On Editing Music While Listening And Looking At It

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While working on a musical project recently I realized the value of editing while looking at the MIDI notes. Listening to the music while following along each part one at a time lets me see what’s sounding and then make the appropriate changes in dynamics and arrangement. For instance, I can hear that there’s a three-note ascending phrase and also see the volume levels for each of these notes (represented as vertical velocity lines of different lengths underneath them). Sometimes one note or another will jump out at me or get lost in the mix a little so I’ll look at the volume levels to see if that’s the problem. Alternately, I’ll look at the volume levels first and only then take notice of the corresponding sound—an unusually low or high velocity line for a note might be a reason to listen more closely. So I’ll play back the three-note rising phrase a few times and ask: Can I hear all the notes clearly? Is there is enough shape to them? I’ll make the phrase have a gradual crescendo or decrescendo shape by slightly tweaking the volume of each of the three notes, up or down depending. I’ll do something similar with notes that fall on what feel like downbeats or what should be accented parts of the melody. Of course, some of these dynamic shapes are already within my original recorded performance. But I’m struck by how often these performance details are not necessarily articulated clearly enough in the parts. Maybe this lack of articulation has something to do with my using a MIDI controller whose keys are not so sensitive velocity-wise. A more likely problem is me—maybe I wasn’t thinking all that analytically about the music when I first performed/recorded it. I was just going for it. Now though, as I listen after the fact while looking at the notes, I can identify places that could be clearer and then make them so. It all feels like teaching myself in retrospect.

The other kind of change I make while looking at the MIDI notes has to do with arrangement. Here and there I find note doublings or points of overlap that are simply too busy and cluttered. Looking at the notes of all the parts as they sound allows me to see which part harbors the problem I’m hearing. My process is entirely intuitive and the question I’m always trying to answer is What is that  weird sound? Ninety-nine percent of the time less is always more: deleting a note can have impressive results as I take away sounds until the texture becomes clearer, standing more revealed. In those few cases where I’m not sure what to do, I’ll listen to a spot with and then without a potentially extraneous note and then decide whether or not to delete it. In a few of these few cases I’ll leave things as they are: sometimes a little chaos is a good thing.

The takeaway from this process of editing while listening and looking at the notes is that the most effective music is that which I don’t have to touch much at all. Looking at the MIDI notes on the screen I think about how any performance—whether I’m moved by it or not—has a shape and flow to it. That’s what makes it a performance. We can tweak a recording to bits after the fact, but any power it might have lies in the ways in went about trying to achieve what it achieved, the way it created the energy it created, the clarity of its guiding logic, and most importantly, how it made us feel.

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