Wiki: Zircon's ReMixing Tips Compendium/Part 2: Working With "Real" Instruments

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Explains how to breathe some life into sampled instruments like piano and strings.


Note: I say "real" instruments because everything in the following tutorial deals with SAMPLED or virtual instruments, not full-blown recordings, as that is a different matter entirely.

Using sampled instruments such as pianos, guitars, strings, woodwinds, and so forth is a difficult task. No matter how good the samples are, sequencing them improperly can result in very artificial-sounding passages. Unfortunately, many people overlook the importance of tweaking real instrumental samples. This is a big problem, especially considering so many people like to use realistic instruments in their remixes. I'd like to explain some of the techniques I use to make real instruments sound.. well.. real. Like part one, I'll be using FLStudio 5 for my demonstrations, with all default OR free samples - links will be provided, of course.


Velocities / Note Length

To begin with, let's take a simple melody snippet that everyone should recognize. It's sequenced very simply - eighth notes, constant velocity, rigid timing, no effects. Here's what it sounds like.

It's not terrible.. but it's not all that great either. How can it be improved? Should I go out and get some Gigasamples? No! I'll just make a few small changes...

  • Editing velocities. No human hits every note mechanically - each one will have a slightly different volume and timbre. This effect can be simulated by making small adjustments to the velocities of the different notes. If you're a piano player, think of the way YOU'D play a passage. It sounds tedious, but it's really not all that bad - it took me no more than thirty seconds to mess with the velocities here. Just make sure that you don't make huge changes to the velocities between each note, as that's equally unrealistic.
  • Note length. If you're playing something with emotion and expression, and you see eighth notes, you're not going to let go of each note as soon as you see the next one. People don't do that. They will hold notes while they're hitting the next one, letting them blend into eachother slightly. This sort of slurring or legato is very common in many types of music.

Here's what the same passage sounds like with just these two changes.

Sounds a lot more flowing than the previous example. With a little more editing, any even more natural sound can be achieved...

Reverb / Note Timing

  • Reverb. Most samples, especially free ones, are "dry" - in other words, no natural ambiance or reverb was recorded. However, reverb is all around us, and an important element of live performance. Without it, you get a very sterile and lifeless sound. The exact type and amount of reverb to put on a part really depends on the kind of music you're doing - so you'll just have to mess around a bit with the settings.
  • Note timing. Even the best piano players don't hit every note perfectly. Depending on what kind of performance you want to simulate, I advise going through the pattern and *slightly* offsetting notes every so often so they don't hit right when they should. Sure, it adds a level of error, but it also makes things sound more human. It's VERY easy to overdo this, of course, so just be careful.

Here is the same sequence with these two changes made. They took me less than a minute.

Compare this to the first MP3 example. It's a BIG difference.. and all it took was maybe a minute or two of extra work. Here's the project file containing the finished sequence. Don't forget to pick up the SF2 I used (check at the bottom of this tutorial for the link).


The same concepts apply to all other 'real' instruments, pretty much. But I would like to quickly go into one more instrumental example - the string ensemble - because it is used so often. Orchestral strings are probably the single most common type of 'pad' used across the board in any kind of music. While there are libraries costing hundreds to thousands of dollars just focusing on this sound, most of us are stuck with the free stuff. But that's no reason to make excuses. You CAN make free string samples sound good. Here's a basic chord progression from Final Fantasy 2/4 played with a string soundfont:

This isn't too good. Here's some things you can do:

  • Don't have the notes strike again for each chord. For this style, strings should play legato and sustain. Also, no need to play simple three note chords. I messed around with the notes within the chords to give a fuller and richer sound that wasn't quite as bland. Knowing a little music theory or playing an instrument can help you hear what sounds best in this instance, but sometimes, just fooling around on a keyboard can get you good results too (that's what I do, more or less).
  • Change the velocities around. Much like when using pianos, strings need some humanization through velocity editing too. However, it's not QUITE the same thing here. In this case, I had the lower string notes play at lower velocities, while the higher notes got gradually louder and then softer when the chords change halfway through.
  • Reverb. Same deal as the piano, though again, tweak the settings to get an ideal sound.

The result (which, again, took only a couple minutes)...

If you want to go the extra mile, and feel comfortable with your sequencer of choice, you can try introducing some volume automation. Basically, all this means is making the volume of the sample change by itself as its playing - much like a human can get louder or softer mid-note. I'm not the best at this, but here's what I came up with using a bit of volume automation on the same passage.

It's a subtle change, but it does add a slightly more human and expressive aspect. Here's the project file.

End of Part 2

There are lots of other ways you can make samples sound more realistic, and having better samples never hurts, but keep some of this advice in mind and you can certainly squeeze some life out of the soundfonts you're using now.


This is the piano soundfont I used. It's just a free soundfont from that I picked at random.

This is the string soundfont I used. It's decent, and also comes from Hammersound.



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