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Meet the MIDI Master - Leo Chris!

2015-03-18 - Featured Contributors

User: CHRIS_037

Member Since: 2008-09-27
Total Uploads: 295
Total Listens: 162266

If you are like me, you may be fascinated with what it takes to create a MIDI file - or even what a MIDI file actually is!

As time has gone by, I've become more and more interested in the MIDI works of our own Leo Chris - actually Leo Chistopherson.  I figured if ANYBODY would know about this, it HAD to be Leo!

Leo's impeccable and often very large scale works grace our Concert Hall uploads on a frequent basis, and listening to them is really a joy and privilege.  With his knowledge, skill, and dedication, Leo combines various diverse elements into a unified "sound package". 

The scope of his work is also increasing as time goes by.  Just give a listen to any of the movements from his current series, "The Planets" by Gustav Holst!

When I asked Leo for his permission to feature him, he was friendly and gracious - just the way he is on his uploads.  I asked him for some "technical info" as well as musical, and he agreed. 

Knowing his thoroughness, I can't say that I was surprised to see just how much time and effort he put into preparing this article, but I am VERY grateful to him.

I hope you will read this in its entirety, as there is a LOT of info here.  Maybe while you are reading, you can listen to some of Leo's splendid work!

It was thanks, appreciation, and pride that I present Leo Chris - MIDI Master as my pick for featured contributor of the month!

With best regards,

David Lamb

My background in MIDI and Hauptwerk

(MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface).

I first got involved in MIDI music in the early 1990's. I did have my current Rodgers analog organ back then, but it didn't have MIDI capabilities yet.

By the middle of the 1990's, I had quite a collection of digital synthesizers, which could play back 8-bit samples of mostly orchestral instruments. These were driven by MIDI using an PC or a MIDI keyboard.

Before I continue, in order to make better sense of what I want to explain here, I should give a good definition of just what MIDI is. The following comes from Wikipedia. The link to the lengthy article is included. I have underlined certain parts.

According to Wikipedia: ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

MIDI (/ˈmɪdi/; short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a technical standard that describes a protocol, digital interface and connectors and allows a wide variety of electronic musical instruments, computers and other related devices to connect and communicate with one another. A single MIDI link (port) can carry up to sixteen channels of information, each of which can be routed to a separate device.

MIDI carries event messages that specify notation, pitch and velocity, control signals for parameters such as volume, vibrato, audio panning, cues, and clock signals that set and synchronize tempo between multiple devices. These messages are sent to other devices where they control sound generation and other features. This data can also be recorded into a hardware or software device called a sequencer, which can be used to edit the data and to play it back at a later time.

Because MIDI is a set of commands that create sound, MIDI sequences can be manipulated in ways that prerecorded audio cannot. It is possible to change the key, instrumentation or tempo of a MIDI arrangement, and to reorder its individual sections. The ability to compose ideas and quickly hear them played back enables composers to experiment.

(important for Hauptwerk)

MIDI's serial transmission leads to timing problems. Experienced musicians can detect time differences of as small as 1/3 of a millisecond (ms) (which is how long it takes sound to travel 4 inches), and a three-byte MIDI message requires nearly 1ms for transmission. Because MIDI is serial, it can only send one event at a time. If an event is sent on two channels at once, the event on the higher-numbered channel cannot transmit until the first one is finished, and so is delayed by 1ms. If an event is sent on all channels at the same time, the highest-numbered channel's transmission will be delayed by as much as 16ms. This contributed to the rise of MIDI interfaces with multiple in- and out-ports, because timing improves when events are spread between multiple ports as opposed to multiple channels on the same port. The term "MIDI slop" refers to audible timing errors that result when MIDI transmission is delayed.

Some background

So, finally in the mid-90's I was able to get MIDI installed on the Rodgers organ. But, there were very few digital modules that had pipe organ samples. By the end of the 90's, I was able to have the four Alhborn digital organ boxes plus a few Ensoniq 8-bit samplers with some organs samples. Each Alhborn had twenty stereo digital ranks. The Ensoniq's had four stereo outputs each. Adding these to my Rodgers was a big deal! This was a first step in spreading the voices around since each module had a stereo output. They were driven by the organ's MIDI out.

