Making a MIDI Orchestra Sound Real

Typical Orchestra LayoutMIDI stands for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface.” Many of you use MIDI to create instrumentations for your songs, and it’s a fantastic way to have synthesized versions of instruments literally at your fingertips. In short, MIDI is a way of controlling electronic instruments (usually synthesizers), and allowing those instruments to produce many different kinds of musical timbres. Used well, MIDI can make it sound as if you hired a full symphonic orchestra for your recording. Used poorly, MIDI can make your song sound cheap and amateur!

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Whether you use MIDI simply to add a backing guitar, bass and drums, or use it to create a full orchestra, there are some basic problems that can arise. Here are some common problems and some solutions to help you solve them:

PROBLEM 1: In the MIDI orchestration, the instrument is being asked to play in a way that can’t be achieved by a real instrument.

THE SOLUTION: listen to a recording of the real instrument, or talk to a player of the real one. For example, if you are having your MIDI violin play pizzicato (i.e., plucking the string), remember that there is a physical limitation to how fast a violinist can repeat that action of plucking a string. This varies from player to player, but try not to exceed four notes per second.Going faster than this starts to make your MIDI violin sound fake.

PROBLEM 2: If the sound samples being used have not been properly panned, the orchestra can sound haphazard and disorganized.

THE SOLUTION: Look at pictures of real orchestras and (if necessary) pan your MIDI instruments so that it imitates their position on a real stage.

PROBLEM 3: You can just tell that the instrument is MIDI, and it sounds “electronic” more than real.

THE SOLUTION: If all the notes are coming out at the same volume, this will tend to make the instrument sound phony. There are many possible solutions, but try this as a general approach:

  1. solo one of the tracks, and set a basic volume for that track (MIDI controller 7).
  2. Then develop a general shape for the line by varying the velocity for each note, so that it sounds as natural as possible.
  3. Then go to your Expression Controller (usually controller 11) and create a natural swell and diminishing for certain notes. (Good use of controller 11 is a major secret for good MIDI orchestration.) This will make your music “breathe,” and it will sound more as if a real person is playing. Keep in mind that a lot of the latest orchestral samples make use of the mod wheel to create some of the realism we are talking about here.

PROBLEM 4: The orchestration sounds uninteresting.

THE SOLUTION: Too often, MIDI orchestrators will double and triple instruments in a bid to create more volume. But the problem is that doubling and tripling the instruments on a part robs the various instruments of their own unique sound. If you want something to sound louder, increase the velocity and/or the track volume before simply doubling and tripling. For example, if you create a melody, and then always have it played by flutes, oboes, clarinets, and violins, the resulting sound is just thick, and you’ve robbed those instruments of the beautiful qualities they have individually. There are times when you will want the power of doubling and tripling, but use it sparingly.

That should get you started. There is so much that could be said about MIDI orchestration, and it’s impossible to deal with it all here. But if you want some good preliminary advice, here it is: Get familiar with a REAL orchestra before you start working with a MIDI one!
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-Gary Ewer is the author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” set of songwriting texts. Download all 6 of them at a 50% saving.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Bundle

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19 Comments

  1. There are different worlds of music.

    Two of them are incidental music and serious music.
    Incidental music is a casual background feature like the soundtrack of a video. The primary interest is in the visual image. The music sound supports the visual impact. This world is a commercial venue where the producer’s interest is money. Movies produce tens of millions of dollars.

    Then there is serious music. Here the interest is the music itself. And the interest is not commercial. There is no big money in a Beethoven concert. The venue is spiritual. If you use Beethoven’s music for a movie sound track, the focus of the audience may switch away from the visual to the aural.

    There is big money in a rock concert. Music is presented at the rock concert but it is incidental. It will fade away to make place for the music of the next generation. The focus is on the performers and not their music. Anyone still listening to Fats Waller?

    Serious music transcends generations. Why does it last? Because its spiritual content speaks to every generation. Because its quality is real and pure. It is not phony and corrupt. Beethoven said he speaks directly to God. The television evangelist says the same thing. Who are you going to believe. I believe Beethoven.

    I can give you a good example. Do you know the movie “Copying Beethoven”? There is a lot of music in the sound track. The visual images are splendid. The acting is good as we have come to expect in the cinema. Do the producers want a big profit? I assume so. The venue is commercial. I applaud the producers. But they made a mistake.

    Because the sound track overpowers all the images and the acting and the story line. The focus in the audience shifts to the music. It is wonderful. It is uplifting because of its spiritual content. It looks like the truth. Compared to the rest. Compared to the visual scenes which are hollow, to the actors who are only pretending, to the story line which is suspect. What is this sound track music? Beethoven.

