Do you want to write Realistic MIDI Strings that sound impressive — creating an emotional, intimate, or even cinematic feel? Read this.
If you're like me — can't play the violin or cello — you just need to learn five key elements to manipulate samples and get realistic MIDI strings with only your DAW's piano roll.
- Voice leading;
So stick around — I'll show you all the tricks!
Strings in Pop Music
Isn't it cool when people use string instruments in pop music?
I always wanted to do it myself. So I borrowed a violin to see if I could learn something.
But honestly, it was so hard to play — and you have to tune the strings every time you practice — that my violin journey only lasted a week.
Instead, I spent a couple of months researching strings sample libraries, orchestration, and performance.
I seriously wanted to understand how they're played so I could write my own realistic MIDI strings.
During that time, I picked up some techniques worth sharing with you.
Listen to the example song I've used in this article by watching the video above.
The song is called "Silence Hurts More."
Realistic String Libraries
For this tutorial, I'll use the Native Instruments Stradivari and Amati instruments, which I think are pretty awesome.
They're super realistic, especially for cinematic pop.
It's a paid library — even though most of the following tips work for any decent sample library.
These are the five secrets to getting realistic-sounding strings on a pop song.
Voice leading, Articulation, Vibrato, Dynamics, and Mixing.
Let's talk about each one of them.
Typical instruments in a string section
A string section usually has a double bass, a cello, a viola, and two violins. Or many of those.
But just one of each is enough to create an interesting texture for a pop song.
You'll get all the main elements you need:
- Bass notes for power;
- A melody to keep the listener engaged;
- A countermelody to add movement and;
- Some background harmony to glue everything together.
In this song, I did not use the double bass. Instead, I chose to use electric bass.
And these instruments mostly only play one note at a time — each on their pitch register.
The highest notes are played by the violins.
Those are the sounds we'll perceive as Melody because our ears tend to listen to the highest notes.
So the melody gets the spotlight if it's played by the violin.
Not always: we can let the viola or cello play the melodic lines.
But since the violins play the highest pitch, they usually carry the melody.
It's also more realistic because we're used to hearing that.
Keep in mind that in pop songs where the real focus is the singing, there isn't too much room for melodies on the string section.
They mostly sit in the background.
With that in mind, choosing a chord progression is a great way to start producing a section of your song that features strings.
Writing for strings
In my DAW — Ableton Live — I like to select all the string instruments, open the piano roll and start creating the chords.
Multi-clip editing allows you to visualize all the strings simultaneously and makes composing much more effortless.
Some people prefer ensemble patches — sample libraries with a double bass, cello, viola, and violin in a single patch.
You can sequence the notes in just one track — like a single instrument.
I prefer to work with individual patches, each one on its separate track.
That's totally up to you and what fits your workflow better.
Alright, say we have a basic chord progression.
Each chord is played for a whole bar, and each instrument plays one note.
That's where most beginners call it a day and move on.
But that's not how real string musicians play.
That would be too boring. We need to add movement.
And the more independent each voice is from the others, the more engaging it will sound.
That's why voice-leading principles are so helpful.
So here are a few ideas.
Voice-leading basics for strings
Take small steps
When moving from a chord to another, try to do it with the least amount of leap movements.
Instead, try to make the movements in small steps, with passing notes.
Or even hold the notes if they belong to the previous and the next chord.
That way, it'll sound smoother and more melodic — rather than sounding like simple chords, making enormous changes every bar.
A chord change is like the start of something new.
And you have to figure out how to get to the next chord by creating these brief and tiny dissonances that add micro tension to our harmony and quickly resolve.
Don't move them all at once
Try to move only one or two instruments at once, whenever possible.
Because our brains can't really distinguish lots of movements at the same time, it would just get blurry and confusing otherwise.
It can also start sounding too busy and overwhelming when you add too much movement (example in the video above).
If you end up overdoing it, just go back. Delete some notes to keep things simple.
Parallel motion vs Contrary motion
If you want to move the notes of two instruments at once, try not to move them in the same direction (parallel motion).
You can make it more fun using contrary motion, where one instrument goes up in pitch while another goes down.
It's also good practice to avoid voice crossing.
That's when an instrument goes out of its range and gets temporarily higher or lower pitched than another instrument.
In our example, the cello goes higher in pitch than the viola.
This movement would make it harder for our ears to distinguish what's going on — it hurts the separation of instruments.
I also avoid overlapping notes.
For instance, whenever the cello and viola play the same note in the same octave.
It doesn't sound as rich as when they play different notes.
