Like many composers in the more analog field of pencil
and paper, I was entirely unaware of the other side of music production.
For years I thought that the bleep and bloop of midi, compliments of my
music notation software, were all I could get from a computer and the
only way to get a decent recording was to have it performed on stage.
As I discovered a few years ago, this is most assuredly not the case.
Rather than give a long history of the leaps and bounds of music production
and midi innovation, I'm going to go over the basics of producing a midi
mockup in a short amount of time for the least amount of money. This is
written chiefly for aesthetic purposes in mind, not to learn how to navigate
any particular software. Now that we know that, let's get down to it shall
we? First on our checklist are what I consider a couple essentials. You'll
need a sequencer (listed below). Ideally you want a program that is specifically
good at midi sequencing. While pro tools is an audio champion and industry
standard for recording audio, you may find it lacking for midi sequencing.
a midi input device. Usually this is in the form of a keyboard of 49,
61 or 88 keys. Smaller keyboards may be quite limiting for impromptu realization
of wider orchestration, so I recommend the larger ones. You don't need
anything fancy mind you, no need for a vast array of buttons, triggers,
knobs or nozzles. Since these are not synthesizers, you won't need them
and the ones with the extra gizmos are going to cost you more.
Thirdly, the sample software. If you buy Logic, it comes with a library
that will be good enough to start with. If you buy something like Digital
Performer, then you'll have to buy separate software.
There are many options to choose from insofar as instrument samples (listed
below). They all have their positives and their negatives, you can find
samples of any of them online. For future reference, when referring to
midi mockups, samples refer to wavetable patches available in a given
library. These are actual instruments that have been recorded and are
loaded into a particular samples library. Each patch is then triggered
by your midi controller at your discretion. If you're new to this and
your budget is small because you're a student, just starting as freelance
or a little of both then this is all you need to get started.
Now that you're set up in your studio, you should probably take some
time to get to know it. Test out all of your samples, note what samples
sound especially good in your library. In doing this you can get a good
feel of a sample library, and you get a good knowledge of what you can
possibly do with it. For instance, when testing out Garritan's jazz &
big band sample library, I found I absolutely loved the solo clarinet
on it. I wouldn't have known that if I didn't explore the samples first.
Get to know your sequencer too, you can probably get away with only knowing
a few key things about it to get started. Among them are velocity control,
quantization, and midi limiting.
Next, what is your goal with orchestration? Do you intend to use real
instruments in the final production of the score? If you are, you probably
don't need to be quite as meticulous about your mockup for this is merely
for either a director or a producer. If not, then there are a lot of details
to pay attention to.
What we'll focus on now is for all of you you who are making the mockup
the final score. If you're new to this, you're probably used to sequencing
the music in notation software such as Sibelius or Finale. This is a fine
method to begin with, I use this method for more contrapuntal work to
make sure my lines are clear. I'm sure if you've chosen the import method
you may be disappointed at first, but don't fret. All is not lost.
You may find your mockup 'too precise', articulations and dynamics have
suddenly disappeared or there's an ineffable 'something' that just takes
the fun out of the music. This is no surprise, as you've turned a computer
performance into another computer performance! Those crescendos that you
once had in your notation software may not have necessarily made an appearence
in its general midi export. You'll have to draw those in yourself. I use
digital performer to do this, and in its midi editor I can open the tools
menu and draw a parabola for the rising and volume of volumes. This arc
is a more 'human' crescendo than a straight line in my opinion. A similar
option exists in any of the prescribed sequencers.
Your articulations are suddenly gone aren't they? What was a staccato
passage is now a smear of notes. Oh bother. This is where sequencing separates
a little bit from notation. For that passage you will either need one
of two things: 1. a seperate staccato patch loaded or 2. what is called
a 'keyswitch' sample. This means that a change in samples is registered
by a key at the left end of the midi controller keyboard. However, let
us assume the former and you load in a staccato version of the instrument
into your sampler. Now you have two patches loaded up of your instrument.
A legato and a staccato. You can move that staccato passage down to it
via the midi editor, hear it play back. This is of course valid for any
change, be it from legato to marcato, stopped horn to horn rip, or bartok
pizzicato to harmonics.
Now that we have our articulations and dynamics fairly under control,
let us move on to the 'human quality' of the performance. If you've imported
your midi, you may find that it's 'too robotic'. If you've played in the
music via the midi controller, then you may find it's a little 'too human'.
When I posit 'too human', this means that the timing may
seem a bit off after you record with the midi keyboard into the sequencer.
Even if you have a fantastic sense of tempo, it will most likely not be
as perfect as you like. Latency of even 5ms can make a track lose musicality.
The other problem is inconsistent dynamics. If you have a less expensive
midi controller, the keys won't be weighted and so it will be difficult
to get a steady sense of dynamics.
Between those two deficiencies, it won't sound remotely professional
in that state. That's ok! We can fix that!
Let's get a hold of those timings first. In your midi editor there is
an option to 'quantize' your notes. Quantize means aligning notes to a
particular setting set by the user. This may take some practice to do
well. Based on the quantizing settings, you set the detail in how much
you want to quantize. The side effects include: making shorter notes too
long, you ended up with entirely the wrong rhythm you intended and/or
it just becomes too precise. One last bit of advice on durations: full
instrument sections never change notes at exactly the same time. I find
it sounds smoother if I have a slight overlap of the notes in the sequencer.
So if you're happy with your note durations, let us move on to velocity
(or dynamics) after recording in through a midi controller. There are
a few methods to get a good sound you'll like. You may try, most tediously,
to change the value of every single note between 0 and 127. I wouldn't
suggest doing this until later, and even then only if you really need
to. A better idea would be to select a passage that you want to change
the volume of, select it, then find in your midi editor the way to 'limit'
the velocity of all the notes in that passage. This method is especially
good if a passage you're editing doesn't change volume that much. There's
very little fuss. Once again, this is something to try a few times until
you get a good feel for how it affects the patches you have loaded. I
tend to aim fairly high in volume for this, highest for strings, a little
softer than that for woodwinds, and then brass where velocity typically
effects timbre and brass instruments naturally stand out more anyway.
For crescendos, as I've suggested earlier, a parabola curve is typically
available in the midi sequencer of your choice. Don't just take my word
for it, experiment! Insofar as midi, there is only one step left: Freeze!
Before you can bounce down those tracks you must convert them to wavs
in order for you to bounce those tracks into a single audio track. If
you're happy with your midi mix, go right ahead. Remember though, it's
easier to fix individual errors in midi than trying to bounce down your
tracks first. This is also the point where you should do any mixing then
mastering (which I highly recommend) but that's another article entirely.
There are many more wonderful things you can do with midi mockups, but
we'll save those techniques for another day!
Sound clips MP3:
Orchestral Mockup before work
Orchestral Mockup after work
These are what I like from most to least for symphonic mockups only,
by no means are they best to worst. It is merely my list of tastes, your
tastes may differ. For midi I tend to use a mac, but I do quite like Cubase
on PC. Apologies to Linux users, I don't know the software well enough
to recommend anything in particular.
Recommended virtual instruments
West Quantum Leap
If you're on a budget, the silver edition will be for you. I've had
the gold edition for years.
LA Scoring Strings
I am quite a fan of this package as well. These samples may leave your
The least expensive, yet it can pack a punch.
There are more out there and I'm sure some are nice, so by all means