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Making a MIDI Orchestra Sound Real

Written by Gary Ewer, author of six e-books for songwriters.

MIDI 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!

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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