Common Mistakes Programming MIDI (How to Avoid Them)

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Many producers these days are using loop libraries from sites like Splice and Loopmasters for their demos and even some album tracks. But let’s be real, to truly make a track your own and infuse it with your unique touch, you’re going to need to dive into the world of MIDI programming.

Especially when it comes to instruments like the piano, synth pads, and strings, it can be a real challenge to find the perfect part you need in your key and tempo in a loop pack. You’ll likely end up playing it yourself.

One of the amazing things that MIDI brought to production is the ability for non-musicians to explore and manifest the melodies they have in their heads into reality.

Even though I’m a trained musician myself, I think that’s awesome. I mean, how amazing is it to go from hearing something in your head to having a fully mixed track? The more people doing this, the merrier, as long as the quality is there.

So, if you’re not planning to spend years learning to play real instruments, I’d suggest investing a good amount of time making sure your MIDI programming of virtual instruments is so good it fools even musicians into thinking you used the real deal.

In this article, I will focus on recreating more organic and real instruments in the box, as opposed to programming genres like hip-hop and pop. In these genres, it doesn’t matter if the sounds are synthetic because they are intended to sound semi-electronic. This also applies to dance music.


Drums are a breeze to program, well, until you get to the cymbals. From my experience, the telltale sign that drums are synthetic is how the hi-hats and ride cymbals are programmed.

We have a cheeky term in the industry for poor hi-hat programming – we call it the ‘machine gun effect.’

This happens when hi-hats are played with one-handed samples at top velocity. It’s especially common when using one-shot samples from Pop libraries, like Vengeance or Splice.

But don’t worry, there are advanced programs like BFD and Addictive Drums that thoughtfully sample left-stick and right-stick hats.

You can alternate between the left stick and the right stick on the hi-hats to make it sound like a real drummer played it – no real drummer would play 16ths with one stick on a hi-hat.

To keep your MIDI from revealing your secrets, take the same care with the ride cymbal. Real crashes and rides produce different sounds depending on whether you hit closer to the center or the edge.

Thankfully, multi-sampled libraries like the ones I mentioned earlier have this all figured out. Depending on how hard you hit the velocity on your keyboard, it switches samples to make it sound more authentic.

While less of a concern, if you’re a perfectionist, pay attention to the kick drum. If you’re using anything other than multi-sampled, high-quality libraries, ensure you have different velocity layers on your kick.

This way, when you play it softly, it sounds different than if you play it at full force.

Synth and Real Bass

If you’ve ever felt like libraries based on real basses, like Fender Precision basses and fretless ones, didn’t quite hit the mark, you’re not alone. But, good news – with today’s fantastic sampling engines like Native Instruments Kontakt and Spectrasonics Trillian, you can create some truly amazing bass sounds, filled with all the intricate details a real-life bass player would use.

The secret sauce is all about knowing how to use key switches. If you’re more acquainted with programming MPC-style beats or one-shot hip-hop and dance-style beats, the concept of key switching might be new to you.

Key switching is like playing the ultimate piano, using both ends of the keyboard, beyond the range of the instrument you’re using. When you hit these switches, bam! Your samples transform.

For instance, you can tell a bass is fake by how their muted notes sound. Muted notes have this distinctive attack, while long notes have a slower, lighter attack and more sustain.

Another giveaway is a poorly executed picked bass sound. If you’re crafting a realistic rock bass, remember to select different samples or even different patches that represent playing short notes with a pick versus sustained notes with your fingers.

One last tip for a realistic bass sound – try to avoid doing a piano-style or organ-style run when you’re going for a bass slide. You know how most funk or rock records have the bass player slide into the note? That’s a tough act to follow in MIDI.

You gotta hunt down those slide samples or slide patches and time the slides so they hit the mark on the first beat, and also manage to land near or on the downbeat. If you nail this, folks will have a hard time telling whether you’re using MIDI or a real bass.

Now, when it comes to Synth bass, the Minimoog is the crowd favorite. It’s a completely different sound, but it’s a big deal in pop music and it’s massive in dance music and R&B.

Just remember, when you overlap certain notes, the attack of the new note will be a bit milder.

So, keep an eye on your MIDI editor and make sure your velocity and the endings of your bass notes are exactly where you want them to be. This is all tied to the ADSR envelopes.

Since most analog bass VIs are probably using a patch from a Moog synth anyway, pay close attention to how one note transitions to the next when you’re playing synth bass.

It should be as smooth as butter.


I’ve got to tell you, I’m pretty picky when it comes to programming realistic piano sounds using Virtual Instruments. You know what gives a fake sound away? When your piano patch doesn’t have enough velocity layers or if your controller isn’t quite up to scratch on its velocity response.

This usually results in most of your chords and notes hitting the upper range of the samples too hard.

Want to test this out? Try setting a limit to your Midi velocity and gradually increasing it. You’ll be able to observe the changes across different sample layers.

To make this concept a bit clearer, imagine someone crafting a virtual instrument or a sample sound that aims to mimic a realistic grand piano or upright piano. They create what we call “layers”.

