11 Helpful Ways to Make MIDI Strings Sound Realistic

Some VST instrument libraries out there are just amazingly close to the real instruments they have sampled. That being said, they are not 100% perfect. What can we do to make a MIDI Orchestra sound even more like a real orchestra? To feel that the instruments are actually being played by real musicians?

So how can you make MIDI strings sound realistic? Your main task is actually to emulate real humans playing an instrument. To make your MIDI sound more realistic you should divide cellos, violas, violins, etc. into different tracks, emulate real orchestra positioning by panning the instruments, automate them and embrace the mistakes that a real player might make.

Whether you have an expensive, high quality sampled orchestral library like Spitfire, Native Instruments, or if you only use GarageBand Strings, the tips and solutions provided in this post will ensure massive improvement in your sound.

1. Emulate the Positioning of a Real Orchestra

Whether you have been sitting in a concert hall, or just been listening to an orchestra on your headphones, you have probably noticed this: the sound of high strings like violins is often notably more present in your left ear, while the deeper-sounding cellos are more present in your right ear.

You see, most orchestras do tend to follow the same layout. That is why panning the instruments according to what the layout looks like, may give the listener a perceived feel of realism.

Also, when recording strings, most composers do prefer the same instrument positioning as the layouts of live orchestras.

That is why panning your instruments according to where the instruments are positioned is a brilliant idea. We are used to hearing it this way.

Panning the instruments gives your listener the impression that your piece is recorded in a real concert hall.

Take a look at the image above, and you will see the layout which we are most used to see and hear in concerts.

How to emulate: When in your DAW (Cubase, Logic Pro, GarageBand, etc.), adjust the panning of the strings like this:

  • The Violins on the left side of the stage 
  • The Violas slightly to the right of the stage 
  • The Cellos are on the right side 
  • The Double Basses are behind the cellos on the right side

2. Know the Instrument Range

Each instrument has its natural limitations when it comes to range. Some string libraries have taken this into consideration, but that is not the case for everyone.

Even though some of the world-class cellists may be able to produce extremely high notes by being creative with harmonics and implementing other crazy techniques, this is not common to hear by this instrument in most orchestral pieces.

By knowing each instrument ́s limitations, and how it is normally used, it forces you to write and record much closer to the real thing. Which ultimately will improve how your orchestral pieces sound.

Below, you can see the tuning ranges of some of the instruments in an orchestra. 


The Double Basses:
Lowest Note: Low E (actually, with an extension, which is fairly common in film scoring, they can also go down to Low C)
Highest Note: G


The Cello: 
Lowest Note: Low C
Highest Note: A


The Viola:
Lowest Note: The C below “middle C”
Highest Note: A


The Violin:
Lowest Note: The G below “middle C”
Highest Note: E


How to master this: Find a guide on instrument playing ranges and have it nearby when loading up a new instrument. 

Another thing you need to be aware of is that most sample libraries give you the possibility to use different key switches and expressions such as legato and vibrato with your instruments. 

In real life, a cello can ́t play a Low C with vibrato since it is an open string. Experienced listeners of orchestral music might notice if you add vibrato to this, so better just avoid it, just to be safe.

3. Don’t Play Full Chords With Just the one Patch

 Full chords are okay if you play piano. But if you are creating an orchestra, it would sound mushy and synthetic.

This is a typical rookie mistake, which I did myself when I first started out. Whether if it’s because you are too lazy to create a dedicated track for every single instrument, or simply because you think that it does not make a difference – well, it does make a difference.

Big time.

What happens if you play an orchestra with chords? Well, the sound will be very synthetic and mushy. Every instrumentalist in a real orchestra plays a little different from the others.

How hard are the notes are played (velocity)? Which technique is used? Does the other cellist hold the note a little longer than the one next to him?

When you play everything as you would do on a piano, there is no control over each specific instrument. Everything is just played in the same velocity, same timing, and would just end up sounding mechanic at best.

What you should do instead:

  1. Divide the cellos, violas, basses, violins and so on into track/groups
  2. Now, in THOSE separate groups (except for the double bass) you can actually play chords since these instruments are capable of playing chords within their range.
  3. Play a maximum of 4 notes at the same time.

Okay, let us move on to the next step.

