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[Back to Top] How to Compose MIDIs

First thing that you need is a midi composing program. You can probably find a few free ones out there, but they're likely to not be very good. I use an outdated version of Cubasis (now known as Cubase). Another well known music program is Cakewalk, but costs and arm and a leg to buy. Depending how serious you are about composing music, find whatever suits you best.

Once you have a program, it's really just a matter of figuring out how to get it to work. Some programs have interfaces that allow you to create music even if you don't know how to read sheet music. This is a very lucky thing for me! ;)

A midi consists of several tracks which represent a single instrument at a time. Instruments don't necessarily need to be a single type of sound like instruments in real life. Here, an instrument can have many varying sounds depending on the pitch of the note you play. For example, the Drum Track is a single instrument, but depending on the pitch of the note you play, you can get Snare Drums, kick bass, hi-hats, rattlers, triangles etc.

Each track has a number from 1 to 16 (or higher depending on the program). The Drum Track is usually designated to track 10, that is, if you set any track to 10 you'll use the Drum Track.

Each track consists of notes that define the pitch and duration of a sound, mapped to its corresponding instrument. You can change the way a note sound by using controllers.

There are many types of controllers that you may use. Here is a list of the most common controlers and what they do:

Aftertouch*
Allows you to make all notes in a track sound 'fast-wavy'. This is good for making stress on notes that are held for a long time, especially woodwind instruments.

MainVolume*
Affects how loud all notes in a track sound, on top of their Velocity controler.

Modulation*
Allows you to make all notes in a track sound 'slow-wavy'. This is also good for making stress on notes that are held for a long time.

Pan*
Allows you to control a track's position in stereo. You can make the instrument sound closer to the Left or Right speaker.

Pitch Bend*
Allows you to slightly modify the pitch of all notes either upwards or downwards.

Transpose*
Allows you to shift all notes in a track up or down in pitch.

Velocity
Affects how loud a single note sounds.

Controllers marked with a * are continuous controllers. When the midi plays, the last value that was set applies to all notes occuring afterward until a new value is encountered.

There are many other controllers available. Each of these has a corresponding number between 0 and 127. Controller 0, for instance, allows you to control the 'echo' or reverberation of a track, and is also continuous. Find out how to change controllers, and play around with them. There are some pretty neat effects you can make!

That covers the basic technical aspect of composing MIDIs. As for making something that actually sounds good - that requires a bit more practice. I recommend that you LISTEN to music rather than just hearing it, and analyze the techniques used for percussion and bass as well as the melody itself. Get a feel for the mood certain types of instruments can create, and use them appropriately. Also, the internet has a huge resource of MIDI files. Download some that you like and take a look at their inner workings. And lastly, never force yourself to compose something. Wait until you have the inspiration, and it will come naturally.

Good luck!


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© 2000 Rob Diaz-Marino. All rights reserved.