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Music

MIDI Editing in Pro Tools

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Only a few months ago, Pro Tools was considered a laggard among DAWs when it came to MIDI capabilities in general — despite its position as the industry standard digital audio production solution. With the release of Pro Tools 8, Digidesign stepped up its game. Let’s take a close look at the new functionality.


Selecting and Editing Notes

For the sake of this tutorial I’m going to quickly record some MIDI using the Mini Grand instrument plug-in from my Axiom 49. I’m no keyboard player, so let’s keep this simple.


You can edit MIDI notes either in the main Edit window by changing the track view from regions to notes, or with the MIDI Editor which you can open by double-clicking on the MIDI region with the Grabber tool.

Making Selections

There are two tools you can use to select a group of notes — the Grabber tool and the Selector tool. With the Grabber, you essentially draw a box around the notes you want to work with. You can select just one or two notes out of a chord this way, or an entire region. It’ll select any note in the box, even if only part of the note falls inside. The Selector, on the other hand, will select all notes between the start and end points you specify, as long as the very start of the note falls inside the selection.

When you select with the Grabber, only the notes themselves fall in the selection. When you select with the Selector, automation data will be selected as well.


A Grabber selection

If you want to deselect certain notes, Shift-click them with the Grabber.

Another interesting method of selection — although one you’ll undoubtedly use less often — is to click a note on the mini keyboard, which will select all MIDI notes of that particular pitch. If you click a key and drag upwards or downwards, all notes in that pitch range will be selected.

Moving Notes

The Grabber is used to move notes from one point in time to another as well as up and down in pitch. You can also use the Pencil tool, as it’ll change into a Grabber of sorts when you hover over an existing MIDI note.

The Shift tool comes in handy when moving notes. Hold Shift and then drag a note horizontally and you won’t be able to move it vertically, and vice versa — this allows you to preserve pitch or timing of the note as you make a change to the other variable. So if I want to change an F# to a G while ensuring the note stays at the start of bar four, I’d hold shift and then move the note up. I’d be unable to move the note’s start point until I released the Shift key.

While we’re using the keyboard, remember that you can use Alt on Windows or Option on the Mac and then click and drag in order to copy the notes in your selection.

Change a Note’s Length

If you want to change the length of a note or a group of notes, simply use the Grabber to make your selection and then click on the Trimmer tool.


Select the Trimmer

When you place the tool over the beginning or end of the note, you’ll see the cursor change to the Trimmer tool icon. Click and drag to lengthen or shorten the note. If you want to keep to the correct tempo and time signature, ensure the Edit mode is set to Grid so the note snaps to the nearest grid line.

Separating Notes

Separating notes is easy. With the Grabber of Pencil tool selected, hold Control-Shift on a Mac or Start-Shift under Windows and click on the point in the MIDI note you wish to separate. You’ll see a scalpel icon when the tool is in separate mode. If you have grid editing on, it’ll make the separation at the closest grid line.


Separated Notes

To put notes back together, whether it’s a note you’ve just separated or two different notes of the same pitch, hold the same keys and hover the mouse over the beginning or end of a note until you see a band-aid. When you click the notes will merge into one longer note.


Editing MIDI Values

Now you know how to edit the notes themselves. Let’s take a look at making changes to the MIDI values that accompany those notes: velocity, pitch bend, aftertouch, and so on.

In the Edit window, locate the instrument or MIDI track you’re working on. The view dropdown menu, which is generally below the record enable, solo and mute buttons, will probably be set to regions or notes. Click on the dropdown and you’ll see a range of other options.

  • Velocity
  • MIDI volume
  • MIDI mute
  • MIDI pan
  • Pitch bend
  • Mono aftertouch
  • Program change
  • Sysex
  • Controllers

There are also a few audio automation options but we won’t be looking at those in this tutorial.

If you’re in the MIDI Editor rather than the Edit window, click on the small arrow just to the left of the keyboard, right at the bottom. This will bring up automation and controller lanes.


You can then resize the lanes to suit by click and dragging on the black line separating the MIDI editing area and the automation editing lanes.


Select one of these options. I’m going to select velocity, as it will already have data from my MIDI controller recorded.


Velocity data

As you can see our notes are still visible, but now there are lines with diamonds attached to the top as well. These tell us which value between 0 and 127 is attached to each MIDI note for that particular data type. Where I’ve played chords there are multiple stalks in one place, so in order to figure out which note it applies to you can click the diamond and the sample will be played.

