Thursday, November 19, 2009

Using the iPhone as Numeric Keypad with Sibelius

No, I am not turning this blog into an advertising agency... but this tiny little iPhone app makes mobile life with Sibelius on the Mac so much easier that I can't hold off and post about it (as Sibeliusblog just did): edovia NumPad turns the iPhone into a numeric pad, also featuring a dedicated Sibelius mode.

For many a task a numeric keypad might seem superfluous. Just taking up space. Apple obviously holds this view: there is no wireless keyboard with a numeric pad and no laptop with a numeric pad either, not even the 17" where it would easily fit into. Yet this is a huge drawback for music pro users. Every pro audio software relies on the numeric keypad; alternative keyboard layouts without a numeric pad are much more complicated. For Sibelius it is more than that - I feel like my right hand is missing! The no-numpad layout is virtually impossible to use because it requires option keys for each and every operation.

The only thing I am missing is Sibelius' six skip-through layouts for the numeric keypad.

This app has drawn my attention to using the iPhone as a remote control for audio software - there's some stuff out! Since this is a bit off-topic, I'll restrict myself to very brief descriptions.

If you are ready to spend € 80 / $ 100 then opt for Far Out Lab's ProRemote. While this is much money for an iPhone app, it is a very reasonable price for a 32 channel controler with fully featured transport functions (your iPhone is sunk cost if you already own one; if not the calculation is more sophisticated ;-). There are limited editions: there is ProTransport, which does everything you would expect with great precision, and it is cheap. Plus there is ProRemote LE with a limitation to 8 channels, no transport etc. for € 28. Setup is easy; there's a server proprietary application for the host computer which does everything behind the scenes.

Hexler's TouchOSC, compared to the serious engineering look & feel of Far Out Lab's products, looks very funky, maybe inspired by Ableton Live. The concept is totally different. First, it is built upon the Open Sound Control (OSC) protocol, which is to be installed on the host computer using third party software. While TouchOSC is as cheap as iPhone apps are, this can be a source of hidden cost - and the whole system cumbersome to set up. This would not annoy the typical TouchOSC user because, secondly, it is totally configurable. On the one hand it is required to connect each and every fader/knob manually to the DAW, but on the other hand objects and layouts can be created with no limits. Far Out Lab's apps, in contrast, are fast but inflexible. Anyway, who needs this flexiblity, one might ask...

iTouchMidi has an emulation of Mackie Control named iTM MCU. Complete set of functions but way too small buttons, I'd say. The setup requires knowledge of concepts like IP address and port - more tedious than FOL's setup but still a lot easier than the whole OSC story. Their iTM Pad / iTM Tilt are very interesting; a single multi-dimensional control which can be assigned to everything.

Friday, October 30, 2009

ProTools 8 with Sibelius Powered Score Editor

I do not have DigiDesign's ProTools, though I've often thought about checking it out. Many professionals use it; my impression is that it has more users among studio people, whereas Logic is most used by musicians who also produce. In any case, as DigiDesign has long been owned by Sibelius' new boss Avid, it was to be expected that something would happen in order to get things together.

Thus, a Sibelius powered score editor in ProTools 8 has been announced. Of course, a key advantage is the immediate connection between MIDI in ProTools and the internal (and now Sibelius powered) score editor. As a Logic user, I envy ProTools users as they can now rely on a decent notation view of everything they do in their audio production environment. You can export to the native Sibelius format for further editing. ReWire integration goes without saying.

Yet this does not make me go over to ProTools. On the one hand, ProTools only works with DigiDesign or M-Audio hardware, which is a real limitation not only for people like me who own other stuff (I have Apogee gear; Ensemble and Duet). On the other hand, the cool new score editor of ProTools is not cool enough to substitute Sibelius (obvious; otherwise Avid would sell less Sibelius copies). If one needs a score from which musicians can play, one still has to finish the score in Sibelius: the ProTools score editor does not allow for dynamics, slurs, not to mention parts and other sophisticated features.

