Want to become the next Yanni? Maybe you should start by putting together songs on your PC. Something called MIDI makes this really easy.
What is MIDI?
MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface is a method by which musical instruments communicate with each other. MIDI devices do not transmit musical information in the form of digital audio, but send instructions like “Play the note C5 at a volume of 85 on channel 1”, or “Change the instrument on channel 2 to piano”.
A sequencer is a program that records a sequence of MIDI instructions which it receives and edits it. Using a sequencer, you can record many different instruments of a song one after the other in different channels, and play them back all together. Most sequencers also save data to a standard MIDI format file (.mid).
However, most full-featured sequencers are available only commercially, and the free ones often have limited functionality. Enter Jazz++, a full-featured free (GPLed) MIDI sequencer for Linux and Windows. And of course, you’ll find it on our August 2001 CD.
Before getting down to actual installation, let me warn you that though Jazz++ is advertised to work with both OSS and ALSA sound drivers, we got it to work well only with ALSA. The sound cards we tested it on were the SoundBlaster 16 PnP and SoundBlaster AWE32/64, so it may just work fine with your sound card. If you want to install ALSA, refer to the article Installing ALSA Sound Drivers, page 125, PCQuest August 2001.
Also, make sure that you are able to play MIDI files before installing Jazz. Use the command “playmidi filename.mid” to play a MIDI file. If you have an AWE32/64 sound card, add the switch “-a” to playmidi, and make sure you’ve loaded the wavetable with the command “/bin/sfxload /etc/midi/GU11-ROM.SF2”. If you can’t hear anything, check the “Synth” mixer level using aumix, or any GUI mixer. If you still can’t hear the MIDI file being played, you can try installing ALSA. If you can’t get a MIDI file to play even after that, take heart. You can still use your MIDI keyboard to playback whatever you record.
Now you should be all set. To install Jazz++, login as root and mount the August 2001 PCQuest CD with the command
Then, install the RPM with the command
rpm -ivh /mnt/cdrom/cdrom/linux/desktop/audio/jazz/*
If you want to use the OSS sound drivers instead of ALSA, then you have to edit the file /usr/local/jazz/jazz.cfg. Search for the line “.driver 2” and change it to “.driver 1”.
Now you can run Jazz++ by typing in “jazz” and pressing Enter. Since this is the first time you’re running it, it’ll pop up a few dialogs to configure your devices. Select “External” as the input device, and your sound card as the output device. (Use “External” as the output device if you don’t have a good synth on your sound card, or if you can’t get the synth to work). Finally you end up at the main screen of Jazz++. If everything went well, you should be able to load a MIDI file in Jazz (File> Load), and play it back by clicking on the Play button. Now let’s get on with some original song-writing.
Start a new song by clicking on File>New. The horizontal rows you see in the window are tracks. Let’s start by making a drum track. The manual says that you shouldn’t use the first track for anything—it is defined to be a master track, so we’ll follow their instructions.
To set the second track as a drum track, click on the second gray box (the large blank one) in the second track. You get a screen with lots of settings for that track. There’s also a huge list of instruments to choose from. To make it a drum track, you have to set the Channel to 10 because it is predefined by the General MIDI (GM) standard as the drum channel. So set the channel to 10, type in a track name, and click on OK. The track name now appears in the box. Click on the same box again. Now you see that the list of instruments has changed into a list of drumkits to choose from. Just to be safe, select the Standard Kit, because your synth may not have the other kits. Click OK, and you’re ready to start thrashing the skins of your virtual drumkit.
Right click on the blank area of the drum track. Another window pops up—this is where you’re going to program your drum track. To the left, you see a list of instruments you can use. Click on any of the names to hear the sound of that instrument. Now you can start entering events in the blank area. Middle-clicking anywhere in the blank area puts an event at that position. If you have some knowledge about drumming, or making drum tracks, then you can let yourself go and make your own rhythm. If not, don’t worry, you’ll learn soon. Take a look at the screenshot, and try to replicate that same pattern on your screen too.
