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MIDI Velocity and Audio Record Levels

On the subject of music production using a workstation like the Motif XS/XF, one critical and reoccuring queston has been about OUTPUT levels. As a former fulltime recording engineer this is a subject that is close to my heart. And as a fulltime (longtime) musician, I work very often with MIDI when composing. There is a unique thing that happens when recording first as MIDI and then transferring the results to audio. And it has to do with the approach - when recording MIDI I approach things as a musician. However, when I approach recording AUDIO, I have a different set of rules that I use. This article will try and build a bridge between what naturally you do when using MIDI (as a musician) and what you must do when you then want reconstruct your MIDI recording in the world of audio.

The output you get from individual PARTS is a function of several different things. It is better to have lower output that you have to boost, than it would be to have all levels at absolute maximum that you would have to lower to avoid distortion… you will find for the reasons outlined below WHY your signal seems initially low. You can boost signal quite easily if you know where to look.

On the question of MIDI recording levels versus audio recording levels, very few people pay attention to what “velocity” their tracks are recorded at when recording to a MIDI sequencer. And this is quite natural - because when you are recording MIDI you are actually pre-mixing your levels. You base how strongly you play on where it fits into the track musically. Unfortunately, this does not always translate into what the audio engineer would term “good record levels”.  We will learn that VELOCITY is the metering for MIDI - ignore it at your own peril.

In a recording studio, where audio is all that matters, the engineer is constantly worried about the recorded audio levels. They attempt to get the musician to give them the average and the maximum level that is going to be used during the performance so that they can maximize that record level. They then create a separate Monitor Mix (which does not get recorded) so that listening to the combination of signals makes some sense musically.  That is: Even though they seek to get maximum or optimum record levels from each separate musical part (for the recorder), they then create a separate subjective Monitor Mix to listen to musically. And they create even a third or fourth to feed back to the performing musicians - who each has a required level that they must have in order to feel comfortable performing. The singer needs “more me” and so on. All these different mixes are different balances of the various parts. Each trying to make someone/something happy. The recorder only wants the optimum level - the totally OBJECTIVE mix. No one else wants that mix - because everything in that mix is up near maximum. The humans want a SUBJECTIVE mix.

When you strike a note on a MIDI keyboard and record it to a MIDI sequencer, you record its velocity on a scale of 1-127. If you smack the key really hard and get a velocity of 127 you have recorded the maximum velocity achievable - hitting the keys harder will have no effect on increasing the velocity. So there is a maximum velocity level for MIDI - knowing where that is and how much effort it takes to reach it is an important concept to know and have a feel for.

I equate this to a tall person knowing where the ceiling is and how low the doorways are – once you know, then you know how close you are to it if you have jump up or run out of the room. You will also know when you have to duck… if you are unaware of the upper and lower limits you run into problems. But if you know how close you are to the limits, then you can run around and enjoy yourself, and never bump your head.

Lets say you are sitting in your room recording drums and you have your Motif XS turned up really loud in your speakers. And you lay down your drums but you are not hitting the keys very hard. You figure hey, that kick and snare are loud enough… after all with your speakers cranked it sounds fine! But actually your velocity levels are low. The Kick = 60 and Snare = 56. And you never record a velocity higher than these - when you go to transfer these tracks to audio in your DAW - you will start to wonder “How come the record levels of these tracks is not loud enough? I pushed the volume slider (CS) of the Motif XS track all the way up and still I am not getting enough level.”

I’ve listened to many, many sequences in my day and some people have a naturally heavier touch than others. You should always be aware of how much effort (physically) it takes to reach a velocity of 127 - and then adjust your playing within that range. And you should be able to know this effort at the volume you are listening currnetly. That is - it is never necessary to play harder than the velocity maximum but you should be able to adjust your playing so that you are playing with a proper amount of velocity based on the minimum and maximum range of MIDI and based on the current volume of your sound system.

If your goal is record a string part in the background of a MIDI sequence, you most likely windup record it by playing quite softly. Velocities around 40-70, however, when you attempt to then transfer this track to an audio track in your DAW, you start to realize that you can’t get good level on that track – it’s too soft. When you record just audio you reference everything to a VU meter (a Volume Unit meter). MIDI has no VU meter, per se. But it does have VELOCITY. So you might have to adjust the velocity of that softly played track so that you can get good record levels in your audio recorder. Then mix it back to being soft. (That is what the audio engineer does).

