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04.07.2015
Having provided a bit of a taster for the different types of MIDI sequencing tools available under iOS in the previous part of this occasional MIDI 101 series, in this instalment, I thought I might take a closer look at the sorts of things MIDI sequencing allows you to do.
While I hope this might be useful for the MIDI newbie – particularly the iOS musician who is a bit of a MIDI newbie – what I suspect it will also do is highlight both the good and the bad of MIDI sequencing under iOS.
Having grown up with MIDI from very early on in my own music technology journey, I’ve often been surprised by just how many musicians are simply not familiar with MIDI and its applications. I’ve sort of covered this issue in the first couple of parts of this series but, for those to whom this might apply, let’s (very) briefly remind ourselves of the key advantages of recording our virtual instrument parts as MIDI rather than audio, whether those parts be from software synths or virtual drum machines. In days of old, when computers had less processing power and storage space than that found on the original iPod, one advantage of MIDI was that it was a compact data format.
In terms of desktop computers, it’s probably 10+ years since that reason for using MIDI was really an issue. There is another qualifier to be added here in terms of MIDI’s ability to save you CPU cycles. So, if this resource argument is no longer really a reason for using MIDI, what is the main reason for its use?
So, for both these reasons, MIDI offers you some extra flexibility in that you can easily change the sound and details of the performance without having to re-record.
However, before we can capitalise on the advantages suggested above, we have to record the MIDI data in the first place and, as described in the previous part of this series, that requires a MIDI sequencer of some sort…. By default, this adds a new MIDI track at the bottom of our track list and automatically allocates it a basic acoustic piano sound using Cubasis’ own Micro Sonic virtual instrument. Don’t ask me to love any virtual piano keyboard but, if your fingers are up to it, Cubasis offers a suitable piano keyboard option. Virtual keyboards are fine if you are making music on the move and have limited other options but not even competent keyboard players probably feel they make for the most expressive or comfortable of playing experiences. These do, of course, include a ‘real’ keyboard in the form of an external MIDI keyboard connected (as described in part 2) to your iPad and most players – even those with limited playing skills – will generally find this a better experience. While these Chord Pads are useful, the rather anonymous numbers mean you have to remember which chord is associated with which pad. The big advantage of these pads is that each shows the chord name associated with it so it is much easier to play without losing your way. Cubasis also includes a more up-market version of chord pads for easy MIDI part creation…. There are actually a number of really good options here depending upon just how you view the ‘simple vs deep’ take on these things…. The beauty of these kinds of apps is that they allow you to ‘play’ your virtual instruments (that is, send them MIDI note data) but without you needing to have traditional keyboard skills. Perhaps one of the best iOS examples of an app that includes a collection of usable MIDI phrases is IK Multimedia’s SampleTank.
SampleTank includes a very good collection of MIDI loops for use if a range of different instrument types. One final option to consider (OK, a final option aside from some of the alternative MIDI controllers such as MIDI guitar systems; I’m not going to get into those here) if the more laborious route of simply using the MIDI editing tools provided by your sequencer to enter the notes manually one at a time. It is, perhaps, the method of last resort though and, for anything more complex, while your personality might differ from mine, this is the kind of thing that could easily rank alongside cutting grass with nail scissors…. Editing MIDI data you have created (hopefully quickly) using one of the approaches outlined above is both useful and often necessary (depending upon your level of musical skill) and, while still a bit of a chore, it well worth spending some time on. Given the compact format (that is, modest screen size and modest storage space) and relatively youthful nature of the platform for music creation, this is perhaps both to be expected and also, in the main, a deliberate design decision.
