Musical Midi Accompaniment: Understanding the Format

Saxophone is a solo instrument. Unless you are into the sounds of Saxophone multiphonics, harmony requires playing with some other instrument. For Jazz, this tends to be a rhythms section of Piano, Bass, and Drums. As a kid, my practicing (without a live Rhythm section) required playing along with pre-recordings of tunes. I had my share of Jamie Aebersold records.

Nowadays, the tool of choice for most Jazz muscians, myself included is iReal Pro. A lovely little app for the phone. All of the Real Book tunes have their chord progressions been posted and generated. The format is simple enough.

But it is a proprietary app. While I continue to support and use it, I am also looking for alternatives that let me get more involved. One such tool is Musical MIDI Accompaniment. I’m just getting started with it, and I want to keep my notes here.

First is just getting it to play. Whether you get the tarball or checkout from Git, there is a trick that you need to do in order to even play examples: regenerate the libraries.

./ -G

That allows me to generate a midi file from a file in the MMA Domain Specific Language (DSL) which is also called MMA. I downloaded the backing track for I’ve Got You Under My Skin and, once I regenerated the libraries with the above command, was able to run :

./ ~/Downloads/
Creating new midi file (120 bars, 4.57 min / 4:34 m:s): '/home/ayoung/Downloads/ive-got-you-under-my-skin.mid'

Which I can then play with timidity.

The file format is not quite as simplistic as iReal Pro, but does not look so complex that I won’t be able to learn it.

There are examples of things that look like real programming. Begin and End Blocks.

Line Numbers. This is going to give my flashbacks to coding in Basic on my C64…not such an unpleasant set of memories. And musical ones at that.

Ok, lets take this apart. Here is the first few lines:

// I've Got You Under My Skin
Tempo 105
Groove Metronome2-4
	z * 2

Comments are doubles slashes. Title is just for documentation.

Tempo is in BPM.

Groove Metronome2-4 Says to use a Groove, the MMA “Grooves, in some ways, are MMA ‘s answer to macros … but they are cooler, easier to use, and have a more musical name. ” Says the manual. So, somewhere we have inherited a Groove called Metronome…something. Is the 2-4 part of the name? It looks it. Found this in the library

lib/stdlib/ Metronome2-4 A very useful introduction. On bar one we have hits on beats 1 and 3; on bar two hits on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Which is based on a leader counting off the time in the song. If you play the midi file, you can hear the cowbell-effect used to count off

z * 2 is the way of saying that this extends for 2 measures.

The special sequences, “-” or “z”, are also the equivalent of a rest or “tacet” sequence. For example, in defining a 4 bar sequence with a bass pattern on the first 3 bars and a walking bass on bar 4 you might do something like:

If you already have a sequence defined5.2 you can repeat or copy the existing pattern by using a single “*” as the pattern name. This is useful when you are modifying an existing sequence.

The next block is the definition of a section he calls Solo. This is a Track.

Begin Solo
	Voice Piano2
	Octave 4
	Harmony 3above
	Articulate 90
	Accent 1 20
 	Volume f

I think that the expectation is that you get the majority of the defaults from the Groove, and customize the Solo track.

As a general rule, MELODY tracks have been designed as a “voice” to accompany a predefined form defined in a GROOVE—it is a good idea to define MELODY parameters as part of a GROOVE. SOLO tracks are thought to be specific to a certain song file, with their parameters defined in the song file.

So if it were a Melody track definition is would be ignored, and the track from the Rhumba base would be used instead.

The next section defines what is done overall.

Keysig 3b
Groove Rhumba
Alltracks SeqRnd Off
Bass-Sus Sequence -		// disable the strings
Cresc pp mf 4

Keysig directive can be found here. This will generate a MIDI KeySignature event. 3b means 3 flats in the midi spec. Major is assumed if not specified. Thus this is the key of E Flat.

The Groove Rhumba directive is going to drive most of the song. The definitions for this Groove can be found under the standard library I might tear apart a file like this one in a future post.

The next two lines specify how the Groove is to be played. SeqRnd inserts randomness into the sequencing, to make it more like a live performance. This directive shuts down the randomness.

Bass-Sus Sequence – seems to be defining a new, blank sequence. The comment implies that it is shutting off the strings. I have to admit, I don’t quite understand this. I’ve generated the file with this directive commented out and detect no differences. Since Bass-Sus is defined in the Bossa Nova Groove under the standard library, I’m tempted to think this is an copy-pasta error. Note that it defines “Voice Strings” and I think that is what he was trying to disable. I suspect a git history will show the Bass-Sus getting pulled out of the Rhumba file.

Cresc pp mf 4 Grow in volume from piano (soft) to mezzo-forte (Medium Loud) over 4 bars. Since no track is specified, it is for the master volume.

// 4 bar intro
1 	Eb		{4.g;8f;2e;}
2 	Ab      {4.a;8g;2f;}
3 	Gm7     {1g;}
4 	Bb7     {2b;}
Delete Solo

Now we start seeing the measures. The numbers are optional, and just for human readers to keep track.
Measure 1 is an E flat chord. The braces delineate a Riff line. The 4 means a Quarter note. The period after it Makes it Dotted, half again as long, or the equivalent of 3 tied eighth notes. The Note played is a g. This is adjusted for the octave appropriate to the voice. This is followed by an eighth note f, an a half note e. This adds up to a full measure; 3/8 + 1/8 + 4/8.

After the four bar intro, the solo part is deleted, and the normal Rhumba patterns take effect.

The next line is a Repeat directive, which is paired with the repeatending directive on line 129 and repeatend directives on line 135. This says that measures 5-60 should be repeated once, first and second ending style.

The Groove changes many times during the song, and I think this leads to the one bug I noticed: the time keeps changing, speeding up and slowing down. I think these match up with the Groove changes, but I am not yet certain.

It should be fairly easy to translate one of my songs into this format.

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