How to Make MIDI Strings Sound More Realistic

Unless you’re paying $200 for MIDI sounds, chances are good that your free MIDI sounds are… awful. This is especially true of strings – violins, violas, cellos, double bass; if it can be played with a bow and was free, the MIDI version doesn’t sound that great.

That being said, there are ways to help make your MIDI strings sound a little bit less pathetic and a little more realistic in your mix. This guide won’t make your stock Garageband strings sound like a real violinist actually played them, but it (hopefully) will make your stock sounds a little more bearable.


On Velocity and Quantization

Just like with MIDI drums, to make your MIDI strings sound most realistic, you shouldn’t just keep all your notes’ velocities at the same level. (In Garageband I think the preset is 98.) Varying your velocities within about plus/minus 15 steps is a safe place to keep it so that you get variation, but it still maintains a similar intensity.

The key to improving the realism of your MIDI string sounds is to humanize them – so you change the velocity, and you change the quantization. You don’t want to quantize your notes so that they begin right on the beat – about 80-95% is a good place to stay.

One of the hard things with strings and quantization is that the samples don’t always start playing right at the beginning of your MIDI note. To just keep your strings in time with all the other instruments, you may have to pull their start time a little bit back from the beat you want them to play on.Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.33.25 AM Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.33.47 AMIn the first picture the notes are all aligned right with the beat. But if the sound doesn’t start right away, it can make your strings sound sloppy. Like the second picture, try pulling your notes back so that the sound starts right on the beat to help keep your recording tight.


Use Different Instruments and Split Up Tracks

If you can find some decent free MIDI sounds of each individual instrument in your string section (check out resources for some links!), you’re already light years ahead of Garageband’s stock. Use a different MIDI instrument for each of your instruments – violin, viola, cello, and double bass are the standard string section.

Even if you’re just got some stock “Orchestral Strings” instrument, try to have a unique track for each of those instruments, and keep notes that would fit for each instrument unique to that track. Just because you don’t have a specific MIDI sound for each instrument doesn’t mean you can split them up that way! Here’s a very generalized range that you can use to guide your track splits:

  • Violins can start as low as G3, and go as high as the spectrum allows
  • Violas can start as low as G1 and go to about D5
  • Cellos start as low as C2 and go as high as A4
  • Double basses are anything lower than G1

Those notes are by no means scientific or definite – they’re just a starter’s guide. I tend to have each instrument playing 3 octaves, with their lowest octave playing in the same range the instrument that’s lower than them, and their highest octave playing in the same range as the instrument higher than them.

For example: Violin would play C4-C6, Viola would play C3-C5, Cello would play C2-C4, Double bass would play C0-C2.Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.53.03 AMThe tiny little letters on the keys on the left help me determine where to keep my notes.


Layer Your Sounds

If you’ve got computer power to spare, one of the simplest ways to make a strings track sound more realistic is to layer sounds. Play duplicate tracks (same notes) with different instruments.

For example, say you’ve got a violin part, and you’re using an instrument that has just the violin. To give it more oomph, you can copy/paste the notes into a new track, and use the Smart Strings instrument. Bam! Sound improved.


Modulation and Mixing

One of the awesome things about Garageband’s Smart Strings is that by turning on the modulation, you can change the kinds of sounds that play. You can get staccato, pizzicato, and legato all out of one track instead of needing to have different MIDI tracks specifically for the different ways to play.

Play with the modulation on your different instruments to see if you can get any extra sounds out of your MIDI.Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.57.12 AMA short little guide for playing the Smart Strings with Musical Typing:

  • 3 is legato – smooth, blends together, good for long notes
  • 4 is a staccato – short, jerky notes played by the bow, this is a shafting sound
  • 5 is another staccato – same as above, slightly different technique
  • 6 is a pizzicato – short, plucked notes
  • 7 is another legato – same as 3, more or less
  • 8 is another staccato – similar to 4 and 5

Mixing is the last key thing you can do to get your strings to sound more realistic. First off, do your panning well. Give each of your MIDI strings its place in the stereo field.

Finally, feel free to EQ those suckers. It’ll help clean up the sound, at the very least!


These are the things I have found take my crappy sounding strings and make them more palatable and authentic. The vice of MIDI (it sounds terrible compared to the real thing) is also its blessing – it’s a different sound than you’ll get from a real instrument. Use that to whatever ends you will.

If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to justanotherhalfling@gmail.com as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!