The set of tools are all petty obvious and basic but, as I mentioned earlier, it’s these ‘obvious and basic’ tools that you need to get 95% of your typical editing work done. Most of the options within this strip are obvious – Copy and Paste, for example – but others are perhaps a little less so and it is also worth noting that some of then only become available for use once you have selected a suitable clip (they are greyed out until then). Split allows you to divide the selected clip (or clips) at the current position of the timeline cursor, and will work with either audio or MIDI clips. Having created a MIDI clip upon one of your MIDI tracks, if you want to actually start editing the individual notes within that event, double-tapping the clip will open it for editing within the Cubasis’ MIDI editor. Using the term ‘grid’ above to describe the editor format is perhaps a term that needs a little clarification.
In terms of giving your music a ‘feel’, this is a good thing; musicians often play ahead or behind the beat (often instinctively) to create a particular rhythmic feel. In fact, Cubasis has a range of basic editing tools for adjusting individual notes (or sets of notes selected within an event; as when selecting multiple events, once in the MIDI editor, the Select button will allow you to select multiple MIDI notes for editing if you wish). In terms of other MIDI-related editing, Cubasis also allows you to change MIDI controller data, whether that’s something as simple and obvious as note velocity data or, once you get into the (rather nicely) implemented automation system, editing MIDI CC data for other parameters. This might be parameters linked to synths (internal or external) or it might be data concerned with mixer functions (volume, pan, effects, etc.).
It is easy to deride the humble (and now fairly ancient) desktop computer mouse, but when it comes to precision editing as required with MIDI data, it actually has a lot going for it, not least that it doesn’t actually get in the way of seeing what’s on the screen itself….
If you are lucky enough at some stage to be using an iPad Pro – with it’s larger screen size – then this will make life a little easier.
The Griffin touchscreen styles provides an inexpensive way to get your fingers (mostly)out of the way when editing MIDI data. For example, I’ve used an inexpensive Griffin touchscreen stylus for routine MIDI editing tasks for some time.
Incidentally, if you have ever used a larger-format touchscreen (for example, a full-sized touchscreen monitor for a desktop computer), it is pretty obvious that size does matter here. In addition, Cubase include the rather scary (but very powerful) Logical Editor that, as part of its brief, can be used to configure all sorts of complex manipulations of MIDI data. Cubase also offers a number of different ways to visualise your MIDI data including a MIDI Monitor plugin and the List Editor (see your MIDI data in a Matrix-style text format!) plus numerous options for dissolving and bouncing MIDI parts, looping them and, if dots and staves are your thing, doing all your MIDI editing in a Score Editor environment. However, if I had to highlight two MIDI editing tools that would be on my personal wish list for porting over to Cubasis from the desktop version of Cubase, it would be groove quantise functions and the Drum Editor. One of the beauties of music played by humans – particularly those who have plenty of performance miles under their belt – is that (often instinctively) they will play a particular song with a ‘groove’.
The second wish list item – a MIDI Drum Editor – is perhaps a more obvious and straightforward suggestion. The Drum Editor environment in Cubase is something I’d love to see ported over to Cubasis under iOS. Of my one two personal wishlist items, I could imagine Steinberg adding a drum editor to Cubasis without too much difficulty.
The example I’ve used here to illustrate what’s typical of the current state-of-play for MIDI sequencing under iOS – Steinberg’s Cubasis – is, of course, just one of many iOS MIDI sequencer options. There is one other issue that I think is worth discussing here and, while it is not specifically related to MIDI editing, it is relevant to how ambitious you might get with the MIDI-based elements of your iOS music productions; track freezing. If you are creating your music using a lot of virtual instrument sounds – synths, drums, sample-based sounds, etc.
This is not a permanent process though; you can ‘un-freeze’ a track again if you need to make further edits.
I’ve covered a lot of ground here (sorry!) but, hopefully, it has provided a bit of context for the MIDI newbies.
OK, so when we have all had a bit of a breather, what might be in the next part of the series?
In days of old, when all your MIDI equipment was connected with real physical cables, this perhaps wasn’t such a complex task (well, except for the cable spaghetti that could develop). Again, this is an issue that is (slowly) improving… but, in the next piece, we will take a look at MIDI in, MIDI thru and MIDI out under iOS and see just where the current state-of-play has got us. This will include some of the basics of general MIDI note editing – and the pros and cons of that under iOS – but also some of the other editing tools (corrective and creative) that a good MIDI sequencer can provide.


