing, including filters.
  • Use controller information to produce dramatic gating or panning effects. By setting controller 7 (Volume) to 128, then abruptly changing it to zero, the sound can be chopped up just as if you were using a gate. Remember to save your controller‑driven gate effects in a separate song file so you can cut and paste them into new compositions.
  • If you are using layering to add more interest to your sounds, try to detune each slightly, and/or set them to different pan positions. By adjusting their relative levels you can either achieve an obvious doubling effect or create subtly enhanced versions of a single sound. You can also combine this with track delay so that one sound starts just before the other.
  • Layer two instruments to create completely new sounds, slowing the attack of one of them so that you get a 'morphing' effect as the slower one fades in. This can overcome the complaint that many people have about GM — it is possible to create completely new sounds from any GM set with a few such tweaks. Combining this trick with resonant filtering is a great way to get away from the 'vanilla' GM sounds.
  • Standard GM modules provide only chorus and reverb effects, but by applying a bit of lateral thinking you can generate others. For example, if you make a copy of a sequencer track, reduce it in level, and then delay it — either directly, or by dragging the part later in the Arrange page — you get instant Echo. Many sequencers have MIDI processing options, so that you can create complex delay effects in real time. Some even have note offsets for the repeated sounds, so that you can create bell tree or arpeggio effects.
  • Although the in‑built GM chorus is great for fattening up sounds, beware of adding it to every instrument, since you will end up with a hazy swirling mass. By letting some sounds emerge with no chorus — perhaps just a dash of reverb — you can create tracks with a lot more front‑to‑back depth and contrast.
  • If you want to add more expression to a somewhat flat solo sound in an otherwise decent mix, add some MIDI Volume effects. Guitar swells are very easy to create, and string sounds, whether solo or ensemble, always sound far better with some Volume modulation. You can create this either manually, by drawing in the data in your sequence editor, or in real time by using your sequencer to remap an existing controller, perhaps the Modulation wheel, to control Volume instead.
  • Although most people laugh at them (not entirely without reason!) don't overlook the sound effects at the far end of the GM set — some can be quite useful. Transposed down several octaves, you can quickly create huge industrial backdrops from sounds such as Breath Noise and Seashore, especially when layered together and mixed in with transposed percussion. Increasing the attack times will give you slowly evolving backdrops.
  • When instruments have a fast attack followed by a fast release, you can often achieve new sounds by reducing the MIDI note lengths so that only the attack is heard, and not the main body of the sound. For instance, you could try creating short arpeggiated sounds from evolving synth pads or organ sounds.
  • When recording drum and percussion parts, don't overlook the single percussion instruments in the main GM sound set. Taiko Drum and Melodic Toms are useful, Synth Drum may sometimes come in handy, and Reverse Cymbal can be used in many ways, especially if you edit it. It may take a bit more effort to create a drum kit across several MIDI tracks, but your tracks will certainly stand out more from the crowd.
  • Finally, for anyone keen on analogue synth sounds, you can get close to recreating those classic ELP‑style Minimoog parallel interval effects by copying your synth solo across to one or two more MIDI channels, and then transposing these to create a harmony or a 3‑note chord. Fifths work well when you're using just two notes together. If your module has MIDI channel select and transpose facilities, you can do it directly, and generate your multi‑voice polyphonic synth in real time from a simple monophonic melody.

</ol>Many GM synths are actually far more versatile and sophisticated than they at first appear.Many GM synths are actually far more versatile and sophisticated than they at first appear.20 Tips On Using GM Modules