Three Tips for MIDI Orchestrators

I was recently asked for some tips for MIDI orchestrators.  Thought I’d share the thoughts with everyone…

Three Tips for the MIDI Orchestrator

Tip #1 — Study Scores and Recordings of the Traditional Orchestra

Even if your final product will use orchestral samples, it’s still extremely beneficial to study traditional orchestral scores.  While this has many benefits, three that come to mind are:

-  Studying scores lets you learn from past composers.  Stated most simply, people have been writing music for orchestra for centuries.  Many composers have already come up with some wonderful ideas.  For us, there’s no sense reinventing the wheel and studying scores teaches a new composer what past composers have already figured out.

-  Studying scores trains you to think of the orchestra as a complete unit.  While looking at a full score, you can readily see how all the instruments are working together–which instruments have the harmony, the melody, the countermelody, and so on.  It’s often harder to visualize the “big picture” when simply improvising at the keyboard one sample at a time.

-  Studying scores helps the MIDI orchestrator avoid “impossible possibilities.”  By this, I mean that there are things the samples can do that the real instruments can not do.  Even if these impossible possibilities sound good in the studio, they will sound less like an actual orchestra and should be avoided when recreating the sound of an orchestra is the goal.

Tip #2 — Consider how and when the samples and the acoustic instruments behave differently.

Acoustic instruments and the samples of those instruments are not the same exact thing.  They are both incredible tools, but at times they will behave differently.  It is worth the time of every MIDI orchestrator to consider what those differences are and how they will affect compositional decisions.

While this is an incomplete list, some factors to consider are below:

-  It takes no effort for a violinist to switch articulations, meaning they can alternate between staccato and tenuto with complete ease.  This is also true while playing piano.

While MIDI sequencing, changing sample types requires an extra step, be it adding a key switch or switching to a new track.  This creates an incentive for the MIDI orchestrator to refrain from changing articulations–an incentive that generally does not exist in the world of acoustic instruments.

-  String samples and sections of string players behave differently with regards to multiple notes.

For instance, if you are using cello samples and you switch from playing one note to playing two notes in octaves, then you also switch from triggering one sample to triggering two samples–and the result is a much bigger sound.

However, if you write two notes for the cello section and then mark it divisi, the cello section does not magically double in size.  The most common solution to this discrepancy is to use doubling of sections to achieve that bigger sound.  For instance, you could double the cello section and the violin 1 section in octaves.  This approach *does* double the number of players per part in the real world–just as you doubled the number of samples being triggered in your sequence.

-  Variable decays are more challenging in the world of samples than in the acoustic world.

A trumpet player in the real world can change dynamics on a sustained note with complete ease.  While holding a note, they can crescendo, decrescendo, remain level, or some combination of these dynamic changes.

While using samples, we generally have access to many different decay types.  Some samples have a level sustained sound, others crescendo, others decrescendo, and so on.  However, once a sample is triggered, the decay of that sample is generally pre-determined.  If we want to change that decay, then we have to add MIDI continuous controller data, be it volume, expression, modulation, or other.  As a result, it’s generally more complicated to sequence instruments and musical ideas that have a variable decay in the acoustic world than instruments that do not.

Tip #3 — Set the expectations of your client.

Some clients will be under the impression that a MIDI mockup will sound exactly like a recording of a real orchestra.  In general, life is better for all involved if such expectations are tampered a bit.

I generally encourage clients to think of a MIDI orchestration much like computer animation.  A great computer animator could make a visual image of Tom Cruise.  It will look great, and it will immediately remind people of Tom Cruise.  However, the audience won’t believe it to be an actual picture of Tom Cruise.

Encouraging clients to think similarly of MIDI orchestrations can create a smoother working environment for everyone.