Don’t get me wrong because I think what a sequencer such as Cubasis or Gadget can do on a (fairly) humble iPad is actually pretty remarkable.
This is simply because (a) it’s the environment with which I’m most familiar, (b) it’s a popular app that lots of people will have some experience of and (c) it is one of the slicker MIDI editing environments available for iOS musicians but is (by design) also fairly streamlined in terms of features.
If that’s you, however, don’t feel you are alone; I get regular emails from readers of the blog who, while comfortable with the principles of multitrack audio recording – and are happy to record synth parts or drum machine tracks as audio – are much less comfortable with MIDI-based recording. And, while it could still be an argument that you might apply to something like an iPad or an iPhone, providing you don’t fill the device to capacity with the apps (that is, you actually save some space into which you can store your musical projects), the processor grunt and storage capacity, while not matching that found on a modern desktop computer, is, in principle, more than adequate for multi-track audio recording.
In days of old, this is an argument that certainly applied as the majority of the synths or drum machines that the MIDI data was driving were hardware units.
This might be as simple as correcting one duff note but, equally, it might be changing a whole melody line or adjusting the chords. With a MIDI part, this is easily handled by your sequencer and the timing of the note on and note off messages are easily re-calculated. Instead, let’s think more specifically about the methods for playing the MIDI performance – generating those MIDI notes – that our MIDI sequencer software will then record. However, before we can record any MIDI data, we need a MIDI track to record that data on and a sound source (virtual instrument) to play that data back with. And, if like me, your keyboards skills are perhaps best described as ‘limited’, then some of the alternatives are worth considering. However, a further option – a sort of ‘Chord Pads plus’ – is available if you tap the Pads button (located top-left on the virtual keyboard window). Tap the Edit button and you can also easily configure which chord is associated with each pad including the octave in which it plays.
If you want something simple then you might start with an app like Chordion but, if you want something a little deeper then ChordPolyPad is worth a look.
Instead, via the wonders of the touchscreen – and a dose of clever UI design – you can trigger chords with a single finger and a melody or bass line where the only notes available to you are ‘in key’; duff notes are, therefore, a thing of the past.
While this app is primarily of interest as a multi-timbral (up to four different sounds at the same time) sample-based virtual instrument (at which it is actually very good indeed), the app also includes a fairly impressive collection of MIDI phrases that can either be triggered from within the app or from an external sequencer (such as Cubasis).
If you just need to create some short phrases or chord parts (which you can then copy and loop) then this is a perfectly practical way forward, especially if your keyboard skills are somewhat basic. Whether it is done via a ‘piano roll’ editor, a drum grid editor or even editing within a virtual stave environment (yep, all those ‘proper’ musical dots), the degree of control available can be staggering.
I’ve been lucky enough to use the full version of Cubase for a number of years (and, before that, Logic) and, while I can appreciate the power it offers for editing and manipulating MIDI data, most days, the vast majority of that power goes unused. Providing the designers have included the right core features, most of the time, the absence of those more esoteric features may not really be an issue.
So, again using Cubasis as an example, let’s have a quick scoot through the MIDI editing options and see just how far Steinberg have got down my own personal ‘key MIDI editing wishlist’ in the current version of the app. First, within the Project window, you can take a MIDI ‘clip’ (perhaps a performance of a set of chords you have played in using one of the methods outlined above and covering just a few bars) and you can perform various actions on that. You can, for example, simply tap on an event to select it and then drag it to move it along the timeline. So, for example, the Select button, once tapped, lights up blue and then allows you to tap and drag within the events area to select multiple events or simply to tap on multiple events to select them.
You can use this to create an empty MIDI clip and, into which, you could then manually add some MIDI notes…. This allows you to apply an clip-level (that is, all notes within the selected clip or clips) transposition, either by a number of semitones or by a number of octaves.
