From the viewpoint of a home recording studio
Major Steps of the Midi Recording Process
There are three ways that I am aware of to get a song into a midi format:
(1) play it on a musical instrument and have a computer program record the notes played,
(2) use the computer keyboard to enter / edit notes by hand
(3) scanning in the music from sheet music via a scanner (Midi-Scan is a company that sells this software)
Even though I own Midi-Scan software, I tend to solely use the first two types. I prefer to use musical instruments as much as possible to make the midi songs. Not only is it more fun, it is actually faster - assuming of course that that is an option for us.
I first put in a drum sequence by hand at the computer keyboard - either note by note - or copy a few measures of stored drum sequences that I have. I then copy that sequence for perhaps 100 measures to make up a whole song. Next I do the melody - a simple version of it. That gives something to follow for the rest of the instruments. If one is into midi-karaoke - it may be best to do the melody on midi channel 4 (the fourth channel - probably a "3" in hexadecimal coding since hex starts numbering at "0"). The midi karaoke program that I have expects the melody on channel 4, along with the lyrics.
Then one can add instruments as they like, in whatever order they like - since the drum and the melody should tell you where you are in the song. A bass part can be added - I like the sound of the acoustic bass best, but some of the others are also interesting. Of course then one can add piano fill-ins, string sections, brass sections, and then pep up the whole thing with an occasional harp or chimes or other fun instrument.
When one is done the first time of course, one is still not complete. When the parts are all there it is time to go back and readjust parts that you did quickly. For example, one can add (and should add!) drum riffs to the original plain drum track put down. Changing the drum style with riffs and occasional changes will also reduce criticism that "canned" drum parts are boring. a nice touch that I like is a brief drum roll down a series of tom-toms, snares and other drums while varying the "pan" (right to left sound) continuously in a sweeping right to left or left to right sound movement.
When you are done with the midi song - listen to it and see if you like the sounds and timing of all of the parts. Look for trite parts and vary them. Also - if some of the parts seem "out of sync" with each other, note that some midi software, like Cakewalk - will allow you to adjust/realign the notes up to either 8th note starts or other note starts. I sometimes do this for at least the bass part - which is supposed to be right with the timing generally. Careful not to overdo this realignment though - sometimes it tends to make the sound less realistic. I once messed up a song I did by re-aligning the notes too much - I lost the swing beat of the original recording in the process.
A midi file can be "orchestrated" by several of the computer sequencing programs, including Cakewalk. In these programs, one can load the file and listen to it while using sliders to adjust the volumes of the individual instruments during the song to make it more dynamic and realistic. One can also set the amount of reverb and chorus for each instrument, and also the degree of "pan" - which adjusts how much of that instrument sound goes to the left or right speaker. Best to take full advantage of the two speaker system in stereo and put varying degrees of some instruments on the right and left channels such that the final listener will hear a variety. If no pan adjustment is made - the midi file will be "monaural" - meaning that the sound in the left and right speakers will be the same.
When the midi file is done and orchestrated, one may decide to add vocals or guitar or other sounds to make a complete sound recording. Adding these sounds to the midi file, either one at a time or all at once, is best done in a multi-track recorder. In my opinion (key word) and based on my engineering background - I would list the expected quality of multi-channel recorder types as listed below - starting with the expected best on top. As an engineer, generally the more "information per unit of time" that is stored, the more information we have about the original song, and that should give us the best quality.
The Best Recording Media (my opinion) in order of preference:
Hard Disk Recording - digital recording and no real limits on how much information can be stored
DAT tapes and the like -I don't know too much about these, but the specifications say that it can do CD specs (digital with 44.1 KHz sampling).
CD Disk Recording - digital - not sure anyone records directly to a CD disk, but it would offer digital recording plus 44.1 KHz sampling rate
Mini-Disk Recording - digital/analog - these disks are very convenient, but hold about one third the info on a CD disk - so a slight drop in quality from CD. Note that multi-track mini disk recorders use mini "data disks" which are different and more expensive than the normal "mini-disks". If one uses a normal mini-disk in these recorders, one is often limited (don't know of any exceptions) to just two track recording. The multi-track mini disk recording decks record in digital and store the information in digital. However, when one outputs the data in a mix-down to the next stage, it is done with the analog outputs.
High Speed Cassette Tape - analog - Some multi track cassette recording decks offer some nice features as dbx and/or high speed (double) recording. DBX does a nice job on noise reduction, by using compression techniques I believe. The high speed is very important - since we said at the start of this that the more "information per unit of time" then the "better quality". A tape running at twice the normal cassette speed will store twice as much information. This will improve both the frequency response (better high notes) and also the signal to noise ratio (less tape hiss - less background noise). The manufacturers suggest using thicker cassette tape, though, such as 60 minute tapes instead of 90 or 120 - to avoid tape stretch.
