Wednesday, January 18, 2012

MIDI Orchestration

I've just finished a first read-through of the 4th edition of Paul Gilreath's The Guide to MIDI Orchestration, published by Focal Press. Coming in at 600 pages, it's a pretty thorough introduction to the subject of orchestrating a musical composition using MIDI-based equipment and instrument sample libraries.

Several topics of interest to non-MIDI orchestrators and project studio folks alike are covered here, including instrument ranges and playing techniques, notation, voice leading, distribution of melodies and accompaniments to different instruments in the various sections, combining instruments to create different sounds, and achieving specific moods with orchestrations.

For the MIDI producer, there's a wealth of information on equipment, software, choosing sample libraries, and sequencing strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, piano, harp and voices.

The author illustrates portions of the text with screenshots from his favourite digital audio workstations: Cubase/Nuendo, Logic, Digital Performer and Sonar. Unfortunately, Gilreath dismisses ProTools, saying it's "still working to catch up" in this area, which is too bad, given its market penetration together with the strides that ProTools has made in the whole area of MIDI sequencing and sampling since version 8 was released at the end of 2008.

In any event, readers working with ProTools can easily adapt the material to their way of working, which, in most respects, is not too different from the others.

Supplementary material is available online at, including reviews of several good instrument sample libraries, supplementary tutorials, and audio examples, but you have to sign in to access it.

Much of this material—including several full-length, uncut chapters—is still freely available for download as a single zip file from Focal Press at

The book is a terrific reference, and it's refreshing that the author combines description and prescription in almost equal amounts, which is a rare feat. Anyone looking for a grounding in MIDI orchestration would do well to own this book, and will check in with it on a regular basis, if not frequently. It's a beautiful volume, well designed and easy to read, with a crisp and clear layout, and it should be on every music producer's reference shelf.

My criticisms are few. There are numerous errors relating to missing or misplaced illustrations or examples, including a missing reference section with bibliographical apparatus that the author himself refers to twice yet, strangely, is nowhere to be found!

There are also too many proofreading errors, not many of them spelling mistakes, which leads me to believe that spell-check may have served as a convenient substitute for a thorough proofing. This is a tad disappointing in a 600-page book priced at US$82.50 ($86.50 Canadian).

Fortunately, these shortcomings are overshadowed by the author's monumental achievement in turning out what was surely the crowning achievement of his career as a composer for film and television. May his new life as a dentist in Atlanta be as fulfilling!

The Guide to MIDI Orchestration, 4th Edition, by Paul Gilreath, published by Focal Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-240-81413-1