However, if you tap top-left of this area (where the clip’s name is displayed) and drag upwards, you can expand this view to fill as much of the screen as you might like. First, in terms of pitch, this is a ‘fixed grid’ where the placement of notes is ‘quantised’ to a specific pitch on our standard 12-note chromatic scale. Used at its most simple (that is, without any quantising of the notes timing), notes will be positioned at the exact (within the timing accuracy of your overall music production system) time at which each was played (for example, when you pressed the notes on your MIDI keyboard).
In terms of tidying up the sloppy timing often induced by less than ideal virtual piano keyboards (or, as in my case, less than stellar keyboard skills), it is perhaps less useful. These editing tool include the obvious options for moving a note vertically (changing the pitch) or horizontally (changing its start position along the timeline) or changing its length. This might require a little adjustment on behalf of the user but it is something that you soon get to grips with.
You can disable these while manually editing if you wish (set the Quantize resolution to ‘off’ so it shows the horseshoe magnet icon).
The only other notable element of the MIDI editing features is the ability to add a bit of ‘swing’ (usually notes on the off-beats have their timing adjusted to achieve this) to the timing quantization.
Either way, whether you are conscious of it or not, this is MIDI editing work that you are undertaking and Cubasis provides you with basic graphical editing tools via the touchscreen to get the job done. However, iPad Pro or not, the other option is not to use your fingers at all but to invest in a suitable touchscreen stylus. While it doesn’t totally overcome the problem (it is still chunky enough to get in the way), it is somewhat smaller than my fingers and therefore easier to see what I’m actually pointing it at.
On a larger screen, where the objects you are try to touch and manipulate are proportional larger themselves, it is a much easier proposition. Well, if you go right up to the ‘Pro’ version then, frankly (and unsurprisingly), Cubase contains a considerably more extensive MIDI editing feature set than Cubasis. These are essentially filters that you can add to a MIDI track and that will apply all sorts of ‘live’ adjustments to the MIDI data on playback (the original data remains unchanged). This is high-powered stuff and perhaps not for the MIDI newbie… but those doing lots of MIDI-based music creation would find it a brilliant tool. However, it is perhaps more on the ‘creative’ side of MIDI editing (rather like adding some swing quantise is) than the corrective use more basic quantise tools are used for to overcome sloppy timing or somewhat limited performance skills with a MIDI keyboard.
In essence, the software can ‘detect’ the groove in a MIDI performance (and, in some software, in an audio performance), extract that groove, save it as a ‘groove preset’ and then apply that groove preset to another MIDI performance (and, again, in some cases, even to another audio performance) so that it then has the same ‘groove’ as the original.
Implementing a full groove quantise system would, however, be a much more significant undertaking. The specification for the upcoming Auria Pro (at the time to writing, the app is still in beta testing) suggests it will have a pretty impressive MIDI track feature set so things are bound to move forwards in other apps as a response. While some of these are, like Cubasis, ports or streamlined versions, of software that is also available on the desktop, others are products that started life under iOS. Yes, let’s hope that the feature lists do evolve and expand but, equally, let’s also hope that the worst excesses of software bloat can be avoided. While iOS might be some way behind the desktop when it comes to an ‘all-in-one’ conventional MIDI sequencing sequencing, in some other – albeit niche – ways, iOS offers creative options that are not always found on the desktop. I’ll not repeat that material here (go check out the original reviews) but both of these apps bring something just a little different to the concept of what MIDI sequencing is about. All this process consists of is that, behind the scene, the software turns your MIDI-based track (within its CPU intensive virtual instrument) into an audio track (which doesn’t consume as much CPU during playback, although make sure to quit the virtual instrument app of it will still be running in the background and making use of some resources). However, under iOS there are a few differences with how track freezing might work on the desktop.
