Can Midi FIles Match Human Performance?

By Thor Zollinger, writer/musician/engineer at large.  2018

The short answer is Yes, but almost no one knows how to do it… I’m not talking about the easy instruments like the piano or drums, I’m talking about solo wind and string instruments like the Saxophone, Cello, and Distortion Guitar.

You’ve listened to midi files before… Most of them were a bit dull and lifeless, but didn’t sound too terrible. Probably 99% of the midi files out there in cyberspace fit this description. Even the ‘High Quality’ midi’s from the professional vendors like Yamaha MusicSoft lack the extra level of performance modeling required to match a live performer. However, I have a few example files which came with Yamaha VL instruments from fifteen years ago which demonstrate this capability. Listen to these and tell me what you think.

  Jazz Examples

  Classical Examples

What’s the difference, do you know? Almost all of the midi song files in existence are simply transcriptions of the sheet music. The music sounds rather sad played back with a mediocre GM sound source like the Microsoft GS synthesizer that ships with Windows. Move up to a more capable instrument, like a Yamaha Motif or one of the older Yamaha MU series tone generators and the song starts to sound quite a bit better. But to really come to life, the song needs the performance Controllers added in.


The real difference between a fantastic midi file and the dull ones are the Controllers. These performance enhancers make all the difference in the world, skip them and you’ve got a boring piece of music. But almost no one seems to understand this! Over thirty years of midi and still just about every midi file you find lacks this critical component. Why is that? Some professional musicians get it, but none of them ever release any of their original song files, they always release a recording instead. When you record a song using a Breath Controller, or when the musician uses the Pitch Bend and Modulation controllers on his keyboard, the additional control data is recorded to the track, dramatically enhancing the sound. You can see an example of this in the figure above. To hear the difference listen to the examples below linked off of YouTube. If you really want to blow your mind, check out the third example, the Roli Seaboard. The keyboard has a soft rubber surface with sensor strips underneath to capture multiple controller inputs.

  Breath Controller

  Keyboard Pitch Bend

  The Roli Seaboard

These songs could have been recorded as midi files, which would sound exactly the same as a live performance when played back on a synthesizer similar to the one the live musician used. “I’ll never be able to do that!” you’re saying to yourself… Ahhh, yes you can! I have a      Secret Weapon. You don’t have to be a professional musician with an expensive instrument and skills to pull off a performance like that in your midi files. I found an older piece of software by Ntonyx called the Style Enhancer 4.0 that allows you to add in controllers based on selecting a type of musician to play it for you. The software inserts all of the necessary controllers to get the awesome performance you’re after. Once a set of controllers are in there, it doesn’t take much more to tweak the performance just a little bit more.   Example midi Songs (with a Russian flavor)

You can get the Style Enhancer for Free to try out for 3 weeks from JasmineMusic, then purchase the Enhancer and additional PMStyle Sets for it if you want to. If you get all of the Style Sets with the Style Enhancer as a package from Ntonyx they cost $69. Just the Enhancer is $49. It’s not that expensive if you think about it. I’m not trying to sound like an ad for Ntonyx, it’s just that I haven’t found anything else that works that doesn’t cost a boat load of money. Sure, you can buy Kontakt for $399 and get the latest and greatest VST performance modules for it costing around $125 each, one for each instrument you want to model. Collecting an entire orchestra or band gets expensive. By the time you’re through, you’ll have a primo system provided your current computer can still handle the load. The thing is, my hobbies have to be on a budget, don’t yours? I’d rather spend far less and get the same results.

There are a few instruments that can be modeled with midi quite easily without any external help. These include the piano, organ, synthesizer patches, and percussion instruments. These only require the Velocity controller which most people can handle quite easily. The hard ones are the wind instruments and solo string instruments. The distortion guitar is also one of the most popular expressive string instruments to model. These require several additional controllers, the Expression controller, Modulation and Pitch Bend controllers, and possibly a Breath Controller. I think our prior examples demonstrated this quite handily.

Going beyond this point takes an upgrade to your hardware, both your synthesizer and your input controller. To get the fancy harmonic sweeps a saxophone can pull off takes a wind synthesizer like the Yamaha VL70m which uses a controller for the harmonic sweeps. I have a Yamaha PLG150-VL card in a Yamaha MU2000ex which does exactly the same thing. It can also utilize a Bite controller if your mouth piece has one. Utilizing these extra controllers takes some skill, usually you only see these when a professional wind player uses a Yamaha WX series instrument or an Akai Ewi, but the controllers can be edited in manually in your sequencer if you take the time to do it, or you can cheat like I do and use Ntonyx software. You just have to have a synthesizer that can use these extra controllers.

Yamaha MU2000 

 Yamaha VL70m 

Amazing sounds happen when you take the time to do it right. Below are examples of a vintage Yamaha VL70m with all of the extra wind instrument controllers in play and a few other high quality synthesizers for playback. The Roli can also pull it off using their keyboard and either their own software or Kontakt. A bit pricey, but I think you can hear quality of the results below. VST’s can pull it off too, but again the price can be a problem if you want to model more than one or two instruments, unless you’re Hans Zimmer. He creates entire movie sound tracks this way.

To sum it all up, you have to put in a bit more effort in order to get fantastic sounds out of a midi file. It CAN sound like a live performance, it just depends upon the quality of your synthesizer and how much effort you put into entering the controller tracks. The controller tracks aren’t that much more effort if you use the Secret Weapon I mentioned.

So STOP making boring midi files, OK? I expect more from you now! 

  Yamaha VL70m

  Yamaha WX5 and VL70m

  Roli Seaboard Saxophone