Music & Entertainment

Home Recording Studio 101: How To Create Orchestral Sounds Using MIDI

Written by MasterClass

May 29, 2019 • 4 min read

Are you a fan of any TV shows that feature orchestral underscore? While it can have a majestic effect on comedies and dramas alike, there’s a secret to it: unless the show has a big budget, that “orchestral” score was probably all created on someone’s personal computer.

This is not to say that you aren’t hearing real instruments on those orchestral soundtracks. You are—but chances are they were recorded as sound samples for a software library, and somewhere in a personal studio, a composer is manipulating those samples using MIDI.

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What Is MIDI?

MIDI stands for “musical instrument digital interface,” and it’s a computing language that allows computers to communicate with musical instruments.

  • The MIDI digital standard was announced in 1982 and introduced to the public in 1983, with backing from leading instrument manufacturers like Moog, Roland, Sequential Circuits, Yamaha, Korg, and Kawai.
  • Originally, MIDI devices required a special interface that used proprietary cables with 5-pin connectors. The 5-pin MIDI connector standard still exists to this day, but increasingly MIDI instruments simply communicate via USB.

Through the power of MIDI, digital instruments are able to send commands to one another, and also to computers—which in turn send commands back to the instruments. Some of these commands (which are often called “events” in computer parlance) include:

  • Sounding a note
  • Changing volume
  • Changing stereo panning
  • Incorporating an effect like sustain or pitch-shifting
  • Changing the order that effects are heard
  • Toggling between different instrument sounds

5 Steps for How To Create Orchestral Sounds Using MIDI

With the right combination of hardware and software, you will be able to record your own compositions using MIDI.

In this example, we’re aiming toward orchestral music, but the same technology can enable you to record dance music like EDM or house. In fact, you can record any style of music using MIDI technology, but MIDI is less integral when you’re mostly recording live players, like in rock or jazz.

  1. Select your recording medium. For most people, this will mean a personal computer running a digital audio workstation (DAW). The DAW program you select will depend on the type of music you’re most interested in creating. If you’re interested in mainly producing dance pop, EDM, house, and other electronic music, consider Ableton, FL Studio (aka Fruity Loops), Reason, and Akai MPC. If you’re interested in creating orchestral sounds (as in film scoring) by using samples of real instruments and you plan to perform most of the music yourself using MIDI keyboards, investigate Logic, Digital Performer, and Cubase. If you’re primarily interested in recording live audio in a studio, Pro Tools is the industry standard (although it also handles MIDI just fine). Many producers also use Logic, Digital Performer, and Cubase for live audio and even Ableton can be used for this function. If you’re on a real budget and can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars for a DAW, many of these programs have limited versions that are available for free. Some of the best free programs include Cakewalk and Garageband (which is a stripped down version of Logic)—although take note that it will only run on a Mac.
  2. Select where you’ll be getting your sounds. If you’re working off the computer (which easily provides the most options), this means picking a sound library. Most orchestral composers select either the Vienna Symphony Library (VSL) or the EastWest Composer Cloud (a subscription service). These programs run as plugins overlayed on your DAW, and the DAW communicates to them using MIDI.
  3. Get a MIDI hardware device to perform the music. For most people, this will mean a MIDI keyboard, like one in the M-Audio KeyStation series. Note that MIDI keyboards do not produce sounds by themselves. They plug into a computer (using USB) and send digital information to your DAW (like Logic or Pro Tools). Your DAW, in turn, triggers your software synthesizer (like EastWest or Vienna Symphony) to make sounds.
  4. Set up tracks and start recording. Once you’ve acquired your software and hardware, you’re ready to start recording. Within your DAW, you’ll want to set up a MIDI track, which will let you record performance information, which in turn will trigger a software synthesizer. (The way you’ll set up this track varies slightly with each DAW, but it tends to be quite intuitive.)
  5. Turn your MIDI track into an audio track. It’s important to understand that a MIDI track is not the same thing as an audio track. When you play a MIDI keyboard into a computer, you are creating a digital script for triggering sounds from a software synthesizer. To turn that into an actual audio waveform, you have to bounce each MIDI track to audio. In many programs, this will mean creating a new audio track (different from a MIDI track), playing back your MIDI performance using a software synthesizer, and letting the computer record it as audio.

Use MIDI To “Play” Multiple Instruments

One great thing about making MIDI files is that you can use the same exact performance information to “play” multiple instruments.

  • Let’s say you wanted a violin and a flute to double the exact same line. You could record a MIDI track using one of those instruments (say, violin), then bounce that violin track as audio.
  • Then you’d change the software instrument to be a flute, and replay the MIDI track. You’ll hear the exact same notes, durations, and dynamics. But instead of hearing a violin, this time you’ll hear a flute. Bounce that track to audio and boom: you have two instruments playing the exact same line.
  • There are hundreds of musical moments that can be controlled by MIDI. The good news is that it’s quite easy to get up and running creating sounds with MIDI. With the advent of cheap keyboards and free software, MIDI recording has never been more accessible for the startup home studio.

Learn more about music production in Timbaland’s MasterClass.