So, taking Cubasis as an example again, if you are using a virtual instrument via IAA inserted on a Cubasis track, then you can apply a freeze, unload the app, and save some resources.
MultitrackStudio for iPad is first past the post to offer this feature but others will undoubtedly follow.
No, not everything in the garden is perfectly rosy but we are getting there and, in some of the rather creative, niche MIDI sequencing tools we have, there are some real highlights.
Well, one of the things that those new to MIDI can often find a bit bewildering is MIDI data flow. However, today, much of that MIDI connectivity is virtual and connects virtual MIDI devices (instruments and effects).


It will, therefore, by comparison with a more sophisticated desktop MIDI editing environment, enable me to identify some additional features that it would, at some stage, be nice to see. This was a tiny amount of data by comparison so those lower-powered computers (a) could cope with the processing demands and (b) didn’t require as much storage to hold the data. In essence, you don’t ‘need’ MIDI recording as a means of saving CPU resources or storage space.
Today however – and this applies under iOS as well – they are much more likely to be virtual instruments and quite probably running on the same CPU as the MIDI sequencer.
While you hear the sound of your synth or drum machine as you play MIDI notes into it, what gets recorded is those MIDI notes.
You might also adjust the timing of the performance… and all this can be done by simply editing the positions of the MIDI notes that you have recorded. In Cubasis, at the bottom of the track list within the Project window there are dedicated buttons for adding new audio or MIDI tracks so, as you might expect, we simply tap the ‘+ MIDI’ button…. The sound can be drawn from those that Cubasis itself can provide via Micro Sonic (sample-based sounds) or Micrologue (the Cubasis synth instrument) or, alternatively, you could be using a 3rd party sound source via IAA or Audiobus. First, we can simply tap on the Keys button (located top-left of the Cubasis Project window) to open the Cubasis virtual piano keyboard. Fill up as many of the pads as your song has chords and then you can switch off the ‘edit’ option and use these buttons to play your chords.
These pads are actually dual purpose; when you have a melodic instrument selected then you get a set of 16 chord pads.
Equally, the pads provide some sense of velocity sensitivity; tap near the centre and the playing is louder while towards the edge you get a softer response.
I’ve reviewed SampleTank on the blog in the past so check that out for further details but the MIDI phrases include a diverse range of instruments including drums, bass sounds, leads, and various stops between.
For my own music production, while I might do lots of the more routine MIDI editing tasks, perhaps 5% of the feature set gets used for 95% of the time (actually, that sounds like lots of desktop software, including the popular word-processor I’m using to type this article).
Indeed, you might argue that not having the software bloat or the cluttered menus full of options you only need once in a blue moon, makes for a more efficient workflow; less is perhaps more?
For example, you might copy and paste the event (clip) to a later point on the timeline (for example, where the same chord performance is required for a second verse or chorus section of the project).
However, arranged above the timeline, and below the top-most strip of menu items in the Project screen, are a strip of controls for use with this clip-level editing. Again, you might use this to select all the audio and MIDI clips that make up a song section that you wish to copy and paste to a later point along the timeline. And that gets us to the second ‘level’ at which MIDI editing – and the level at which we get down to individual notes – gets done.
This is, in essence, a grid where pitch runs top-to-bottom (high to low) and notes are placed along the timeline that runs left to right.
Given that manual editing of MIDI notes can be a bit of a fiddly process, being able to see this editor pretty much ‘full screen’ can be a good thing. That’s not to say you can’t have pitches that are in between the notes of the chromatic scale but the only way to do this is by applying pitchbend data to control how far a note is shifted from a chromatic scale note. However, it you know the timing has been a bit sloppy, having notes ‘snap’ to a nearby grid position as you move them, or applying the current quantize settings to a selected set of notes, can be very useful. If your playing is solid then this may well be something that you just do instinctively as you perform. While Apple have been a little slow off the mark with the introduction of the Pencil (for understandable reasons, some of them based upon matters of principle rather than practical concerns), other manufacturers have been making touchscreen styluses for quite some time.
