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Streamlining Computer Sequencing

Tips & Techniques By Paul White
Published April 1994

Paul White gives some tips on how to get the best out of your computer sequencer without needing a degree in computer science...

For many of us, computer sequencers are very much a part of our musical lives, and we spend a considerable number of hours sitting in front of a computer running a musical application. The list of measures you can take to make working with your computer sequencer easier and more pleasant is probably endless, but here's a few to be going on with...

A Few Tips

  • Create your own Metronome: Rather than using the default metronome when recording, program a simple drum part to work to. As well as providing you with a better feel, you'll also find it easier to keep time to. Most modern rhythms are based on four beats to the bar, so if you're using a conventional metronome, you're playing directly over the top of it — which makes it difficult to hear. By adding a suitable hi‑hat pattern, you're much more likely to stay in time. And don't reinvent the wheel every time you start work: it pays to save your guide percussion parts, either in a separate song or as a part of your default/Autoload song. That way, they'll always be available whenever you start a new song.
  • Use the default or Autoload song: If your sequencer doesn't have this facility, create your own and store it on a locked floppy or as a locked file on your hard drive so that it can't be overwritten by accident. These locked files may then be opened and then saved under a new name (using Save As) without changing the original. A typical default song contains the MIDI channel and track assignment for your different instruments, suitable 'vanilla' starting patches, any user options the software might provide, and various MIDI status functions such as MIDI Thru, MIDI click and so on. To set this manually every time you start a new song is obviously a chore you can do without.
  • Use your keyboard: Just because most jobs can be tackled using the mouse, don't disregard the keyboard. Some tasks are actually faster and easier from the keyboard — if you can remember the commands. A useful trick is to print out all the main keyboard commands and put the printout under a transparent‑topped mouse mat. Failing that, take the low‑tech approach and pin it to the wall.
  • Copy key documentation: The trouble with most MIDI systems is that you end up with a stack of manuals a foot thick. It helps enormously if you photocopy the preset patch lists for all your instruments, and type out the names and descriptions of your user patches and memory card contents. These sheets may then be put into plastic sleeves and clipped into a single 'Voices' binder or pinned to the wall.
  • Use macros: Most business computer users will be familiar with macros, but few people take full advantage of them. Put simply, a macro is a whole string of commands, (which can comprise keystrokes, mouse movements and mouse clicks), which may be actioned using just a single key or key combination. Most macro programs work as recorders; they 'watch' while you do the job manually, and then the recorded macro is assigned to the key combination of your choice. Using macros you can create custom window setups, automate repetitive tasks, or gain direct access to a parameter that might normally take several actions to locate. If you find yourself doing the same series of tasks on a regular basis, it's an obvious candidate for 'macro‑isation'.
  • Use Custom Screens: Some programs have a kind of built‑in macro system for saving and accessing various screen layouts. In a program where several windows might need to be open at once, this can be a real time saver because a single key can bring up a screen layout you have previously specified with all the windows properly sized and exactly in the right place. The smaller your monitor, the more you'll appreciate this function; without it, you spend much of your time opening and closing windows, dragging them about the screen and resizing them so you can see everything you need to.
  • Don't over‑quantise: Those who criticise electronic music for its robotic feel have probably heard the result of too much quantisation. It's true that some forms of music demand a rigid approach to timing, but if you want to keep the feel of the original performance, it may be better not to quantise at all — just use the sequencer as you would a tape recorder. If you feel your playing needs tightening up, but you don't want it to sound lifeless, try the percentage quantise function if your sequencer has one. This will bring your playing closer to the nearest tick but will still leave some of the original feel intact. On a more practical point, it also helps if you don't rigidly quantise everything because doing so makes the sequencer attempt to play lots of notes at the same time. This creates a MIDI bottleneck and may lead to MIDI timing errors in a busy mix.
  • Playing 'Free': If you have a part that needs to be played 'free' (without any specific tempo reference), simply turn down the click track, turn off all quantisation and record the part just as if you were using a tape recorder. If you have to make this part match up to a more rigidly quantised section that follows, you can either move the whole free section backwards or forwards in time until it matches the start of the first bar of the next section, or you could insert a couple of radical tempo changes between the point where the first section ends and the next section starts. Putting in a fraction of a bar of very low tempo will create a longer gap, while speeding up the tempo for a while will reduce the amount of time between the two sections.
  • Back up your work: Be paranoid about backing up — computers have a habit of crashing or locking up when you least expect it, so save every few minutes. If you're using an Apple Mac, you'll probably develop a nervous twitch which makes your left hand press 'Command S' automatically. When working with a hard drive, back up important work to floppies at the end of each session. Modern drives are reliable, but they're not infallible.
  • Keep a notebook: Paper may be low tech, but when you come across a six‑month old disk filled with MIDI files named something like 'Ideas 1‑99', a few notes are worth their weight in gold.
  • Don't reinvent the wheel: If you create your own MIDI control data for cyclic panning, or if you have an assortment of killer drum fills, hoard it. You can create your own MIDI equivalent of clip art, so that instead of always working from scratch, you can copy and paste various useful odds and ends from a library song. Other things worth keeping are MIDI messages used to reset bender range after patch changes (Roland's CM32P, for example, always defaults to 12 semitones after a patch change), or major and minor chord arpeggios which can be transposed and copied. The list is endless — the only rule is not to waste time repeating the same action.

Comfort Zone

Sitting at a badly positioned computer for any length of time soon results in back‑ache, neck‑ache and wrist‑ache, none of which help the creative process of writing music.

Even a high resolution monitor can cause eye‑strain, so position the screen so that it's two to three feet from your eyes. You should also use adequate ambient lighting so that you don't get dazzled by the screen. An anti‑glare filter can help, but providing you follow the above guidelines and don't set the screen brightness too high, you shouldn't have any problems. If you do find your eyes getting sore, consider buying a pair of VDU operator's spectacles. These have the same effect as an anti‑glare screen but work out rather cheaper, especially if you use a large monitor.

Always use a mouse mat, not the table top or the back of a book. Apart from making the mouse run more smoothly, it will also extend its life by reducing the amount of dust and grot that accumulates on the ball and internal rollers. If you're really short of desk space, consider a trackball; some people really like working with these while others hate them. At least you don't keep running out of mouse mat!