Those few years saw the start of my large speaker/amp collection. I was up to 16 back then.

Then into the 2000's, along came Hauptwerk. I went for that right away. The sounds were great, but the first versions were not in stereo. So, I didn't do too much with it. In fact I didn't even try to drive it with my organ console. My computer was in a different room.

I was in MIDI heaven when HW went stereo. There were just a few sample sets then. I got the two Milan Silberman sets, and the Buzard instrument. And the St. Anne's was good too. There were a few other good sets as well. I still didn't try to drive these sets from my organ. Instead, I got caught up into the whole MIDI approach and began to use these sets as MIDI synthesizers.

Having done some programming in the past, I was delighted to find that I could create my own ODF (Organ Definition File). There was no CODM back then and one worked with the actual ODF. I loved that! I could put together my own larger instrument.

Here is a page from my old website that shows a really large Hauptwerk v1.x organ. This was my "Le Grand" 5-manual, 150 rank instrument. There was a lot of borrowing however, since I only had a Dell PC with 8 GB RAM.

The mp3's listed on my site still sound pretty good to me. Some of these pieces I have re-done with more recent HW versions. There is a photo and screen shot of this setup, too:

BYW: Some of these mp3's include the 64' Pedal rank I concocted up using an old version of Sound Forge. For example, the Prelude in A minor by Krebs. That piece has the 8 Hz "C" Pedal note in there. (I later found that it is a Toccata, not a Prelude.) The 64' rank is used all the way through.

The fidelity was not so great back then, but I loved it!

Then when HW v2 came along (including the dongle) I finally set up a computer in the organ room and was excited by the very fine sound the HW samples provided.

Then I got the good old Virginia TO. I loved that set! It was the beginning of my bigger multiple speaker setup. I had eight M-Audio powered speakers in a different room that I used with the synthesizers and also a MIDI guitar. Since the TO has eight ranks, I just had to move the eight M-Audios into the organ area to hear what that would sound like.

Right away I could tell that the more speakers, the bigger and more pipe-like the sound. HW had now started to provide the ability to set up speaker groups. too. Wonderful!

That led to expanding finally to four PC computers. I had three dongles and the fourth computer still ran HW v1 which didn't need a dongle.

Then came the Mac Pro and the first MOTU 24/IO interface.

From there things sort of spiraled out of control (almost). More speakers, more MOTU interfaces, and so on. I have finally dropped all the older PC's since the Mac can do it all now.

For a time I just played the HW sample set from my console, though I am not much of an organist. And then I investigated the CODM. That really brought me back to the whole MIDI thing. The CODM lets one put together just about anything one wants in an organ.

So, the MIDI theme runs through all of the music and organ activities I have gotten involved with.

My Current use of MIDI with HW v4.

Since the recent versions of HW allow one to create a CODM that includes the releases for wet sets, I decided a few months ago to get back to the CODM. So I put together my current HW Player Organ. The main purpose is to render orchestral music into pipe organ sounds.

My background in music is not very sophisticated. I grew up listening to folk music, marches, and Romantic classical music. I still like that best. I used to try to have the player organ do organ works, but now that I have Concert Hall available, I realize that most of the members, who are really great at playing, could likely outdo any of my MIDI efforts when it comes to pipe organ literature.

So, I have moved over to the approach of using MIDI files that include many more parts than a single organist could handle. I really like the sound of these orchestral pieces when played on the organ.

How do I get a piece of music recorded?

This is the process I go through.

First I decide on a piece to try.

The next step is to try to find a MIDI file already done. So, I search the many MIDI sites that have free downloads. It's surprising how much music is available for MIDI.

Sometimes, if no file is out there, I have to create the thing from scratch. Now that can be a BIG job.

Often, even when I find a file, there are errors in there that need fixing. For example on that recent one I did, Wagner's "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla," I suspect someone just scanned the sheet music into a MIDI form. But there were four French Horns as "F" instruments, and two Bb clarinets. So, when the clarinets played a score "C" they were really playing a MIDI Bb. The optical scanner didn't know the difference. That took a fair amount of straightening out. The original version was VERY discordant!

