Computer‑based MIDI + Audio sequencers have been popular for several years now, but some people have never been entirely happy using a digital rodent to control their main recording hardware. John Walden looks for ways out of the mouse trap by using key commands in Emagic's Logic.
Whether you use a Mac, PC or an Atari for your computing needs, one thing is pretty much a certainty — a mouse forms an integral part of the system. Indeed, unless you are one of our 'older' readers (anyone for DOS?), you may never have seen recording software without a mouse‑driven graphical user interface (GUI). Even those of us who have a good collection of grey hairs often forget that most software does provide an alternative to mouse control. GUIs have made us all mousebound — but sometimes 'old‑fashioned' key commands will get a job done that much quicker.
Most modern software can be navigated using the keyboard, and often a single key‑press can execute a command that would otherwise require both a lot of mouse scrolling and the need to delve into three or four levels of menu options. When the creative juices are flowing or the clock is ticking for a client, the ability to get around your sequencer in the most efficient way possible is highly desirable.
Emagic's Logic, via user‑defined key commands, can have its operation customised to your own tastes and most users soon realise that this can save a considerable amount of time. So, if you are a Logic user who has unconsciously become addicted to your mouse, let's see if we can't break the habit...
By the way, the examples here refer to Logic on a PC, which happens to be the core of my own system, but the Mac version has identical functionality. If you are using one of the other leading sequencer packages, I hope the ideas here might prompt you to explore them in more detail, as they too all offer similar function.
The first screen shot (right) shows Logic's Key Command window. This can be accessed from the menu system — the Key Commands menu option is found under the Settings menu, which is in turn accessed from the Options menu (in fact, this is a prime example of where a key command to access the window would save some time!). Scrolling through the full list of key commands in the window is quite an eye opener, as it runs to well over 500 possible commands.
The main part of the Key Command window is split into three columns. The right‑hand column lists the available commands. If that command already has a key assigned to it, the appropriate key (or key combination) is displayed in the centre column. Logic commands can be set to respond to MIDI control and the left‑hand column will display details of any such MIDI control if it has been defined. You may notice that quite a few commands have an asterisk (•) immediately to the left of the command name. These commands are only available as either a key command or a MIDI command; they have no menu equivalent with which to access them via the mouse, and so defining key commands for them is essential if the command is something you might use.
The left‑hand side of the Key Command window shows details of the currently selected command (at the top) and a series of buttons that are used when defining your own key commands (such as the Learn Key button) or changing the way the key command list is displayed (such as the Hide Unused button). Lastly, the Find box allows you to search the key command list for a particular string of characters.
As supplied, Logic comes with a number of common commands pre‑allocated to particular keys or key combinations and checking these out (the Hide Unused button helps here) provides an excellent starting point.
For Logic in particular, probably one of the most useful ways in which key commands can improve working efficiency is by accessing screensets (see the 'Screen Dream' box). However, perhaps a more obvious example that would be applicable in all the major sequencer packages is control of transport functions. While I'm extremely fond of Logic's Transport window graphics, using your rodent to start, pause or stop your sequencer will, over the course of a musical lifetime, waste an awful lot of time. Key commands for the main transport functions are pre‑allocated to various keys on the numeric keypad (although from version 4 of Logic upwards, they can be redefined to keys of your own choosing) and should be one of the first things every Logic user commits to memory.
Other 'must know' pre‑defined key commands include those for horizontal and vertical zooming within a window (pre‑allocated in the PC version of Logic to the Page Up and Page Down keys either on their own or with the Ctrl key). These can make rapid changes of view in the Arrange or Matrix Windows very easy to achieve. Another example is the arrow keys as these allow you to select individual tracks and sequences within the Arrange Window. When used in combination with the 'Mute Folders/Sequences' key command — hold down the Ctrl Key and hit the hyphen key (‑) — this can make it very easy to drop parts in and out of an arrangement while it is playing.