To listen to what you’ve just entered, click on the blank row with the numbers “1,2,3...” on it, just below the toolbar. Playback starts from wherever you click, so click right at the beginning. Now you hear a basic drum pattern. To stop it, click in the blank row again.
Now, if you’re wondering whether you have to enter the whole song like this, relax, and enjoy the power of a MIDI sequencer. You need to enter the pattern only once, and you can cut and paste it all over the place. For this, click and drag the area you want to replicate, click on Edit>Copy, and then middle-click in the position you want to paste it. If you paste it accidentally at the wrong position, you can undo it using Misc>Undo. So cut and paste it a few times, and close the “Drums” window. Back in the main window, click on Play, and you should hear your drum track in its entirety. You can change the speed of the song by left clicking or right clicking on the speed button just below the toolbar.
Now you’re ready to add some melody. You could put down some tune you have in your head, or maybe a few chords, or a nice bassline.... Click on the blank box of the third track, select an instrument, set the Channel to 1, and give the track a name. Also, set your keyboard MIDI output channel to 1. If you can’t do this, don’t worry, there are ways to work with a single-channel MIDI keyboard as well. Now select the entire track by clicking on the leftmost box in the track which has the number “01” (incidentally, the Channel number you selected). Click on Record to start recording, play whatever you had in mind on the keyboard, and click on Record again to stop recording. If you need a metronome (a periodic click to keep you in time) while playing, click on the button to the right of record (which has an exclamation mark on it).
If you don’t have a MIDI keyboard, you can enter notes using the mouse. Right click on the track, and Jazz pops up a piano roll window. You can enter notes here just like you did in the drum window. You can also use this window to correct any mistakes you made while playing the keyboard.
Record all the other tracks you need for your song in the same way. If you are able to select the MIDI output channel of your keyboard, then just go to a new track, set the channel to 2, 3, and so on, and set the same channel on your keyboard before recording. If your keyboard can’t output on any channel but channel 1 (or maybe you’re too lazy to read the keyboard), then there is a simple, effective workaround. Once you’ve recorded one track (using channel 1), change all the events on that track to a MIDI channel other than 1. You can do that by clicking on the track name, and moving the channel slider to some other unused number. Make sure that the “Force channel number onto all events on track” checkbox is checked before you click OK. Now, to record the next track, set the MIDI channel of that track to 1, and record whatever you need to. Once you’re done with this track, change this track also to another unused channel, and continue in the same way.
Now that you’ve laid down all your tracks, it’s time to do some cleaning up and mixing. You can quantize any of your tracks by selecting the whole track or a portion of the track, and clicking on Edit>Quantize. However, though quantizing makes your playing perfect, overuse of quantization makes your music sound mechanical and computer-generated, because it synchronizes all notes perfectly with the beat.
To access the mixer, go to Parts>Mixer. Here, you can control the volume, pan, reverb and chorus for each track individually, and thus set a balance for all the instruments to achieve the right sound for your song.
So does your masterpiece finally sound the way you wanted it to? Then maybe it’s time you unleashed your work on the world. Save it as a MIDI file (File>Save), upload it to some place on the Net, and then tell the whole world about it.
This article is only meant to be an introduction to Jazz++, so by no means have we covered all its functionality. There are tons of other useful features, and bells and whistles which you can experiment with. The complete documentation in HTML format is in the directory /usr/share/doc/jazz-4.1.8/html/, and reading it is highly recommended. Help is also available in the program itself in the “Help” menu. The official website for Jazz++ is www.jazzware.com/, and there’s also a mailing list where you can ask questions.
Included on the August 2001 CD (in the directory /mnt/cdrom/cdrom/linux/desktop/samples/ in both MIDI and MP3 format) is an example song called “Linux Can” created using Jazz++, composed by Atul Chitnis and me. After the song was complete, we realized it sounded a lot like “Vanessa Mae”, so we named it “Linux Can”! The MIDI format file will sound good only if you have a good synthesizer on your sound card, otherwise listen to the MP3.
Now get back to your keyboard, and get those creative juices flowing.
Mrinal Kalakrishnan is a trainee consultant with Exocore Consulting <www.exocore.com>