    • Thanks for writing, Ivan. I can’t say that I am following your point. Are you making a comment on my suggestions for making a MIDI orchestra sound real?

      Regarding the comparison of “incidental” and “serious” music, I would only take issue with your terminology. It may be true that film producers have an interest in money, but I would also describe them as being very serious. The good film producers want to make money, but they also want to make something good. If there is a reason that Classical music isn’t frequently used in movies, it’s only that the music needs to be in close synchronization with with the visual scene, and that’s not easy to do with a piece of music that exists already.

      There are many movies that do use classical music, and use it quite effectively. “The King’s Speech”, for example, uses Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with very little editing except for repeating sections, and it works quite well without distracting from the visual element.

      I’d recommend finding a different descriptor than “serious.”

      Thanks again for writing.

      -Gary

      • Thank you Gary for your serious comment.
        I am sorry if my comment is misplaced. I am not actually responding to your comments on how to make a midi orchestra sound real. We can discuss this more later.

        I am not using “serious” in the general sense. I think of this word when applied to music to be a way of distinguishing what we use to call “classical” music from the rest. Music that has lasted through the ages. By “ages” I mean several generations. Beethoven was not focused on making money. He was focused on making something good. It seems that the two venues are incompatible. He was serious in this sense. I find it hard to believe Shakespeare was focused on making money off his plays although he did become a wealthy man. Movie producers surely compromise on quality when it comes to budget decisions. Beethoven would not compromise. Indeed he was highly critical of his wealthy patrons. Some people think they are exemplary simply because they are rich. Beethoven knew he could produce something good while the others could only sit and watch.

        Gary, if you will, comment on how you would distinguish between the music of Beethoven and modern popular music so I can see your terminology.

        As to classical music for a soundtrack I would like to disagree. When I hear classical music, take Beethovens 7th for example (https://www.box.com/s/gpawa6heht1e1xx9ddii), my attention is immediately drawn to the spirit of the sound and away from the rest. The rest has become incidental. I am thereby distracted away from the producers story line as told in his visual images. The music is exemplary and over-powers the rest into the mundane. So let us happily disagree on this point.

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  3. Hi guys,
    I’m going out on a limb here. I am a composer/songwriter. I write my sheet music in Finale PrintMusic. I then use the sheet music to create midi files. Is there a way to produce more realistic sounds from these files than what I am getting from my CASIO Keyboard. I can’t afford to spend a fortune, but I do want an upgrade. If you have an information and can help me, you can reach me via jasonaspraggins@gmail.com.
    My youtube channel is here: http://www.youtube.com/user/SpragginsMusic?feature=mhee

    Please help! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Vienna Instruments And MIDI Orchestration | Music For TV

  5. Great post. I also love your positivity in responding to the comments.

    Another solution to fake sounding strings is: ‘dont fake the funk.’ When I hear ‘strings’ in a rock or pop ballad that sound like they are from a Casio keyboard I cringe. My philosophy is that if you can’t sound pretty much like the real thing, then don’t try. So avoiding poor midi orchestration can be as simple as avoiding using midi orchestration in the first place. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up… you can be up front about it by creatively using the tools you have to develop a new way of playing. Synth strings or synth brass from the 80s are one example– they clearly didnt sound like strings and they weren’t played like strings–they were a new way of playing a new kind of instrument.

    Obviously this won’t work for many styles of music; but for the styles of music that call for an authentic sounding orchestra, then the only solution is a really authentic sounding orchestra (or something really darn close.)

  6. Hi
    I need to play a guitar concerto, and would like somebody to produce a midi orchestration of it (music minus one) type of approach, with the purpose of practicing with it.
    Do you guys know anybody that is willing to do this for money?
    If you do, can you please tell him (her) to contact me
    renejperez@yahoo.com
    thanks
    Renee

  7. can you recommend an effects processor or keyboard for a home studio that has great orchestral sounds at a reasonable price ?

    • Well, that really depends on a lot of things. But you aren’t looking for an ‘effects processor’ b/c that will just process the affects (eg add reverb or distortion).

      What is ‘best value’ really depends on your price range and what you are looking for. If you really want a realistic orchestra, you will have to pay for it. My advice is that if you already have a midi keyboard to purchase an entry level orchestra VSTi, like Garritan personal orchestra. http://www.amazon.com/Garritan-Personal-Orchestra/dp/B0002VC9JC (Even that, though, is about $170). A comparable sounding keyboard would cost a TON more and give you less control over the sound.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Miguel. Just to mention another thing about tuning: My take on tuning with “real” instruments is that there are two issues to consider: The first is, as you say, that no two players will play perfectly in tune, and this isn’t so much a failing of playing abilities as much as it is an interpretation of the tonality. For example, some instrumentalists will simply push a leading tone higher than others, and it becomes an interpretive issue.

