A few tweaks to your MIDI data can make software piano parts much more realistic — and much easier to mix.
Recording an acoustic piano isn’t a task to be taken on lightly, even if you happen to have access to a well‑maintained instrument in a suitable venue, so it’s little surprise that many project‑studio users turn to MIDI‑triggered software instruments instead. In my own mix work I encounter such simulations on a regular basis and, to be honest, the results often leave a lot to be desired in terms of realism and musicality. So in this article I’d like to recommend some tactics for improving your prospects when working this way.
The first thing to say is that it’s both extraordinarily difficult and extremely time‑consuming to program anything but the simplest piano part by clicking the notes in with your mouse, so I’d encourage you to record your piano part as a real‑time performance wherever possible. If your own performance or improvisation chops aren’t up to the demands of the part, then I’d definitely consider enlisting a more expert ivory‑tickler to help you generate the bulk of the MIDI data you need. Failing that, however, there’s still a lot you can do with quite rudimentary keyboard skills just by recording in small sections and overdubbing the left‑ and right‑hand parts separately.
A lot of MIDI controller keyboards seem to favour higher MIDI velocity values, so one of the most common problems I find with the MIDI piano tracks I hear is that they cause the virtual instrument to be played too hard...
Irrespective of how you capture your raw MIDI performance, though, I’ve noticed that a lot of MIDI controller keyboards (especially the cheaper synth‑style unweighted variety) seem to favour higher MIDI velocity values, so one of the most common problems I find with the MIDI piano tracks I hear is that they cause the virtual instrument to be played too hard overall, resulting in a hard, brash tone that refuses to sit nicely in the mix without lashings of remedial upper‑spectrum processing. As such, these days I often request the MIDI data for piano parts in songs I’m asked to mix so that I can turn down the MIDI velocity values en masse. I rarely do this by applying a straightforward velocity offset, however: I prefer to use a global velocity multiplier of between 0.9 and 0.7, thereby reducing the velocity value range as well as the overall values. This is because the velocity handling of some MIDI controller keyboards (and of the people playing them!) can be a bit haphazard, so making the velocity values a bit more consistent usually provides an ancillary benefit. In addition, I’ll almost always turn down any obvious velocity spikes individually to avoid single notes that suddenly leap out of the balance undesirably — intentional musical accents excluded, of course!
Concerns about MIDI velocity values usually run a lot deeper than that in most real‑world scenarios, though. (This stands to reason in a way, seeing as the two main variables of piano playing are when you hit each note and how hard you hit it — indeed, many people consider piano a member of the percussion instrument family for this reason.) If you’ve created your raw MIDI performance piecemeal, for instance, it’s very easy to end up with ungainly velocity transitions between overdubbed sections, or to find that separately performed right‑ and left‑hand parts don’t balance appropriately against each other. This may demand your applying further velocity offsets to smaller MIDI selections, and I think it’s worth attending to those edits before attempting any more detailed velocity contouring.