How to make MIDI piano sound more realistic


Steinway Grand Piano with hands playing

The piano is a beautiful instrument with so much character and personality. It can be soft and mellow, or thunderously loud and powerful. 

If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t have a Steinway grand piano and an auditorium or professional recording studio with amazing acoustics at your disposal. I use a MIDI controller to record MIDI piano ideas into my DAW software – but they often start off sounding less than realistic and far removed from a real grand piano in a concert hall! 

In this article, we’ll be talking about a number of techniques I’ve found useful to make MIDI piano sound more realistic. 

How to make midi piano sound more realistic?

To make MIDI piano sound more realistic, make sure you’re using dynamics and groove like a real pianist – meaning that not all the notes have the same velocity – and the timing isn’t 100% quantized to the grid. 

Next, find a sample that sounds like a real piano. Study some recordings of real pianos and get familiar with the tone (There are plenty of recordings on Youtube) – you’ll notice that a real piano has a very soft, warm mellow tone – especially so when played quietly. Many piano samples are way too bright – and they end up sounding tinny or harsh like your Nanna’s Casio keyboard. Sometimes in a busy mix blending 2 or more piano samples together can help make your MIDI piano cut through while still sounding like a real piano.

Now apply some subtle processing with EQ, compression and some light saturation. This will help bring the performance to life, sit nicely in the mix and give it the energy it needs. 

Finally, use some natural reverb and maybe a tiny bit of delay to make your midi piano track really sing and move you. When I think of a stunning piano performance, I visualise a Steinway grand piano on a stage in an auditorium. Adding just the right amount of reverb and delay transports your MIDI piano from your bedroom to the arena – giving it more texture and fullness. 

Read on for more details on how to apply all these techniques.

So far, we’ve provided an overview of some of the techniques used to make MIDI piano sound more realistic. There’s actually a lot more to it – so in the following sections I’ll explain in much more detail how to apply these techniques to transform your MIDI piano into a beautiful, realistic sounding piano performance. 

I’ll be explaining some of the settings I use and I’ll provide some screenshots from a couple of different DAWs so you can see exactly how to apply these techniques to your own project.

In the introduction section I talked about three key areas to focus on to make your MIDI piano sound more realistic. In summary, they are; performance, sample and processing.

How a good performance can help make your MIDI sound more realistic

The MIDI format gives you lots of parameters to help you make your performance sound more like a real pianist playing. 

1. Setting the velocity of your MIDI notes (Dynamics)

The first tool is ‘Velocity’ – this refers to how loud the note is played. A faster velocity, results in a louder note. When you strike a key harder on an acoustic piano, not only does this result in a louder note, it also has more attack and brightness. Many MIDI virtual instruments these days have the ability to simulate the different intensity that you get with a faster or slower velocity. They can do this, because the virtual instrument recorded multiple velocity layers.

What’s more important than all this is how realistic the piano sound is across the full range of velocities. Imagine you recording a piano key being hit as hard as possible, and then used that as the single sample for that note, and so the sample is just played back at a different volume scaled from 0 to 127. If we did that, it wouldn’t really sound right. When you actually play a real piano key quietly, it sounds a lot different then playing the sound of a loudly hit piano key back at a really low volume. Similarly, if you recorded a piano note being played quietly and scaled up the playback volume to as loud as you could, that wouldn’t sound anything like what a piano key sounds like when you hit it hard. The tone/timbre of a piano note is completely different depending on how quietly/loud you play it.

A velocity curve is essentially a way to customize what MIDI note velocity (between 0 and 127) results from an amount of force with which you play your MIDI controller. Velocity curves allow you to alter the feel of your MIDI controller. … This velocity is used to determine the dynamic of the piano.

The best piano virtual instruments will have recorded samples of louder and softer notes played on a real acoustic piano. 

