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TUTE: Studying live performances for achieving naturalism

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TUTE: Studying live performances for achieving naturalism

Postby rbowser » Sun Mar 02, 2014 2:52 pm

Inspired by Rob W. Jackson's post in the Media room:

"GPO Doodle #1" found HERE

--I put together the following mini-tutorial.

On that thread, Rob said, "...As a non-keyboard player (I don't even own a MIDI keyboard), I'm keen to try and use the lovely GPO piano in a convincing way..."

It's a drawback, of course, to not have a MIDI keyboard. Even a non-keyboard player can make use of a MIDI keyboard for inputting notes and recording MIDI data from a Mod Wheel and Expression Pedal in real time instead of having to draw everything in, or relying only on notations in a score. But it's possible to insert everything by hand. It's just a bit of a handicap, and calls for more attention to detail.

The thing to do when wanting to get a higher degree of naturalism in our projects is to study recordings featuring the instruments we're focusing on. Listening carefully to audio tracks is helpful, but good MIDI files can be studied directly, if appropriately nuanced MIDI files are located for study.

This kind of study is most easily done in DAW software, but notation users can dig into utilities like Finale's MIDI Tool to make use of this information also.

Since Rob said he wants to work with GPO's piano, I found a site full of fantastic piano MIDI files ready for study, and completely free to download. These are from the actual performances of pianists who were contestants in the...

"Alaska International Piano-e-Competition"

As explained at the website:

"...These highly-nuanced MIDI files were played back to the screening jury at the Piano Salon at Yamaha Artist Services Inc. in New York City..."

The performances are available for download in several formats. The Standard MIDI file is of the most use. As described at the site:

"...This format is intended for playback on all Disklavier pianos and other MIDI devices that read Standard MIDI Files. This format conforms to the normal MIDI specification, but includes data that is not often recorded or played back by other MIDI instruments, such as Note-Off velocity (from 0-127). Pedal data for sustain (the right pedal) and una corda (the left pedal) are recorded as continuous data from 0-127..."

From the website posted above, I downloaded the first file: Kevin Ahfat is the pianist, playing J. S. Bach's "Prelude and Fugue in D Minor."

I opened Sonar and opened that MIDI file directly. To retain the tempo in a MIDI file, it must be directly opened and not just imported into an already open project file, even if it's empty. Importing will ignore the MIDI file's tempo data.

The tempo for this MIDI file is 117 and never changes. Later on in the file, I could hear that the pianist was playing in his own time, and so while there are tempo changes in his performance, they aren't part of the MIDI file's tempo data. If that's not clearly understood, it's something to grasp later on. For now, don't be concerned with the file's tempo. We just wanted to make sure the initial tempo value was used, and so the file had to be opened directly.

I examined in Sonar's Piano Roll View. I could see that the file makes use of half-pedaling which the GPO Steinway doesn't recognize. This meant that only the full On values of 127 and Off values of 0 for CC64 were recognized. This caused the track to play with the sustain pedal on almost constantly, since many CC64 values between 0 and 127 were used. So, unfortunately, the entire CC64 track (sustain data) had to be erased. Before deleting it, I could see that the pianist's performance included very active, complex pedaling, - but it had to be dispensed with in this case.

There was still plenty left for study after I erased CC64.

Here's a screenshot of the MIDI file's first few measures. Immediately evident is the natural, un-quantized timing. In the picture I've pointed out just a few of the numerous places where notes were either early or late by a tiny amount. That simply reflects the way in which notes are never perfectly aligned with a grid when performed live, no matter how proficient the performer.

Image

So that's Point #1: To emulate this aspect of a live piano performance, we need to make sure our MIDI tracks are not quantized. If inserting notes by hand in DAW software, the program's "Snap to grid" function has to be turned OFF. The grid in the Piano Roll View is a guide to where the absolute note values are, so with the Snap off, we just aim our input notes to be approximately where they should be, as they are in this or any MIDI file from a live performance.