4. How you use Automation is KEY

Now, you know that when you play full chords in just one track, you will at the same time destroy the possibility of the instrument ́s ability to breathe and feel organic.

We have now broken down the orchestra into smaller sections. We have cellos, violins and basses separated into different tracks. 

Yes, it is more time consuming than playing the whole orchestra as piano chords in just one track. But man, how different the quality and realism your piece will have if you separate them! 

But separating them is just one step. Automation is the second.

Remember, there are actual HUMANS playing in a real orchestra!  That means, in a real orchestra, two different cello players might enter the piece in slightly different ways.

Their timing and expression might have subtle differences compared to the other player next to them. 

So, because of this, try to emulate this individuality with your MIDI Controller when recording your orchestra.

My absolute favorite MIDI controller is the one you see in the picture above – Palette Gear. You can read my reasons for choosing this as your controller here.

This is how you could do this:

  • Use the MIDI controller to adjust the expression, legatos, vibratos and other effects while you record. You could, for example, choose how much expression, vibrato, etc. “the player” should use at any time.
  • Use key switches that are mapped onto your keyboard. In libraries like Emotional Cello by Best Service, (one of my favorite libraries by far) you can choose if the cello is going to play delicate, staccato, legato, etc. by hitting the keys that the different expressions are assigned to. 

Using MIDI controllers and key switches makes sure the performance of the instrument is more “random”.

That some notes are unintentionally played more slurred, or with higher velocity.

Or a long legato note that suddenly gets a little vibrato at the end.

Resulting in a not too perfect performance.

Not like a machine.

In other words, making you believe that it is being played by an actual instrumentalist.

If you do these things with the separated tracks of double basses, cellos, violins, and violas, the unity will sound way more real, breathing and organic than the synthetic mess caused by playing everything at the same time.

(Btw: If you are looking to get your hands on the best cello sample you could ever dream of, get the Emotional Cello. I am still blown away by how authentic it sounds. You can check out the price on B&H Photo).

5. Add Reverb and Sense of Space/Room

Some libraries would benefit big time when you add reverb. They might have used a close mic or have been recorded dry, which does not breathe much life into the sound.

For example, I personally find GarageBand strings a little lifeless and unrealistic when you load them. Until you add more reverb to them, that is.  

It is often cheaper or free libraries that have this problem. I think this is the case because the developers of more expensive libraries like Spitfire have invested more time, knowledge and money into making versatile and feature-packed products.

By feature-packed, I mean that they have all kinds of neat options that extend past just reverb itself. Options like microphone distance, number of mics and room type, which further adds to the realism.

6. Blend in an Actual Real Instrument

No, this is not a random dude I found on Shutterstock. It is me, posing like a dude on Shutterstock.

This is actually quite a clever trick. When mixing in a real guitar, flute, drums, etc. you can also manage to “fool” the human ear, meaning that we perceive the whole thing as being live-recorded. 

I often drum a little bit on my guitar, and make it a part of my experimental pieces. 

The very best thing you could do though, is to use a real string instrument. And preferably a violin or strings that can play higher notes. 

Why?

Because most sample libraries tend to get the frequencies of deepsounding instruments like the double basses or cellos sampled really well, but the higher sounding violin has some frequencies and notable features that are hard to emulate 100%.    

7. Embrace Imperfection

Woops, did you play one note wrong during the recording? Maybe try to keep it, for a little pizzazz? 

I know it sounds weird, but sometimes, in an orchestra demanding different people to be in sync all the time, you will hear slight imperfections.

It could be a violinist hitting a note a bit harder than what the other violinists did, or a cellist playing slightly ahead of the beat.

8. Pretend you are Actually Recording a Real Orchestra

If you pretend that your MIDI strings are actually the different sections of a real live orchestra, you will automatically compose music that sounds much more realistic as well.

By pretending you are working with a real orchestra, you will suddenly think of things that are actually challenging to real, human players.

For example, a flutist or brass player can NOT hold a note just as long as the cellist can. He or she needs to breathe you know. That is why you need to be aware of a few things when using different selections of VST instruments.

Try to breathe along with the note when you play a brass or woodwind VST. Yes, professional brass players may have stronger lungs and more practice than you, but I would rather have a note that is a bit too short than waaay too long.  

Also, make sure you plan ahead by overlapping instruments!

What do I mean by that?

