Control freaks: Part 2

As I've already mentioned, MIDI controllers in all their various shapes and forms are a fun and effective way to maintain musicality and a human element in your computer-aided music endeavours. No more pain­staking programming of notes by mouse for us then. At least, not until it's time to adjust notes that you've recorded in more intricate detail. So let's get connected.

All hail USB

I love USB. It's not like set-up is impossible with standard MIDI cables running from your MIDI controller equipment (such as a keyboard) to your MIDI interface or sound card. It's just that USB or FireWire MIDI controllers are that little bit more immediate. Sometimes you might need to install a driver, but most times you can also power your device directly from your PC's USB port - another power point socket liberated for other uses! You may laugh, but this becomes an ongoing issue as a collection of ageing in-use hardware piles up. But back to the subject at hand - we've connected our MIDI controller and now it's time to make it work with some music creation software.

At this point you can pretty much use any music creation soft­ware that tickles your fancy - so long as it has good MIDI support. Cubase SX, Sonar, and Pro Tools will all do the job nicely. Alternatively, if you're just starting out, easier-to-use programs such FL Studio 5 and Ableton Live 4 might be a better place to find your footing. To that end, we've placed demo versions of the latter two on this month's cover disc.

FL Studio 5

This column has covered various versions of FL Studio (previously known as FruityLoops) in quite some depth in the past. You'll be greatly aided by searching the PC World Web site for a bit of a primer - especially for increasing loop lengths, which is a must for recording.

So let's help FL Studio know about the presence of our MIDI controller. Pull down the Options menu and go to MIDI Settings (or simply hit ). Drop down the box titled Remote control input and you should be able to select your MIDI controller. If you're using a non-USB MIDI keyboard, you'll likely see an option along the lines of MIDI in. In this screen shot you can see that I'm using a USB-based Akai MPD16 MIDI finger drum pad. I've opted to stay with "(generic controller)" in the Controller type: field, but FL Studio 5 includes preset profiles for several MIDI controllers, including a few of the Edirol and Korg MIDI controller keyboards I mentioned last month.

For more basic information on recording notes from a MIDI controller keyboard into FL Studio/FruityLoops, see the specific article located here.

What's not mentioned in that article is one of FL Studio's newer features. This is the ability to instantly assign almost any of FL Studio's knobs or sliders to be controlled by a physical knob or slider on your MIDI controller. It couldn't be easier. Simply right- click on which setting you want to tweak and select link to controller... This picture shows you that I've selected to assign the decay knob from the FL Keys instrument. A window will then pop up. At this point, simply move a knob or slider on your MIDI controller and voila! You're now using hardware to tweak software - and doing so with discerning judgement whilst playing/recording your MIDI controller is only going to help your music. Simply untick the link to controller option to "unlearn" any assignments you've made.

Ableton Live 4

Live may be a new program to regular readers of this column but I've gotten into its performance-based production ethic quite a bit of late and will be covering it in more depth in future columns. It's quite an intuitive program though, and the learning curve is greatly aided by in-program contextual help and interactive lessons (also included with the demo on the cover disc) and a PDF manual accessed from the Help menu.

However, what's not initially apparent is that Live is possibly even easier to get working with a MIDI controller than FL Studio!

You can check that Live is aware of your MIDI controller by going to Options-Preferences and selecting the MIDI/Sync tab. You should see it listed under Input. Start a new Live project (-N) and ensure that In/Out is ticked under the View menu.

Next, load up a virtual instrument plug-in to a spare MIDI channel (as advised in the lessons). KVR Audio ( has a great listing of free virtual instrument plug-ins if you need some.

You should be able to start playing the virtual instrument with your MIDI controller straight off that bat. Just press the Monitor On button for that channel - see this screenshot. Begin recording your masterpiece when you're ready - as per the instructions in the supplied lessons.

Pressing -P will allow you to see what the virtual instrument you're playing looks like. You can right click on almost any of the instrument's knobs or sliders, click Learn and twiddle a knob on your MIDI controller to assign control. Straight forward enough, but Live has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Pressing -M will bring up what's called a MIDI map. Every parameter within Live itself that can be controlled by your MIDI controller will turn purple. As always, just click on a parameter, twiddle a knob on your MIDI controller and control is assigned. Press -M again to exit the MIDI map view. If that wasn't enough, -K will enter Key map view letting you can do the same thing only using keys on your typing keyboard. Remote control bliss...

MIDI effects and tools

While you can treat audio with effects (such as delay, distortion etc), you can also use effects with MIDI. Ableton Live also includes five bundled MIDI effects that are well worth trying out - just drag one from the browser to a MIDI channel. Live's Scale MIDI effect (shown in FIGURE 3) for instance, makes notes that you're playing from your MIDI controller fit into a musical scale of your choice. Most of the other big music creation/sequencing packages mentioned in the main body also have MIDI effects, either built-in or though plug-ins. But, if you're really into experimenting, take a look at Energy XT or the free Bidule. Although a little different from each other, they're both modular environments that let you create and use in real time new and experimental effects and instrument chains in addition to an infinite amount of MIDI and audio paths.

Audio to Midi

The Extractor (pictured) available from tazman is a VST plug-in that can convert incoming audio information into MIDI control information. This means you could play your favourite virtual or hardware synthesiser using audio from, say, a guitar, or even your voice: beatboxing, singing or otherwise. Now that's definitely one for the control freaks.

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