When MIDI Orchestration Sounds Horrible

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:

MIDI orchestration can sound wonderful if it’s done properly. But if your orchestrations sound lousy, there are usually good reasons that are easily solved by understanding real orchestras.

If you are emulating real orchestral instruments with MIDI, the whole thing can sound really bad really quickly if you have the instruments playing in a way that’s not they way they normally do. For example, pizzicato (plucking the strings) on a violin can add a sophisticated, percussive effect to your music. But it will sound phony and weird if the pizzicato is too quick. Why? Because the human hand can only pluck a string at a certain maximum tempo; any faster and it will sound unreal, even to those unfamiliar with the technique.

Another problem that is all-too frequent is if the orchestra is improperly panned. Enter “symphony orchestra” into Google Images to find pictures of real symphony orchestras, and you’ll see that there is a somewhat standard way of setting the ensemble up. Try to copy that into your pan settings.

Writing for a real orchestra is not easy – it’s the sort of thing that people study and get degrees for! So if you really want to be good at it, get a good book. You might want to check out texts by Samuel Adler and/or Kent Kennan: they’ve written two of my favourites. Also, Canadian composer Alan Belkin has written a text that he provides for free online at his website. The book is called “Artistic Orchestration,” and the principles you’ll learn regarding writing for a “real” orchestra will be the same principles when writing for MIDI orchestra.

In Belkin’s text, he talks about the “graying” of sound, by which he means doubling or tripling a melody on different instruments. So instead of adding lots of flutes, clarinets, trumpets, etc., to your orchestral melodies as a way of increasing volume, try choosing one instrument and increasing the velocity or track volume. By doing so, you preserve the unique sound of the instrument you’re using.

Of course, you’ll want to find a good book on MIDI orchestration to help you with the technical aspects of MIDI orchestration (“The Guide to MIDI Orchestration” by Paul Gilreath is highly regarded), but my most important piece of advice to you is: MIDI orchestras need to be treated like real ones if you want them to sound real.

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Posted in MIDI.


  1. Hi Barry – The main purpose of “The Guide to MIDI Orchestration” is to make MIDI sound real. In other words, if your main problem with your MIDI is that it sounds too electronic or fake, this is the book for you. It helps composers make their MIDI sound like a real orchestra. Here’s the Table of Contents:

    Background of Orchestration
    Consistency in Your Orchestrations
    Listening to an Orchestra
    Instrument Ranges and Timbre Characteristics
    The Illusive Sound: The String Orchestra
    Other Sections of the Orchestra
    Details for Excellence
    What’s in Your Rack?
    General MIDI
    Library Manufacturers

    If you’re looking to make your MIDI sound real, but at the same time a bit on the cutting edge of new compositional techniques, I’d recommend getting a handle on use of MIDI to make realistic sounds, and I believe “The Guide to MIDI Orchestration” does that.

    • So what you’re saying is that even though I construct hip hop beats which are in no way full blown orchestras this book based on orchestra construction using midi is still helpful? Could you recommend something more closely related to hip hop beat construction or is this a be all?

  2. I make hip hop beats would I benefit from: The Guide To MIDI Orchestration? I have been trying to find books on instrumentation but I can’t find any. I want to understand how to use different instruments for different purposes and how to use traditional sounds and still make them sound fresh and current.

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