For example, these include an arpreggiator, a step-based drum beat editor, a ‘transformer’, various MIDI ‘modifiers’ (to tweak velocity or other properties), a MIDI velocity compressor amongst a number of others.
This becomes an integral part of what gives the performance its ‘feel’… it is part of the ‘groove’. This is obviously quite powerful – and quite musical – stuff and the ability to apply a similar sense of groove to your key MIDI parts can really add a sense ‘human’ to the performance. Instead of a piano-roll view, where each horizontal lane is a note on the piano keyboard, in a drum editor, each lane is a different drum sound (although, obviously, also associated with a MIDI note).
However, a sort of halfway house – where the app simply includes a number of useful ‘groove quantise presets’ that you can apply to your MIDI performances –is perhaps a less ambitious ask.
And, like, iOS itself, the bottom line here is that the platform is still finding its feet as a music-making environment. The MIDI data itself is not an issue; as mentioned elsewhere in this series, one of the reasons MIDI was first created was as a compact data format for the recording and reproduction of music. The MIDI data, the software instrument, and all the other settings for the track are ‘frozen’ into the created audio track.
First, as you can only (at present anyway), have one instance of an iOS app running at any one time, track freezing is actually a good way of getting multiple tracks out of a single iOS synth or other virtual instrument. However, if an app is having MIDI data sent to it from a Cubasis MIDI track but is actually running standalone or via Audiobus, then the Cubasis track freeze system can’t capture the audio and freeze the CPU load in the same fashion. This can be a bit of a mystery even on the well-established desktop platform but, under iOS, where MIDI implementation can be somewhat scratchy in some apps, there is the added complication that things might not work even when you know you are doing everything ‘correctly’. Any saving in terms of reduced load from fewer audio streams to be handled is, therefore, offset (almost certainly more than offset) by the additional CPU load required to run the virtual instrument.
In terms of advantages, therefore, first, it means that having recorded those notes, if you wish to change the actual sound (for example, by using an electric piano instead of an acoustic piano) you can do so without having to re-record the performance (not something you can do if you recorded the part as audio). This is very easy to do and, again, not something that is easily achieved if the original performance had been recorded as audio (although not impossible if you happen to own one of the top-end versions of something like Celemony’s Melodyne on your desktop computer). In today’s DAW software, that is usually handled pretty well but, even so, it doesn’t take much of a tempo shift for audio artefacts to become obvious to the ear. On most modern desktop system this is not such as issue… on an iPad (and, in particular, an older iPad), it can be more of an issue, and the more MIDI parts your project contains, the more of an issue it might be. For now, let’s stick with the default acoustic piano that Cubasis dishes up automatically…. Most iOS sequencer apps will offer this kind of virtual keyboard or, if you are using a 3rd party synth or keyboard sound source in another app, you can also use the virtual keyboard within that app. You can even combine using the Chord Pads (for chords) and the virtual keyboard (for a melody) if you are dextrous enough. However, if you have a drum instrument selected (and Micro Sonic has a number of sample-based drum instruments you can selected from) then these pads are used as drum pads to trigger the different drum sounds in your drum kit. While these can be used with audio clips, they also form part of the app’s suite of MIDI editing tools. First, you do have to get used to tapping and holding editing options within the strip of buttons located down the left-edge of the MIDI editor display. However, if you want to add a bit of swing after the fact (or just experiment with it to see what it does to the feel of the music), then you can add as much or as little as you might like. It might sound like a simple difference but this does making programming MIDI drum parts that much easier.
The indie development environment that iOS offers has allowed all sort of new and interesting MIDI sequencing tools to appear and that’s got to be a good thing. You can create the first track, freeze it, and this then frees up the same synth to be used in a second track.
These buttons are very useful given that screen real-estate is at a bit of a premium even on a full-size iPad and stumpy fingers can often block your view, making some of this editing a bit tricky.



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