If you have the Grabber tool enabled you can modify these values by clicking on the diamond and dragging up (for a higher value) or down (for a lower value). Other types of automation, such as MIDI volume, feature breakpoints in a line rather than specific values for each note. Here’s MIDI volume without any adjustments:


By clicking with the Grabber tool at a point along that line, you create a breakpoint. Initially the breakpoint will be in the same position as the starting point, but we can change that by click on a breakpoint circle and dragging it. Here’s how this type of automation looks with some changes:



The Pencil Tool

Editing breakpoints with the Grabber tool can be a little tedious. Generally, we’re editing these values across the timeline — we’re not often making small tweaks to individual notes. For instance, we might want to draw in a velocity curve so that the piano has more impact as it builds from a verse into a chorus. It’s hard to achieve this effect smoothly when you have to move each individual breakpoint up or down.

Click on the Pencil tool, which is the button shown here in blue:


The default Pencil tool is free hand. Try drawing a line, moving horizontally from one end of the MIDI segment to another, but creating variations on the vertical axis as you go.


That’s a whole lot smoother and more natural than the blocks we were creating with breakpoints before! Of course blocks have their uses — you might want to create a weird, unnatural effect or you could be introducing delay automation for just one chord. When you’re going for a more musical effect, this is the way to go.

The Line Pencil

If you click and hold on the Pencil tool icon, a dropdown menu will appear showing you a variety of other pencil types. The next one creates lines. Unlike the free hand pencil, this will draw straight lines only, whether they’re horizontal or diagonal. This is great if you want to introduce a fade in with the MIDI volume or velocity values:


With all those breakpoints involved, it doesn’t quite look like we’ve got straight lines, but we do!

The Triangle Pencil

The next pencil in the dropdown is the triangle pencil. This is an interesting tool, and can come in handy for things like disorienting pan effects. When you first click in the automation area with the triangle pencil, it creates the center point of the triangle effect. You can then move the mouse up and down to increase or decrease the size of the peaks in the triangle.

This means you can easily create patterns as subtle as this:


Or as wild as this:


I don’t recommend that last one too often — that kind of panning is a sure way to give yourself nausea!

The Square Pencil

The square pencil works in a similar fashion to the triangle pencil, but instead of the diagonal lines of the triangle fading from one peak to another, the change is instant. It’s not a particularly subtle tool, but it has its uses.


The Random Pencil

The random pencil is like the square pencil, except that instead of having each square uniform with each other, the values of each breakpoint are randomized. The variance of the randomization depends on how high or low you pull the line. Even in small doses, the effects are quite noticeable. This kind of tool is very useful when you’re working something strange and creepy, or perhaps a bit industrial, to provide a really unnatural feel.


There are two pencil types we haven’t covered yet, Parabolic and S-Curve, that are used for editing tempo data.


MIDI Data Types

Earlier we looked at a list of various MIDI data types you can edit. Some of them are better known, such as velocity, while others are more obscure. Let’s examine them all.

Velocity

On a keyboard, velocity is how hard or fast the piano hammer hits the string as a result of how hard the key is struck. Low velocity means a soft and slower hammer strike, which means lower volume and less attack. Higher velocity introduces louder volume and faster attack. Since most people will be using a keyboard to play most sampled instruments, think of it as how hard you are playing a note on any other instrument — a soft or hard pluck on a guitar string, for instance.

This is not to be confused with MIDI volume, which simply alters how loud the track is played and in Pro Tools doesn’t affect individual notes, but all notes at a certain breakpoint. If you normalized two notes to the same volume with different velocities you’d still hear differences as (depending on your samples) the piano hammer hitting the strings at different rates will produce a noticeably different sound. This primarily because of the faster attack and the way in which different hammer strikes will introduce different overtones and harmonics.

MIDI Volume

MIDI volume works the same way a fader does — it simply adjusts the volume of a track. In fact, when you’re using MIDI or instrument tracks, the fader in the Mixer simply modifies this parameter.

MIDI Mute

Every Pro Tools track has a mute button. MIDI Mute automation allows you to tell Pro Tools when to mute the track and when to turn it back on rather than using one button that affects the entire track.

MIDI Pan

MIDI Pan automation works just like audio pan automation — it allows you to change how far left or right the sound is played. A value of 0 is full right, and a value of 127 is full left. That means you should draw downwards in order to move the sound to the right and upwards to move it to the left. You need to be using a stereo instrument or MIDI track for this kind of automation to work.

Pitch Bend

Just like the pitch bend wheel on your MIDI controller, pitch bend allows you to shift the pitch of a note in increments and achieve effects such as vibrato and portamento. Rather than the sudden change in pitch caused by playing one key after another on the keyboard, this is more like the bend on the guitar that slides from the starting pitch to the next pitch.

