The MIDI Page: Sequencer Tracks

by Todd Albertson

Welcome back to the MIDI page. There seems to be much confusion regarding sequencer "tracks." Undoubtedly, this is because people used to tape machines are attempting to apply their knowledge to sequencers. This should be seen as a Good Thing normally, but in this case, the rules change a bit when you start dealing with MIDI.

Let's start by clearing up a few concepts. When you are dealing with tape, there are tracks, and that's all. When you deal with MIDI, there are tracks AND channels. If that concept is held near and dear to your heart, you will make it through unscathed. Forget that concept, and chances are good you will lose data (and quite possibly, your mind) somewhere along the way!

Sometimes I find it helpful to think of the "tracks" in the sequencer as scratch pads, and the MIDI channels as the real "tracks." Let's try some examples to get things going.

If we were to record our kick drum on MIDI 16, track 1; snare on MIDI 16, track 2; cymbals and high hats on MIDI 16, track 3; and all other drums on MIDI 16, track 4, we would be able to edit each track separately, fooling around with velocity information and whatever else we wanted until everything was just right. How can we get away with this? We are recording multiple instruments on ONE channel! In this case, appearances are deceiving. You see, each of these instruments uses only ONE note number on the keyboard, so even though we are sounding many different samples, the computer "sees" the drums as one instrument. If we were to try this with multiple keyboards sounding instruments that use all the keys, say bass, violin, piano, and brass, we would find all the parts becoming jumbled up together on all the instruments. More on this in a moment (film at eleven)...

After completing our editing we might MERGE all of our drum tracks into one track, so that all our drums were on track 8 on the sequencer. This is fine and dandy because when merging MIDI information, nothing is lost as it is in tape track ping-ponging. Now consider: We may still edit all the information, but since it is all on one track, we must deal with all the extraneous digital information concerning the other drum instruments we are not working on at the moment. In this case, that's just the way it is.

Now let's try it again using a different technique: We will record the kick on MIDI 16, track 1; snare on MIDI 15, track 2; cymbals and high hats on MIDI 14, track 3; and all other drums on MIDI 13, track 4. Just as before, we will edit each track separately to achieve that super sound we are looking for, then merge all the tracks into track 8. Now then, if we would like to re-edit just one instrument, it is quite simple to do so. Since the computer is able to understand the differences between MIDI channels, we can ask the computer to separate out say, MIDI 14 onto a separate track, and then edit it from there! Alternatively, we could ask the computer to leave MIDI 14 events on track 8, but to show us only the events concerning the instrument we wish to work on! Very handy, eh?

Personally, I like to have about 8 16 tracks available when I work. More tracks than that, and I find myself forgetting where I put things. Less than that, and I find myself feeling a little cramped. Of course, when you get right down to it, you really only NEED two tracks. After all, you still have 16 channels - no matter what, right? You can merge and separate information as needed between those two tracks and never worry about loss of quality as you must when working with tape tracks. I've worked with this type of setup, and while it does tend to slow me down quite a bit, the final product is identical to what I would have created using a sequencer with many tracks available. Time in production is the price you pay for low purchase price on these units. Of course, if you are a raw beginner, or if you have very simple needs, these little two track sequences fill the bill nicely.

One thing always amuses me. Some manufacturers attempt to claim that their softwares can handle "up to 64 tracks," or "up to 128 tracks," or "infinite tracks!" What they don't mention is that it can still only play 16 instruments! Nasty little advertising ploy, wouldn't you agree? (The only exception to this rule is when the hardware has multiple MIDI out ports that can be handled separately by the software, and this is rare, so far.) Here's how it works: Let's say that you even HAVE 64 tracks filled up (sheese!). What MIDI channels can you use beyond MIDI 16? Answer: NONE! That's because there aren't any! So even if you have 64 different tracks, you may only sound 16 channels at once.

To further illustrate this, imagine all 16 channels recorded on track one. Then add to your mental picture all 16 channels recorded on tracks 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc. How many different instruments can you sound now? DON'T sit there and multiply 16 times your number of tracks! Your instruments will only recognize 16 channels. If you were to play this excessively strange work, you would find the keyboards you assigned to MIDI 1 responding to the MIDI 1 information recorded on every single track!

So the next time you are considering a sequencer purchase (either dedicated or software-based), and the salesman tries to pump you up about how many tracks it has, just smile and ask him how many instruments it can discreetly control. After he wakes up, you can talk price, hehe. ♦

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