Cassette Tape -analog - multi track recorders of multiple varieties are available that use standard easy to find cassette tape
What do I use? Well being on a limited budget and just having a home recording studio, I had opted originally for a high speed cassette deck, and have now upgraded to a 4 track mini-disk recording set. I like both. The mini-disk has a good sound and is easy to use. The 4 track mini-disk also has an option for syncing to a midi system - apparently so one could free up two tracks (midi left and midi right) and end up with the equivalent of a 6 track recorder. I have not yet tried that option.
Mini-disk versus CD - Above I said that mini disks store about one third of the information that a CD disk does (less information per unit of time) and is sometimes judged to have slightly lower quality. The answer of course is in the recording algorithm. The mini-disk still has the excellent signal to noise that a CD has (similar less background noise than a tape), but the feeling is that algorithm may "throw away" some of the softer background sounds in a recording and concentrate on the several louder ones. The wonderful magazine Electronic Musician that I subscribe to, once polled 6 people, and as I recall, 3 said that they heard some music missing and 3 said it sounded the same as a CD. In my opinion, if I listen real carefully, it would seem that some soft background parts are missing. However, I have also decided that with the good overall quality and the low background noise, to make the mini disk a standard in my setup. It is basically, not "different enough" to change my buying habits.
"Fix it in the Mix" is a common expression used by recording people - although as they also know, sometimes some things cannot be fixed.
The Mix-Down master is made by taking the multi-track recorder and while using volume controls on each of the tracks, mixing down to a two track (stereo) master. The master is then used to duplicate other copies later. Mix-Down it seems some days, can be complex as the making of the song up until this point. During the mix-down, one must adjust the volumes of all the pieces - dynamically (as the song progresses) to get the best mix of midi, vocals and added audio instruments. Effects can be added at this time. Effects boxes are for sale that can add reverb or chorus or other effects to the parts while they are mixing down into the master. Careful not to use too much reverb - that is a common mistake. Based on your preference - you can either mix down using headphones or by listening carefully to stereo speakers. I tend to use the stereo speakers, since in my opinion, I seem to hear the amount of reverb better in the speakers. Using headsets, I have ended up with too much reverb at times.
Another thing you can do in the mix down - is to fix things ("fix it in the mix"). You can choose to ignore and not record lead in midi drum beats for example - if they were there just to help you know where the song started. You can also lower or eliminate various vocal passages - that seem embarrassing or at least "not the best" when listening to the original multi-track. You can even eliminate some sounds entirely - if you have quick hands and move a slider volume to zero quickly.
Also - if there are several songs on the Master - you need to keep the volumes close. It is also disturbing to play back a master and find large variations in volume song to song. At these times, I have often redone the mix down and made a new master.
What to record on for the master? I believe in this day in age - it is best to "get to digital" and "stay in digital" as much as possible - to eliminate further reduction of the original song. Since there are techniques for copying digital signals directly, one would not have loss on multiple copies - as one does on analog recordings when making multiple copies. I mix-down from my four channel mini-disk recorder to a two channel (more normal) mini disk recorder. When the digital master is done of the mini-disk - it is not changed from then on. Done is done - when one gets to digital.
Once you have a two channel (stereo) master, you can make copies as you freely wish. Connect the outputs to a cassette tape player if you wish for inexpensive copies. If you have a digital master - you can look into making digital copies directly - which of course gives even better results. Some mini-disk players and some CD players have a digital output as well as an analog output - for making exact copies (note some DVD players have CD capability and will output digital encoding from CD disks). Depending on the model of the recorder, sometimes a fiber optic cable is needed for digital transfer. These cables which used to be hard to get years ago, now seem much more common. Even the "Best Buy" appliance store in my neighborhood sells them.
Getting files into your computer so you can make copies, and maybe CD copies? Well, most computers will have a means for inputting analog sound - that will allow you to do that and make a "wav" file with the right software. But keep in mind - that you might lose some quality using analog input since there may be a degradation. In my case, I have purchased a special computer digital input card from Zefiro Associates that allows me to enter digital encoded music from either a CD or my mini-disk player with no loss in the original signal. In my case then, I take the digital song from the mini disk master and send it to my computer via the Zefiro digital card, and then with special software, I store it as a "wav" file. I then record "wav" file masters on a CD that I burn in and store as "master CDs". Later, I can make as many digital song copies of my own music from my computer by arranging the "wav" files in whatever order I want, and then "burn" more CDs with music on them. Therefore, once I have a digital "Master", I ensure that the sound does not degrade from there out through the copies.
Software is generally available for making CD and cassette covers. In my case, though, I prefer to do it totally myself for all except the covering on the CD itself. I use Microsoft Powerpoint - and I measure the size of the areas that I want the covers to be - and then I create an outline of that size in the powerpoint "master" area. With such an open approach, basically there is no limit then to the objects, pictures, and text fonts that are available. I have to cut out the final items from a standard 8.5 by 11 page paper, but for the few copies I make, that is not a big deal. I prefer having the freedom to make things however I want. If you would rather use standard software, I believe that that is also available. In general, though, I would suggest adding your own covers - particularly if you have a color printer. It adds a lot.
But most of all . . have fun doing this stuff !
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