A Simple Guide to Learn Sequencers - Part-2

Day 2
Keyboards, the Paradigm shift

Keyboards, Gift from God - for musicians a spectacular tool; for non Musicians - an attractive novelty; and for me it is also a tax deduction.

An electronic musical keyboard provides variety of choices that inspires musician to create better music. Let me jump straight to the Fundamental anatomy of a keyboard. This is made up of two parts; an Input device, - the keys – that triggers the second part - the internal sound/tone generator. Keyboards can sense pressure, weight and different kinds of other parameters, and will pass this to the tone generator which will react accordingly. There are various types of keyboards available today. How does a keyboard function? It would a discussion similar to Dravid’s patient batting. I will try and keep it simple.

For every sound found in the keyboard, there is a set of data file. The basic sound wav is stored as data which would be manipulated using oscillators, envelops to produce the sounds in different frequencies. These sound data files are called as samples. “Cheaper the keyboards, cheesier the sound”; Samples are mapped to corresponding notes on the keyboards. Just like the PC keyboard, when C is pressed letter C is displayed, like wise, when the Note C is pressed on the keyboard, it will play the wave file for the C sound. The manufactures would sample and provide the sounds for you. Price of the keyboards depends on the quality of these sound samples. Advance workstation/ synthesizers provide elaborate methods to manipulate these sounds. And if you are able to add your own samples and manipulate it, the keyboard get now promoted to a something that is called a Sampler. The First generation keyboard that God sent to the man kind was called Prophet 5 [Yes I am not making it up] followed by few other keyboards from Roland & Yamaha. They sounds they offered were mere sophisticated door bells. The world changes drastically, and today there are various types of keyboards [Controllers, Work Stations, Domestic etc] that are mind boggling.

Controllers are just input devices without sound generators. In other words they are dumb terminals. They don’t provide sounds and they come with the first part of the above discussed anatomy. Workstations are powerful and come with tons of options and mind boggling tools to make the composition and music sound better [a relative term]. There are also these domestic versions from Casio and Yamaha PSR models. It is an ocean out there; you need define your fishing area.

Though the keyboard market today is filled with heterogeneous types, the basics terminology used in every type is almost same. Each sound in a keyboard is called as a patch or a program. General midi suggests 128 slots for patches, meaning. GM compliant keyboards will have standards to address 128 patches. A patch has a various parameters – volume, sound number and many more. First generation GM keyboards provided only 128 sounds max, Yep a serious bottle neck. However God interfered again and sorted this out quickly. , God added one more addressing parameter for the patch called “Bank”, when addressing a patch – a Bank Name/Number + Patch number would be used. In Database terms God changed the Primary key to reach a patch.

Seeing this push from God, Humans got creative, next big change was the arrival of the Multi-Timberal keyboards. This sent the music world towards something spectacular. What is a Multi-Timberal keyboard? A keyboard that can play 16 midi channels simultaneously; and how about this - Each channel can be controlled separately. Yes! 16 channels mean 16 different instruments per keyboard, one person band.

Remember our keyboard companion “Señorita Secuencia” - Using sequencers musicians started to control 16 channels of a Multi-Timberal keyboard directly. This is when the sequencers gained an immense popularity. Sequencers provided interface to select channel number, assign instrument number etc, stored music in different tracks and permitted user editing. This whole setup can also be saved on a floppy disk. All said and done the first generations of Sequencers were crude and complex to use. They were separate unit with dimly lit 1 line LCD display. They came with multi function buttons and edit options. The most popular one I have used is the Roland MC50 series sequencers. This had power to handle 8 midi channels. And frankly when compared to modern day ones, the first generation sequencers were a tough cookie to master.

Seeing musicians struggle, at the end of second day God said “thee humans,” Thy pain will be soon over - world would change”, Birth of MPU 401 silicon chip! Entire scenario changed when Roland gave the MPU401 Chip. Roland MPU 401 is the de-facto standard for MIDI interfaces on Computers. Using this you can connect midi gadgets to a computer. With such a power at disposal, it was matter of time for inspired human beings to create Software based sequencers.

Twelve tone system’s Cakewalk and midi man’s MPU401 card were the popular software hardware combination I owned, [8 bit PC card]. , I had a PC/XT, Around 90’s I was a proud owner of this card and software, at the same period Turtle Beaches [another company] introduced some more serious cards with wav table synthesis and daughter board combinations. It was out of my middle class reach.

To me this was clearly a birth of a new era, a paradigm shift in how I am going to make music in future. Imo, when it comes to sequencing, Cakewalk [Sonar]–would be most powerful and complete midi sequencer. They have come a long way in this industry Their initial versions provided about 128 tracks and supported various others features that is popular even today, which we will discuss soon.

Next Creating a domestic midi setup or I call it the simple midi setup;

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