Level Up Your Productions: 9 Advanced MIDI Techniques Every Producer Should Know

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MIDI opens up a world of limitless musical possibilities, but all too often producers merely scratch the surface.

By mastering advanced techniques like expressive pitch shaping, thoughtful velocity crafting, fluid portamento slides, and deep parameter automation, producers can transcend robotic MIDI to create nuanced, lifelike performances.

While MIDI offers endless creative potential, many only stick to the basics.

Let’s explore pro methods for taking MIDI to the next level.

How Can I Layer MIDI Instruments for Fuller Sounds?

Image illustrating a producer in a studio environment, using MIDI controllers and virtual instruments to layer sounds for a more dynamic music production

Thickening a sound by doubling or stacking instruments is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

This can be done to great effect using MIDI as well.

Try layering several MIDI synth patches or doubling MIDI strings and pads with their acoustic counterparts.

The stacked ensemble creates a richer, fuller tone than a single sound source.

Simple Layering by Doubling Parts

One simple but effective layering technique is to double the exact same MIDI part across two different instrument patches.

For example, layering a MIDI piano track with a classic FM electric piano patch immediately thickens the tone.

The two instruments complement each other perfectly while retaining harmonic alignment.

Slightly detuning one of the layers creates even more width and thickness.

Blending Complementary Timbres

Beyond just doubling, experiment with layering complementary timbres such as piano and Rhodes, orchestral strings layered with synth pads, or unison saw waves layered with detuned square waves.

Stacking contrasting textures makes each instrument more pronounced in the mix.

Layering acoustic and electronic instruments also adds natural dynamic variation.

Split Keyboard Zones for Seamless Layering

Splitting the keyboard into zones makes layering and blending multiple MIDI instruments intuitive.

For instance, map piano to the lower octaves, organ in the midrange, and strings on the upper octaves for quick registration changes.

Assign bass to the left hand and leads to the right hand for split performances.

Adaptive zoning simplifies mixing and matching sounds.

Careful Panning Placement Between Layers

When layering multiple MIDI tracks, pay attention to each instrument’s stereo image and panning placement.

Hard panning layers to opposite sides creates an extremely wide mix.

Subtly panning layers off-center gives separation without overdoing it.

Adding stereo spread and depth to each layer keeps them from clashing in the center.

A touch of reverb further melds layers together into a cohesive ensemble.

Genre Applications

In terms of genre applications, layered MIDI instrumentation works wonderfully for pads and atmospheres across electronic and pop productions.

Thick, doubled leads are common in jazz, funk, and soul music.

Orchestral scores also often utilize layered strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion to achieve a cinematic wall of sound.

The combinations are endless when stacking instruments via MIDI.

How Can I Make MIDI Parts More Expressive With Pitch Bend?

Image illustrating a producer in a studio environment, using MIDI controllers and virtual instruments to layer sounds for a more dynamic music production

While many associate pitch bend with spacey synth warbles, it has much wider applications.

Any MIDI instrument can be brought to life by adding tasteful pitch fluctuations.

Subtly bending notes sharp and flat from their starting pitch adds movement and expression.

The pitch bend range can be customized per MIDI track or synth patch to suit the instrument.

Emulate Acoustic Instrument Articulations

On expressive solo MIDI woodwind, brass, and string lines, try emulating the natural vibratos and articulations of those acoustic instruments.

Introduce tasteful pitch wobbles on long sustained notes.

Shape each note’s intonation over time based on the melody and harmony.

Use pitch bend to nail idiomatic instrumental phrasing.

Add Guitar and Organ Style Pitch Inflections

For electric piano, Rhodes, and synth patches, recreate guitar-like string bends by dropping or scooping into notes from above or below.

When used sparingly at emotional peaks, these larger pitch sweeps can be very dramatic and impactful.

The signature pitch bend on a Hammond organ can also be applied to enrich other MIDI keyboard parts.

Loosen Up Repetitive Sequences

Even rhythmic instruments like bass, arpeggios, and drums can benefit from the human touch of occasional pitch bend between notes.

Subtle random fluctuations increase fluidity and loosen up repetitive sequences.

As long as pitch variations correspond to the overall key and chord changes, bending MIDI parts off the grid adds “played” nuance.

Increase Melodic Expressiveness

On lead hooks and melodic lines, introduce pitch bend techniques like anticipations where notes bend into place just ahead of the beat, or echoes where notes bend and linger after the beat.

Used tastefully, these approaches mimic the way singers emote and range around the melody.