For example, playing the piano softly is layer one, a bit louder is layer two, and so on. Some libraries, like Ivory, boast up to 24 layers, representing a whole range of dynamic levels.

That’s why when you play it, it feels like you’re sitting at a grand piano.

Once you’ve programmed a pass on the Midi piano, don’t forget to check your editor and make sure that the right hand or the higher notes are playing with a harder velocity than the left hand or the lower notes. One telltale sign of a fake piano sound is when the left hand in the middle of the piano overshadows the melody.

I mean, even beginners wouldn’t play it like that, right?

B3 Organ

B3 Oregon is pretty uncomplicated, and most good libraries likely have a solid patch if you’re just adding a supportive pad behind a song. However, if you want the secret to telling if someone’s not playing a real B3, it’s that they’re not using the modulation wheel for controlling the rotor’s speed (leslie).

Adjusting the rotor speed is the secret sauce to achieving a realistic B3 Organ sound. So, the next time you’re working with Organs, ensure that your modulation wheel modifies the rotor speed and then brings it back.

Believe me, it’ll make a massive difference! It’s more expressive and, let’s be honest, way more fun to play with!

Synth Pads

Synth pads are pretty simple to use, except perhaps for those of us more accustomed to the classical piano or playing the Rhodes, the Wurlitzer, and the acoustic piano. When we approach synth pads, we might find ourselves using the sustain pedal a bit too much.

But here’s a friendly tip: Synth pads tend to sound better without the sustain pedal. Try adjusting the release envelope on the synth so that when you lift your fingers off the keys, there’s a gentle tail-off that smooths the transition.

If you’re playing really long passages and feel the need to use the sustain pedal, go for it! Just ensure that the release isn’t too high, and be mindful of using the sustain pedal to avoid creating muddy transitions.

Orchestral Strings

Creating realistic, quality orchestral strings through programming is all about understanding a bit of orchestration. Ordinarily, you’ll find yourself using three main types of string patches.

If you’re just laying basic strings (I’m not talking Hans Zimmer-level demos here!), but just aiming for a sound that’s cool and pleasant, these are your go-to.

You’ve got your spiccato or staccato (shorts), your sustain (longs) which are great for pads, and finally, your legato. These should be monophonic and are perfect for those soaring melodies, especially when you’re working with violins and cellos.

Most high-end string libraries, from companies like Spitfire Audio and EastWest, have patches that cover these three types and more. The key thing to remember is that editing the transitions is vital.

Most of the time, a perfect take isn’t going to come from just laying down a performance. You’ll need to get in there and tweak things a little.

When it comes to programming realistic string melodies using legato strings, remember that real string players use different techniques to express themselves when they play melody lines. One of these is vibrato, which some companies like Spitfire have as a separate CC control.

This allows you to dial in the amount for different string sections. Another technique is called portamento, which is a smooth transition between different notes, kind of like a tiny slide.

Not all violin libraries offer these options, so I’d suggest starting with some of the best and then learning the different techniques you can use on your controller to dial in the appropriate articulation, as it’s known.

That’s why having a midi controller with sliders and knobs is so crucial for top-notch programming.

Brass and Horns

And lastly, let’s chat about programming for brass and horns. Brass is usually represented by sustain patches that you find in orchestral libraries, kind of like those used for strings. But remember, when you’re using horn sounds, they’re not quite like playing synth pads.

Try to steer clear of horn sections that sound too bulky and huge – it’s just not that realistic. Here’s a tip: use your left hand to program with low brass patches and your right hand with high brass patches, making sure they don’t overlap.

So, your high brass patches should be tuba and tenor trombone-free, and let’s keep horns and trumpets out of your low patches.

When it comes to recreating horns and jazz-style playing, it’s all about understanding how these horns release sound. Listen to a jazz band or a funk section, like on a Tower of Power record. You’ll notice a snappy attack followed by a quick release with a barely audible tail.

Many orchestral libraries are recorded in soundstages with some reflection and reverb, which gets recorded with the sample to give it that natural sound. But these kinds of brass samples might not be the best fit when you’re programming pop and funk.

Here’s another tip: consider using two different libraries. One for classical-sounding brass and horns, like orchestral film scoring libraries, and another for pop and funk, or even stock native instrument samples for those styles.

And one last thing to remember – while you don’t need to be an expert in orchestration or arranging to create a great MIDI demo, some orchestral brass instruments just don’t pop up in jazz, pop, and funk. French horns and tuba are two examples.

Final Thoughts

If you’re diving into programming and want to trick your audience into thinking they’re hearing real live players instead of sample libraries, my advice is to really pay attention to the details. Things like key switches, advanced patches, and careful velocity switching can make a huge difference.

Sure, these might sound like technical terms, but they’re actually things that musicians do intuitively when they’re jamming live. “Velocity” just means how hard or soft you hit your instrument, while “switches” let you use different articulations, especially when you’re playing string instruments like bass, guitar, and violins.

So, when you’re setting out to create an awesome Midi demo, take some time to listen to live musicians before you start programming. Then, compare your programming to what the musicians sound like.

You’ll gain some fantastic insights and might spot something you’ve overlooked that could make all the difference. Happy programming!

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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