So, how does this apply to your MIDI piano? If you’re playing your piece in using a MIDI controller, try and give your performance energy and dynamics by playing harder on the keys for more intense sections of your song, and play more quietly for more mellow sections of the song. 

If you’re programming a MIDI piano part using a mouse or computer keyboard, you’ll need to manually edit the velocity curve for each note so it doesn’t sound like a robot playing notes with the exact same volume.

To do this, in Pro Tools, set your track view to blocks then double click on your MIDI track to bring up the piano roll editor window. This is also known as a step sequencer. (You can also right click and select ‘Open in MIDI Editor’.

Down the bottom of this window, you’ll see a number of controls and a little ‘bar graph’ type interface. In the bottom left there is a menu and in here, select ‘Velocity. 

Now you can drag the velocity up and down for each note using your cursor, to make a note play louder or softer.

You’ll often find that notes on the first beat of the bar naturally should have a faster velocity and more energy to them as they mark the beat of the song. Other notes within the bar tend to be quieter.

In this example, here is what a piano line would look like using the mouse.

The velocity is all the same on all these notes – this sounds very robotic and lifeless.

MIDI Track before velocity edits

After editing this I would increase the velocity for the first note – and anywhere where there is a chord change or an important melodic element that you want to stand out. Give these notes a higher velocity which means it will play louder. Other ‘filler’ notes can have the velocity decreased.

Here’s what this performance will look like after these edits.

MIDI track after velocity edits

Volume / Velocity Automation.

We talked about manual velocity edits – another thing that you can do to make a MIDI performance feel more authentic is volume automation. To do this, you can adjust the volume curve over a particular section of the performance, rather than doing it note by note in the manual note velocity edits we talked about above.

To do this in Pro Tools, exit out of the step sequence view and select ‘Volume’ from the track view selector on the channel. 

Select ‘Volume’ from the track view selector
Select the Pencil tool

Then using the ‘pencil’ tool, you can draw a volume curve for the track.

Volume Automation curve in Pro Tools
Volume Automation curve drawn with the pencil tool

2. Use Sustain to make your MIDI piano sound more realistic

Another important element of a natural and realistic sounding midi piano performance is sustain. Real pianos have a sustain pedal – which allows notes to hold and resonate for longer – this means that one note doesn’t always completely stop before the next note starts. When you’re programming or editing a MIDI performance, bear that in mind and let the notes ring out longer – don’t just cut them off at the end of a bar.

3. Quantizing the timing of your MIDI performance 

Quantization is a tool that most modern DAW software packages have. It allows you to set certain parameters on how closely aligned to the timing grid you want your midi performance to be. When you apply the quantization it will automatically adjust the timing of the notes to align to the grid. This can include alignment for the start of the notes as well as the duration of the notes.Depending on the style of music that you are creating, quantization is useful to varying degrees. For electronic music where the timing of every drum beat and note needs to be exactly in time, quantization allows you to tidy up an untidy performance and bring it perfectly into time. 

For other more organic styles of music like folk, jazz or even a pop ballad, too much quantization can make the performance sound sterile and robotic. Even the most talented pianist won’t always play perfectly in time, so for many styles of music, just use a little bit of quantization to tidy up obvious mistakes, but let the timing breathe a bit more naturally.

The quantize tool in your MIDI editor or DAW allows you to automatically adjust the start and end of your notes to align with the timing grid. This means that you can fix up an imperfect performance and align it more accurately with the timing of the song and fix up errors in the performance.

There is an art to using quantize sensitively. Too much can make your performance sound robotic and sterile. Don’t do a 100% quantize – I recommend a maximum of 50% – so the performance still sounds natural. You can still do manual adjustments to sections where the timing was way off.

How to access the quantize function in Pro Tools
Quantize function in Pro Tools
Midi Track before quantize. Notice the start of the notes is slightly late – not aligned with the grid.
MIDI Track after Quantizing. The notes are now aligned to the grid. Notice one note has moved to the wrong place and will need manual adjustment.

