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When violinists play a pizzicato passage or pluck the strings of their instrument, they do their best to maintain a consistent amount of force with each note they play. But since they’re human, the consistency of their performance has slight variations to it.
When you play in performances with a MIDI controller, the software you’re using assigns a value between zero and 127 to each note depending on how hard or soft you hit the key. This parameter is called velocity, and it’s meant to mimic the natural strength variations in our playing. If you write in notes with a pencil tool instead, however, as many producers do, all our MIDI notes will have the same velocity, which can sound extremely unnatural.
But it doesn’t have to end there. Here are a few tactics you can use to create more realistic-sounding performances in your DAW.
Note: The following lesson is taken from our new, free course series, Making Realistic MIDI Strings in Ableton Live and Logic X, but for this article, we’ll be working in Ableton Live. If you want to follow along, you can use your own digital string arrangement or download the following MIDI file we generated to go along with one of the compositions from Ian Davis’ Mainstage course, Orchestration for Strings, below.
Perfecting Your Pizz
To view a clip’s velocity data, click on the little triangle in the bottom left corner of the piano roll.
You can click and drag the little circles below the notes to adjust the velocity of each individual event.
Alternatively, you can CMD+click and drag up and down on individual notes to adjust the velocity as well.
Try adjusting the velocity of the first two bars to make the part more interesting. Maybe bring the first note down, and emphasize the upbeat that follows. Try things out, and see if you can make the part sound more alive.
Using Velocity Grooves
As you might imagine, making a more convincing part this way could take a while if you manually adjust velocity data for an entire piece. Let’s try something different with the viola track.
To learn more simple techniques to make your MIDI strings sound more realistic, such as timing and expression, join the full free course, Making Realistic MIDI Strings.
Normally, we think of using the Groove Pool for drum parts. We can, however, also use it to copy velocity data to the rest of a looping performance.
Start by manually adjusting the velocities of a phrase. In the case of this viola part, the phrase is five bars long. Highlight the first five bars in the arrangement and use shortcut CMD+E to split the clip from the existing performance.
We also need to adjust the end of the separated clip to be the first beat of measure six and turn off Loop.
Right click on the newly formed clip, and select “Extract Groove(s).” Let’s apply this groove to the rest of the viola part.
Click the little button that looks like two little waves on the left side of the screen to open the Groove Pool. Since we’re not concerned with timing, we can turn that all the way down. We’re only worried about velocity right now, so let’s turn that all the way up.
When we click “Commit,” we see all the velocities change for the rest of the part. They’re just a little low, so we have to highlight all the notes from bar six forward and drag them up to match the first five bars.
It’s a bit of a clumsy workaround, but it’s an effective way to apply the same feeling to the rest of the performance.
So far, we’ve looked at making direct and lasting changes to velocity. Let’s look at how to create controlled randomness with velocity.
The velocity MIDI effect is a great way to add some randomly generated variations to the velocity of your parts. By default, it doesn’t have any effect on the existing velocities of the clip. As we turn up the “random” parameter, we see a grey area expand from the yellow line. The highest value, 64, creates the largest grey area and indicates that outgoing velocities can be randomly increased or decreased by a variance of up to 64.
Sixty-four is a little too random. If we turn it down to about halfway, 32, velocities will bounce around a smaller range and sound more lifelike.
Now, go back and do this with the rest of the string parts in your arrangement and listen back to whether or not it’s heading in the right direction. Good luck!
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