The results feel much more vocal, soulful and human compared to rigidly quantized MIDI.

Realistic Emulations and Nuanced Performances

With creative use of real-time pitch wheeling and programmed bend events, the possibilities are endless for shaping more expressive MIDI performances beyond robotic straight playback.

Pitch bend and modulation together can produce remarkably realistic instrumental emulations.

A little goes a long way, but judicious pitch bending brings MIDI parts to life.

How Can MIDI Controllers Add Expression and Movement?

Image depicting a producer using MIDI controllers to create expressive and dynamic music, adding movement and emotion to the performance

The capabilities of MIDI expand exponentially when using physical controllers like mod and pitch wheels, expression pedals, breath controllers, and aftertouch applied in real time.

These interfaces allow musicians to shape sounds, introduce variations, and open up new dimensions of expression.

Mod Wheels for Timbral Morphing

Mod wheels are perhaps the most familiar and widely used controllers.

Assigning mod wheel CCs to parameters like filter cutoff or oscillator waveforms allows musicians to sculpt timbral changes dynamically while performing.

As an example, modulating filter sweeps on synth pads creates movement and provides a way to build intensity and momentum during a section.

Expression Pedals for Hands-Free Control

Expression pedals give foot control over volume swells and other parameters, leaving hands free to play on keyboards or guitars.

Slowly opening and closing a volume swell on sustained MIDI strings or pads has an extremely emotional impact.

Expression pedals allow continuous real-time adjustment of any effect or modulation routing.

Aftertouch for Articulation and Inflection

Aftertouch is key pressure or pressure applied after the initial note strike.

Aftertouch messages can shape sounds through each unique finger press.

For MIDI wind and brass patches, this enables nuanced volume and timbral fluctuations during held notes.

Aftertouch applied per note polyphonically increases the realism and inflection of keyboard playing.

Breath Controllers for Ultra-Realism

MIDI breath controllers allow astoundingly realistic emulations of the human voice as well as wind and brass instruments.

By blowing naturally, continuous expression data modulates dynamics, articulation, inflection, vibrato and more.

Breath controllers capture the closest thing possible to a real saxophone, flute, or vocal performance via MIDI.

Next-Gen Controllers Expand Possibilities

Specialized modern controllers like the Seaboard, Linnstrument, and Soundplane open new frontiers.

These instruments capture multidimensional input for parameters like strike velocity, left-right position, and per finger pressure for unprecedented nuance.

Designed for MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression), they enable techniques impossible on traditional keyboards.

Continuous Control Breathes Life Into MIDI

Harnessing this new generation of expressive MIDI controllers combined with creative assignment of continuous CCs unlocks unprecedented real-time sound shaping capability.

The days of static MIDI playback are over.

By embracing controllers, producers can breathe new life into MIDI performances.

How Can I Humanize MIDI Velocity for Realistic Parts?

Image illustrating a producer adjusting MIDI velocity settings to add human-like nuances and realism to a MIDI performance

One giveaway of programmed MIDI is uniform velocity values on each note.

Human musicians have natural variation and dynamics between notes when playing instruments or singing.

Subtle inconsistencies in impact velocity across a performance is a big part of sounding “real”.

Overcoming Robotic Quantization

Humanizing MIDI performances involves overcoming the perfection of quantization and robotic timing to make parts feel more organic.

There are several techniques for applying natural dynamics that don’t compromise the underlying rhythmic structure:

Randomly alter the velocities of notes within a realistic degree, anywhere from ±5-15 velocity points.

This imparts natural inconsistency from note to note.

Emphasize accented notes by significantly increasing their velocities, while dropping backbeats to lower velocities.

Stronger transients on downbeats or syncopations make parts groove and pocket harder.

Matching Musical Dynamics

Taper the velocity curve over the course of a long MIDI phrase.

For example, ease off velocities gradually towards the tail of a bassline or snare roll for a believable dynamic envelope.

Make velocities progressively softer or louder during crescendo/decrescendo passages to accurately reflect the intensity change.

Precision Editing for Realism

For exposed solo MIDI performances, customize the velocities individually note by note as if playing it live with dynamics and expression.

Get into the details with precision editing.

With plugin humanizers or thoughtful manual editing, the velocities can be massaged to add organic dynamics without compromising the foundation MIDI performance.

Intelligent velocity manipulation results in much more convincing and inspiring MIDI patterns.

How Can I Use MIDI Portamento for Smooth Pitch Glides?

