Orchestra session using tempo maps

Preparing and using midi files and tempo maps for live recording

If you’re a composer today, you’re often tasked with twice the work you once were. Not only are you composing a score, but also creating an elaborate virtual instrument mock-up (or even final master recording) of the composition at the same time. When you add all of the hybrid musical styles used in scoring for games or picture, you end up with an almost infinite number of combinations of work-flow, software, and virtual/live instrumentation to manage – all within the allotted time and budget.

If only there was a tool that could allow you to successfully manage all these tasks, from composition to final audio master.

Behold, the humble midi file.

Midi files convey an incredible amount of information including tempo, note, dynamics, text, and much more. They can be shared across different platforms, DAWs and other software making them very useful to all the members of the audio production team. Let’s take a closer look at using midi files to prepare for live instrument recording sessions.

Who will use your midi files? Copyists, Orchestrators and Engineers, oh my!

While we take for granted that orchestral sessions require printed music notation, even if you’re overdubbing only a single instrument having printed music (even just a chord chart) can make the sessions more efficient and fun. So once you’re content with your composition, it might be time to create the chart or notated score and printed parts for your live instrument recording. If you’re happy with all of the instruments and parts you’ve programmed, then you can send your work directly to a copyist (assuming you’re not a copyist yourself.)

The copyist’s job is to take your orchestration and prepare a notated score with parts for each instrument. Good copy work includes not only the notes written in the correct octave, transposition and clef, but also the use of the optimum written rhythms, articulations, instrument and mute change indications and dynamic markings. Though they usually work from your written music or midi file, many copyists can do transcriptions (meaning they can listen to a mock-up and create a score and parts for each instrument.) There is generally an extra charge for transcription, which should be agreed upon up front.

On the other hand, you may love the themes you’ve written but need the input of an orchestrator to get the most out of the live instruments at your disposal. Using an orchestrator is no indication that the composer lacks the talent to do it themselves. In addition to their principal job of clearly translating the composer’s intentions, with all the nuances, to the musicians, orchestrators can often catch mistakes or offer suggestions the composer didn’t have time to consider. Sometimes the orchestrator is also the copyist, but if not they will send their completed work on to the copyist.

It can be especially useful (though not necessary) to collaborate with an orchestrator who has a compatible DAW/sequencer set-up to your own, making the exchange of midi-based session files painless and allowing the orchestrator to hear the same thing as the composer, simply by opening the file (different from .smf, session files are software specific and store plug-in, VI and audio data as well as midi data.)

Copyists use notation software to typeset scores and parts. Programs like Finale and Sibelius can import a midi file for editing just like a DAW can, and most have playback capability with access to general midi sounds or better. It’s important to accompany any midi files with an audio reference so that the copyist can double check for errors and intent as they work.

Recording engineers need no introduction, but it is important to note that good midi and audio file prep can make all the difference when moving from the composer’s DAW to the recording studio’s system (and back.) Discuss tempo maps as well as sample rate, bit depth, file format and naming conventions with the engineer ahead of time to ensure smooth sailing on your sessions.

Mock-up midi vs. production midi files
Midi tracks are often performed to accommodate the nuances of a particular synth patch or sound. For example a player might anticipate the beat when using a string patch with a slow attack, or notes in a fast run or legato passage might be recorded overlapping each other because the VI patch is scripted that way. As a result, when you import a midi track into notation software, the notation it spits out may not make any sense visually. To avoid that problem, it’s a good idea to send the copyist a quantized, cleaned up copy of the track for use as a production midi file.

You should also clean up multiple tracks that are used to make a single sound (e.g. combining a couple of different string samples for one part.) These should be condensed to just one track. Individual tracks used for different articulations of a single instrument (like legato, pizz and tremolo strings) should be either condensed or kept separate and clearly labeled and accompanied by an audio file. This adds a little more work on your end, but it can save you hours of time answering the copyist’s questions later.

Midi tempo maps for recording sessions
Tempo maps are great for generating click tracks for recording sessions. They keep everyone in sync with your pre-production audio and/or video, with the added bonus that the engineer and production team can be looking at the same measure numbers as the conductor and musicians, saving valuable time. Recording to a mapped click also makes tempo movement like accelerandos, ritards and ralls predictable and overdub friendly.

Exporting .SMF (Standard Midi File)
Most sequencers and DAWs easily handle exporting midi files. To ensure that your exported .smf has both multitrack midi and tempo information, use a Type 1 (multitrack) midi file. Make sure that all the midi tracks you want included in the file are un-muted (muted midi tracks are NOT included in .smf export), then use the export options particular to your system. Here are a couple of examples:

Logic: Highlight the regions you wish to export and go to File > Export > Selection as MIDI file. (This will export all active midi tracks in the selection.)

Protools: File > Export > Midi > Midi file format 1 (multitrack)

Reaper: File > Export Project Midi > select “entire project,” “all items,” “multitrack midi file,” and “embed tempo map”

Digital Performer: File > Save As > choose .mid and select type

When exporting a standard midi file from any software, it is helpful to note that the tempo map won’t export without some midi information. If you’ve created a tempo map but have no midi tracks to export, you can solve this problem by simply creating a blank midi track (again, make sure it’s not muted) for export, then all your tempo map info will export to the .smf.

By the way, .smf files are identical to .mid files. Older PC operating systems do not recognize the .smf file extension so you can simply change the extension to .mid by typing it into the file name if needed.

Recording prep midi tips:
Negative number bars

If you are exporting a midi file for use in Protools (the recording studio standard,) it’s good to remember that, while Protools does do negative number measures, it imports midi file tempo maps to start at m.1. Even though renumbering bars is very simple in Protools, it’s a good idea to include a marker in your midi file at some significant measure (i.e. m.1) named “Measure 1” so that the adjustment can be made without guesswork.


Example 1: Notice the accelerando in measures 8 and 9 and the new tempo at m.10

Protools tempo map

Example 2: The 2 measure count off are bars -1 and 0, measure 1 has a "measure 1" marker, and the accel in m. 8 and 9 is mapped. Notice that I went to 8th note clicks in the accel bars to give the players some extra help with the tempo change

Tempo accuracy
Occasionally, midi software will make minor, arbitrary adjustments (for no good reason) to imported or exported tempo information. For example, a tempo of 120 bpm in Finale will often open in Protools or Digital Performer as 119.9956 bpm. Always take a second to spot check for these anomalies, especially if the music you are recording is sync’ed to picture or some other reference. If you don’t, your click might drift subtly over time.

Session extras
When possible, include count off bars at the top of a cue, between cues, and as a set up for new tempos in your midi file before you send it to the orchestrator, copyist and engineer. This will insure that the extra measures will be included in the score and parts, that everyone will be working off the same measure numbers during recording, and that the extra measures can be easily found and edited out once all the elements (e.g. live instruments, sequenced audio) are all in one place for mix.

To sum up, a multitrack midi file with a well thought out tempo map can help everyone on the music production team do their job quickly, efficiently and, best of all, musically!

5 Responses to “Midi: Four letter word or composer’s best friend?”

  1. michael says:


    I enjoyed your post, it’s a great overview of important issue. I’m sending it on to a friend who’s getting started with all this.

    For tempo mapping, you might try the InTime software my company makes. It’s an interactive, flexible metronome that follows live MIDI performances. It can either keep other gear/software in sync, or record a tempo map of your performance for use elsewhere. It also can save what you play with correct musical timing along with the tempo map, for better notation of improvised, free-tempo pieces. If you have any questions, let me know.


  2. michael says:

    Hi again – just watched your ‘Steroids’ piece…awesome!

  3. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Dan! Great article!

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