There are no rules in writing pop music
However, none of these things are rules you must follow.
It's your music — you can do anything you want — but you'll probably like how it sounds better when you keep some of these guidelines in mind.
Besides these independent movements to get from one chord to another, you can use these instruments in unison.
When to use unison
Unison happens when they all play the same note, each on their register. Each on a different octave.
An excellent time to use unison is when you play the song's motif because it sounds powerful, like a strong, memorable statement.
Realistic string vibrato
Another thing that will breathe life into your instrumental is a good vibrato.
Make sure to choose a patch that includes vibratos and, even better, one that lets you create vibrato rate and intensity automation.
If you have a long sustained note in your song, that's a great time to use a strong vibrato — then dial down for the parts with more movement.
The following section has the secret sauce to ensure your strings will never sound boring.
Besides vibratos, string players use different articulations.
These are alternative ways of playing the same instruments.
They can go from legato to staccato, pizzicato, and other techniques to create different effects.
The good news is you can use MIDI notes to change the articulation in your piano roll.
In the example above, the notes at the bottom change the articulation. The ones on the top get played by the violin.
For realistic MIDI strings, experiment with changes in articulation for different sections of the song — or even within a single phrase.
Not every sample library contains all these articulation choices that the Stradivari violin has.
The most common are legato, staccato and pizzicato.
When to use Legato
Use legato for long sustained, emotional notes.
During transitions between notes, the player slides the finger, connecting them. It's more lyrical that way.
Sequencing that on a piano roll could be different, depending on your sample library.
In almost every case, you need to draw overlap between MIDI notes — so the sampler knows it's supposed to connect them.
When to use Staccato
Use staccato for short notes.
It's more rhythmic. The notes are disconnected.
I combined legato and staccato in the same phrase several times throughout the example song.
When to use Pizzicato
Pizzicato is a different way of playing those instruments.
They actually pluck the strings. Really cool sound.
Not all instruments have to play the same articulation.
You can mix and match — the bass playing pizzicato and the other instruments playing legato is a great combination.
For instance, I used pizzicato on the violins during the bridge to create contrast, while the viola played legato and the cello played staccato.
Tremolo and Trill
There are more expressive techniques like the tremolo — when they bow the string ultra fast.
This one is super emotional. It brings the tension level up.
To me, it almost sounds like a cry.
There's also the Trill technique — it sounds fantastic.
I used it during a diminished chord to add a lot of drama and almost make it sound scary, matching the lyrics.
So whenever you want to create that extra tension — that drama — use these expressive techniques.
One thing that pop music doesn't feature too much these days is dynamics.
However, with strings, it makes sense to play with the dynamics.
It's more realistic that way since string instruments can be super dynamic.
If you use a MPE controller like my Linnstrument, it will be easy to incorporate dynamics during the recording phase.
Just touch the keys with a heavier or lighter touch.
Most keyboard controllers detect the weight of the touch — or you can use the modulation wheel to affect the dynamics.
But if you don't have a controller, a simple way to manipulate that is to draw the Velocity levels on your piano roll.
Velocity determines the intensity at which the instrument will be played.
Crescendos and decrescendos
A common technique is to draw volume automation to mimic crescendos.
Some sample libraries already come with crescendos and diminuendos.
Another trick is to figure out the gaps your vocals are leaving and increase the volume of the strings to fill those gaps with extra melodic content, so they have their moment to shine.
And that connects with the next fundamental element to realistic MIDI strings on a pop song.
You probably will have to equalize your strings to keep them from getting in the way of the vocals.
Unless it's your intention for them to cut through the mix.
But it wasn't my intention, so I cut the hi-mid frequencies. Around 2, 3, and 5kHz to make room for the vocals.
An extra tip is to make automation that turns this EQ off whenever the vocals are resting.
Then your strings can come to the foreground of the mix without causing any masking to the vocals.
But every song is different — every sample library too.
Cutting the hi-mids may not even be necessary in your case.
Always trust your ears.
Another crucial step in mixing is panning.
I like to make sure the vocals have the center of the mix — with no competition. That means all the other instruments have to stay away.
I hard-panned one violin entirely to the left and another entirely to the right.
Then the cello and viola are also panned to opposite sides but not hard-panned. They're almost halfway to the left and right.
If you incorporate those 5 elements into your songwriting, you'll create realistic MIDI strings.
To get the most out of what you just learned, check out this article on writing emotional melodies that reinforce the feelings you want to convey with your lyrics.
If you have any questions, let me know in the comment section below.
And if you're ready to take your music production to the next level, visit my website and enjoy the resources.