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Topic: It's all in the Timing

  1. #1

    It\'s all in the Timing

    I\'ve got some questions about note and instrument timing. Here\'s the background...

    I just received Kurt Hunter\'s Solo Strings. My first project with them is based on a simplistic little hymn that a friend of mine asked me to render from his MIDI file using solo piano. I did that and figured I\'d surprise him with a string quartet version as well.

    My first step was to re-arrange the piece. I put in the melody, charted the chords, added the bass line on cello, and put in a counter melody and harmonies. I then made a series of variations. I did all of this in Sibelius. I then added dynamics and some articulation switches.

    As you can predict, rendering from Sibelius gives mechanical results. The timing is rigid and the duration of each note runs right up to the start of the next note. I can turn on Rubato for overall tempo variation, and Espressivo for velocity variation, but it\'s just not human.

    Next step: print out the music and fire up Cakewalk. I imported the MIDI file from Sibelius and replaced each track with a hand played version. I fixed the obvious mistakes and applied the desired articulations.

    Unfortunately, the results aren\'t very good. It sounds a bit like four seventh graders.

    It\'s not the fault of the library. It really sounds like two violins and viola and cello. The intonation is great. The articulations and expressive vibrato are really nice. But these kids can\'t groove. Their sense of artistic timing sucks.

    I think that the problem is that the timing variation of my playing is more or less random. I\'m just not very good at playing to a metronome. But moreso, I lead by the same amount whether I\'m playing the melody, harmony, counter-melody or bass. In a real ensemble the timing weaves more organically, and certain players always lead or lag.

    I recorded myself at about 80% of the final tempo, but that just made me lead everything that much worse.

    So... Any suggestions? Do I just need to practice more with a metronome? Do I need to make sure that the melody always leads? Should I just tweak by hand?

    Any tips and techniques that you guys use to make your results more musical are appreciated. Thanks!

  2. #2

    Re: It\'s all in the Timing

    When I want a sequenced piece to sound realistic, I generally get the most mileage out of playing a part with attention to variation in dynamics than anything else. A part with rigid quantising can still sound great if you have good dynamics. A part which which has bad dynamics can\'t be saved by making the timing push and pull.

  3. #3
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    May 2000
    Ojai, California

    Re: It\'s all in the Timing

    Hi John,

    I\'ve found that the only way to approach realism is after sequencing the part, open up the editor and deal with each note, one at a time.

    I\'ve found this to be especially true of string parts where dynamics are so touchy. It\'s a time consuming process that Ive almost come to enjoy.

    Good luck,

  4. #4

    Re: It\'s all in the Timing

    Hi John,

    The comments you\'ve already gotten about dynamics are spot on. They are an important part of the magic of a powerful performance. Actually playing the parts with a mod wheel or breath controller as dynamic tools help me a lot. I play many of my parts now using a wind controller, it has made a huge difference for me. I also edit the dynamics manually after the fact, as well as the timing, to get the right feel.

    The rhythmic element can be equally important to realism, and equally elusive. A good solo performance will lead, lag and stay with the group at times. A good string quartet will accelerate and retard all over the map. The metronome becomes a vague mental point of reference, not a rigid taskmaster. My personal conclusion has been to play rubato and leave the metronome off for most work. I try to lay down a key part that feels right rhythmically, over and around which I perform the other parts. I might end up with timing slop here and there, and because of this approach I can\'t quantize the parts conveniently - but the performances don\'t have that robot feel.

    If you use a scoring program first, maybe an approach that would work in your context would be to open your sequence editor\'s conductor track and draw in the tempo curve that provides the rhythmic variations appropriate to the piece? This might at least take care of the major tempo variations and nuances that a real conductor would introduce. Then you could mess with the key parts that need to lead or lag individually?


  5. #5
    Senior Member Bruce A. Richardson's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 1999
    Dallas, Texas

    Re: It\'s all in the Timing

    Hi Jon,

    I\'d suggest finding the best piano teacher you can find, and put in about two years of hardcore study and practice.

    At the same time, I\'d head for the local drum shop and buy a cheap hand drum, like a small Remo djembe or ashiko, and find a local drum circle to join.

    I think your dilemma is fairly common, but getting some keyboard and rhythmic chops going is luckily pretty easy. Of course, you can just sit down and do a year of solid metronome woodshedding, but the drumming thing is a lot more fun and gives you a new skillset.

  6. #6
    Senior Member Bruce A. Richardson's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 1999
    Dallas, Texas

    Re: It\'s all in the Timing

    Hi Jon,

    Well, you seem to be headed the right direction to me. What you\'re saying is really true in my opinion. Studio-tight is just a whole different level of playing. I guess the closest analogy is a fashion model, as odd as that sounds, but it\'s a similar level of exposure. The studio is definitely the most unforgiving musical venue.

