There’s nothing quite like the sound of a real piano, whether it’s a jazzy upright at a dimly lit bar or a Steinway grand in a concert hall. However, anyone who’s ever had to hire piano movers or pay for a professional tuner can attest to the maintenance and cost of a real piano.
Since not every musician has the money or space for the real thing, here are some tips to make your piano tracks sound realistic in your DAW of choice.
Use MIDI Functions
Once you’ve chosen a piano sound and recorded your MIDI track, there are some tips for things you can do with just MIDI that will go a long way towards adding some realism and feel to your piano track. Especially if you’re still learning your way around the piano, these tips can be really useful.
The first thing you can use is the Quantize function. When you quantize notes in a MIDI track, you lock them to a grid so they’re all precisely in time. However, you can alter the degree of precision by selecting a quantized strength lower than 100%, which is what we’ll do in this case.
By deliberately making it less precise, the track won’t sound as stiff and robotic. We’re using Logic Pro X as a DAW for demonstration purposes, but the process is similar to other DAWs.
Here’s how to quantize notes in your MIDI track:
- Right-click on the MIDI region in your Workspace view.
- Scroll to Quantize.
- Select the value you want to use. The most precise is to a 1/64 note. You can also quantize from the Piano Roll grid, which is handy if you don’t want to quantize all your notes:
- Select the notes you want to quantize. To select more than one, hold down Shift and click or drag with your mouse or trackpad.
- Select the quantized note value from the Inspector channel strip view on the left.
- Click the Q button.
The velocity of a MIDI note is the strength at which it’s struck, denoted as a value from 0 to 127, with 127 being the loudest. If you vary the velocity of notes within your MIDI track, it will better mimic the way a real piano is played, and there will be some variation in the velocity between one section of notes and the next.
When it comes to a real piano, some of this variation happens naturally because of the player, and some of it happens because the piano keys might not all have the same touch response.
As a piano starts to go out of tune or is subjected to temperature and humidity changes, you’ll find that there will be some natural inconsistency between one section of keys and the next. There’s nothing wrong with this; it just means that every piano is different.
To change the velocity of your MIDI notes, in the same Piano Roll grid view, select the note you want to change. Then move the Velocity slider to the value you want. The higher the value, the louder the note will be.
Here’s the tricky thing: when you select more than one note with different velocities, the value on the Velocity slider will be the lowest velocity of all the notes selected. If you then increase this by 30, for example, any note with a velocity of 10 will now be 40, and any note with a velocity of 50 will now be 80, and so on. You can override this and make the velocity values all the same by holding down Option and Shift as you select each note.
The other MIDI function to play around with is swing. While this is mostly used for drum tracks to slightly vary the tempo and give it a “swing” feel (hence the name), it works with musical notes and other instruments too.
Keep in mind that when you apply the Swing function, it will be applied to the whole track. If you want a few different values, make a few different tracks. To apply swing to your track, just move the Swing slider to the percentage you want.
Depending on your DAW, you’ll likely have a variety of different effects, also known as plugins, which you can use to add even more realism and variation to your MIDI piano tracks. Below are some of the most common ones. It’s best practice to bounce or print your MIDI tracks to audio before applying these effects.
Equalization, or EQ, shapes your sounds by either cutting or boosting certain frequencies or pitches. For example, if you feel like your MIDI piano tracks have too much bass, you can cut out low frequencies.
Conversely, if you want to add more body to your tracks, you can try boosting the low and mid frequencies a bit. If you’re not sure where to start, Logic has some presets, including presets for piano tracks.
A compressor takes the loudest parts of a track and lowers them to a threshold you set to match the volume of the rest of the track. Compressors are useful if you have a track with many dynamic variations, but you don’t want to lower the overall volume and risk parts of your track sounding too quiet.
Compression can also be used less conventionally to emphasize transients and make your tracks sound punchier and louder. Play around with the Attack and Release values to make the compressor kick in at various points (a short attack will cause it to kick in faster).
Once you’ve turned down the loudest parts of a track, you can bring up the rest of it without it getting muddy or distorted by using the makeup gain feature or changing the ratio of compression. The higher the ratio, the stronger the compression.
If you’re working with more than one track, compression can also help “glue” your tracks together by blending the dynamics. For example, if you route all your MIDI piano tracks to a mix group (known as a Track Stack in Logic), you can then apply a compressor to the entire group.
Logic has a variety of built-in compressors, and the Apple Support site has an in-depth guide for which compressor does what.
When you use reverb effects on a track, you’re essentially placing that track in a particular space, whether a large concert hall, small drum booth, or outdoor stadium. While people associate reverb with echo, it’s a different acoustic phenomenon and can give you different results.
When soundwaves from a sound reflect off a surface, we hear these reflections differently from the original source, and the original sound might seem like it’s been stretched out or might sound less distinct and percussive. It depends on how far away the surfaces are and how large the space is. The longer the reverb time, the longer it will take for the reflected sound to stop.
So when we hear a sound reverberating, what we’re actually hearing are its reflections after the original sound has stopped. Conversely, an echo means you hear the original sound two or more times, exactly as it sounded the first time.
By applying a light reverb to our MIDI piano track, it will sound more like it’s being played in a room instead of “in the box” because the notes will have more presence and sound less flat and lifeless. You can blend the wet and dry signals to control how much of the reverb is applied.
Layer Your Sounds
When you record a real piano in a studio, you generally place multiple microphones around the room and even inside the piano. By doing so, you capture its sound from a variety of perspectives and then blend them together.
However, you can’t do this when you’re recording your MIDI keyboard on GarageBand. Instead, you mimic this effect by layering different piano sounds as if from more than one vantage point. Try layering a few different types of piano, or layering one MIDI piano track with reverb applied and one without.
Utilize Panning and Stereo Spread
If you print your MIDI tracks to audio as stereo tracks, you can use a stereo spread effect to widen the stereo field. Think of it as the difference between listening on headphones versus listening in a big studio.
You can also print them as mono tracks and experiment with panning each track to create different listening perspectives.
Think Outside the Box
Whatever your DAW and plugin preferences, there are many ways to record and mix in the box if you don’t have access to a real piano or a recording studio.
There are many free DAWs and audio editors out there that still have industry-standard features. Between MIDI editing capabilities, software instruments, and plugins, you can dial up pretty much any sound you want. A real piano sounds amazing, but with the right effects, you can get pretty close in a DAW.
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