Vic Lennard fires up his sequencer and looks at the latest bunch of MIDI Files...
There's little doubting that MIDI Files are big business — you only have to look at the number of UK‑based companies involved to realise this. Barely a month goes by without a substantial number of new additions, both in terms of the latest chart hits and more esoteric offerings. This month's column looks mainly at the latter!
Disks filled with drum beats and riffs always go down well, if for no other reason than you can fit plenty of them onto a standard disk!
Sound Image Productions
Rhythm & Bass
Sound Image Productions is a little‑known company up in Scotland that produces pretty good arrangements of current chart hits. Rhythm & Bass boasts some 119 patterns in various different styles, including all the obvious ones — rock, dance, funk and country. To help you navigate your way around the collection, there's a set of audition files; find the beat you want and then check where it is on the reference sheet provided. While there may be plenty of choice here, the files are too heavily quantised and velocity‑adjusted for my liking, especially where the rock and country tracks are concerned. Still, there's a wealth of decent dance material here.
I have to admit to being a fan of the MIDI Busker series from Station Records. New to the fold is Beat Busker, which continues in the same vein by keeping the playing as live as possible. Over 130 files are on offer here, including some novel categories such as World, Detroit and Syncho; the index file gives you 16 bars or so of drums if you need to know what kind of rhythms a particular style pertains to. The playing is loose, although the fact that every event is placed on an even tick infers that a very small amount of quantising has taken place, inadvertently or otherwise! The files earn high marks for me for their realistic feel, and all live/fill drumming contains a maximum of four instruments. As the on‑disk file says: "How many programmed drum tracks have you heard where an Octopus is playing the kit?" Well put, sir.
The name of Heavenly Music needs no introduction — and neither does the quality of their files. Hit Shot is a selection of 35 grooves containing a detailed set of percussion instruments, along with whatever else is necessary to fill the groove — bass (synth and real), piano, brass and so on. Heavenly work to the doctrine that a drummer intends to play on the beat, so what is the point in not quantising percussion tracks? On the other hand, the feel of a drum track depends on the subtlety of level changes; in this respect, Heavenly's files are untouchable, and that goes for this latest product too. Each of the 35 grooves has a name — although titles like 'Dangling', 'Swing It' and 'Lusty' do make you wonder what you're supposed to be doing while the music plays! Good stuff though, and highly recommended if you want groove ideas.
The final beat offering is also a Heavenly product, this time programmed by Nick Ruggles of Dr. Rave fame. Rap Trax is another selection of grooves, although this time you're offered 14 full songs. If you're into sequencer‑based music, and want to see the work of a master of his art, check this out — the tracks are stunning.
The original MIDI Busker acoustic guitar was very good, and one of the joys of bringing out such a product is that it's always possible to follow it up with more chords and riffs, which is exactly what Station Records has done. Acoustic Two offers some 37 guitar patterns ranging from the same riff played in different chord shapes through to some tasty finger picking. These guys certainly take a lot of care with the strum patterns — the MIDI Busker series is one of the most usable for the average MIDI File owner.
Jazz Riffs, another Heavenly Music special, sports a comprehensive selection of jazz guitar riffs in the styles of the best guitarists in this field (including George Benson, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery), each played in the context of a small segment of a song. Perhaps a little over‑quantised, but pitch bend has been used to such good effect that you're likely to believe that there's a real guitarist in front of you. Whether you'd want to use any of the riffs as they are within your compositions is dubious, but those of you who are into this kind of music will definitely want to study the techniques.
Some months ago I read an advert in the back of SOS for some new MIDI Files under the name of Twiddly Bits. Twiddly Bits? What kind of name is that for a product? Then I realised that the man behind the fun was Julian Colbeck, musician and SOS writer. And while Paul White wrote a little about these files a couple of issues back, a look at MIDI files, however brief, is not complete without mention of one of the most innovative uses of MIDI Files of all time. Twiddly Bits is a collection of some 232 licks, fills and phrases, played in real time on MIDI instruments by talented professionals like Bill Bruford, Milton MacDonald, and Julian himself. As such, their feel has no equal, especially as no quantising of timing or velocity has taken place. The result is inspiring to say the least, and while you may not wish to use the twiddles as they stand, they represent a phenomenal source of raw musical material. There's even a Cubase arrangement containing all of the twiddles, and a 32‑page printed manual — nice one Julian.
Bytes And Pieces
And, in the red corner... we have Heavenly Music's Bytes & Pieces, which also offers hundreds of riffs, each played along with a basic percussion or melodic instrument to give a contextual feel. Most of the playing has been time‑quantised, which shows up the fact that the input has been done either in step‑time or via a keyboard, but despite this, many of the licks exhibit a sparkle that only Heavenly impart to MIDI Files, and Bytes & Pieces also tends to offer longer phrases than Twiddly Bits. I'm afraid that the jury is still out on this one, so I'm going to declare a tie.
It had to happen — someone has sent me an excellent rendition of the BC52's 'Flintstones' film theme on MIDI File! I'm indebted to Dave Clackett of Hands On MIDI Software for this gem, all 15 MIDI channels of it. So, until next month — have a yabba dabba doo time...
- Rhythm & Bass: £9.95 from Sound Image Productions (* 0501 825109).
- Beat Busker: £14.95 from Station Records (* 0787 311500).
- Hit Shot: £22.95 from Heavenly Music (* 0255 434217).
- Rap Trax: £19.95 from Heavenly Music (* 0255 434217).
- Acoustic Two: £14.95 from Station Records (* 0787 311500).
- Jazz Riffs: £17.49 from Heavenly Music (* 0255 434217).
- Twiddly Bits volume 1: £19.95 from Keyfax Software (* 0734 471382).
- Bytes & Pieces: £24.95 from Heavenly Music (* 0255 434217).
- Flintstones Theme: Hands On MIDI Software (* 0705 783100).