Other DAW software tools  like Ableton, Logic, Studio One will have similar quantize functions.

4. Add some Groove to your MIDI Piano

Another thing to add to your MIDI piano performance is ‘Groove’. Groove is an elusive and subjective topic – it depends on the style of the song as to what will work best. If you’re plyaing a swing jazz piece, you’ll want the feel of the piano to match the swing feel of the song.  “Dah dit da-dah, dit da-dah” “One, a-two, a-three, a-four”.

You could also have more of a triplet feel like “one-and-a, two-and-a, three-and-a, four-and-a.” 

Or just a straight 1/8th note feel, which is common in a lot of pop and rock tracks: “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and”.

5. Selecting the right Sample

These days there are many excellent piano samples and virtual instruments available that sound like a real piano. (Because in fact they are from recordings of a real piano) . The artform comes in the creation of a MIDI performance that is realistic. We’ve covered a number of these techniques in the article above.

If you’re in Pro Tools, the piano samples that come with the bundled ‘Xpand’ virtual instrument pack are all very good.

Some of the other great piano virtual instruments are Addictive Keys, Native Instruments, Virtual Grand and Keyscape

6. Using EQ to make your MIDI piano sit nicely in the mix

Piano is a dynamic full-range instrument which means it can have very low notes down around 100hz or less and very high notes with attack up around 3.5-4Khz – in the upper mid range.

Depending on the style of music you are working with, you have some options on how you choose to EQ your piano track so it sounds more realistic and like a real piano, as well as fitting in nicely with other instruments in your song.

If you’re working on a rock or pop piece of music and the piano needs to fit in around drums, bass, guitars and vocals, then you’ll do some more severe EQ moves. 

EQ Suggestions for piano in a rock or pop mix

  • Try cutting everything below 150hz using a high pass filter. 
  • Get rid of boxiness with a small cut around 250hz with a narrow Q parametric EQ.
  • You could try a small 2-3db boost around 2Khz or 2.5Khz to get some attack and definition. 
  • Create a small cut in the guitar tracks at the same frequency range as the above to leave space for the piano to pop through.

If you’re creating a softer piece of music where the piano is more of a feature, you’ll want a softer tone that is mellow, warm and not too bright. In this case you might leave the EQ settings flatter and not do any major boosts or cuts.

7. Using Limiting and Compression to even out the volume of your piano track

Use some gentle limiting and compression to reduce the dynamic range of the piano – so the loud parts are reduced in volume to sound more consistent with the softer parts. This will result in a fuller sounding piano track that has energy and presence.

Be careful not to make the attack time too fast – so it doesn’t sound unnatural. A slow attack time of 50ms will reduce some of the peaks but still allow plenty of the transients to come through.

8. Using saturation on piano to soften transients and add body

Experiment with some gentle saturation on the piano track to give it some more warmth and character. 

9. Use Reverb and Delay to add space and stereo width

Create an aux send from your piano track (or piano bus) to your reverb and delay busses to give it more space and feel like it’s in a bigger room!

Conclusion

And that’s the lot. Hopefully this has been a helpful guide and your MIDI piano tracks are now sounding a whole lot more realistic!

A brief history of MIDI

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and it is an industry standard technology for connecting digital instruments together so they can share notes and event information. Some of the parameters that can be sent and controlled via midi are note pitch, velocity MIDI was first released to the general public in 1982 on the Roland Jupiter 6 and the Prophet 600 by Sequential Circuits.

Roland Jupiter 6 – one of the first synthesizers with MIDI

Over the years MIDI has evolved significantly – and now can also be sent via USB, making it accessible for just about anyone with a computer.

Read more about the history and evolution of MIDI on these sites;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIDI

https://www.noterepeat.com/articles/how-to/213-midi-basics-common-terms-explained

https://www.musicradar.com/news/tech/30-years-of-midi-a-brief-history-568009

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