Rhythmic Digititis… AKA MIDI Doesn’t Kill Music – People Do!

I subscribe to a periodic e-mail from an up and coming project studio engineer, and normally there’s some great stuff. However, there was this one email from him telling how he would never use MIDI drums again because they have that real drummer feeling.

My response to this is that the next person who says something like this to me, I will string them up by their treble clefs until 8th notes start dropping out. The problem is not MIDI. The problem is the person programming the MIDI notes. Recorded MIDI, in and of itself, is nothing more than a snapshot of your performance on it. A sequencing program is to MIDI what a tape recorder is to audio. One of the main differences is that MIDI is just a bunch of numbers and you can associate any sound with it. The other main difference is that you can enter MIDI notes in one at a time, or compose a score and have the computer play it.

So, with all of this freedom with MIDI, what’s the problem?

The problem is that people who often program MIDI notes into a computer are only doing half a job: they’re supplying the note. They’re forgetting the feel of the note. The feel can be in the form of an accent, flam, a grace note, or even a ghost note or roll. It’s these little things that people often forget, and then go on and on about how their drums don’t feel like a drummer or their piano parts sound like they’re being playing by a Borg. Building a piece of music is often like painting a picture. Leonardo Da Vinci would probably have never rushed the Mona Lisa. Sure, he may have been probably able to paint quickly, but that is because he knew his art to a point of what kind of stroke goes where. Same thing for music. People rush through the drums and stuff because they want to record the guitar, which they often spend a lot more care recording. They can pick out the notes or phrases that bother them. Why don’t they take this type of care with MIDI? The main reason is that they are unfamiliar with that part of their art and don’t take the time to get to know it. They believe that because it’s a computer, it’s automatically supposed to know what to do.

I’ve been playing with MIDI for almost 30 years. Prior to that, I was trying to figure out ways to make programmed drum machines sound more realistic, due to the fact that I would probably be relegated to working with them for the rest of my natural born life. Having discovered programs like Apple Logic and FXPansion’s BFD2 helped open a lot of new doors for me. However, it didn’t replace the fact that human feel was necessary if it were to sound like human drummers.

So how does one combat rhythmic digititis?

It’s rather easy. Listen to drummers. Listen to pianists. Listen to brass and wind players. Use your ears to pick up those little nuances. If you’re going to program those types of nuances, make sure that you have sample programs and romplers that will support those nuances. Recently, I’ve been playing with Garritan Jazz & Big Band 3 and discovered how to create trumpet kisses on it. In the right spot, it can play with your mind and emotions and all of a sudden you’ll be thinking “that’s a trumpet”. I have also been analyzing MIDI grooves from various drummers who played them on MIDI drums. Through that, I’ve learned to program my rhythms a few ticks ahead or behind the beat. I’ve also learned to play them with my fingers on my padKontrol. I’ve watched videos of Neil Peart and how he subtly puts in ghost notes. And once you are done recording your instruments, revisit the drums and see how they fit. Don’t be afraid to change things once you have pieced them together. You wouldn’t think twice about changing the guitar.

And if you’re going to say that you’re not a drummer, I’ll tell you to then either find recorded grooves from a drummer, such as Platinum Samples Steve Ferrone or Bobby Jarzombek MIDI grooves. You don’t need to invent your own rhythms for most songs. Maybe certain fills for certain parts can be programmed in, but the rest can be handled by an experienced drummer, even if he is virtual.

There are plenty of ways to make it real in a digital world… stop making excuses as to why it’s not.

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