    But the second issue which needs to be considered is that no two players *articulate* (begin their note) in precisely the same way, or with the same actual sound. Ask a violinist to play 8 short notes, and each of those notes will sound different.

    And tied with this issue is the whole area of overtones. Two flutists can play with precisely the same tuning, but the overtones produced by their flute, and their own personal way of playing, will be different. And once you add differing vibratos into the mix, you’ve got many things that are difficult (but not impossible!) issues for MIDI to address.

    So more than simply saying that no two players play perfectly in tune, to me the more important observation is that no two players will have a perfectly matched set of overtones, articulation or vibrato.

    Thanks again for your great observations!

    • Yes, that’s what I intend to say, but my technical english is not very good, so I end up using words that have other meanings in english. When I say “out of tune” I don’t mean they “play bad”, it’s simply to point that some instruments (wind, brass and bowed strings) have a natural variation in pitch, which results in their sonic quality. Perhaps I used strong words, but my point was that no passage is played twice the same so that has to be inserted on the MIDI orchestration.

      Also I forgot to mention another tipo, mainly for harmonic instruments like guitars, pianos, harpsichords, harps, organs, etc. When using block chords it sounds more natural if we -slightly- displace the notes, because nobody hits all the keys at exacly the same time. However, if it’s a strummed guitar with a pick, this displacement should follow the movement of the pick, up or down.

      I’d really appreciate all your experience and tips, or other resources on the subject

  9. Hi

    I’m very interested in MIDI orchestration, mainly because I teach in a music conservatory and therefore I make use of a lot of orchestral music in order to teach the students in other areas. I always appreciate MIDI orchestration tips (or good books about it), so here’s my contribution.
    1 – As Ria pointed out, quantization is forbidden! (unless you’re working with an exported MIDI track, which is already quantized). In fact, I don’t even quantize pop-rock music.
    2 – As Gary mentioned, we have to deeply understand how an orchestra works, and this way we have to understand two things:

    a) Nobody on an orchestra plays at the same time! So one of the tricks is to slightly “un-sinchronize” the instruments. For example, if you have 3 trombones, you may slightly delay one of them and slightly advance the other, whlie the 3rd stays in 0 position. Most DAW’s have the option to do this quickly. But remember: no matter how much you delay/advance an instrument, at the end the result has to be “zero”. For example, you delay the violins -1, flutes -2, trumpets -3 and advance the trombones +2, the oboe +2 and the cello +2 – the result is 0. And keep some tracks without any temporal displacement. This way our brain will center the whole thing.

    b) Nobody plays in tune. The problem with MIDI is that it is too perfect, so we have to introduce some “imperfections” in order to humanize it.
    Try to slightly bring some instruments out of tune (slightly. no more than about 10 cents) with the same logic of the a) example. bring all you want out of tune but the result at the end has to be zero!
    You can also double the same instrument and un-tune it (for example – violins1 a +3 cent; violins1 b -3 cent). This is particularly important in strings, because the sound of the string orchestra is really many people playing slightly out of tune

    These two trick have helped me improve a lot the sound of MIDI orchestrations. But of course it won’t, by itself, resolve the problem. We should almost go to every note to have a good orchestration.
    Follow Gary’s advice on breathe and volume shape, add more attack to the notes that should be attacked (this is important on brass and woodwind) – DON’T CONFUSE VELOCITY WITH VOLUME.
    Try doubling to different samples of strings, for example, a violin ensemble + a muted violin ensemble. This kind of doubling will help fill in some timbral gaps that samples sometimes have.

    Also, get a good library. Actually, you can by a library from Sonart Audio for something like 80 dollars for a 300GB library – it’s kind of umbeatable (I have no connection with the company).

    At the end spend some time on the reverb thing (by the way, turn off the reverbs on all instrument channels. Have only one reverb at in master track).

    I appreciate any comments and other tips (or reccomended books)

    • Hi. Where do you teach? I love classic music although i’ve been a rock player for 3 years. Orchestration is such a beautiful and epic new world for me to discover. I would love to go to a conservatory. Only if i hadn’t so much bills to pay…

      Nonetheless i have a question.
      When you talk about velocity you mean shorter notes or faster tempo?

      Great post btw.

  10. Hi Ria – I tried going to your site, but the MP3s wouldn’t load for me. I’ll try again tomorrow. I’m interested in the MIDI orchestrations you’ve done.

    All the best,
    Gary

    • he i went to your web site i saw your mp3 i think your fine i tried to copy this song too at less the first part
      i think you need to more centre your string you puted the violin1 and viola too in extreeam also you need som EQ i m still struglling with this too i use logic samples

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