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I'd like to synthesize a classical string quartet using my midi keyboard (I'm a pianist). I'd like the sound to be as close to the original as possible, but basically I'd like to play the quartet voice by voice with my keyboard, and then mix the voices together, with the minimum amount of technical overlay possible.

Sorry for the vague question, but this is a new world to me, so I'm accepting advices. Could you point me towards a tool or a setup, and/or some tutorial on how to do this?

  • What is that it that you are trying to achieve? Do you want a synthesized sound, that sounds synthetic or are you after something that may pass for real string instruments? – Bit Depth Mar 6 '14 at 21:28
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    I'm after something that sounds like a real quartet. So I probably was mistaken speaking about synthesis, and probably should have focused on sampling instead, as Mark said below. – meditans Mar 7 '14 at 8:30
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One thing you should be aware of, which is really quite difficult playing-wise: the string quartet is, of all western ensembles, perhaps the one where there's most non-trivial work done in intonation. There is no way you can achieve a good, "proper quartet" result when just playing all the notes in equal temperament as you would on piano (and might get away with for larger orchestral sounds), rather you need to tune every single note to either some just interval so it matches up with the other instruments, or some melodically expressive scale akin to a Pythagorean one.

There is no fixed reference to tell you which fine-tuning to apply to each note a priori – actual quartets establish this during years of practise together. I suppose if you've never done this before the best you can do is first record everything in MIDI and then add pitch-bend information to it later. It's going to be a heck lot of trial-and-error work, though.

Also, string instrument players add of course all kinds of other expressive playing details. Vibrato may be the most obvious; that's in principle easily introduced with something LFO-like, but especially for string quartet this is problematic because real quartets again sync their vibrato in most non-obvious ways. Similar applies to dynamics. Articulation like spiccato is also pretty hard to replicate on a keyboard instrument.

Finally there's sound details that aren't necessarily done on purpose, but aren't generally surpressed either by strin players, and may be considered necessary for a real authentic replication of quartet sound. For instance, cello position shifts retain always a very slight slur quality to them.

In summary: if you want it to sound like a real string quartet, employ a real string quartet! It may nowadays be possible to replicate the results perfectly with digital means, but in particular for a small setting like quartet it's not likely to be worth the effort, because effectively you're going to replicate much of the work that each string player has already gone through.

If you're nevertheless determined to give it a try, I'd recommend starting with a good expressive first violin, 8dio solo studio violin is the best I've heard so far (but I haven't tried it myself). Take your time to learn the expressive features, then record the 1stVln track (perhaps over a piano rendition of the full quartet). After that, add the other instruments.

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The standard MIDI soundsets (GM & XG) should have violin, viola, and cello sounds built in. With clever use of portamento and vibrato, some chamber reverb, even different articulation using ADSR envelopes can add some authenticity to the synth sounds.

There are free cross-platform apps like Lilypond that turn MIDI data into sheet music. Using these tools, you could track each instrument separately and listen to the whole result all at once.

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Why synthesise? Sampler type libraries like East-West Hollywood strings are definitely an easier and more realistic sounding option at the moment. There is AAS String Studio if you must synthesise, but it's going to take more work and knowledge than the sample based route.

  • You're right, I probably should focus on sampling. I'd like to be able to play a single violin, instead of a generic string that sounds like a violin section in a orchestra. Does East-West Hollywood strings do that? I cannot understand from the site. Is EW-Hollywood a standalone program? – meditans Mar 7 '14 at 8:46
  • Depends what you call realistic. In terms of "sound of a single note", sampling is obviously the way to go – but single notes don't get you very far musically. As string instruments do a lot more than just "playing notes", even sample-laden libraries like East West include features that are basically in the synthesiser realm because that's the only way you can account for the combinatoric explosion. – leftaroundabout Mar 7 '14 at 12:46
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you want to synthesise strings which vibrate above wooden resonator bodies of different sizes, producing complex harmonics, sometimes without being played, only due to sympathetic resonance. you'd also want to model the high dynamic range of those instruments, and quite likely their different articulations (of which you'd need at least pizzicato, staccato, and legato) which produce completely different envelopes and microtonal sounds. the lack of frets means every little imperfection in the performance of the players is intrinsic to the sound produced.

hmm..

reach for a sample library. even the cheaper ones are decent these days.

  • Beg to disagree, many string-oriented sample libraries are horrible these days. Also, as you say string instruments strictly require caring for microtonal details – not even the top-notch sample libraries are able to take care of this in all depth; a completely synthetic plugin actually has a more realistic chance to handle that aspect. – leftaroundabout Mar 7 '14 at 13:07
  • a completely synthetic approach has more chance of not diving into the uncanny valley, and far less chance of actually sounding "real". the sample libraries are very difficult to work with, and the results, while ranging from meh to ok at best, would resemble a string quartet more than any reasonable synth patch design? i agree with the purist view otherwise. – georgi Mar 7 '14 at 13:14

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