Midi: My failed experiment

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about my dabbling with midi recording in my new studio. We talked about the huge cost benefits and some other benefits as well.

Basically the concept I wanted to try was recording Midi rather than acoustic piano. For those of you that don’t know what I mean, here is a short synopsis. Rather than setting up microphones on the piano, I would instead capture every keystroke and pedal movement into my computer. I would then play back that Midi file using top-notch piano sounds. I bought Ivory II for that purpose. In effect, I would be able to replace my piano sound with the sound of a world-class piano such as an Bosendorfer Imperial.

Besides getting a better piano sound, there are other benefits to recording that way. For example, if I miss a note, I can correct it very easily in the Midi file rather than re-recording anything. I can also record without worrying about external noises such as telephones and doors since only the Midi data is being recorded. It basically allows me to record anywhere even if my children are playing war games in the living room.

It sounds great, but it has a fatal flaw I think, and I have decided it probably won’t work.

The flaw has to do with the inconsistent nature of pianos. Whether you think about it or not, you automatically adjust your playing to the piano you are on at any given time. Here is an obvious example: if the piano is on the mellow side, you play it louder than you might play a piano that is bright.

But the reality is that good pianists end up making tiny compensations sometimes for individual notes. As you play a piano for a while, your brain starts registering data about how notes might sound. One note might be harsh or out of tune and your brain starts telling you to perhaps play that note softer or differently.

No piano is the same and no two keys on a piano are consistently the same. And here is what that means in Midi recording: the micro-adjustments that I am making in the music I am playing show up in the Midi file. That creates a problem because when you use that Midi file to play back another piano’s sounds, that piano does not need those micro-adjustments.

Here are a few practical examples.

When you play a note on a piano that is recorded in Midi, the duration of the note is recorded along with the velocity (speed or “loudness”) you play it at. The velocity is expressed as a number between 1 and 127 with softer notes being assigned lower numbers and loud notes getting higher numbers.

So let’s say that I record a song in Midi and because my piano is mellow, I play it louder than I might play on a Bosendorfer. What is the result of that? Well, in general, the velocities assigned to the notes will be higher than they would be if I recorded on the Bosendorfer. On a Bosendorfer, playing notes that loudly just might sound harsh and brittle. So when I play that Midi file with Bosendorfer sounds, it sounds way more harsh than I want it to.

Or perhaps, I am just very used to my piano and know that a particular F# needs a bit more velocity than the notes around it. When I record the song in Midi, the result is that all those F#’s have a slightly higher velocity assigned to them. When played back with the Bosendorfer, those notes jump out above the rest because the Bosendorfer does not have that issue with the F#.

The long and short of it is this. When I record Midi and then play it back with new piano sounds, there are a lot of problems I can’t live with. Some notes are not getting the right velocities and they either disappear or jump out in the resulting audio.

Now, all of those things are technically fixable in Midi files. I could go in and start adjusting velocities of every note if I want to. I can even go through and run operations where I adjust velocities on groups of notes (such as reducing the velocity number by 10 for all velocities over 115).

I could do those things. But I am not going to. Because doing those things comes close to crossing a line between performance and something that is not performance. At some point, the music becomes computer generated rather than heart generated. And at that point, the power is gone.

So, for the time being, I am back to microphones, preamps and acoustic recording. My recent “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is an example of acoustic recording though I recorded Midi at the same time and used it for the virtual keyboard you see at the bottom of the video. But what you are hearing in the video is not generated with Midi in any way–it is just the sound of my piano through my modest microphones and preamp. The quality is not bad for a video but it is a ways from where it would need to be on a CD project.

I am a bit sad about how it turned out but it is what it is. I am back to using the Midi bar I installed primarily for Finale.