  7. #7

    Re: It\'s all in the Timing

    \"The studio is definitely the most unforgiving musical venue.\"

    Amen to that, brother. Oops. I\'ve been listening to this damn hymn too many times!

    I\'ve made some good improvements. I started over, ignoring the Cakewalk metro-gnome. Instead, I played in my own. (Toc-tic-tic, toc-tic-tic...) Not only did this give me a flowing rhythm to work with, but I also varied its dynamics to give me an overall level map to follow. Previously I had written the score in a slow 4/4 with triplets, rather than a fast 3/4, so I wasn\'t getting enough gnome beats before. The faster, flowing tock-ticks are much easier to follow. And I\'m recording at full speed, rather than the 80% I was trying before.

    Also, with more practice and more time spent looking at the piano roll, I have a better idea of when the notes need to be short, and when they need to flow. It\'s great feedback to see what you\'re really playing. I\'ve adjusted some by hand, but I\'ve also improved with each take.

    I\'m still working it, but the 7th grader effect is pretty much gone. And rather than a melody lead or lag, I\'m doing more of a weave. It seems to work well in this context.

    Thanks all for your comments.

  8. #8

    Re: It\'s all in the Timing

    \"I\'ve found that the only way to approach realism is after sequencing the part, open up the editor and deal with each note, one at a time.

    I\'ve found this to be especially true of string parts where dynamics are so touchy. It\'s a time consuming process that Ive almost come to enjoy.\"

    EXACTLY!! This is what I do, and I achieve some pretty realistic results. And I\'m using soundfonts, so achieving this is very hard.

    Here\'s an example of a piece I did (still a work in progress) with Miroslav\'s strings in soundfont format: http://www.angelfire.com/film/smadte/ActionMusic.mp3 I dealt with each and EVERY note one by one. It took about 4 hours from start to finish, but I kinda\' like how it turned out.

  9. #9

    Re: It\'s all in the Timing

    Great comments! I appreciate them all.

    Dynamics, dynamics, dynamics! Just before I went to bed I adjusted my keyboard to the \"hardest\" setting and recorded part of a track. It\'s much better! I can get better feel, and because I don\'t have to be so timid in the piano range, my timing is also better. In addition, I recorded at full speed, so I had less tendency to beat the metronome.

    To Chadwick\'s point I need to plan my dynamics more carefully, so my four performances will work together better. I\'m already getting good emphasis on the down beat, so the melodies sound okay alone. But I need to do a better job at playing the dynamics of the ensemble.

    Runamuck\'s technique of mainly hand editing - especially for string dynamics - is good. I\'m doing a bit of that. I\'m sure that I need more. Especially when fixing the timing where I feel the piece drag.

    And Trond, I\'ll also take your comments to heart. Right now my dynamics are done only with velocity control. Do you connect your mod wheel / breath controller to the volume control, the expression control or something else? Right now I\'d only be using volume, since Kirk\'s strings aren\'t set up for the expression controller (at least to my knowledge). I may make some edits to the library later, but right now I\'m leaving them \"stock\". I don\'t want to have edited libraries and no music at the end of the weekend.

    Playing Rubato without a net. Hmmm. I may try that. For now I\'m centered on playing with the metro-gnome, and I will definitely hand edit the tempo after the fact. But I want to get it to sound better with the gnome first. I figure if it sounds bad with the gnome, messing with the tempo won\'t fix it - but it will cetainly add life to a good base performance.

    So, thanks all. Your comments and setting my keyboard for a harder feel should improve things quickly!

  10. #10

    Re: It\'s all in the Timing

    Bruce, funny you should mention the piano teacher thing. I\'ve been strongly considering that - but mainly to improve my sight reading skills and general chops. I hadn\'t considered the rythmic improvements that I can gain.

    Regarding drums I\'ve already got some hand percussion as well as a home-made electronic kit (Pearl Rhythm Traveler with piezos added and an Alesis DM5). I seem to be able to do fine solo and playing with friends, where the group finds an organic rhytmic center. But I need to get to the next level to be able to multitrack well. Why is it that after playing along with albums since I was wee and sounding reasonably good at it, laying down a bunch of tracks and getting the rhythm of each take to groove with one another can be so challenging?

    And Lee, I guess I\'m not that sociable. With my day job and family, most of my music is done late at night. Who needs sleep? And I don\'t know any good keyboard players who would enter my music for free. So, it\'s me or no one.

    And you make a good point about the melody lagging in some idioms - especially Jazz.

    The piece I\'m doing is out of my zone. It\'s a hymn with a 1901 collegiate sound on the piano. (My friend heard it weekly growing up as a Christian in southeast India and recently found a \"live\" MIDI performance that I simply rendered for him.) I\'m re-purposing it for string quartet, and want to change the feel to suit that medium. It\'s in 3/4 and should \"lightly sway\". So, in a string quartet waltz, does the melody or accompanyment generally lead, or do they simply play together?

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