Advertisements

3 Tips for Getting the Best Sound Out of MIDI Drums

I have never had the opportunity to record an acoustic drum set. If I want drums in my songs, I have no choice but to use loops or some sort of MIDI instrument. In terms of sound, neither of those options are bad! I prefer MIDI drums because I have more complete control over the final sound. If you don’t have access to real drums or a skilled drummer, arranging a MIDI sequence is no sin – it’s making good use of the resources at your command.

Here’s my 3 cents for getting good sound from your MIDI kit.


1. Mix and Match Sets

If you don’t have third-party drum sounds, then the best way to get the sound you want out of MIDI drums is to mix up the different sounds from the presets in your digital audio workstation DAW. In Garageband that means you have to have multiple tracks for each preset you want, which can get tedious. (As you’ll see in tip 2, this can be used to your advantage.)Garageband MIDI DrumsBecause my computer is old as the hills, when I mix and match I tend to do a cymbals track and a body track to save on computing power. I might use the Heavy set for my cymbals, and the Portland set for the bass, snare, toms, and so on. If mixed and EQ-ed well, these stock MIDI drums can sound more than decent.

2. EQ and Mix Parts as Separately as Possible

As mentioned, having multiple tracks for each part of your drum is rough on your computer, but great for solid mixing. Think about it: if you were recording acoustic drums, you’d have mics everywhere. Each mic would lead to an individual track in your DAW, and could be tweaked individually.

Use panning to help create a realistic feel for your drums as well.
Use panning to help create a realistic sound from your MIDI.

In the sample above we can see again how ancient my computer is, because I still don’t have all the mics that would be on an acoustic set as its own individual track! The point remains, though: you can get the cleanest sound from the bass drum if you’re just mixing and EQing one sound. Repeat for each drumhead, and you’ve got MIDI that sounds good and is clear in the mix.

One way to remove the problem of having too many tracks would be bussing, or running separately mixed and EQed tracks through one track. I still haven’t figured out how to do this in Garageband, but if you’re doing it in another DAW, it’s a great way to save visual space on your screen, put sounds together, and mix/EQ all of those tracks together so they sound unified. (For more about buss mixing, check this video out.)

If you don’t know where to start in mixing your drums, this article here has a good foundation that you can build upon.

As I said, I usually only use two tracks. Rather than individually crafting a sonic space for each drum, I do it en masse by EQing the bass, snare, and toms in the same track. (Same for cymbals.) It’s not as clear and it doesn’t sound quite as good, but it works for maintaining my sanity and getting a decent sound.

3. Humanize Your Hits

The goal in working with MIDI instruments is to get them to sound as human as possible – that is, to sound like a real person could have played it on a nice kit. That being said, if it sounds good, it doesn’t matter whether or not a human could have played it.

But if you don’t want to sound like your drums are being played by a machine, then there’s 3 things to keep in mind.

  1. Humans have four limbs. Any drum pattern you make can’t realistically have more than 4 hits. If you’re having trouble imagining what is and isn’t humanly possible on the drums, head on to Youtube and spend half an hour watching drum tutorials.
  2. Humans don’t have perfect rhythm. When you make a MIDI track, you can quantize each note to fit the metronome perfectly. Don’t. Drummers are awesome, but even the best don’t have 100% accuracy. Quantize to 80-90% to maintain quality rhythm and humanness.
  3. Humans can’t play with the same precise power consistently. Velocity is MIDI language for power – you can set it anywhere from 0-127 in the editor. Many DAWs have a “randomize” function for velocity. No surprise, Garageband doesn’t have this function – if you want to vary and humanize your velocities, you have to go through note by note.

Personally when I’m arranging sequences, I vary velocities in my first bar, and copy+paste the notes into the next bar, and rearrange them there to fit my groove. That way each bar has some variation, even if it’s not perfectly random. Another way to is to randomly select a whole bunch of notes in the song, and lower or raise all of their velocities at once. Repeat that a couple times, and you’ve got a pretty decent randomization without literally moving each note.

That’s all I’ve found to get your MIDI drums sounding like you recorded an acoustic set.


As always, this is about doing what you can with what you have. If you have Superior Drummer 2.0 (or better, access to real drums and a real drummer) then by all means, use your resources. They will sound fantastic. For the rest of us mortals, we’ll just be here tweaking EQ to get our MIDI to sound as awesome as possible. Will it sound as good as Superior Drummer? Not even a little bit. Will it be better than wishing we had Superior Drummer? Absolutely!

I’m no expert, but if you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to justanotherhalfling@gmail.com as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!