Using Digital Instruments and Samples: pros, cons, and morals

Dinner Music for Bari & Tenor Sax with Electric Piano, Bass, and Drums

I love to use real instruments for recording, but let’s be honest, the convenience of midi digital instruments and samples wins out in many situations. I use Logic’s software instruments regularly. Starting in 2015 I was pleasantly surprised how good the vintage pianos and clavinets were and I started adding them as secondary instruments to the guitar based tracks on my 2016 alternative pop rock release Silver Streak. I would have loved to add the actual instruments to my studio and mic them up, believe me! but it wasn’t in my budget. Furthermore I recorded that in my garage and many of my sessions were in the middle of the night when my family was sleeping so the midi keyboard was a lifesaver for other reasons too. In using software instruments the pros generally outweigh the cons in most circumstances. When faced with the option to have the faux Rhodes that sounds quite good or no Rhodes at all it was an easy choice.

It’s easy to recognize the benefits, but what are the cons to using the digital fakes? My main worry in all of this is that we will become so reliant on digital shortcuts that we lose the actual artistry of the instrumentalist. Will there ever be a day that our string samples get so good and widely used that people stop learning to play the violin altogether because the demand disappears? That’s an extreme case, and yes I know that we still rely on people to play the instruments to create the samples but it’s a scenario that shouldn’t be ignored because it’s a trajectory that we’ve been headed towards since maybe the 1960’s when synthesizers and electronic instruments started becoming more commonplace. Imagine the situation where you have a drummer, a guitarist, and a keyboard player in a session and you choose to have the keyboard player do a double pass and add the bassline. You just saved yourself $ from having to bring in a bass player but you might have just put a few bass players out of work too! Actually you have to look further back than the 1960s: the invention of the radio, and phonograph records really put a damper on the piano industry. And then just think of all the events where DJs get hired: weddings, corporate functions, school dances, fairs and festivals; there would have been live bands hired to fill many of these spots in the past. And then with playlists and streaming you can even get by in many situations without hiring a DJ at all. It becomes somewhat of a moral question as we outsource our creative musical jobs to technology.

I want to preserve our arts and artists, to be sure. I have picked up a wide variety of instrumental skills myself because I’m so fascinated with the act of playing instruments and in love with the sound and feel of it. I also have come to terms with my boundaries, financial limitations, and the reality of the world we live in so that I can use the technology of convenience without much guilt. When I have the option, I will use a real instrument most of the time. I have discovered though that in the small room I have to record, I haven’t yet figured out a great way to mic my piano. So more often than not, my digital piano sounds better than my acoustic piano when playing back the track although it feels way better to play on the acoustic piano.

I don’t play the saxophone and don’t have one lying around the house, I haven’t used saxophone on my projects in the past but I was making a track about a month ago and it popped in my head that bari sax would be really cool on it. I hadn’t yet tried out Logic’s Studio Horns, which I think came out back in 2018. I loaded it up and was really pleased by the sound of the bari sax. I ended up writing it as a duet for bari and tenor and it sounds great to me. I know there are probably more advanced horn libraries out there, but the studio horns is really wonderful as part of the standard Logic package and quite usable. A benefit to having good quality sounds at your fingertips is that the sound of it can inspire your composition in ways that might be different than what you would just imagine if left alone with your minds ear and a piece of manuscript paper. A good composer can imagine in their head the sound of many things, but there is a different experience to be had by playing around with an instrument. Different instruments can inspire different kinds of writing and likewise with digital instruments. My bari sax composition was only half written when I loaded up the horn sound and I have no way to test this but I bet having that cool sax sound in my ear informed my compositional decisions in a positive way to finish out the piece.

I don’t have a large collection of sample libraries, and although I’m getting more into using them, I don’t see myself going over the top in that direction. My next area I want to expand is my wind section. A good oboe is hard to come by. In my ideal world I would live in a neighborhood full of musicians and we would get together often and play, I’ll work towards that goal. During this COVID pandemic there are major roadblocks, the distancing requirements for one and another is the hit to the economy which has gotten many of us down and is having widespread effects on many aspects of life. Given this climate, I’ll continue to do as much composing and recording as I can and digital instruments definitely help me to do that. For me, it keeps me going.

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