Point #2: As also pointed out in the screenshot, the velocity values for the notes are in constant flux. This reflects the natural result of a pianist playing the keys, with his fingers never hitting the notes with the same amount of pressure. When inputting notes by hand, at first, the velocities are going to all be the same, so they must be edited in order to emulate this extremely important factor of a natural sounding MIDI recording. We need natural, constantly changing velocity values. In the screen shot above, besides the vertical display of velocities in their pane/lane of the PRV, the notes are displayed at various levels of color intensity to indicate the velocity levels. Lighter colors are lower/softer, darker shades are higher/louder.

AUDIO DEMO:

I opened ARIA, loaded the GPO Steinway, chose the Medium Piano Concert Hall convolution Impulse Response file, leaving the master controls on the Effects window at default.

Here's a screenshot showing ARIA's mixer, with the Piano's Send knob, which determines the amount of reverb applied to an instrument, set to approximately 9:00.

Image

Here's the recording of the first movement in the MIDI file, using GPO's Steinway:

Piano demo

Re-cap: It's useful to study good MIDI files made from live performances to see what the data is like so we can emulate how a musician performs on a given instrument in a live situation. Two of the most critical factors are always un-quantized notes and a variety of velocity values.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Since the piano is a percussive instrument, its volume is controlled only by the velocities. But many Garritan instruments, such as all of the woodwinds, brass, and strings, have their volumes controlled by either MIDI Controller 1 (Mod Wheel) or MIDI Controller 11 (Expression Pedal). ARIA interprets both CC1 and 11 in the same way, so the two controllers are interchangeable. With those non-percussive instruments, a variety of velocities is still important, since velocity controls how slowly or quickly notes are triggered, but it's an almost constantly undulating stream of CC1/11 data which is crucial for achieving natural fluctuations in their volume performance.

Here's a final screenshot showing a typical CC1/11 volume performance for these non-percussive instruments:

Image

Note in this screenshot you can also see a variety of Velocities, AfterTouch for controlling vibrato, and CC64 for Legato. The instrument being used is the American Native Flute in Garritan World.

SO - Especially when creating projects without the use of a keyboard, we need to do what we can to emulate the attributes of a live performance so our results can come closer to sounding organic and live.

Randy
  • 1

Garritan Organs demos of all 75 stops

"Dorian Gray"

Hardware:

Roland A-800 MIDI keyboard controller
Alesis i|O2 interface
Gigabyte Technology-AMD Phenom II @ 3 GHz
8 Gb RAM 6 Core Windows 7 Home Premium x64
with dual monitors
User avatar
rbowser
 
Posts: 494
Joined: December, 2013
Reputation: 50
Software Owned:
ARIA Player v1.626
ARIA Engine 1.665
GPO4
JABB 3
COMB 2
Instant Orchestra
Garritan World
Garritan Classic Pipe Organs
Garritan Harps
Garritan Authorized Steinway
Garritan Stradivari solo violin
Garritan Gofriller solo cello

Sundry soft synths:
Dimension Pro, EZDrummer, over 50 others

Sonar 8.5 (have but don't use Sonar X1)
Sony Sound Forge 10
Sibelius 7

Video editing: Cyberlink Power Director 11

Re: TUTE: Studying live performances for achieving naturali

Postby Rob W Jackson » Mon Mar 03, 2014 2:33 am

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this Randy - a useful read which I'm sure I'll revisit from time to time.

A few quick questions, if I may... And this goes for anyone - no need for Randy to have to do all the work! :-)

For legato playing, I'm simply overlapping my notes where I want to hear it, with the auto-legato option switched on in the ARIA player. Is there any disadvantage to doing it in this way versus using a dedicated controller?

For woodwind and brass, I try to consider breathing too, but I'm never quite sure how to emulate that other than leaving fairly arbitrary gaps after long and / or forte passages. Any thoughts on this?

Finally, for my current piece, the piano part is simply an 8th note arpeggio, albeit in 5/4, that's played throughout the whole tune. I've varied velocities and I don't think there's a single note that's *exactly* in time and there are LOTS of notes! :-), so I guess there's not much else I can do there?

As my method of input / editing is mostly grid based, although I do use a notation view to get the basic part in as I can read / write music at a very basic level, what I tend to do is listen to parts soloed over, and over and over again... Anything that jumps out as mechanical or "computery" I try and fix it somehow - and thanks to your tutorial, I've got more ideas to use.