When you record directly to audio - you naturally set your levels based on a METER. And you wind up making a separate, more listen-able, Monitor Mix. Because listening to everything pushed up to “good” audio record level – does not make a musically balanced mix. Everything is optimized as an individual signal. The Monitor mix, which is a separate mix from that which gets recorded as audio, is used by the recording engineer to adjust listening levels. This is so they musically sound like an ensemble (and not an argument). 

I am just saying: the only “meter” you have in MIDI is the “velocity levels” you record - if you are unaware of the velocity values you may not be able to get enough level from an individual track.

Ways to adjust PART VOLUME for audio LEVEL
1 _ Raise/lower the CS for that PART (PART VOLUME)
2 _ EDIT the Voice’s Volume (this can be accomplished while in MIXING mode via the VCE EDIT function)
3 _ Work with the PART Velocity (with knowledge of how it may affect performance parameters).
4 _ Increase mLAN/FW OUTPUT level

1-Raise/lower the individual CS (Control Slider) for that PART
Use the CS to affect output level of each individual PART. Reference the DAW’s ‘mixer’ so that you can determine the overall level (with the METER). The object is to get a good LEVEL yet without any clip indications. A clip would be any postive value in the meter’s PEAK indicator or red “CLIP” indication.  Keep you ears on the music and your eyes on your meters! Get good LEVEL with NO CLIPS!!!

2-EDIT the Voice’s Volume
Press [MIXNG] > [F6] VCE EDIT - this will allow you to drop into full Voice Edit on that sound. This will let you edit, where necessary, the Voice’s overall VOLUME parameter.  Here’s how:
From the MIXING screen
_ Press [F6] VCE EDIT
_ Press [F1] GENERAL
_ Press [SF2] PLAY MODE
_ Adjust the OUTPUT LEVEL Volume parameter, as necessary

You will find many of the XS/XF Voices are very conservatively set for overall Volume… so you have plenty of room to move the output level up or down. This would be like turning the instrument up at the source. If your MIXING screen is like a studio’s mixing console, and the fader on that mixer is just like the fader on a console, then this OUTPUT LEVEL Volume is the equivalent to asking the musician to give you more input level (at the source). Knowing how to turn the instrument up at the source is a fundamental that you need to know about. You will find that Yamaha has most often left you plenty of room to turn things up louder - and this is by design. If a VOICE is not giving you enough level with the FADER alone, ask the individual (instrument) to give you more gain (at the source). This OUTPUT LEVEL Volume is this gain at the source!

If you are getting low levels on your METER in the DAW ‘mixer’, remember as ‘audio engineer’ your job is to get the best-recorded level on the media without destroying the musician’s performance. So the engineer’s job is strictly one of getting the sound recorded properly.

Once you have edited the Output Level Volume of the PART, you can store this edit to a MIX VOICE location provided for each normal Voice. Each Drum Kit Voice that you edit by this method must be stored in the [DR USER] bank (Drum Kits cannot be stored locally within the SONG/PATTERN)

_ Press [STORE] to the keep the results in a ‘local’ MIX VOICE location.
Press [ENTER] to execute.

By storing the Voice in the MIX VOICE bank, the Voice becomes a part of the local SONG MIXING or PATTERN MIXING setup. This special MIX VOICE location (there are 16 of them per MIX) is provided for all normal (that is non-drum, non-track sample) Voices. It is provided specifically so that you can edit a Voice and tailor it specifically for this particular mix. Take advantage of this memory location – it allows for all your tweaks to Voices for this Project without having to change the original source Voice. Drum Kit Voices must be stored to one of the 32 User Kit locations.

The XS/XF can hold a maximum of 256 MIXING VOICES (32 User Drum Kits).

