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Editing MIDI In Studio One

PreSonus Studio One Tips & Techniques By Robin Vincent
Published July 2022

The Step Record feature is a quick and easy way to enter a melody as a regular series of notes.The Step Record feature is a quick and easy way to enter a melody as a regular series of notes.

We explore Studio One’s MIDI editing facilities.

We’ve previosuly tackled how to connect your MIDI gear to Studio One, and we’ve got stuck into recording MIDI. In this month’s workshop, we will be looking at Studio One’s powerful note‑editing functionality, and get crafting compositions with a mouse.

When working with MIDI tracks, pressing Studio One’s Edit button will bring up the Piano Roll view. You can also get there by double‑clicking the bottom half of the MIDI clip or Event you want to edit. It presents you with a vertical piano keyboard to represent pitch, and a timeline that reflects the main timeline in the Arrangement window.

If you selected a track into which you’ve recorded some MIDI notes, you’d see those notes displayed as little narrow rectangles on a grid. If you haven’t recorded anything yet, however, the editor will remain decidedly empty regardless of any attempts to mouse‑click notes in there. To do this, you must first create an Event clip in which the notes will reside. You can do so in the Arrangement timeline by double‑clicking on the track, or you can pick up the pen tool and drag out a space in the Editor. Events let you keep sections of music together and that’s where we must start.

You can resize the Piano Roll to take up as much or as little of the screen real estate as you wish. You can detach it and drag it onto another screen, or make it full‑screen for your undivided attention. Using your mouse wheel and a few keys, you can easily navigate your way around the notes and bars that you’ll be editing. The wheel will scroll the piano vertically or, if you hold the Shift key, horizontally along the timeline. Holding Ctrl (Windows) or Command (Mac) and moving the wheel zooms vertically, contracting and expanding the keyboard, whereas if you add Shift then scrolling will zoom horizontally in the timeline. If you ever get lost, you can always reselect the clip you want to edit in the Arrange window, and it will pop up on the editor. Alternatively, if you are editing within a looped section, the keyboard shortcut Shift+L will bring the loop back into focus.

Entering & Editing Notes

Let’s open a fresh MIDI Event that you’ve created in the Editor, on a track that’s running your favourite VST Instrument. To enter a note, simply double‑click anywhere in the grid, and the note will appear. The placement, colour, size and velocity of the note are all things we can change. The placement and size are usually adjustable with reference to the Quantize settings and the size of the grid.

As you add more notes, you’ll notice they are all the same size and velocity. These two things can be dealt with on the second click. If you double‑click to add a note but hold the mouse button down on the second click, you can control the note length by moving the mouse right and left, and the note’s velocity by dragging up and down. Velocity is shown in the automation lanes at the bottom of the editor. If these are not visible, hit the tiny squiggly line icon beneath the vertical keyboard. Velocity can also be shown within the note block itself. You’ll see Note Colour if you look along the toolbar. You can enable the Velocity Bar to see it from the drop‑down box, and you most definitely should.

If you forget to slide in the velocity when you enter a note, or want to change it later, you can use the automation lane to set the level of the note’s velocity ‘stalk’. Or, if you hold the Ctrl/Command and Alt/Option keys together, you can edit the note’s velocity directly by clicking and moving the mouse.

To change a note’s position, you can click and drag it wherever you like. You can also drag the start and end of a note to change its duration. To delete a note simply double‑click it again.

Some tools make these tasks very slightly easier, like the Pen tool, which means you only have to click once to add a note, or the Eraser tool, which does the opposite. But you can get by with the main tool selected, and you’ll discover that if you hold Ctrl/Command it dynamically becomes the Pen or Eraser tool. You can also drag selection boxes around bunches of notes, move or delete them, or copy and paste them as in any piece of software. But there’s a lot more you can do with selected notes, which we’ll come onto in a minute.

Stepping Up

Studio One can step‑sequence right from within the Piano Roll. Step sequencing is when you press a note on your MIDI keyboard and it appears at the Song Position Cursor. The cursor then jumps to the next ‘step’, and when you press another note, that gets entered at the new position. The cursor then jumps again, and so on. You can quickly enter a sequence of notes or chords without having to perform them live or enter them with a mouse.