Do you also find that sometimes even a part you're not entirely happy with in isolation can end up sounding OK once it's in the mix and / or doubled with other instruments?

Finally, on a lighter note, I remember reading a very famous composer criticising a very famous orchestra saying how appalled he was by the timing of the 2nd violins and also that half the brass section spent their lunch break in the pub between rehearsal sessions. Perhaps there should be a MIDI controller for how many beers the player has consumed :-)

Thanks again Randy - great stuff, really useful and much appreciated!
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Garritan GPO 4
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MultiTrackStudio 7.6

Re: TUTE: Studying live performances for achieving naturali

Postby rbowser » Mon Mar 03, 2014 8:33 am

Glad you like the tute, Rob - Thanks for inspiring me to put it together.

Rob W Jackson wrote:...For legato playing, I'm simply overlapping my notes where I want to hear it, with the auto-legato option switched on in the ARIA player. Is there any disadvantage to doing it in this way versus using a dedicated controller?...


With AL on, instruments are in "mono mode," only able to play single notes at a time - I'm sure you understand that. One thing great about AL is that with it on, you can do true trills - hold the first note down while tapping the second one rapidly - You can't get as realistic a trill without AL on.

The disadvantage of AL is that the results aren't as smooth as when using slightly overlapping notes and CC64. That calls for more fussing, but has smoother results. When using that method, a CC64 value of 127 (full) is placed directly after the first note of a legato passage has started. Then, after the passage, and before the next, CC64 at 0 is placed.

Something useful, by the way, is CC102 which turns AL on and off. That way you can have the best of both approaches.

Rob W Jackson wrote:...For woodwind and brass, I try to consider breathing too, but I'm never quite sure how to emulate that other than leaving fairly arbitrary gaps after long and / or forte passages. Any thoughts on this?


That's a pretty good approach, Rob. If you put yourself in the role of the musician, you can get a sense of when you just have to breathe, perhaps giving the musician a bit more controlled wind power than you have. Usually you can find places for at least short little breaths at logical, natural breaking points in a melody or harmony line. It's good to be conscious of the need for the breaths though. When we hear MIDI productions that have the instruments just going on and on continuously, we can feel ourselves gasping for breath!

Rob W Jackson wrote:...for my current piece, the piano part is simply an 8th note arpeggio, albeit in 5/4, that's played throughout the whole tune. I've varied velocities and I don't think there's a single note that's *exactly* in time and there are LOTS of notes! :-), so I guess there's not much else I can do there?


Sounds good to me. Those are the two main points of my tute - to vary the velocities, and not have the notes quantized, in emulation of that real-time performance I used for the demo. Your piano line must be sounding pretty good to you now?

Rob W Jackson wrote:...Do you also find that sometimes even a part you're not entirely happy with in isolation can end up sounding OK once it's in the mix and / or doubled with other instruments?


Absolutely. When you're writing for an ensemble, it is the complete blend of all the instruments which is important. You very well may have things here and there that don't sound "perfect" to us, but it doesn't matter as long as those bits are working in the mix.

You're doing great, Rob!

Randy
  • 1

Garritan Organs demos of all 75 stops

"Dorian Gray"

Hardware:

Roland A-800 MIDI keyboard controller
Alesis i|O2 interface
Gigabyte Technology-AMD Phenom II @ 3 GHz
8 Gb RAM 6 Core Windows 7 Home Premium x64
with dual monitors
User avatar
rbowser
 
Posts: 494
Joined: December, 2013
Reputation: 50
Software Owned:
ARIA Player v1.626
ARIA Engine 1.665
GPO4
JABB 3
COMB 2
Instant Orchestra
Garritan World
Garritan Classic Pipe Organs
Garritan Harps
Garritan Authorized Steinway
Garritan Stradivari solo violin
Garritan Gofriller solo cello

Sundry soft synths:
Dimension Pro, EZDrummer, over 50 others

Sonar 8.5 (have but don't use Sonar X1)
Sony Sound Forge 10
Sibelius 7

Video editing: Cyberlink Power Director 11

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