Defining your own key combinations for commands is very simple. With the Key Command window open, use the mouse to select the command you wish to assign a key to (sorry, but you do have to use the mouse to do this!) and click on the Learn Key button (which will then become highlighted). You then simply press the key or key combination that you wish to use to execute the particular command. If you choose a key combination that is already in use, an error message will appear — otherwise, the key combination will appear next to the command within the Key Command window. After deactivating the Learn Key button and closing the Key Command window, the key command will be available to use.
Key commands are global settings and thus, once defined, are available in any song. In addition, from version 4 of Logic onwards, if a key command has been allocated to a command that is also available via the mouse and menu system, the key command will appear on the menu next to the command. This can serve as a useful reminder if you do find yourself unconsciously mousebound despite your best efforts to wean yourself off it.
Assigning MIDI control to a command is done is a similar manner. This form of control might be useful if, for example, you want to operate Logic's transport controls from your MIDI keyboard (which might be on the other side of your studio from your computer). After selecting the command you wish to define, click on the Learn MIDI key and then execute the MIDI action (for instance by pressing a key or moving a slider). The MIDI action will then be displayed in the Key Commands window.
Any key or MIDI commands can be deleted by pressing the backspace key with the Learn Key or Learn MIDI button active. You can also globally turn on or off any MIDI control of commands by using the MIDI Remote button in the Key Command window.
Even learning a number of the pre‑defined key commands should make your use of Logic more efficient. However, there is a range of other commands that are not pre‑defined but which most users would find useful. The 'Nudge Event Position by...' commands (only available as key commands) are obvious examples. Being able to nudge an audio sequence forward or backwards by one tick (or one SMPTE frame) using a key commands is much less hit‑and‑miss than making small changes via a mouse and can be very useful if you need to tighten up the timing of sounds with a rapid attack. The 'More Keys Vicar?' box on page 88 contains some further suggestions worth exploring.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate how key commands can speed up the use of Logic is to consider a specific example. A task that many current sequencer users will be familiar with is the extraction of drum or percussion loops from audio sample CDs: Paul White discussed the use of Logic for this via QuickTime in SOS February 1999. The process can be quite time‑consuming but Logic has a number of commands that can make this less of a chore. By using key commands, you can speed up your execution of these steps still further.
- STEP 1
The screen shot on page 86 shows a common situation. You have extracted the appropriate track from your sample CD and set Logic's tempo to match that of the drum pattern as specified on the CD's track notes (in this case 100bpm). As is quite common with many drum loop audio CDs, the track is made up of a number of similar patterns at the same tempo and in this case, each of the patterns is two bars long. One key press later, you are looking at the same audio file in the Audio window.
- STEP 2
If you have defined a key combination for Logic's Strip Silence function (for example, the Shift key plus the 'S' key), another key press will get you to a situation like the one depicted in the screen shot on page 86. Here your audio file is about to be split into seven individual audio regions (although you may have to use your mouse to adjust the settings used to determine the splits points).
- STEP 3
Pressing the Enter key twice (once to approve the split and once to confirm that the seven smaller audio regions should replace the original longer region in the Arrange window) results in something like the next screen shot (see page 86). Even if you have to adjust the settings that determine the split points, moving from Steps 1 to 3 could take less than 10 seconds with the appropriate key commands.
- STEP 4
Two things are worth noting about these new audio regions; first, they do not start on the exactly on a beat and, second, they are all slightly longer than two bars in length (the drum loop 'tail' often contains the first beat of the next bar plus the length of 'minimum time to accept as silence' set in the Strip Silence function). If the individual two‑bar drum patterns are to be looped, mixed and matched within the Arrange window to create the basis of a drum track, both of these issues will need to be addressed. Logic offers commands to remedy both problems and accessing these functions via key commands can speed the process up even further.
With the first of the new drum regions selected, pressing the Enter key returns the Song Position Line (SPL) to the first beat of bar one. Executing the 'Pickup Clock & Select Next Event' (which, incidentally, is only available as a key command) will automatically move the selected audio region so that it starts at the position of the SPL and then selects the next region on the same track. Therefore, seven presses of this key command will get all seven audio regions starting exactly at bar one, beat one and sitting on top of each other in the Arrange Window. Each region could now be dragged to another position on the track — although don't do it just yet — and it would snap to a start position on a beat, making it easy to position at the exact start of a bar.
