42: How to Make MIDI Sound Real

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Have you ever heard a cheesy drum part or a wonky, thin piano and thought “Wow. That’s MIDI. It sounds awful”!

The truth is that you’ve you also heard (without realizing it) hundreds of MIDI-driven instruments on recordings without ever realizing that it wasn’t the real thing.

Many of our preconceived notions about what MIDI is and isn’t are wrong. As we discussed in Episode 20, MIDI is really your studio BFF. You just have to know when to use it, how to use it, and the tips and tricks for making it sound like the real thing.

In this episode, we’ll show you how you can pull this trick off on your own productions.

You will learn:

  • A quick overview of what MIDI is (and isn’t)
  • What makes a real instrument performance enjoyable and pleasant to listen to and why MIDI sometimes misses the mark
  • The different ways to record MIDI and why they aren’t all equal
  • Which instruments lend themselves to being easily emulated by MIDI and which don’t
  • Tips and tricks for recording MIDI performances
  • Tips and tricks for editing MIDI performances
  • Examples of various instruments created with MIDI and “humanized” with varying degrees of success (including drums, bass, horns, percussion and even guitar)
  • Some bad audio jokes

How to Make Midi Sound Real

To start, let’s talk about how to record midi. There are different ways to work with MIDI and they are not all equal.

How to Record MIDI

First, we can record with a stereotypical midi controller

  • A typical midi controller looks and plays like a keyboard.
  • Just hit record in your DAW, play the parts on the keyboard, presto! You have a MIDI file.

In addition, we have the option of recording with “other” MIDI controllers

Finally, we can program MIDI manually

  • For example, you can open up your DAW’s piano roll and “draw” in the notes or rhythms manually with your mouse and pencil tool.
  • This is also how you would go about editing your midi performances and allows you to take a hybrid approach – first by performing the parts with either of the two methods mentioned above and then  editing that performance in the piano roll.

Limitations of Recording MIDI

Now that we understand the basics of how to record MIDI, let’s discuss its limitations. Despite its flexibility, there are several challenges that will arise when using midi. Here are a few

First, the performance “doesn’t sound right”. Why?

  1. First, there are fewer nuances in the notes being played when using a midi controller. For example, when playing a real guitar, each note you play is unique and has its very own sonic “fingerprint”. This can be difficult to replicate using MIDI.
  2. Second, The quality of the virtual instrument you are using is subpar. The more sample variations and articulations that the programmers and sound designers recorded the greater chance that you will get a realistic sounding performance. For example, with virtual bass instruments take notice of whether there are finger sounds or other performance articulations in the virtual instrument.
  3. Finally, Unrealistic programming. For example, writing drum parts that a real drummer could never (or would never) play is a cardinal sin of MIDI programming. A real drummer would have a hard time playing 5 kit pieces at the same time since most drummers only have four limbs with which to play. Yet, there is nothing stopping you from programming 8 simultaneous drum hits! This will stick out to a listener as odd, or unrealistic.

Tips for Making Your MIDI Tracks Sound More “Human”

Whenever possible, play your part like you would live.

  • A live recording that avoids relying on quantization and velocity adjustment will usually result in a more human feel.
  • Another option, is to manually program the “human” feel. To allow for this, most DAWs come with “randomizers” or “humanizers” that let you automate some of the “randomness” into sections you programmed manually.

Another consideration is that velocity is generally more important than timing

    • Consider adjusting your velocities note by note to ensure you get the right articulations into the performance.
    • There are 127 velocity steps but most virtual instruments don’t have 127 sample variations. Keep an eye out for any hits that “jump” up or down unnaturally. For these, pull the velocities closer to your target.
  • Lastly, consider what type of feeling you want from you instruments
    • There may be some genres in which a more mechanical sound and feeling is desired. For example, technical death metal is a genre that generally accepts a fairly robotic, machine gun-like kick drum sound

How are you using MIDI and virtual instruments? What are you struggling with when trying to get MIDI to sound real? Email us: vadim@diyrecordingguys.com and ben@diyrecordingguys.com

Where to Find the Guys
The DIY Recording Guys Website – www.diyrecordingguys.com
Vadim’s Studio Site – Get your FREE test mix today! – https://calmfrogrecording.com
Benjamin’s Studio Site – https://dreamloudstudio.com
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