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MIDI Mapping For Intuitive Sound Design

Real-time Manipulation By Oli Freke
Published March 2023


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....

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