Another problem that can come up is when the file created is in a key that can lead to mishaps. One recent piece was in 5 flats. I had to ferret out about 12 notes that were off by a half note. That's confusing stuff to see, with double sharps and double flats here and there. I have to go by the sound---sour notes need to be found and corrected.

Once I have a good MIDI file, then the longer part of the work comes. I need to play the MIDI file to the Mac Pro and HW, and set up good sounding registrations of pistons (driven by program changes in MIDI). This usually means going over the same part many times until I feel that all the melodies and counter melodies, such as they are, come through. Sometimes I just can't manage that, but usually I can come close.

At this point, I should mention that driving an organ as large as my Player Organ needs LOTS of MIDI throughput capability. The first few pieces I did, using just a couple M-Audio MIDI-Sport interfaces just couldn't keep up with the flow. I got stuck notes and dropped notes here and there. I sometimes had to re-record a piece three or four times to get a good take.

What I use to output MIDI is an old HP PC that runs WIN XP. I use a software sequencer (the MIDI editor and player) called Cakewalk. It is an excellent program for this and does everything I need. The MIDI output then goes by cable to the Mac Pro via the MIDI interfaces.

As I mentioned, the interfaces between the PC and the Mac were just not good enough. So, I purchased two MOTU micro-lites. Each has five MIDI ports. I read that these units have excellent timing circuitry and are very accurate in their throughput. As you read above, each MIDI port has 16 channels. So, I can split my input to the Mac into five streams of data, rather than just one. One MOTU goes on the MIDI output from the PC, and the other on the input to the Mac.

The Player Organ Pedal and registration/expression changes go to port #1. Divisions Two and Three go to port #2, Divisions Four and Five go to port #3, and Divisions Six and Seven go to port #4. Since many pieces also need some non-Hauptwerk instruments, I have port #5 to carry MIDI for the East/West sounds.

No more MIDI flow troubles.

I'm not out of the woods yet, when producing a piece for Concert Hall. While the Mac Pro (8-core, v3,1, 32 GB RAM) is one powerful computer, it can have problems since has to run the big Hauptwerk organ, the East/West Play module, and then, for recording, it has to run Camtasia 2.

I actually can't come close to using all the ranks I have there at the same time. The HW Audio window shows overload right away for the CPU and the Polyphony. The length of the reverb tails makes a big difference. I have finally settled on a reverb decay of 3.5 seconds. That gives more polyphony but still has quite a big ambience.

So, I always have to use somewhat less complex registration than I may first want to have. I need a much bigger and more capable computer, I guess.

Camtasia records an mp4 video with sound, ready for YouTube. And it also allows me to output an audio .wav file that I can convert to mp3 for Concert Hall.

Final Words

It's my love of pipe organ that drives me to do this kind of thing. I think of organ as MY instrument, even though I don't play well live. But, using MIDI I can produce music that I really enjoy listening to. Each piece is a challenge, since most are not meant for pipe organ. I feel that I can contribute to the enjoyment of pipe organs by bringing types of music to them that are not normally heard on organ.

Leo Christopherson :-)


John_Pellowe (2015-04-11) Log in to Reply
Thanks Leo for this explanation. I have no knowledge whatsoever of MIDI, so I learned a lot. My main takeaway is an appreciation for MIDI contributions to Concert Hall as a unique art form distinct from live performances. The talents are different. The challenges of performance are different. For live performances, I appreciate most the playing technique of the performer. MIDI performances, which can be so much richer than anything possible live, lead to an appreciation for the creative imagination of the, can we say, programmer. Thanks for your contributions!!
Ubertuba (2015-04-06) Log in to Reply
Hey Leo, could you do an article on the CODM next? For example, what would it are to expand the Salisbury with a swell pedal and a mixture on the choir and a tromba under expression on the solo?
Keys61 (2015-03-25) Log in to Reply
An enjoyable, and informative read...... Thanks Leo (and David)
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