Mono Aftertouch

Aftertouch is the pressure of the key being held down after the initial strike (the initial strike is the velocity value). Some sampled instruments or synthesizer presets will use the aftertouch value to cause a swell in volume or a vibrato effect.

While the piano doesn’t have aftertouch because the hammer comes away from the string immediately after the strike, this value comes from other instruments where the hammer continues to put pressure on the string after the initial attack such as the clavichord. When pressure on the key is increased or relieved, pressure on the string itself is increased or relieved thus causing a change in volume due to the pressure of the hammer itself changing, and a subtle change in pitch because the pressure will result in a change in the vibrating length of the string.

MIDI Out Automation

Program change and sysex affect MIDI out data. While program change doesn’t do anything when you’re using instrument plug-ins in Pro Tools, if you’re using a MIDI track to control, for example, a hardware sound module, you can use program change to switch to another instrument patch or voice. Sysex comes from a feature in the MIDI specification that allows MIDI controllers to send undefined function control via MIDI, so you need to check with your MIDI controller literature to see if this has any usefulness for you.

Controllers

Controllers refers to automation that you’ll often find separate hardware that attaches to your keyboard controls. For instance, the sustain pedal you probably use with your MIDI controller sends MIDI data that your keyboard itself is not capable of providing. The same goes for breath control. How these extras are used depends on the preset you are using and whether it takes advantage of these controllers. Sustain can be used on most instruments except for drums, and breath control may only work with certain synthesizer patches. Here’s the full list of controllers you can automate:

  • Modulation wheel
  • Breath control
  • Foot control
  • Sustain
  • Expression

Deleting MIDI Value Data

So we’ve just gone and spent a while creating all sorts of crazy MIDI value automation. If you want to delete that automation, or the notes themselves, simply switch to the notes view or the automation view of your choice, and use the Selector tool to select the data you want to get rid of. Command+A or Ctrl+A will select all data on the track if you want to reset it completely. Then simply hit your backspace or delete key.


Using the Score

Pro Tools 8 allows you to create a score from MIDI data. Not only that, but you can create MIDI data by drawing notes onto a score. To access the score, click on the image of musical notes in the top left of the MIDI editor (to the right of the solo and mute buttons). Use the Grabber to move existing notes around, or the Pencil which can move notes and create them. You can determine a note’s pitch by where you place it on the score, but the length of the note is determined by the default note length value you’ve set.



Default Note Values

When you’re manually drawing in notes, Pro Tools will use some default note values unless you’ve specified otherwise. With the pencil you can draw the length of the note, but if you just click once without dragging or you’re using the score editor, the default length will determine what kind of note is placed. Likewise, whenever you create a new note, the default velocity will be applied to it. You can change these defaults in both the Edit window and the MIDI Edit window.


Default note values in Edit window

Default note values in MIDI Editor

To change the default note length, click on the image of a musical note, which will cause a dropdown menu to appear. It will look like this:


You can now select the note length and you have the option to make it a dotted note or triplet. The velocity value is right next to it in the form of a number. Click on the number and enter a number between 0 (low velocity) and 127 (high velocity), then press Enter to confirm the change.

While not necessarily a note value, you may find the default grid setting to be too restrictive, or perhaps not restrictive enough. This value can be set via a control nearby the default note value controls in either window. It will look something like this:


Click on the musical note image next to the word Grid and you’ll see a dropdown menu. Here, you can set grid lines every 1/64th note or every bar, depending on how rigid you want to be.

It’s worth mentioning that the note and grid values in the Edit window and those in the MIDI Editor windows are set independently of one another.


Mirrored MIDI Editing

MIDI is commonly used to create loops, particularly for drum parts. If you have copied one region of MIDI and pasted it several times elsewhere in the song, you can edit all instances of that region by turning on Mirrored MIDI Editing. The button to turn Mirrored MIDI Editing is in both the Edit and MIDI Editor windows and looks like this:


I’ve created a MIDI region and copied it twice:


After turning Mirrored MIDI Editing on, I made some changes to the first region. Now all three look like this:


No more “oh no!” moments when you realize you want to change a loop you’ve used tens or hundreds of times in a project!


Conclusion

After this course in Pro Tools MIDI editing, you should be able to competently handle just about any change you need to make to your MIDI data, as well as create it when you don’t have a controller handy (there is no denying, though, that a MIDI controller truly is the right tool for the job).

At some point we’ll come back to this topic and explore some of the more complicated MIDI editing functions that are often left untouched by many Pro Tools users.

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