Well, for example, you should plan when the cellos are coming in when the brass players have to stop.

What this does is to make a crossfade effect that as an extra bonus will make the dynamic of your whole piece much much better.

9. Use Different Libraries to set up Your Virtual Orchestra

Even if you have just started out with music production, you don’t need to spend a ton of money on quality VST libraries.

You can actually get your hands on lots of awesome FREE libraries, like LABS by Spitfire. Or a bunch of free stuff from Native Instruments.

Mix them up and use both in your piece! Then it is much harder for more experienced listeners who might have played around with the same VST library to recognize the cello sample.

I personally combine viola and violins from Albion Spitfire, Cellos from Best Service, drums from Native Instruments and flutes from EastWest in my orchestral templates.

10. Learn Everything About the Libraries You´ve got

Embarrassing real-life story: My very first major investment in a VST library was EastWest SO Gold. And for a looong time, I just loaded the same full orchestra- and Cello patches when I created orchestral pieces.

Imagine my surprise when I a couple of years later discovered everything I could actually do with the EastWest library. For years, I had used a full 60 people orchestra to create pieces that would have benefitted much more with a chamber strings patch. 

(Side tip: Chamber strings often sound the most realistic in my ears. Every time I hear chamber strings, I let go of everything else I am doing.

I think Chamber Strings are so effective because most young musicians want to recreate the Hans Zimmer/John Williams grandiose orchestra style, using big booming orchestra samples.

Which really makes it hard to stand out). 

When you get a new library, get to know it! And even though you are guaranteed to get a couple of favorite patches, try to be more versatile and use other sounds as well.

My laziness of not learning everything about the EastWest library basically meant that I squandered a great amount of money on just a few patches. I was not getting the best out of my investment. 

Lesson learned.

11. Create Templates

Okay, the last tip is not a direct solution to make MIDI strings sound realistic, but none of these tips are any good if you don’t take your time to follow through.

That is why it is so important that you create a variety of templates with different layouts of Chamber Strings, larger orchestra, etc. based on their real-life layout.

Then it is really easy just to open Cubase, Logic or whatever your preferred DAW is – and have the whole setup right at your fingertips.

Bonus tip:

When playing around with woodwinds: try to use the modulation wheel from time to time. Some real flutes, like the Armenian Duduk, actually has this pitch bend quality to it, and the modulation wheel can further make you create a truthful emulation of such instruments.

This is What you Have Learned in This Post

1. Emulate the positioning of a real orchestra
Adjust the panning of each separate instrument to match up with a real orchestra in a concert hall.

2. Know the instrument range
To avoid making a cello playing a note or with an expression that it can’t really do in real life: know each instrument range.

3. Don’t play full chords
When you play full chords, you are effectively ruining the realism. By playing everything at once, you will get a synthy, non-dynamic feel to your orchestra.   

4. Use automation 
The use of automation, like expression, velocity, and more is a massively helpful tool to make your strings sound like they are being played by a real human being.

5. Proper use of reverb
Especially on cheaper or free libraries, adding a sense of space with reverb could really make a difference to make them sound more realistic.

6. Use an actual instrument as well
Blending in a real instrument may help you “fool” the listener into thinking the whole piece is live recorded.

7. Embrace imperfection
People make mistakes. More than a computer does. Make sure you get some mistakes in the mix to avoid a machine-like, too perfect sound to your piece.

8. Pretend you are recording a real live orchestra
By pretending that you are recording a real orchestra, you will think of the instrument range, breathing limits of the brass players and so on.

9. Use different libraries in your project
Just like mixing in an actual instrument, blending different libraries might make the listener believe that she is listening to real instruments. In addition, it makes it harder for other musicians like me to recognize what you are doing!

10. Learn everything about your libraries
When you know what possibilities you have with your libraries, it is much easier to get a good, realistic sound out of it. 

11. Create templates 
Templates will help you stay consistent and following through with all the steps above.

I hope this post was helpful to you, and make sure to comment below if you have additional tips and information about making your virtual symphonic orchestra sound like a real one.

Suggested Further Reading

Thomas Leypoldt

Hey there! My name is Thomas and I have been a film composer for over 10 years, delivering music to feature films, documentaries, video games, and commercials. I share everything I have learned on this website, to hopefully be of help to your own development as a musician.

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