Writing Music for Film: MIDI Mockups

One thing that modern film composers have to master is the MIDI mockup. This is where the composer will create a mockup of the orchestral arrangement before going into the studio. In some cases, this is all the film will use depending on the budget. These have become more and more important because some directors use the quality of the mockup as a direct indication of how the actual soundtrack will sound; and the quality of the composer. So you may write out a brilliant arrangement but if you can’t create a great sounding mockup, you may lose out.

Not Your Basic MIDI

Since the quality (and sheer size) of orchestral sample libraries have grown so much in the past decade, producing great mockups using these libraries have become an art in itself. It’s gone way beyond just assigning a sound to a MIDI track and going from there. Some composers have even gotten into writing scripts for their favorite samplers to make the performance more realistic. Others have gone into the studio and built their own libraries and presets. These may make your library sound more realistic and have a quality all of it’s own. Each of the libraries have to be coaxed and tweaked to make a realistic sounding track. If your samples don’t cut it, your track won’t cut it.

The Library Idiosyncrasies

You would think that with all of these great sample libraries out there, it would be simple just to piece together the best virtual orchestra in existence. In reality, it’s not that simple. Every library has its own idiosyncrasies that makes it harder to put together a cohesive whole. Some sample libraries automatically include specific panning for each instrument based upon the traditional orchestra seating arrangement; great if you want that, a major pain if you don’t.  Others include varying amounts of reverb and/or room noise printed right into the sample preset. Some come with separate IR’s as part of the instrument settings and still others include various mic settings (close, stage, far) as different presets.  Still each has it’s own distinct character which is great when going for a certain sound but not so much when trying to marry a say overly bright viola with a darker violin. It’s not just about getting a great preset, it’s about how it sounds with the other instruments in the orchestra.

Beyond The Sample Library

With the advent of these mega-gig sample libraries, other companies have taken a different approach. Instead of using tons of samples, they use a small amount and use coding and synthesis to augment that. Some forgo the samples all together using the latest in synthesis and modeling to create a playable instrument. The key here is that they are trying to create a ‘playable’ instrument. Anybody who has used sample libraries for any amount of time know that most of the time these aren’t performance friendly. Some libraries have tried hard to make a playable performance instrument using modulation, key-switching and velocity mapping. Some have been successful to one degree or another but these still take time to learn and master; again, with varying results. Some companies have created some great virtual instruments (notably piano and sections) but most solo instruments (violin, horns) fall short.


Another development is the specialized library. Here companies are taking certain sounds and effects and making that the point of the library. These would include standard music phrases and effects and making that a preset. Or, they’ve taken specific sounds (like action type strings or aggressive horns) and made that a preset. Iinstead of trying to emulate the complete instrument, they’ve taken just one aspect of performance. Other libraries have tried this with key-switching: whereby you would have the one preset but then be able to change sounds on the fly by use of key-switches (mapping program changes using notes out of the instrument’s range).

Work In Progress

Sample libraries have grown and gotten much better in the past couple of years. While it’s  great to have all of these tools at your disposal, it still takes time to make them work. Most composers still use the tried-and-true ‘many tracks of different samples and presets’ to create a realistic performance on just one instrument; multiply that with the number of instruments in your typical orchestra, and you get an idea of the amount of work involved. The learning curve is still there. Let’s not forget that even with the best sample library at their disposal, it’s still up to the composer to make that into a musical work of art. It’s easy to say that anybody can buy one of these libraries and sound like an accomplished composer. On the contrary, making these sample libraries sing is the mark of a talented artist. Even with all of the newest technology, it still comes down to talent and hard work.


One thought on “Writing Music for Film: MIDI Mockups

  1. Excellent summation of what is required. It is very hard to make the most of sound libraries and will come down in most cases to the ability of the artist to manipulate midi tools.

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