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MIDI Mapping For Intuitive Sound Design


Getting tactile with your MIDI controls can breathe new life into stale music.

A lot of sound‑design tutorials focus on the technical aspects of the tools at our disposal — how they work and what they do. Whilst it’s always an advantage to have a theoretical understanding, this article will take a less analytical approach. Instead of designing a sound from scratch by working through the basics, we’ll discuss a way to design sound by working with an existing phrase or loop directly. The advantage of this technique is that it ignores the screen and relies on your ears and brain to feel the right settings.

We’ll be mapping hardware knobs, faders and buttons to various sound control parameters in order to manipulate them in real time. Which sounds pretty straightforward and basically what analogue synths have always done... but there are some subtleties that bring this to life and (I’ve found) make the whole sound‑design process far more fun — and productive.

This technique also solves the age‑old issue of stale loops. We’ve all been there; a burst of creativity generates a great‑sounding loop, but after a ‘mere’ two or three hours of repeating the same eight bars, it gets boring for some inexplicable reason! Mapping controllers to multiple parameters and recording a jam session with them can solve this, creating new and surprising sounds and ideas for arrangements and key moments in a piece of music. And the beauty is that once the principles are understood, this can work with any recorded audio, MIDI part or musical element in a mix by adapting it as needed.

The Setup

The best way to get a feel for this technique is to try it. What you’ll need:

  • A musical phrase in your DAW or equivalent. This could be a MIDI part triggering a soft synth or a piece of pre‑recorded audio. MIDI is best as you can get into the real parameters of the synth, but an audio phrase can be used by inserting effects plug‑ins and manipulating those instead.
  • A control surface with any combination of knobs, faders or buttons that can send MIDI control data to your DAW.

The key thing with this simple setup is to make sure you can control various parameters of the sound in question from the control knobs and faders, and to make sure that there’s one knob per parameter and no menu‑diving. So for example, knob one could control filter cutoff, knob two controls resonance, knob three controls the decay time of the volume envelope, and a fader is controlling an effects return level.

If you’re working with pre‑existing audio, then you can apply modulation to plug‑ins placed after that audio, such as filters, EQ, delay or something more exotic.

Take some time to map a decent number of parameters to controllers. There are obvious ones like filter, resonance, LFOs and envelopes, but it’s definitely worth trying some less obvious parameters, just to see what happens. If you don’t have a lot of handy control knobs, mapping mod and pitch wheels from a synth to two parameters at a time is still going to give some results and is worth trying. Just overdub a few passes using different parameters.

A Novation Launch Control XL is perfect for hands‑on MIDI manipulation. Note the annotations on tape — it’s easy to forget what’s controlling what when you come back in the next day...A Novation Launch Control XL is perfect for hands‑on MIDI manipulation. Note the annotations on tape — it’s easy to forget what’s controlling what when you come back in the next day...

Jamming With The Knobs

So far so good, you might say. Sounds like you’ve recreated a basic synthesizer, what’s the big deal? Well, the magic is in seeing what the setup can do. Instead of just playing the keyboard and giving a knob a quick tweak every so often, what we want to do here is to loop a part and find out what that phrase is really capable of, from a sonic perspective.

Because there are (hopefully!) going to be at least three different parameters interacting, by experimenting with them as the loop plays, one can cover a lot of ground quickly to find a sound that sympathises with the musical part really naturally. And it might be from surprising settings that you wouldn’t have thought to ‘mathematically’ design. Remember, you’re twiddling knobs and listening to the results rather than drawing visual automation on a screen. This is very definitely a mouse‑free activity!

Arrangement‑driven Experiments

Not only this; don’t be content once you’ve found something that works. Especially in loop‑based music such as techno, continually tweaking these parameters over the duration is what keeps such music (when it works) alive and interesting. The trick is to record a good few minutes of these tweaks and then select the best bits. The recording might comprise the controller data itself or simply the resulting audio on a new audio track. They both have their advantages: MIDI can be tweaked if something was nearly perfect, but audio forces the decision to be made and you to move swiftly and decisively on.

And don’t be afraid to go extremes — high resonance, fastest LFOs, lowest filter with highest envelope — it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t all sound great all the time, you are almost guaranteed to stumble across something unexpected and wonderful in the process.

By the way, I’m quite convinced that all those articles about ‘how artist X made sound Y’ are misguided, in the sense that it’s better to just create new sounds using techniques like this, and finding the unexpected, than trying to reverse‑engineer someone else’s happy accident that they themselves are very unlikely to be able to recreate!

We’re back to ‘feeling’ the effect we have on the music and we can be guided by our taste as to what sounds good and what doesn’t.

