Midi controllers are the fastest way to write music and program automation in your DAW software. A new generation of devices promises to add even more expressiveness to your film scores.
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Why Midi Controllers?
Composing music inside a software environment can be frustrating. You’re adding notes one at a time, clicking around to painstakingly change the pitch, duration, and velocity of each sound. When you’ve got a musical idea and need to write it down quickly, this isn’t the easiest way to do it. And if you want to play with variations, you’re back in the editor, dragging things around, manually adjusting each parameter.
The easier way to do this is with a “human-user-interface” or HUI: a piece of hardware that controls the software. Traditionally, these have been based off of existing pieces of music production gear. Think keyboards, drum machines, mixing consoles. All of this gear talks to your DAW with the MIDI protocol, hence the name midi controllers.
All of this is to say, you can plug a keyboard into your computer and just play the notes into your software rather than having to individually program each note.
Arguably, this “humanizes” computer-based music production because of all the imperfections that enter into it when an actual human is performing. A slight slow down, emphasis on certain notes in a chord, rushing the downbeat, etc. Software is designed to make music perfectly in tempo, perfectly in tune, and the precise volume you want. But when music is too perfect, it’s a dead giveaway that it was made in a computer.
It lacks personality and soul.
There are all kinds of ways to humanize programmed music. You can change the velocity of notes, shift things slightly so they don’t perfectly align, and program changes in overall tempo, among others.
Advanced virtual instrument plugins layer different samples on top of each other, and will play different sounds based on input. Usually called expression and/or dynamics, these are additional parameters that can be programmed. Like basic notes, expression and dynamics are more easily recorded with some sort of hardware in realtime.
By far, the most common midi controllers for film composers are keyboards. Even if you’re not a gifted pianist, your work will go much faster with a keyboard. Through in a piece of gear with some faders and maybe some drum pads, and you’re set, right?
Not even close. These days there is a new crop of midi controllers that enable completely new ways of adding expression to your music.
The new midi controllers move beyond traditional tools. They can be broken down into two categories:
These devices have been engineered to capture natural movements as musical expression. Your software records these movements to control velocity, volume, pitch bend, expression, and/or dynamics.
The Osmose, made by Expressive E, is such a cool concept: Take a traditional keyboard, and add two more degrees of movement to it. When you strike a key, you can wiggle it left and right to add vibrato, or slide it up and down to change volume and other effects. When you play a keyboard (or piano), the way you strike the key determines how it will sound. This new keyboard lets you modify the sound after you’ve hit the key. It’s akin to playing a string instrument, where the pitch, vibrato, and volume can all be changed as a note is held. Check out the demo video, showing what you can do with it:
This next-gen midi controller looks more like a tongue drum than anything else, but it does a lot. The Orba is designed to be tapped like a drum, but you can also slide your fingers across it and wave it in the air. And, because it has a built-in accelerometer, you can also shake, tilt, and bump the unit itself. Made to be a standalone instrument, it also works as a midi controller. Extremely adaptable, it can be used in many different ways. As with all of these, it has to be seen to be understood:
Made by the same company that created the Osmose, the Touché SE is a three-dimensional midi controller. With its ergonomic design and touch sensitivity, it allows for highly intuitive modulation and control. The large device doesn’t really resemble an instrument at all, but provides a tactile surface that can be pushed, tapped, stroked, and generally manipulated. It doesn’t stand alone as a way to input notes into your DAW. Instead, it is targeted at changing the parameters that shape the notes. Personally, I think it would be a perfect sidekick to a keyboard while recording string instruments for a film score. It’s way more natural to manipulate the touché than just twiddle knobs or push faders around.
The Play bridges the gap between expression controllers and modular controllers. At its core, is a touchpad. By covering it with swappable silicon covers, you change how you play it. So, you can play it like a keyboard, but with additional touch sensitivity. Or, you can play it like the frets of a guitar, and much more. It started on IndieGoGo and was a runaway success. Check out the demo of this cool kit:
Modular midi controllers allow you to build an input device suited to your specific needs. Not everyone needs a keyboard, for example. Or, maybe you need 16 faders and 24 knobs. Modular controllers let you build out your custom controller, and expand as needed. Like the Touché SE, these don’t record actual notes; they modify parameters that shape your sound.
Intech Studio makes a line of midi controllers called Grid Modular, small squares that fit together magnetically and connect over USB. Each module has different features, such as potentiometers, buttons, faders, or touch-sensitive encoders. Expand as needed.
Monogram modules are designed for more than just music. They are advertised for any creative software, such as video, design, photography, etc. However, they do work with DAW software and offer some unique features. Build your own creative console out of knobs, faders, buttons, and “the orbiter” – a pressure-sensitive 3d disc that rotates.
Dubbed as “the world’s most versatile modular controller,” the Mine S has a base unit that lets you hot-swap a variety of controls as needed. Like the others, it has buttons, knobs, encoders, and faders in whatever configuration you prefer. Like Monogram, it can work with software applications other than DAWs. And, like Joue Play, it started out with a crowdfunding campaign.
Midi controllers have been a great way to speed up composing workflows and add realistic expression to music. As the technology evolves, capabilities and customizability expands as well. Any of these new crop of hardware devices can help add the human element to your film score.