Ten Tips for Fast MIDI Composing
By Rob Kelly
Below you’ll find my top ten tips when composing with MIDI in Pro Tools. Many of the MIDI composing tools I reference here are not new to Pro Tools 7 software, but all of them I find quite useful when composing music with Pro Tools. Try some (or all!) of these out on your own compositions — they may be just what you need to keep up with your creativity.
1. Use the Pencil Tool Creatively
The Pencil tool can be used for more than freehand drawing and note editing. Use it in Line Mode to draw in a regular pattern of MIDI notes (see figure 1). You can add accents or change emphasis by adjusting note durations at the bottom of the Pencil tool drop-down menu. Say you want a hi-hat pattern, accented on every other note: Draw in notes of 32nd-note duration, falling every 16th-note. Now switch to velocity view (use the “–” key to toggle between notes and velocity views), then try the Pencil tool in triangle mode and draw/drag over the velocity stalks. Depending on your grid setting, it should accent every other note (figure 2).
2. Work with the Timeline Unlinked
Hit the little button to the right of the “a-z” button at the top left of the edit page (see figure 3). This is called “unlink,” and separates the selection on the Edit window from the selection on the timeline. This function is very useful for MIDI editing, as it allows the timeline selection to be your “loop point” (for example, bar two to bar four), and lets you freely edit MIDI notes and regions (or even make alternate selection ranges on the Edit window) without affecting your loop start or end. The space bar always plays from the beginning of the loop, and the left square bracket key (the “[” key) plays from the edit selection or edit insertion point.
A little-known but highly useful trick: You can drag the timeline loop selection (figure 4) around the screen without having to remake it. Alt-click (Windows) or Option-click (Mac) on one of the blue arrows, and you can move the loop position while maintaining its length and drag it around the timeline, snapping to your grid values. Handy!
4. Get Creative with Tempo
Whether you’re a Finnish film composer finessing your flutes or barricaded in a Berlin basement banging out breaks, tempo changes can bring your music to life. Get to the Graphical Tempo Editor by folding out the little triangle on the Tempo Ruler (figure 5) and experiment with editing tempo. Again, the Pencil tool is very useful (especially in Parabolic and S-Curve modes), as is the Trim tool.
5. Use the E Key (Zoom Toggle)
The E Key function, also known as Zoom Toggle, is designed as a multi-function navigation/zoom tool. With MIDI data, it’s designed to emulate the behavior of a separate MIDI matrix editor. In Regions view with “a-z” mode on, select a region that’s set to small track height and hit the “E” key. The track should expand to a larger track height, notes view, and (as of Pro Tools version 7) a separate user-definable grid resolution. While in E Zoom Toggle mode, you can make further adjustments to the MIDI vertical zoom, grid size, track height, and MIDI display type. Next time you “E in” on a region, it will remember these settings. The key to successful use is to always “E out” on a region once you’ve finished an edit, and not to change your view setup while zoomed in (unless you mean to).
6. Use the Magnifier Zoom Tool to Navigate MIDI
Control-click (Windows) or Command-click (Mac) and drag over MIDI notes to lasso them into a marquee selection with the magnifier tool—then let go, zoom in, and be happy. Experiment with other keyboard modifiers to zoom back out. To continuously zoom the timeline horizontally (or to zoom MIDI notes vertically), press the Alt key (Windows) or Control key (Mac), then drag with the mouse. If you drag horizontally, the timeline continuously zooms from left to right; drag vertically, and it zooms vertically through the MIDI note range.
7. Use the Trim Tool in TCE Mode on MIDI
TCE Mode (time compress/expand) allows you to time-stretch a MIDI region the same way you can with audio! Great for going to half-time, or squeezing cues to fit picture hit points.
8. Use the Real-Time Properties
These functions are available in a column on the left side of the Edit window for track-based editing of MIDI playback parameters. They can also be used on a region-by-region basis via the MIDI Real Time Properties floating window (see figure 6) found under the Event menu. These tools are invaluable for experimenting with transposition, quantize, velocity, duration, and advance or delay (to adjust the feel of a part). All these parameters change in real time, so you can hear the results as you experiment. In my opinion, this is the single most creative set of MIDI features in Pro Tools.
9. Use the List Editor
Eliminate unwanted MIDI controller data without going through countless views to figure out what and where it is. Make subtle adjustments to note placement, velocity, and timing. Fine-tune controller data, and insert notes precisely. Filter the view to look at just a few specific controllers. Despite being a boring looking list of numbers, the List Editor is a powerful musical and creative tool.
10. Step It Up!
The step sequencer, located under the Events menu (see figure 7), was perhaps invented for those who, like me, don’t have much dexterity on keyboard controllers. But I find it useful as a creative tool, particularly for writing bass lines or arpeggiated parts. If you write any kind of electronic music, get into it!
Rob Kelly is a musician and sound engineer. Previously a product specialist for Digidesign UK, he now works for Strongroom and Air Studios in London.