Feel The Music

The reason this works so well, I believe, is because one’s hands are directly connected to the sound in real time. We’re back to ‘feeling’ the effect we have on the music and we can be guided by our taste as to what sounds good and what doesn’t. We’re freed from the tyranny of looking at the screen and thinking, for example, that the EQ graph looks a bit ‘non‑standard’, worrying about it and — worst of all — changing it back to something that ‘looks right’. And the mere fact of not letting that happen is half the battle. Using these techniques one can:

  • Fine‑tune the best settings for a part in a song or track.
  • Create an arrangement and discover unexpected ‘key moments’.
  • Refine a whole groove. Why limit yourself to one sound’s parameters when a kick, bass line, lead and drums can all be adjusted alongside each other? (I’ve found this one to be the most fun in terms of discovering the groove.)

Do Try This At Home

A great exercise to prove why this is so powerful: create a random one‑bar 16th note pattern. And I do mean totally random — atonal, multi‑octave, the works! Then choose a starting sound of a classic analogue waveform — something rich like a sawtooth. With a good collection of knobs mapped to parameters challenge yourself to manipulate the sound until it sounds good. There will generally always be a setting that makes it work, or at the very least suggests a usable musical fragment, with built‑in excellent sound design. And I’ll bet it won’t be a sound‑design setting that you would have deliberately created first and which then would have inspired you to compose that random pattern... Food for thought!

And let me finish by reminding you that looping a random bar is the exact method Phuture used for their ground‑breaking and genre‑defining ‘Acid Tracks’ back in 1987. What is that track but a 12‑minute exploration of that eight‑note loop and all the sonic variation that could be extracted from just cutoff, resonance and envelope? And inadvertently kick‑starting decades of acid house and techno. The power of the intuitive live tweak! So, free your eyes and mouse and get back to feeling the groove!

DAW Control

Most DAWs make it pretty easy to map MIDI controllers to parameters nowadays, but here are a handful of examples for some of the most popular.

MIDI mapping in Ableton Live couldn’t be simpler...MIDI mapping in Ableton Live couldn’t be simpler...

Ableton Live

Ableton Live has long been able to map external MIDI controllers to virtually any parameter with a couple of swift moves:

1. Click ‘MIDI’ in top tool bar.

2. Click the synth or plug‑in parameter you want to control.

3. Move the external control knob, fader or button you wish to map that control to.

4. Click MIDI again, and that’s it.

Apple Logic

1. Click the synth or plug‑in parameter you wish to control.

2. Go to Preferences / Control Surfaces / Learn Assignment (or hit Apple+L).

3. Move the hardware knob you wish to control the parameter.

4. Click ‘Learn Mode’ to complete.

Steinberg Cubase

1. Prerequisite: Your hardware device has been mapped, as shown in the MIDI Remote panel (either from the presets list or manually).

2. Right‑click the synth or plug‑in parameter you want to control, and select ‘Pick for Remote Mapping: parameter name’ from the drop down menu.

3. This opens the MIDI Remote Mapping Assistant, and moving the knob or fader will connect that parameter.

4. Click ‘Apply Mapping’ and it’s mapped.

Once a MIDI controller is mapped and the phrase looped, there are two choices: Record the controller data as MIDI data as the phrase loops, or set up an audio channel to record the output as audio. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but the end result of either allows you to listen back to your manipulations and select the best sections to use. MIDI can be fiddly and sometimes unpredictable, but does allow for later changes if required; audio can’t be altered after the recording, but I personally prefer this as it forces you to work with what you have — and there’s usually more than enough great material to choose from that it hardly feels like a limitation!

Control Surfaces

There are an overwhelming number of MIDI keyboards and controllers available these days. A few are listed below, but knobs and faders have been sending continuous controller (CC) data for decades so there should be a device to suit any need and budget, new or second‑hand.

Almost all modern keyboard MIDI controllers come with some, more, or many knobs and faders. Key manufacturers include Akai, M‑Audio, Arturia and Novation, who have models to suit almost any budget. On the other hand, If you already have a MIDI keyboard of some sort (and if you’re reading this I shall be highly surprised if you do not!), it can be augmented by a dedicated box of control knobs, buttons and faders in various combinations. I prefer knobs as faders always feel more ‘volume’ based to me, but this is an entirely personal preference! Buttons are only useful for on/off (which has its place), but for me, something like a Novation Launch Control XL has the perfect blend — 32 knobs, eight faders and a few buttons — as does the Akai MIDIMix. Alternatives include the budget‑friendly Korg nanoKontrol2, with eight knobs and faders, or the discontinued Behringer BCR2000 if you can pick one up second‑hand.