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Power Up Your MIDI Arpeggiators

Using only the tools built into your DAW, you can turn your arpeggiations into complex, engaging sequences.

Arp AttackMIDI reached its 40th birthday earlier this year, and while there have been developments recently in the form of MIDI 2.0, the underlying technology of the original spec remains a vital part of what glues our modern music‑making systems together. As a self‑confessed music technology geek, I always keep at least one eye on the latest and greatest new products and every year brings along useful tools and exciting toys, but I’m also well aware of just how much good stuff we already have at our disposal... and something I think people often overlook is the power lurking in the MIDI plug‑ins that can be found tucked away in our favourite DAWs. Perhaps it’s because our computers are now so powerful and adept at processing audio, or maybe it’s because our virtual instruments have become so feature‑laden. Whatever the reason, MIDI plug‑ins are well worth exploring!

In this article, I’m going to run through a number of examples that demonstrate just how useful and creative they can be. I’m going to focus on how you can make the most of your MIDI arpeggiator plug‑ins, whether used on their own or in combination with other MIDI plug‑ins.

You can use the arpeggiators built into your synths, of course, but a dedicated MIDI arp plug‑in offers a couple of potential advantages.

Most DAWs include a pretty capable stock arpeggiator. For example, I use Cubase and Logic, which include the Arpache SX and Arpeggiator plug‑ins, respectively. There’s also one in Reaper’s JS plug‑in collection and one amongst Studio One’s Note FX. There are also various third‑party arp plug‑ins too — if your DAW lacks a capable stock one, see the separate box for more about those. “But,” I hear you cry, “I already have arpeggiators in my soft synths!” You can use the arpeggiators built into your synths, of course, but a dedicated MIDI arp plug‑in offers a couple of potential advantages.

  • First, it can open up more creative options because you can use it to achieve good results with any virtual instrument, whether it has an arpeggiator built in or not. It could extend the appeal of the simple synth plug‑in you downloaded yesterday, for instance, or allow you to trigger multiple layered instruments from the same arp.
  • Second, familiarity with a single arpeggiator means you don’t need to learn or remember the intricacies of different arps, so it should save you time.

In this article, I’ll be using Logic’s Arpeggiator and Cubase’s Arpache SX to illustrate what’s possible. But you should be able to apply the principles using whatever arp plug‑in or DAW you have access to. The initial steps required to use an arpeggiator plug‑in in Logic and Cubase are similar but it may be slightly different in some DAWs; if in doubt, check your DAW’s manual. I’ll focus my examples on real‑time use (where you play in notes using a MIDI keyboard and the arpeggiator transforms that input to ‘drive’ a virtual instrument) and I’ll include scenarios where other MIDI plug‑ins can help you do more with your arpeggiator. Finally, words can only convey so much — so you can hear the kinds of results I’m discussing, I’ve put a few audio examples on the SOS website:

Arp Introductions

Start by adding a virtual instrument track to your project and selecting a suitable sound. If in doubt, a ‘plucked’ synth sound will make a good starting point. With this instrument in place, insert a MIDI plug‑in. In Logic, the MIDI insert slots are found between the audio EQ and insert effects slots, while in Cubase they’re in the Project window’s Inspector panel, between the Note Expression and MIDI Modifiers sections. Just click on an empty slot to select the desired plug‑in from a menu. If your DAW hosts MIDI plug‑ins in the same slots as audio ones (eg. Reaper) make sure that the arpeggiator is placed in a slot before the instrument.

The first two screenshots show an arpeggiator loaded in Logic and Cubase. In both cases, I’ve kept things simple, creating a basic upwards arpeggio that triggers a note on every 16th note: it will cycle through any MIDI notes you input (starting with the lowest) when you press down the keys, and then, as you hold it down, the arpeggiator triggers the next up the keyboard a 16th note later, and so on up the ‘chord’ (ie. whatever notes you’ve held down). After that, it returns to the lowest one and repeats the process until you stop holding the note. In my example, I’ve not included any doubling over a second or third octave but you’re welcome to experiment with that!

Screen 1: Logic’s Arpeggiator and MIDI insert slots.Screen 1: Logic’s Arpeggiator and MIDI insert slots.

I don’t want to get too bogged down in the more routine settings here, but some details are worth noting. First, the settings shown mean the two plug‑ins deliver identical results. Second, in Logic’s Arpeggiator (Screen 1) I set the Velocity response to 100 percent ‘As Played’, whereas in Cubase’s Arpache SX (Screen 2), I set it to ‘Via Input’. In both cases, this allows you to create some cool performance dynamics (and, depending on the sound you’re using, potentially change the tonal character) by varying how hard you play each note within a chord. Third, both plug‑ins offer a number of different preset arpeggio styles, as described below.

Screen 2: Cubase’s Arpache SX and MIDI insert slots. Note the activated Record Output To Track button within each slot, as discussed in the main text.Screen 2: Cubase’s Arpache SX and MIDI insert slots. Note the activated Record Output To Track button within each slot, as discussed in the main text.

In Arpeggiator, the first four main buttons provide conventional choices but the last two, Random (crossed arrows) and As Played (hand icon) can often generate something more interesting. The former does what its name suggests; the arpeggiated pattern’s note order is randomised. For the latter, the order of notes is dictated by the order in which you trigger them — because MIDI’s a serial protocol, even if you think you’re hitting all the notes in your chord at the same time, the timing is fractionally different. The Variation slider offers further note‑order options (there’s a detailed description of these in Logic’s Effects User Guide PDF manual) that are well worth experimenting with.

With Arpache SX, the Direction control provides a whole list of arpeggio styles, and a Sort By control allows you to conjure alternative sequences of notes out of the arpeggiation process; this setting interacts...

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