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MIDI Editing: 6 Essential Tips for Better MIDI Tracks

Preview of youtube video

MIDI editing can be tedious. Nothing takes you out of the flow of writing songs like spending too long moving MIDI events around.

But it doesn’t have to be frustrating. There are lots of helpful tricks you can use to speed up your MIDI editing and create more expressive parts.

In this article I’ll go through six MIDI editing techniques you can bring into your workflow right away.

1. Fold the piano roll

Ableton Live (and some other DAWs) can condense a clip’s MIDI piano roll down to a view of just the active notes.

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If you’re programming a drum rack with only sixteen active samples, you don’t need to see all 128 MIDI note locations—in fact, excess notes might even be confusing.

fold piano roll midi

Fold the piano roll and stay focused on the notes that matter.

Fold the piano roll and stay focused on the notes that matter.

Hot tip: Another extremely useful new feature of Ableton Live 10 is the ability to edit multiple MIDI clips in the same view.

Coordinating the relationships between multiple clips is extra difficult when you can’t see the notes you’ve already laid down.

Editing multiple clips lets you see all your parts at once.

2. Draw velocities with the pen tool

You don’t have to drag individual sliders one by one or input notes with a keyboard to give your MIDI notes custom velocity values.

If you switch from the pointer to the pen tool in your DAW you can click and drag to readjust all values on a MIDI track’s velocity lane.

You can even draw in shapes that mimic sine or triangle waves as if an LFO were modulating your MIDI velocity.

editing midi velocities

Hot tip:  You can highlight all velocities in a selection to scale them by the same factor. This can be useful for changing the overall velocity of an entire clip or passage.

3. Quantize note on and off events

The quantize menu has lots of options.

quantize midi in ableton

If you’re just focused on getting your parts in time you might be quantizing your onsets and leaving your note endings to edit manually.

But quantizing the note off timing can get you cleaner parts right away.

It also teaches you to pay attention to all your musical gestures when you play parts with a keyboard. Getting note duration tighter in your playing is good practice!

Speaking of which…

4. Play musical passages on a keyboard

Entering notes manually with a keyboard has a lot of benefits.

You won’t have to struggle to humanize your performance after the fact if you start with a human performance!

You’ll also easily get a good spread of velocities from striking the keys with different intensity as you play.

Even if it’s a simple line you could easily draw in, try playing it on your MIDI controller. Chances are you’ll end up with a more natural feel to the part.

5. Use groove and partial quantization

Preview of youtube video

Quantization is a powerful tool. Snapping notes into place on the grid is what makes composing music electronically so easy and enjoyable.

But you don’t need to quantize at 100% intensity every single time. Lower quantize values can sound much more natural.

Experiment with quantization settings to find which values produce the best sounding results for your parts.

Experiment with quantization settings to find which values produce the best sounding results for your parts.

Sometimes your DAW’s visual feedback can play tricks on you. Seeing how far off you are from the grid is frustrating. But in many cases you don’t need to fix everything.

Often a completely unquantized performance can add depth and interest to a passage. Don’t forget to try it!

Groove quantize allows you to quantize to a rhythm that deviates musically from the grid.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/MIDI-Editing-6-Tips-for-Editing-Better-MIDI-Tracks_ABT_groovepool.jpg

Defining a “groove” isn’t straightforward, but most DAWs come with a selection of grooves that correspond to well known feels like swing.

Groove could be what you’re missing If your MIDI parts sound too rigid and mechanical.

Groove could be what you’re missing If your MIDI parts sound too rigid and mechanical.

Groove is applied as a percentage so you can achieve anything from subtle enhancement to fully swung rhythms.

6. Know when to consolidate MIDI into audio

Sometimes it’s more practical to deal with audio than MIDI.

If you’re using lots of resource-intensive plugins that slow down your session you may need to render their MIDI data as audio to keep mixing.

Depending on your DAW this function can be called consolidating, freezing, flattening or bouncing in place. It allows you to record the audio coming out of your plugins to regular tracks.

Once your tracks are converted to audio you can hide, disable or delete your CPU hungry plugins.

The only downside is that you can’t change the notes or parameters freely after you’ve frozen a track. To do that you’ll have to reactivate the plugin and create another bounce!

But this technique isn’t just for saving computer resources.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/MIDI-Editing_freeze_flatten_sm.gif

Editing audio can sometimes be easier than using automation on MIDI tracks.

Editing audio can sometimes be easier than using automation on MIDI tracks.

Fades and other clip levelling operations are far simpler to create directly on the audio clip than with automation on MIDI tracks.

Letter to the MIDI editor

You can never have too many tips and tricks for editing. Spending less time manipulating MIDI events means you get to stay focused on playing music.

Try these techniques the next time you find yourself struggling to edit MIDI parts.

Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.

@Michael Hahn

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