How to render MIDI piano-roll music so that it sounds decent(er)?
January 8, 2019 8:32 PM   Subscribe

Let's say I want to compose music at a PC, assign different instruments to different voices, and achieve something that sounds maybe like orchestra music in some cases, and maybe like electronic music bleepies in other cases...

Me: a guitarist of 35 years, and a reasonably adept user of Reaper.

I neither read music nor play keyboards. In the past I've created MIDI scores using the piano roll/hunt-and-peck method. I've rendered them with Reaper, using some free soundfonts I found, with a free soundfont player that I found, and adding some free VST effects that I found.

The results sound okay, but I assume there's a higher-end way of rendering the MIDI scores--ideally, one that doesn't involve having, or knowing how to play, a MIDI keyboard.

What software do I want? Let's imagine for the sake of argument that I don't necessarily mind spending money on the software. Thanks for anything you can tell me.
posted by Sing Or Swim to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
VST instruments? (here's a random list I just googled).
posted by pompomtom at 8:57 PM on January 8, 2019

Alex Ball has a youtube video about using a virtual orchestra, and it seems like he knows what he's doing.
posted by smcameron at 10:32 PM on January 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

For what you're doing I'd recommend Sampletank. It's easy to use and pretty comprehensive.

There is a new version coming out.
posted by bongo_x at 12:32 AM on January 9, 2019

The results sound okay, but I assume there's a higher-end way of rendering the MIDI scores--ideally, one that doesn't involve having, or knowing how to play, a MIDI keyboard.

I mean yeah you can buy higer quality virtual instruments, but if you’re feeding them the same inputs that’s basically the equivalent of rendering the same text with a nicer font. Don’t expect any miracles.
posted by STFUDonnie at 4:16 AM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

The magic here happens in two ways:

1. A great quality virtual instrument. For orchestral sounds, you can't beat Spitfire Audio (yeah, yeah, subjective, I know), but you probably don't want to pay that much. In that case, the above suggestions are good ones. Worth noting: Spitfire Audio has an entire class of free instruments called Labs that are usually fairly simple, but often unique and wonderful. These aren't what you want to go to for a traditional orchestral sound, but they may be fun for you.

2. A great performance. If you can't play the music in directly, can you use knobs and faders to automate musical parameters like volume, amount of breath, etc.? (These parameters are usually available in orchestral libraries.) Basically, entering in a performance in that way gives you a lifeless thing. You have to breathe some life back into it, or it will just sound dead, no matter now good the sound is you're using.
posted by nosila at 6:40 AM on January 9, 2019

Have you considered audio to midi conversion? By converting your guitar signals to midi you'll end up with vastly more human phrasing and articulation.

I will say, as a fellow guitarist who never learned to properly read music when I was supposed to, I've found guitar music is inherently more annoying to read than piano (or really any orchestral instrument I've tried), and I still find writing midi from a keyboard vastly less fiddly than any other way, despite limited piano ability.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:34 AM on January 9, 2019

My limited experience with orchestral-ish music involves Garageband and a MIDI keyboard. Basically I played multiple takes of each part until the dynamics and timing sounded right, perhaps tweaking a bit in the editor, then looped the best version. Repeat for strings, synths, etc. Garageband has pretty decent patches to my ears.

Adding dynamics and expression solely via editor is kind of like brain surgery (though I'm sure Reaper lets you edit those curves) and I find it easier to incorporate it into the performance. The MIDI keyboard's velocity and aftertouch inputs seem to do that well enough. You could also look at MIDI guitar synths if you don't want to play keys.

Without variation of dynamics and timing you'll end up with something like Frank Zappa's synclavier music -- very chiptune-y and maybe not what you're aiming for.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:37 AM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm with STFUDonnie and RVP on this one. I'd rethink the whole 'no midi keyboard' thing. They are shockingly cheap, some of them, like $40-50 for 2-3 octaves and often come with a free version of some editing software. The main thing that you need is the pressure sensitivity/velocity recording, otherwise everything is going to sound like a music box...which is cute for some things, but not, I think, what you're ultimately looking for. Also, it's going so much easier than hunting and pecking on a piano roll (jebus!). Maybe get one with some knobs on it (the cheap ones have this) that you can add effects with (assignable in software)
posted by sexyrobot at 7:26 PM on January 9, 2019

(Also cheap midi keyboard+garageband or the like+*free vst plugins* (thanks google!)=fun. My favorite is Tyrell from's like having Vangelis-in-a-can...soo fuzzzzyy)
posted by sexyrobot at 7:37 PM on January 9, 2019

Best answer: You could also look into alternative MIDI controllers.
posted by STFUDonnie at 4:10 AM on January 10, 2019

Response by poster: >I'd rethink the whole 'no midi keyboard' thing. They are shockingly cheap... Also, it's going so much easier than hunting and pecking on a piano roll (jebus!).

Well, I get that it's necessary to inject some nuance and some life into what you're doing, which is not best done by the piano roll method. However, it's also not best done by me playing a keyboard. And anyway, part of what intrigues me about this is the prospect of coming up with a piece of music entirely independent of an instrument of any kind.

That said, thanks a great deal for ALL the responses, and I'm happy and interested to hear anything that anybody has to say.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 4:44 PM on January 10, 2019

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