Image depicting a producer using MIDI controllers with portamento settings to create smooth and expressive pitch glides in music production

Portamento is a key MIDI performance function that allows the pitch to smoothly glide between successive notes rather than changing abruptly.

This recreates the pitch bend and slide techniques used by vocalists and guitarists.

The portamento rate determines the transition time over which pitches gradually meet.

Increase Melodic Fluidity

Used tastefully, portamento applied to lead MIDI hooks makes melodic lines more fluid, soulful, and vocal-like.

For example, at the end of a phrase, apply portamento moving into the root melody note for impact.

Or use slides harmonically when transitioning across chord changes to better outline chord tones.

Thicken Basslines

For basslines, a touch of portamento between steps thickens the line and improves the groove.

Rather than clinically sharp bass notes, smoothed slides better emulate classic funk and R&B pocket.

Make bass slides snappy for faster tempos, or increase slide time for drawn-out slinkiness.

Synthwave/Vaporwave Swoops

Portamento works well on arpeggiator sequences to impart synthwave and vaporwave style pitch swoops between notes in the arp pattern.

For layered EDM synth leads, use dual detuned sawtooth patches, one with fast aggressive slides and another straight, for massive texture.

Extreme Sound Design Applications

Extreme portamento settings can be used for radical sound mangling effects.

As an example, apply heavy scrolling portamento when transitioning between widely spaced intervals to achieve jarring pitch distortions.

Get creative for sound design applications.

Selective Channelization

A flexible way to apply portamento is through MIDI channelization.

Place portamento only on your lead MIDI channel for selective note slides, while leaving backing parts straight.

This avoids overdoing it by limiting portamento to where it’s most effective.

Don’t shy away from pitch bending – used wisely, portamento greatly enhances MIDI performances.

How Can I Use Pitch Automation for Advanced MIDI Effects?

Image illustrating a producer using MIDI controllers with pitch automation controls to create advanced and dynamic MIDI effects

While pitch bend provides real-time pitch modulation, MIDI CCs allow drawing in pitch changes over time with the detail of automation curves.

This unlocks creative possibilities impossible through performance controllers alone.

Any parameters can be automated, but pitch and filter are common targets.

Dynamic Transposition and Morphing

Try using pitch automation to create builds and transitions that unfold organically over time by progressively transposing parts up or down.

Introduce cascading or spiraling pitch effects across multiple MIDI layers to dynamically morph timbres.

Abstract Sound Mangling

Drawing unpredictable zig-zag pitch curves transforms instruments in bizarre, synthetic ways.

Use extensive automation to mutate and destroy sounds over time for glitchy IDM effects.

For cinematic impact, quickly plunge or ascend pitches across wide intervals.

Evolving Psychedelic Soundscapes

Smoothly modulating pitch CC sweeps across the stereo field creating a swirling, psychedelic stereo image that pans back and forth.

Pitch automation combined with creative filtering and overdrive generates rich, evolving soundscapes.

Unlocking Impossible Performances

For chordal instruments, use pitch automation to arpeggiate held notes by cycling through extensions like 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.

Try shifting octaves for modal harmonies that transition fluidally across registers.

MIDI pitch automation allows playing the impossible.

Endless Sonic Possibilities

These techniques are just scratching the surface of MIDI automation possibilities.

Any parameter can be tweaked and morphed over time or per phrase.

The creative sound design, composition, and arrangement potential is infinite.

Dedicated CC lanes supercharge MIDI with production power.

As you can see, going beyond basic MIDI techniques unlocks game-changing creative potential.

With a handle on advanced methods like instrument layering, intelligent controllers, portamento, velocity editing, and parameter automation, producers can create more expressive and nuanced music.

Don’t limit yourself to MIDI basics – implement these pro techniques today to reach new heights in your productions!

Conclusion

The world of MIDI offers endless creative possibilities beyond just placing notes on a grid.

By mastering advanced techniques like expressive pitch manipulation, tactful velocity crafting, smooth portamento slides, and deep parameter automation, producers can breathe new life into MIDI performances.

The human element comes through.

Songs resonate emotionally.

Don’t settle for robotic quantization and predictable parts – take MIDI to the next level with nuanced controllers, thoughtful layering, and audacious sound design.

Let these pro techniques spur newfound inspiration.

Keep pushing boundaries until the computer feels human and CGI sounds real.

The only limit is your imagination.

Dominic

Dominic is the chief editor of the Burton Acoustix blog which writes about acoustics and soundproofing to help readers with their queries and questions they might have with regard to improving any sound or noise issues that they faced in their life.