Using MIDI in Worship: Ins and Outs - Part II by Lavon Oke

In Part I of this article [CS&S Issue No. 3], we looked at the definition of MIDI and the initial idea of what it is. Although it started with a fairly straightforward concept, the notion that an interface would exist between instruments opened the door for all kinds of control options. Not only can one keyboard "control" another, but the idea of synchronization also comes into play.

With the right equipment, a single person can control a musical performance, run the lights, the sound effects, and record, all at the same time. I would submit that few worship services are this technically oriented (probably a good thing), and yet the possibilities remain. With a little more understanding of what MIDI is and does, the decisions regarding how it may be used to enhance worship become more clear.

Remember, MIDI is Data - not Analog Sound

Again, MIDI involves a series of "events" that is generated by a physical action (playing a keyboard), translated into messages, transmitted along interface cables, and interpreted by a receiving unit(s). The message from one keyboard basically says to the other "play the note G3 (third octave), this loud." The receiving keyboard will obey immediately and play the note G, at the requested loudness. The important thing to remember is that the receiving keyboard will play the sound it is capable of - not the sound that the transmitting keyboard can play. (MIDI is only messages - there is no sound to it per se).

Worship has evolved (often, but not necessarily for the better) from the simple standards of the piano and organ. Some churches choose just an acoustic guitar, while others add everything from keyboards and drums to a complete orchestra. Most often, MIDI (and electronic instruments) will allow a service to include more of the sounds that may be desired when resources are simply not available. (Not every church has a live string ensemble, but the string sound is frequently desirable for certain moments in worship.)

Layers of Musical Instrumentation

So, you appropriately ask, "What can it do for me?" With the ability to play multiple instruments at once, MIDI will allow for some wonderful layers of sounds. If you’d like to hear some strings behind your piano arrangement, just have one keyboard playing a piano sound and have the second playing a violin or string ensemble sound. As you play the keys of one, both will sound together (note: even the other performance information will be sent - such as the sustain pedal action.) Perhaps you’d like some brass ensemble along with a stately hymn. Some will choose the strings layered with the sound of a plucked harp. The possibilities are amazing - and virtually endless.

For those wishing to go deeper, MIDI can offer even more if personnel are limited. Let me continue by describing the equipment more in detail and suggesting a few functional uses!

Keyboards

and MIDI Workstations

These are not unfamiliar, but can include many powerful options. Besides a vast array of constantly improving sounds, the workstation also includes a sequencer. A sequencer is basically a multi-track recorder that stores MIDI data. You can record one track at a time, and continue to listen to your saved tracks as you add more. You can even add percussion sounds which are as heavy or light as you want. If used in a worship service, the sequencer could allow the singing to be accompanied by a huge "background tape-like" soundtrack, or the simplest melody line, depending on the mood needs of your service.

The idea of using a sequencer in a worship setting introduces considerations that some might think of as drawbacks. First, all the preparation must be done ahead of time. These fancy little orchestrations don’t just appear - they must be programmed into the sequencer. There are some pre-made MIDI files available, but they are perhaps not yet as abundant for worship services as many might wish. Plus, they may take some work to shape into your specific situation.

[Ed. Note: Worship Solutions, www.worshipsolutions.com, (800)249-MIDI has a variety of MIDI tracks available for a large number of hymns. Also, Midisoft’s Worship Studio™ software not only incorporates MIDI tracks for over 1,000 hymns, but includes a music notation package for charts and scores: www.midisoft.com, (800) PRO-MIDI. See their ad in this issue.]

Second, the sequencer would set the tempo. Some sequencers/ workstations have a value control that would allow tempo changes in "real time," or live performance. However, it would be rather difficult for a keyboardist to play along with a recording and also follow the song leader through changing tempos. If you use this feature, it is best to give the song leader a good loudspeaker monitor system, and have them follow the steady tempo from that recorded sound source. (This would essentially be like having the congregation sing along with a tape or CD.)

Drum Machines

It’s as though even percussionists have been cloned. These digital boxes are so very inexpensive now and can produce some really nice sounds. Again, you are in complete control and don’t need to use even one of the preprogrammed patterns. You can customize as little or as much as you want, or even just use the pads on the front and "play live" with the congregational singing. If you do program, you’ll need to consider the two things mentioned about sequencers above.

Computers

Yes computers! This opens the flood gates for MIDI and electronic music. Not only are separate computers able to do the most powerful sequencing, but they can even record voices and other "live" or acoustic sounds on their hard drive. We also now have "software synthesis" where a computer can act like a synthesizer. There are programs like "Band-In-A-Box®" that allow you to build sequences with previously designed "templates." These have a good deal of the work already done, and your task is to shape a song mix using musical building blocks. Assembling the pieces this way may not give you all the finesse of studio players, but it can quickly provide a viable musical structure.

I must admit that I have yet to see a computer in a worship service. Most of the technology I observe is used in real time with real people pressing buttons or keys or something along with the music. However, there might be several adapted applications where MIDI equipment could help a worship situation. The computer might be used to build a sequence and then record the sequence on to the workstation sequencer. Then just take the keyboard back into the worship service. For all these choices, I’d like to offer some practical suggestions before the big leap.

Suggestions for Getting Started

1. Two options here: hire a skilled person or begin with the personnel you already have. Some churches hire local college music majors to be section leaders in their choirs. Perhaps you have some room in a budget to hire a music technician from the area. If so, that is a great way to jump start. If that isn’t the case, you will need to begin with the folks that are committed and are willing to learn something new. Most often the keyboard player or computer person (or both) is the best bet.

2. Try to be as specific as possible when framing what you want. When looking for advice or information, you will get great answers if you can clearly say, "This is what we want!" Two good questions that will need to be answered are: "What do we want to hear in our service?" and "What do we want to see on stage?" These may periodically conflict. I know of churches that have had the desire to add a keyboard, but could only do this if it was housed in a nice "organ-looking" case. The chances of finding a church in which every member has exactly the same visual and audio preferences are slim. However, these two questions will provide important guidance.

3. Add a little at a time. Let your changes and attempts be gradual. It’s essential to seek counsel from users of such tools, but be careful not to be put off by their versions of technology "horror stories." Things do happen. If you bite off a little at a time, you will probably make mistakes, but the balance of your regular or traditional music can let you recover. If you overhaul an entire service with the new technology and a gremlin attacks your system somewhere.... Well, you get the idea!

Take a measure of courage. It took both faith and courage for Peter to walk even a short distance on water. In music ministry, we are not strangers to getting out of the boat!

Lavon Oke is Orchestra Director and electronic music consultant at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Indiana. He has also served as sound person and music leader in his church. He welcomes e-mail questions at: lavonoke@aol.com.