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SysEx and MIDI Automation: Don’t Forget That Preset

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The focus of this post is on capturing SysEx information from external MIDI devices in order to have a record of your presets right in your session or automate the settings throughout the track.

It happens to producers time and time again: you’ve created an awesome synth sound or guitar tone, you’ve recorded the midi part, but when you load up the session to work on it some more your sounds are completely different! Oh no! You didn’t save the preset…

Don’t let this happen to you! There are a ton of cool things you can do with a special feature of MIDI called SysEx. Essentially, SysEx is a way for a MIDI device’s system settings to be transfered over MIDI. This means that you can save the settings to the patches on a synth, guitar tones on a MIDI capable modeler, or automation/device states on a capable digital mixer.

Things to Check First

Check that the device you want to capture can…

  1. Do a SysEx ‘dump’
  2. Transmit SysEx over MIDI

… and that your sequencer can…

  1. Capture SysEx data
  2. Transmit SysEx data

The good news is, most modern MIDI devices can.

Get Your Sequencer Ready

Dig through your sequencer’s preferences (or the manual if you’re a manual type) and look for something to the effect of ‘MIDI filters’ (like in Cubase.) If you find an option for filtering SysEx, make sure it’s unchecked (otherwise the sequencer will purposely ignore any SysEx data). Or, it could have the opposite kind of setting (like in Sonar) such as SysEx Receive, in which case you’d want it checked.

Create a new MIDI track and name it something that makes sense such as “PODxt SysEx” or “Motif SysEx”. Solo it and record-enable it.

To Save Your Preset

Find somewhere in your MIDI device an option for a MIDI dump (sometimes buried deep inside the menus – usually in a ‘System’ menu or the like.) Hit record on your sequencer and then hit the dump option on your device. You should see a gaggle of information recorded on your midi track. Once the activity has stopped, stop recording. Next time you play back that track (assuming it’s routed right), you’ll send the patch settings to the device. Keep in mind that it’s not great to send SysEx information for a particular device to a different device. You never know what might happen.

If you’d like your presets to be sent to your MIDI gear when you start the track, keep the SysEx data at the beginning before the music starts. I prefer to have my SysEx at the very end of the session, well away from normal sequenced data. It seems safer to me.

To Save Automation

There’s some really cool stuff you can do to automate your devices with MIDI. Rather than do a dump as in the previous example, solo and record-enable your track. As the track runs, change some settings on your MIDI device. You should see the changes recorded to the MIDI track on your sequencer. One of my favorite things to do is to record automation for my PODxt before I actually record the guitar part – I can sweep up a reverb from dry to wet, increase the gain, activate a stomp box, or do whatever I want – all automatically. That way I can focus on playing the guitar part and the sequencer will do all the changes for me! Neat, huh?

You can accomplish similar things by controlling your MIDI capable external mixing board (although keep in mind that there are only 127 midi volume settings… so fades aren’t nearly as smooth as they would be with an analog board).

MIDI is powerful and the more you think outside the box, the more powerful it gets.