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Introduction to articles on sequencing
software/Cakewalk for Windows

John S. Allen

"In Cakewalk Pro Audio...[d]isk space optimization is handled for you. You can think of audio events as independent events just like notes, and freely copy and modify them. Cakewalk Pro Audio will do the work of conserving disk space by trying to share storage among similar audio events. Computers are good at boring tasks like this. Computers should do them so you don't have to."

page 247 of the Cakewalk Pro Audio v. 5.0 user's manual

That quote applies to the recently added, audio features of Cakewalk Pro Audio sequencing software. Unfortunately, and ironically, it does not apply nearly as well to Cakewalk's MIDI editing features -- despite Cakewalk's decade of experience in developing MIDI sequencing software.

Cakewalk is as easy to use as a typical word processor, as long as you work only with notes. (Well, actually there is one problem with notes -- the unison problem.) When you edit files containing "controller" data -- and other data, for example, key, meter and tempo changes -- you will sometimes get unexpected, unwanted and confusing results.

If you want a good introduction to MIDI editing under Cakewalk, read the manual, or go to Betty Kainz's tutorial on the Web. If editing doesn't work as you expected, and you can't figure out how it does work, then read the articles on this site.

You can save a tremendous amount of time and frustration when using Cakewalk if you know about the editing quirks -- which are not always described in detail, or at all, in the Cakewalk documentation (clearly written as that documentation is ...) Similar problems are endemic to commercial sequencer packages, not just to Cakewalk. A larger goal of this series of articles is to point to these problems and their solutions.

My experiences...

I'll describe my own experience that led me to write these articles.

I had been a musician and computer user for many years when, a couple of years ago, I bought a Pentium computer and installed Cakewalk music sequencing software. I then began to use the computer to compose music.

In order to learn to use the software, and because I had not yet made room in my office for a keyboard, I sketched all of the music using the mouse in Cakewalk's Staff View and Piano Roll View. I shaped the performances using Cakewalk's Piano Roll, Controllers and Tempo views. I was, by design and necessity, what Betty Kainz fondly calls a "mouser."

My hope was to apply the compositional approach of sketching and refining, listening and editing, exploring and building - the approach that all composers use. But I wanted to apply this approach to the actual creation of music, not only to the creation of notation.

Primitive editing tools

I began using a sequencer in the hope that it would allow me to create and edit the musical performance onscreen using the sequencer's editing tools, the same way I created and edited my site logo of a bicycle

using Canvas for Windows, or the formatting1 of this text using Microsoft FrontPage. I wanted to apply the compositional approach directly to structural elements of music - pitch, timing, dynamics, tone color -- not only notation, and not only elements which notation can represent. I wanted to check out what I was doing as I did it, by playing it back, and then edit again.

I found myself in some ways very gratified in the ability to do this, but in other ways, I was left shaking my head and wondering. There is much that is entirely, obviously possible and which cries out to be done, but which Cakewalk, and the other sequencers I have tried, simply do not do.

The central reason for this, apparently, is that the present generation of sequencing software is very much written by, and for, people who create music by performing it rather than by using the tools which the software offers. To a large degree, that approach informs all of the sequencing software packages which I have examined - and what a shame, because the ability to edit and manipulate the musical data fluently would lead to entirely new artistic possibilities.

The tools which music software makes available are far more primitive than today's graphics and text editing tools. There are problems with music software that nobody would put up with in word processing or image editing software. This is true of other music software packages, not just Cakewalk. I use Cakewalk as my main example, since it is the software package with which I am most familiar.

Moviemaking as an analogy for a different way of creating music

What music sequencing could do for music can be explained by an analogy with scriptwriting, production of a play on stage, and moviemaking, as follows:

The creation of notation is to the creation of music only as the writing of a script is to the performance of a play.

Traditionally, notation has been the medium for musical exploration. Notation has made musical exploration possible, by preserving musical ideas so they can be reviewed, edited and refined. But notation preserves only a script of a piece of music. Notation does not make music, any more than a script acts out a play. The music itself must be rebuilt anew for every performance, even for the composer's own explorations. Much of what constitutes the musical performance is passed down through tradition and/or depends on the performer's skill and discretion.

Using sequencing software is like creating a movie more than it is like performing a play on the stage -- but …

Two ways to make movies are by pointing a camera at actors, or by animation and special effects. When making a movie using actors, you have more freedom in editing and staging than when producing a play in the theater, but the result consists of images of the actors. Animation and special effects are a more painstaking way to make a movie, but in return for the extra work, they liberate the medium, making it possible to create entirely new, imaginary worlds on screen.

Performing musicians are like actors. To play a piece of music, musicians rehearse it; then they must perform it in real time, limited by what they and their instruments can physically achieve. In a recording, you can edit together the best parts of different performances, but you can't get beyond the limitations of what the musicians can actually perform.

Many musicians would like to write for instruments they don't play well, and want to create effects that are unplayable in real time on any instrument. I certainly would like to do this. Yet today's sequencers are overwhelmingly biased toward the recording and playback of performed music. To get back to our movie analogy, it's as if we had all the equipment we need to make movies with actors -- cameras, lighting equipment, editing tables -- but we hadn't developed the special-purpose stop-motion cameras, art supplies and computer equipment that animators and special effects artists use.

Today's filmmakers have new and better tools every year, thanks to computer technology. The music software industry has provided musicians with tools that hardly begin to compare.

The problems with sequencing tools fall into three major categories:

1) Problems with the data structure of the MIDI protocol itself which limit its editing flexibility;

2) Problems which result from typical design concepts for sequencers;

3) Problems with sequencers which result from a shallow and faulty application of musical theory.

These problems, and their solutions, are described in articles currently posted or to be posted on this site.

I'll show you workarounds for the quirks of editing in Cakewalk, the sequencer package I know best. While I'm at it, I'll offer you some of my vision of what I would really like to see in a sequencer. I hope that you find this information useful.


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Contents 1997 John S. Allen, except quote from Cakewalk manual

Last revised 9 February 2002