The key to this is defining the length of that step. When you press the Step Record button, a panel lets you specify the length of the note you wish to enter. This also determines the length of the step. You can choose from everything between a whole note and a 64th note, straight, dotted, triplets and more. There are also buttons to let you enter a rest, so the marker skips on to the next step, and to go backwards and undo steps. This can tie into the Quantize settings so that your steps match the grid you’re currently working in.

The Quantize options let you move your played notes closer in time to the defined grid, in a number of different ways.The Quantize options let you move your played notes closer in time to the defined grid, in a number of different ways.

Speaking of which, Studio One has some pretty impressive quantising options for keeping your notes straight or deliberately wonky. Hit the big Q button to open up the options panel. Quantisation defines the grid that your notes stick to. It can, again, be anything from whole notes down to 64ths, and you’ll see the grid in the editor change to reflect your choices.

When entering notes, the critical function that dictates whether the Quantize settings are being followed or not is the Snap‑to‑Grid button. Snap and Quantize have an interesting relationship. You’ll find Snap options in the toolbar, and next to it is an icon that looks like a note butted up against a line; this turns the snap on or off. You can also use the keyboard shortcut N. You have a few options from the Snap drop‑down menu. If you select Quantize, all the snap functions are governed by the Quantize settings; the grid size, length of note, and swing. Other options will override the Quantize grid but still retain the initial length.

You can ignore the grid entirely if you hold the Shift key while moving a note. There’s also an option to snap to a Relative Grid, so that an off‑grid note will be astray by the same amount wherever you place it.

If you want things to get a bit groovy, you can use the Swing slider to introduce some off‑beat interest, but you can do some cleverer things with the Groove button in the Quantize panel. It gives you another grid, but one that can have a distinct rhythmic flavour. The idea is that the Groove panel can extract rhythms from MIDI or audio clips and apply them as a Quantize template. So, if you’ve recorded a performance with a particular feel that you like, you can use that as a Quantize preset. Weirdly, though, you can’t drag in a bunch of notes from the Editor: you have to drag in the Event clip container from the Arrange window. It also works with audio loops. You can save your groove as a Quantization preset and apply it to other MIDI notes.

Some more quantising options are grouped under the Action menu, which is also available on a right‑click under Musical Functions. These include quantising to only 50 percent, quantising the ends of notes, using a more subtle humanisation, or only quantising notes of a particular length. The Action menu hides many interesting functions that you can apply to selected notes.

You can quickly enter a sequence of notes or chords without having to perform them live or enter them with a mouse.

Macro Macro Man

The Macro panel expands upon what’s available under Action. You can make a Macro to achieve almost anything within Studio One. The default Macros include some really useful ones that can help turn the Editor into a very creative and experimental space.

There are several selectable categories, but the most useful for the editor are Music Editing and Music Creation. Under Editing you have note selection tools, transposition, distribution and shuffling. For Creation you can fill in notes, randomise placement, move notes around, thin out and simplify. You quickly discover that entering notes by hand, one at a time, is a compositional oddity, whereas here, you can Macro yourself into places you never thought of.

Multiple Tracks

With multiple tracks enabled for editing, you can edit multiple MIDI parts at once, move notes between parts, or edit one MIDI track while referencing the notes of another.With multiple tracks enabled for editing, you can edit multiple MIDI parts at once, move notes between parts, or edit one MIDI track while referencing the notes of another.

Lastly in our Editor adventure is the ability to edit tracks together. To the left of the Editor is the Track List, which is revealed by clicking on the four‑line 'hamburger' icon. Click on a track to display its notes in the Editor. To the left of each track name is a black dot. You can click the dot to enable the display of that track’s data in the Editor. The selected track is still the editable one, whereas these other tracks will be displayed fainter, in the background. Now you can edit one track in reference to the placement of notes in another. However, you can also enable editing on as many tracks as you like all at once. On the right is a little pen icon: click on it and that track becomes editable. You can select, edit and move notes together on multiple tracks while they all remain in their own lanes.

There’s one quite brilliant little function I’d like to point out: the ability to move notes between tracks. Select the notes you want to move, right‑click and go to Transfer Notes, and then select the track. Those notes are now part of that other track playing that other instrument. The piano roll really has evolved.  

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