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Are there any good resources and exercises for getting the most expression & life out of a project?


New Member
I've been spending a lot of time making mockups and creating orchestral arrangements of non-orchestral pieces. Some of my VSTs have a dizzying array of patches, and some have dozens of keyswitches, and are a bit of a pain to program. I'm happy with how my stuff sounds, but sometimes doesn't have as much life and "motion" as I'd like (one mockup I did somehow sounded slower that the original, despite having a higher BPM). Sometimes I knock it out of the park, and other times it's a bit sterile...and instead of jumping ship every time I get distracted by every pretty sounding VST demo, I want to really get adept at what I have.

Are there any good tutorials on getting the most expression out of instruments? And what are some good exercises, that won't require days of arranging, and will let me focus on practicing getting a lot of expression out of my virtual instruments?
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Active Member
Haven't encountered anything like this myself very much. Probably the closest thing is when someone makes a video of a demo composition in their DAW and sometimes they'll show the tracks with the midi CC lanes.

I think an easy and useful exercise would be to find typical famous solos for each instrument you want to try, and see how closely you can imitate the performance nuances. Doing this exercise on solo instruments will probably feel like a more immediate testing/learning experience than trying to make an ensemble piece each time, and will also force you to challenge yourself to achieve good nuances even when the instrument is totally exposed with no orchestration to hide it.

Also use mix referencing. It might be a bit disappointing to compare any sample library to real performances, but it will also keep you keenly aware of the various ways to get expressive performances.

Some basic gems of midi virtual instruments, maybe you already know:
  • Vary midi note velocity more than you think on rhythmic shorts
  • Vary midi expression / velocity crossfading more than you think, particularly to sculpt note attacks in combination with different articulations.
  • Try whatever different articulations to replace other artics, for example maybe a marcato artic works better than a portato in some cases
  • Vary the exact note timings, sometimes a slight unevenness done in a precise way will sounds more realistic.
  • Don't be afraid to automate volume too, sometimes instruments are capable of shifting their volume separately from the tone change that may usually be associated with the dynamics. So be varying volume can open up more timbre options in the same passage
  • The common theme comes up in a lot of other ways - that real performances are very dynamic, inaccurate, and varied. if someone's midi programming sounds unnatural or unrealistic, I think it's very commonly due to their midi being flat - stuck on one articulation, too rigid to the tempo, too flat in dynamics, etc.
Hope that helps! Sorry no one had a chance to reply sooner.
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Active Member
One additional thought where I mentioned varying note timings - it shouldn't be just random. It should be based on the kind of errors humans would have, due to the nature of playing the instrument or for musicality, etc.

Piano is the easiest example of this. Record yourself playing a piano thing and then inspect the midi - it will reveal the ways you want to be inaccurate in order to be natural and expressive. Figuring out all the ways that this kind of variety should be programmed is knowledge that accumulated over time.

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Active Member
Shoot, I had a lot of major typos from my phone typing skills. So you might want to read my corrected versions on the forum we page instead of the replies you might have received over email :faint:
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