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Orchestration, whether for MIDI instruments or the real thing, can be a bit like walking a tightrope. Done well, MIDI can sound real enough to fool most listeners, and you’ve got what sounds like a full orchestra at your disposal. Done badly, MIDI can take your musical ideas and make them sound artificial and corny. And the scary part is that there isn’t a big divide between the two possibilities. The trick is to always write for MIDI as if you’re writing for real instruments.
Orchestration is an entire field of study in itself, quite apart from songwriting. If you want to add MIDI instrumentation to your song, and want those instruments to sound real, you’ve got to always consider what the real instrument actually sounds like. In short, a MIDI orchestra needs to be treated like a real one if you want it to sound real.
So buy orchestral recordings, played by real orchestras, and listen. Get familiar with the sound of an orchestra. You can’t write successfully for an oboe if you don’t know what the instrument sounds like played by a professional.
The most common problem I hear in bad MIDI orchestration comes from getting MIDI instruments to play in a way that isn’t possible with the real instrument.
For example, a pizzicato violin sound (i.e., the plucking of the strings) can add a wonderful sense of transparency and lightness to an orchestration. But you must consider that there is a physical limit to how quickly a string can be plucked. So having more than 4 or 5 plucks per second starts to sound artificial, because no human can easily do it.
Another common problem is writing too high or too low for an instrument. A basic orchestration manual should give you the range of each instrument. Stay within that range.
Some other bits of orchestration advice:
- Strings blend nicely together, so use strings in unison and octaves. But with wind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, etc.), too much doubling and octave writing can result in a “grey-ness”, a boring mix of sound. Use doubling, etc., when writing for loud sections, but try as much as possible to feature wind instruments in solo situations. They add beauty and clarity to orchestration.
- Resist having all instruments sounding at the same volume. In reality, some instruments are louder than others, and so treat MIDI instruments with the same care you would real instruments. Varying volume within a musical phrase allows the music to “breathe.”
- Pan your instruments carefully. Take a look at a picture of a real orchestra, and try to pan the instruments to simulate that positioning.
- Go to your local university and play your MIDI orchestration for someone who teaches orchestration, or an advanced student who is studying orchestration. Solo specific tracks for players of the chosen instrument, and ask for their comments. Does it sound like a real instrument to them? Why or why not?
- Buy a text that teaches how to orchestrate for real instruments. My favourite authors on the topic are Samuel Adler and Kent Kennan. If you have some basic music theory, you should be able to get through those books.
Including MIDI orchestras with your music can add a touch of class and personality to your songs that can allow them to rise above other songs in your chosen genre.
But keep in mind that even good MIDI orchestration will sound bad if the song itself has problems. Make sure your song’s form is solid. Look closely at melodic construction, lyrics, chords, etc. Once that’s all working, MIDI orchestration can be the icing on the cake!
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