You will find that most of the Voices in the Motif XS/XF have very conservative Output Level volumes – this is done purposefully so that you can ‘mix’. Voices are designed to be used in combination. For example, when you are in Performance, or in Song/Pattern Mixing modes it would be quite easy to overload the input of a connected device if every VOICE was set at MAXIMUM. If this is difficult to understand - think about it for a minute. Say YAMAHA had maximized the volume of each Voice to 127, and then you attempted to layer Piano, Strings and Brass in a PERFORMANCE. You’d hit the first note or chord and you’d distort your mixer. When working in a PERFORMANCE you are combine as many as four Voices, however, when working with a sequencer you are combining as many as 16 Voices!

The Signal-to-Noise specification is so good in digital gear these days that you can use this “headroom” to your sonic advantage. So do not stress over this - if you can hear the noise floor in the Motif XS/XF you must have superhuman hearing.

A clip is a reason to do something over – there are no reasons to ever clip a signal. Every clip diminishes the total quality of your finished product. (I cannot repeat this enough)!

3-Work with the PART Velocity
Changing the velocity of the performance should be your last resort. As mentioned above, it does have much to do with the volume that you are able to achieve from each individual PART. Many times no attention is paid to how much velocity is used when recording data as MIDI tracks and you must compensate for extremely low output from track data. Fortunately, there is plenty of room to edit XS/XF Voice Volume data. However, the warning about changing the velocity of a performance is only given for those particular VOICES that change character when velocity is altered. Velocity can be safely offset on many Voices in the Motif XS/XF.

The reason for a warning when adjusting velocity is simply this: If you have a VOICE that is a velocity swap - this means it changes character by switching to a different sample for a completely different articulation - then you want to be very careful when altering the musical performance velocity. A good example of this is a Voice like a SLAP BASS… when you exceed a particular Velocity the articulation switches from a normally plucked attack to a ‘slapped’ attack. ‘When’ that occurs can be altered if you manipulate the VELOCITY parameters - just be aware of how the sound and performance change if you decide this is the method you wish to use. You can consult the DATA LIST Booklet - the WAVEFORM LIST will indicate Voices that have multiple velocity articulations.

One way to adjust the volume is by artful use of the VELOCITY SENSITIVITY DEPTH and OFFSET parameters. These are found from the main SONG or main PATTERN screen:
Press [MIXING]
Press [EDIT]
Press the Track Select button of the PART you want to offset, [1]-[16]
Press [F1] VOICE
Press [SF3] OTHER

The two parameters: Velocity Sensitivity Depth and Offset, allow you to change the velocity of data on a Motif XS track.  An Offset adds or subtracts a value to each velocity value. “64” is no change.

4- Individual mLAN/FW OUTPUT boost
You may notice that when you route PARTS to individual outputs you now want each PART to reach a greater gain level on the meter. We can add this fourth method of increasing the output level of the individual PARTS. This is necessary because when you recorded your tracks initially you were not paying attention to the audio footprint they would leave. You played the string sound softly because that made sense while recording MIDI, but recording audio you now want that same performance but you are seeking to optimize the record level. You are basically undoing the mix balance you created in order to record the individual audio tracks. Your goal is to later recreate a mix balance with these musical performances as audio tracks.
Press [F2] I/O

Here you see you can increase the output level (GAIN) of the individual mLAN buses. If you require more level (and most likely you will) you can get an additional +6dB boost for each mLAN pair. The DAW MIXER can usually add an additional +6dB of gain as well (but try and avoid using the computer to do this - as it will undoubtedly add noise). Do not stress if your individual PARTS to not reach 0dB – your goal is to get a good sounding, clean recording of each Part so that when you do your final mixdown everything can be heard. That is it. You get no extra points for reaching 0dB on each PART. Quality of the Sound wins!

We cannot conclude this article without mentioning that learning to use a Compressor can make a huge difference in your overall mix output. In the Master Effects area, you can select from the VCM COMPRESSOR 376 and the MULTI-BAND COMPRESSOR. A compressor is a leveling amplifier that is typically used to finalize a mix. It can increase what we commonly call the “presence” of a mix - it can put the mix “in your face”. Unfortunately, it can be over used - but learning and experimenting with these, particularly when transferring a stereo mix out from the Motif XS, can be its own reward.

In short, a compressor allows you to reduce the dynamic range (it allow you to bring the soft closer to the loud). Artfully done this can make a world of difference in your final result. And will be the topic of separate articles. Enjoy!

Hope that helps…