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 as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!

Mixing Basics – Start Your Journey on the Long Road

Mixing is the subjective process of taking raw audio and polishing it.

That’s all it is, all it has to be. Sure, there’s plenty of schools of thought that tell you what “polished” sounds like, but it’s all subjective to the ear of the beholder. As my music/mixes demonstrate, I’m still learning how to polish my songs in a way that is more in line with popular music. That’s right, I’m no expert.

But I’ve learned enough to share something useful, and that’s what I offer you today: a foundation to mixing.

Mixing is Finding Balance

Using your subjective listeners on either side of your head, your job as a mixer is simply to balance all of your recorded tracks so that you can hear each one clearly. Be careful not to fatigue your ears though – take many breaks, and mix at low volumes. Your ears are your most important tool as a mixer, so don’t overwhelm them or exhaust them if you can help it.

That being said, the fastest, simplest way to balance sound is by adjusting the volume levels on your tracks, and adjusting your panning.Volume Levels and Panning KnobsBalance your volumes so that you can hear everything clearly, and create a stereo field by balancing the panning to the Left and Right. A stereo field is just the space in a recording – if you’ve ever been to a symphonic performance you’ve experience something similar to a stereo field.

Violins are set to your far left, cellos and basses to your far right, with 2nd violins and violas in the middle. The different angles that the orchestra is placed at creates space in the sound – you don’t hear percussion from the right, because they’re in the back. Panning artificially creates that sense of each instrument having it’s own space.

You don’t have to pan to balance volume well, but if you use panning you need to consider how it impacts the balance of the volume and vice versa. Listen carefully to determine what sounds best, and most balanced.

Balance Using EQ

Equalization is a delicate thing to balance, and to be honest, I really struggle with it. That being said, here are three principles I use to guide me when I EQ:

  • I cut frequencies rather than boost them. If I want to hear more bass, rather than pulling up the curve near the bass frequencies, I’ll pull the curve down in the mids.
  • I try to clean up my frequencies. Use a HighPass or a LowPass (or a HighShelf/LowShelf) plugin to cut off frequencies that your instrument doesn’t need to be singing in.

    I put a LowPass on my bass so that I don't have unnecessary treble frequencies cluttering up the high range.
    I put a LowPass plugin on my bass so that I don’t have unnecessary treble frequencies cluttering up the high range.
  • Each instrument has its own little frequency zone. Bass is in the bottom, rhythm guitars are the low half of the mids, lead guitars are the higher half of the mids, vocals are in the top. Drums are tricky, as they fit into all of those. Equalizing each part of the drum individually is helpful to keep them clear.

Here’s some links to more specific numbers and guides for using EQ:

Balance Using Compression

Compression is all about taming your recording’s dynamics. Most compressors take your loudest sounds, and reduce their volume to the level of your softest sounds. This makes your recording’s volume more consistent, but also squashes your sound.

Compression is very common in pop music, but not in orchestral soundtracks. After all, if you want to go from a soft, tender moment to a huge action scene, the change from soft violins to blaring brass won’t be noticeable if it’s all an equal volume. I have elected to rarely use compression to maintain the dynamics in my songs. When I do use it, I always am careful not to overdo it and play around with ALL the settings.

The trick to successful compression is to tweak until it sounds good and well balanced. Remember, balance is your goal – if compression helps you reach that goal, then use it! But just because you have a dynamic track doesn’t mean that it needs compression.

If you want a more comprehensive discussion of compression, check out this article from The Garageband Guide.

Hope you found this article useful! I’ve found all of my most useful information on mixing came from this guy, so check him out if you want to zoom down the road to great mixing. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!