As I have argued elsewhere, the real desideratum is an integration which makes a "ping pong" editing between notation and audio production possible. This mission is not accomplished until a notation software like Sibelius can be used as external notation editor from within the audio production software. Sibelius itself has to be the tool to view and edit notation from within ProTools or Logic. If this will ever become reality with Sibelius, I am afraid, it will be done with the audio software from the same company. Maybe this will be the moment to go over to ProTools...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Logic to Sibelius Tutorial on Sibelius Blog out now

My IAC bus connection between Sibelius and Apple Logic elaboration in the Sibelius forum I've been pointing to in earlier postings has been ennobled as Tutorial on the official Sibelius Blog today. If you use both Sibelius and Apple Logic, go ahead! (If you use another audio production software such as Ableton Live, Nuendo, Cubase, or Pro Tools, most of these will allow for a similar connection) Leave a comment if you encounter any problems, or if you find a more elegant solution to any step of the procedure - or if you love just how mighty your scores can deliver now!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sound Quality in Hybrid Production of MIDI and Recorded Audio

A publication level audio file containing recorded audio of real instruments and real players as well as MIDI sounds (or, more precisely, sample library sounds administered by whatever protocol) triggered by a sequencer is called a hybrid production. For the production of "orchestral" audio, given limited budgets, this is almost unavoidable under real market conditions (which means that, of course, if budget and time is no consideration, and/or if you or your friends deserve all kinds of instruments, it is possible to avoid MIDI altogether). Thus, in most cases, the question is not whether or not to go for a hybrid production, but rather how to make a hybrid production sound as good as possible. In a way this is what this blog is all about. Therefore, now I will fire off a couple of rules of thumb about how to avoid obvious inferiority of a hybrid production, compared to recording of great musicians in a great studio with a great engineer. This is only meant as a starting point rather than an exhaustive list, of course.

If the top/main voice is produced by a real instrument played by a skilled and sensitive instrumentalist, it is, under suitable circumstances, hardly recognisable whether or not the accompanying voices of the same instrument or instrument group (e.g. brass) are samples. I assume this is so because the static and stereotype character of library samples is veiled by the variance of the real lead voice. Some of its individuality seems to be psycho-acoustically attributed to the sample non-individuals. The more rhythmically homogeneous the section voices are, the more the samples melt into the musicality of the real instrument voice.

Thus, rule 1 is: if you can get a good oboe player, let him play melodies, leads, upper voices; this will help to hide a sampled clarinet and fagot.

Plus rule 2, from the same argument, states that, if you want to hide sampled brass, woodwind, or strings, you should let them play the same rhythm as your real player of the same section (or another; no limits!). As often as possible.

Instruments where the player influences the sound after initiating a note are much more difficult in MIDI than "percussion" instruments, i. e. instruments where, once a note is hit, nothing can be done anymore. This does not only apply to most percussion instruments, unpitched and pitched, but also to stringed instruments like harp, and even to pizzicato technique of violin, viola, cello, and double bass.

So this is rule 3: Try to rely on "percussion" instruments in the above sense as much as possible, if you are bound to use samples. Avoid instruments where the sound develops. To my ears, sampled singers sound especially awful, but saxophone and solo trumpet samples can also be really ridiculous (even if, taken as such, they sound great)

There is one important exception to rule 3: instruments a) which sound everybody is very much acquainted to, and b) where playing more than one note at a time produces interferences, or which lets a whole "instrument" resonate. Prime example: the piano. Play a huge pedalled chord on the (grand) piano, and listen... what you hear crucially differs from triggering, with correct velocities, these very notes in an expensive grand piano library. (There has been a good posting on this topic by Kenneth D. Froelich on his The Electric Semiquaver blog). Another example: a jazz ride cymbal. Here, it is not several notes at one time, but hitting the cymbal while it is still swinging, which makes it resonate in a way that cannot be matched by a one shot sample.

This leads us to rule 4: The shorter the sample, the better. Take the marimba as a prime example. The notes decay very quickly, and hence a good marimba library does a more than decent job. Exception: single notes; there is no problem in using a one minute gong sample because the whole rich resonance is part of this one sample.

Okay, one more, rule 5: don't be pedantic - if you do have a cello and do not have a violin, write low enough to make the cello play the whole strings section. This is what I've been doing a lot, being a cello guy. To me, that funny "cello section" still sounds better than violin samples.

Okay, one more, rule 6: don't be dogmatic - if you do have a trombone and do not have a trumpet, record the trumpet voice at half tempo one octave lower with the trombone, sample it, and playback at double pitch. There you are, sounds like a trumpet with a strange, fast vibrato, but way better than a prominent trumpet sample. That's what I did with Philipp Haagen for Sch├╝tzenfest from the stage music for Die kleine Hexe.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Start a song with notation or at the sequencer?

An issue which has not truly benefitted from the new liaison between Sibelius and many sequencers (in my case Apple Logic) I have been raving about in my recent posts is the quest of whether to use notation software at all if the music one is going to write is in between "written" and improvised or groove oriented music.

As I said, I love the strong visualisation of music achieved by notation. This remains true even for music which is usually not written down at all. I am here mainly referring to groove oriented pop music, be it electro or r'n'b or whatever style. Most pop producers/composers can't prepare sheet music, this being no severe drawback at all for what they do. Fumbling around with a beat, "orchestrating" a house arrangement, editing software instrument sounds, recording a studio singer after humming a hook line to her, and so on.