- STEP 5
With all seven regions positioned at bar one, beat one, a cycle region can be defined with the mouse around bars one and two. Then, with the drum track selected (which will, in turn, select all the audio regions on the track), the 'Split Objects by Locators' command (preferably via Key Command rather than two layers of menu options) will clip the 'tail' off all of the drum loops leaving each exactly two bars in length. As shown in the screen shot on page 86, the new audio regions can then be individually dragged around the Arrange Window to begin building your drum track. They will butt up together perfectly and will also snap to start on the first beat of the bar.
With appropriate key commands, moving from Step 3 to Step 5 can take as little as 15 seconds. If you have done it a few times before, you can easily get a drum track cooking in under a minute once your initial drum loop audio file has been bought into Logic. Whether it is your own studio time you have just saved or that of a client, getting to the music faster is always going to be welcome.
I'll round off this introduction to key commands with a few ideas for you to develop. First, you will gain the greatest savings in time by defining key commands for those functions that you use most often. Monitor your own ways of working during a few sessions and make a note of those commands that you use on a regular basis. These should become your first key command targets.
Second, I'd suggest you keep a printed list of the key commands you have defined close to your computer. Those you use on a regular basis will soon become second nature, but the list will act as a quick reminder for commands you use less frequently and will save having to open the Key Commands window and do a search. The key commands list can be copied and pasted into a word processor for editing and printing.
Third, when you are not in a creative mood, try spending a little time looking through the commands listed in the Key Command window. Even if this just makes you wonder what some of the more bizarre‑sounding commands actually do, exploring the list provides an interesting way to improve your own knowledge of Logic's huge range of features.
Finally, if you do invest some time in learning and defining your own key commands, do not risk having to go through the process all over again. The key command definitions are stored within Logic's Preferences file (for Logic 4 on the PC, this file is called 'Logic32.prf' and is stored within the Windows directory). It is a good idea to make regular backups of this file in case of system problems. You could, of course, also take a copy of this file on a floppy disk to a Logic system in another studio. Your key command settings can then be imported from your floppy disk file via the Key Commands window. Do, however, make sure that studio has a backup of its own preferences file before you attempt this, just to be on the safe side!
For confirmed fans, Logic's Screenset feature is probably one of the most important aspects of the software's user interface. A Screenset is essentially an onscreen arrangement of a particular group of Logic's windows (such as Arrange, Environment, Event list, etc) and such arrangements can be stored for later recall. If you regularly work with particular groups of windows, this can make navigation of the program extremely efficient, as well as allowing users tremendous flexibility in how they configure the user interface to their own tastes and working methods. Any of the screensets can be instantly recalled at any time using the numeric keys on the computer keyboard.
- GOTO LAST PLAY POSITION
This puts the SPL back to the last position playback started. This is great for cycling around a section of a song but without the need to create a cycle region or put Logic into cycle mode.
- CAPTURE LAST TAKE
Guess what this one does? Excellent if you are just doodling on your MIDI guitar or keyboard and forgot to press the record button.
- SET REGION(S) TO RECORDING POSITION
As long as an audio file has been recorded in the current song (rather than imported), this command will return it to its original recording position after it has been moved. Very useful if you have tried to adjust the position of the audio but cannot get it right and want to start from scratch!
- START EXTERNAL SAMPLE EDITOR
A shortcut if you like to use a third‑party editor on your Logic audio files rather than just Logic's own Sample Editor window. With this key command defined and the audio file selected, one key press will open the file within your chosen editor. The first time you use this function, you will be asked to specify which application you want to use as the external editor.
- SET ROUNDED LOCATORS & CYCLE PLAY
This is one of a set of similar commands that are only available as key commands. This particular one is quite useful as it sets a cycle region around the currently selected MIDI or audio parts (rounded to the nearest whole bar) and then starts playing the cycled part. This can save quite a bit of time compared with defining your cycle region manually.