The MIDI Page: Control Changes

by Todd Albertson

Recently I had occasion to deal with Our Friends at Roland Corporation again. I swear, for all the articles I've read on Japanese efficiency, it is a miracle to me that Roland survives. They make wonderful equipment, but I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to upgrade, or purchase a ROM card, or get a clarification on some manual written in Japanese and later translated to English, only to be told I would have to wait... and wait... and wait. It's been 3 MONTHS now since I ordered the expansion card for our R 8, and the Californian home of Roland is once again tap dancing for me about the "shipment from Japan". Lame, very lame. In my opinion, Roland is one of the least helpful, least supportive companies to deal with after purchase. Just a tip to the wise.

This month we look at Control Changes. What a miracle these commands are! You want real power when editing? This is it!

Control Changes are grouped into the heading of "Channel Voice Messages," and as such, they can be sent to certain instruments in the chain because they are channel specific. In other words, a Control Change meant for instruments on channel 16 will not be interpreted by instruments on channel 9. This is a strength, but if for some reason you would wish to have all instruments responding, there is always OMNI mode.

Control Changes are the heart and soul of musical (or even non-musical) performance. I say this because Control Changes are means by which the player can properly phrase and alter his performance. For instance, pianists (like me) were constantly trying to cope with the fact that early synths had no sustain pedal. Organists had no problem, but pianists were really struggling until sustain pedals were added to synths in the mid 80's. Nowadays, that sustain pedal activates Control Change #64. Control changes are really nothing more than variables to a computer program. In this case, the variable stores one of two values. If the value = 1 (or ON), the computer knows not to "turn off" any notes on that channel until the value = 0 (or OFF). Other Control Changes are able to store values from 1 to 127, such as Control Change #1, which is affected by the "modulation wheel" on the left side of most keyboards. When the "wheel" is moved forward, the value stored by Control Change #1 increases proportionally, and the computer knows to add modulation according to the value stored there.

Other (sadly) less used Control Changes are even more powerful. For instance, the VERY infrequently used "Breath Controller" is a tool I have become totally dependent on. There is no better way, in my opinion, to simulate woodwinds or brass. It works like this: you place the breath controller into your mouth and bite lightly on the mouthpiece to hold it in place. As you play the parts with your hands, the volume, attack, and timbre of your instruments will change dependent on how hard you blow air into the mouthpiece. If you want a sudden, sharp stab from your brass section, you "tongue" the note, exactly as a real brass player would. If you want to increase and decrease the volume and vibrato in your solo sax, simply do it with the amount of air you send into the mouthpiece. It's VERY natural! I have had people ask me over and over again "How did you get those horns?" or "Who played that sax solo?" after listening to "Clean Sheets", and now "Clean Cuts". The answer is always the same: "I used a Breath Controller." I STRONGLY recommend spending the extra fifty bucks for one of these babies, and then spending as much time with it as possible until you really master it.

Another often neglected Control Change is #7. If you assign each instrument to a separate channel and then use control changes to alter volume, you can use your sequencer to handle your mix for you! Of course, you will have to set EQ manually as always, but in a mix where the workload is already high, assigning the volume control to your sequencer can save time and ease the pressure. Of course, if you happen to have an SSL (yeah, right...) you have automated mix already, but since I doubt many radio stations provide their production guys with SSLs (har har) or automated mixdown, you might want to consider this sometime when you have more faders to move than hands to move them!

There is a Control Change to allow you to tune all instruments simultaneously, another to turn on and off the portamento feature with the flick of a footswitch, and others as well. There are 127 Control Changes altogether. Not all of them are implemented yet, several are simply unassigned at this time. This is a Good Thing, because the architects of MIDI have built in room to grow. Good job, guys!

This article marks the end of my four article series on the actual MIDI code. Hopefully, I have not been overly obtuse in attempting to deal with this overly technical subject. I occasionally get calls at Clean Sheets, Inc. from production slaves asking for help with a MIDI decision or problem. This is fine. I love talking to radio people, and you may feel free to use this as a resource when trying to decide what to purchase or how to implement a certain procedure. Next month, I'll write a bit more about OMNI and MONO modes. Thanks for reading.

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