I am attracted by both. Even if a song or a passage is totally groove oriented there comes the moment where I want to check or add harmonies using notation, or to see how the rhythmic patterns of the instruments interlock or interfere. I have often found myself switching to the notation view in Logic after inputting notes with the keyboard or mouse in piano roll view, but, needless to say, Logic's notation view is really uncool, so that I call that off quickly. The most satisfying way would certainly be a seamless integration of the two, where switching between different views would require no more than a shortcut.

How could this issue be resolved? If the notation software could be used as external notation editor by the sequencer software, just the same way as it is possible to add an external wave editor, for example. Rather than saving to MIDI from the sequencer and opening in the notation program, the latter should be able to map the sequencer's internal coding to notation.

What comes relatively close is to input notes with the keyboard in Sibelius with a) a ReWire connection to Logic running so that both programs sync, and b) to have Sibelius use the real deal Logic production sounds using the IAC bus MIDI connection from Sibelius to Logic I'm talking about all the time.

However, the ReWire connection is not so strong as to allow for, e.g., smooth cycle mode. Plus with this way of proceeding one is ending up with the sequence information being stored in the notation software, whilst the piano roll editor is the tool to go in order to tweak every single note as is required in programming pop music.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Workflow Demands

Inspired by a recent discussion on The Electric Semiquaver, a blog on composing with notation software, I tried to pin down what are my workflow demands concerning notation software. The imperative could be put like that: after having found the basic compositorical idea without computer, but also without a pencil, just walking around or so, I want the notation software to

1. allow me to get the idea stored as fast as possible, as easy as possible, as less distracting from the music as possible.

2. ease the elaboration of the basic musical ideas, i.e. arrangement, orchestration etc., I certainly do not shy away from using the acoustical MIDI feedback. Detection of mistakes, i.e. mistranslations from the mind to the score, but also, as the libraries and performance automation become better, checking if some orchestration sounds reasonable (keeping in mind what real players can do, of course)

3. provide me with readable and cool looking sheets almost on the fly, so that I have to do only minor editing. Thumbs up for magnetic layout!

4. provide me with a playback sounding good enough to be used as a first layout for, say, a theatre director. Or at least after substituting some solo voices by real performers. That said, it should also be possible to leave some voices played back by the notation software in a hybrid production, e.g. soft pitched percussions which are not so sensitive to being recorded against staying MIDI. Thumbs up for Sibelius Sounds Essential, and all thumbs up for ReWire integration in Sibelius 6, wow!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sibelius 6 Update #2

Yesterday I had not quite foreseen how drastic the Sibelius 6 update workflow enhancement is. That is, today I have combined embedding Sibelius’ audio output into Logic and using Logic’s software instruments in Sibelius via MIDI and the operation system’s IAC bus (howto). Thus, an instrument which is to remain a software instrument also in production (i.e. which is not recorded by microphone or through a guitar cable) can be played back with the very same sound including all effects and automations by Logic as well as by Sibelius. Composed passages are jotted down in and controlled by Sibelius, and improvisations or rubato passages can be input directly in Logic and edited there using the piano roll/matrix. Hence an arbitrarily fine-grained distribution of voices and passages to Sibelius and Logic is now possible; notation and recording can be combined wildly and in any sequence of production.

The screenshot shows an electric piano passage in Sibelius; from bar 6 it should be played freely on a certain harmony. In the Logic window top the first 6 bars are empty, then the chords recorded there follow. Both parts are played with Logic's EVP88 in one and the same slot.

Prior to the Sibelius update there was always the critical question when work leaves the composition environment Sibelius and migrates to the music production environment Logic. I have always postponed this step further and further to be able to continue to use Sibelius’ excellent visualisation of music and its composer friendly tools as long as possible.

The drawback that the music never sounds better than Sibelius’ MIDI sounds I have put up with gnashingly. Not only that demos and layouts tax the receivers fantasy all too much: which theater or film director is capable of imagining on a MIDI vocal track how this eventually sounds when recorded by a real singer? How many of my propositions have been rejected simply because the demo sounded just too bad.? Also, this has also taxed my own fantasie. How much more vividly one can imagine the effect of a string accompaniment if the real singer is audible!

After the migration to Logic the other way round: good-sounding software instruments, effects, automation, real vocals, strings, double bass etc. - and then a new cue, shorten, lengthen, alter. This is more nicely done in Sibelius which has, prior to the update, effectively been foreclosed by the tedious importing procedure.