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.

Westworld Scoring Competition

On June 2nd I saw an announcement from Spitfire Audio “ENDS TOMORROW – Westworld Scoring Competition”. I hadn’t heard of this competition but I immediately wanted to do all I could to get an entry written and submitted in only 24 hours. I just purchased my first Spitfire Audio product (Studio Strings) a week prior and was newly added to the email list so thankfully I did get this final notice on the competition otherwise I wouldn’t have known about it. I have been asking around for video projects that I could score to to build my experience and portfolio so this opportunity is golden! I would not let it pass by without my best effort, I can lose a night’s sleep for this.

After watching the 4 minute clip to get a feel for it, I set to work composing right away and ideas started coming to me. The clip has quite a bit of action and only a few short bits of dialog so it begs for a good amount of up-front music. I broke it down into a handfull of sections 30 seconds to 1 minute in length where natural transitions occurred in the video and just tackled them in order. The mood is urban, night, intense pursuit with high tech gadgets: high performance self driving/voice guided vehicles, smart missiles, etc. so I didn’t shy away from pulsing synthy bass lines for that driving modern sound with percussion accents, electric piano, and classic string and brass to bring in some adventure theme type moments – gotta love some melody!

For each section I picked a tempo and feel that felt right to me and often worked from the bassline up from there. Some sections were more melody driven and the arrangement was tailored to that but my approach was more intuitive driven rather than formulaic. I would run what I had and then just be listening for what popped into my head to come next whether it be a melody or a groove. I would put down some rough outlines with just an electric piano sound as place holders and then drill into the exact tempo and cue points I wanted to hit before filling out the specific arrangement. I sometimes had to do a few iterations of tempo to line up with the picture how I wanted it to.

For this piece I didn’t use clicks or tempo tools or events in my DAW! Believe it or not, sometimes for me that creates more fuss than benefit. I don’t like to get sucked into a process that’s overly technical with tempo adjustments, I’m firstly an artist after all. As a result I must try to be as precise as possible in my rhythm so the track doesn’t get too sloppy but sometimes making it a little loose gives a great feel. When you are trying to bend the time to hit precise cues this method can actually work in your favor if you can pull off a live performance of a reference instrument then orchestrate everything else to that tempo. Sometimes I’ll even take a rimshot or clave and record my own click track in real time while watching the video. When using software instruments you can still easily make corrections to individual notes or sections on this click or guide track. You’ll see that working this way requires that you disregard all software tempo tools. I was around in the days of tape, so I’m pretty comfortable working like this.

Transitions create unique challenges, there are tempo and key changes from segment to segment to connecting them in a smooth way or at least a way that fits the flow of the story is critical. I am still at the beginning of my journey scoring to picture so I’m speaking here not as a seasoned authority but more in a journaling capacity. I could of course choose to keep the whole clip in the same key to avoid key changes, no problem with that, you don’t need a key change just for the sake of itself. But if key changes help to push things forward and create interest for the story’s sake then you will often want to have methods for transitioning. Jumping to related keys without transition chords is the easiest method, but the critical thing there is that they are related keys: like relative and parallel majors/minors, fourths, half steps etc. This can get you through a lot of key changes successfully. In these 4 minutes I did change keys a number of times, maybe they weren’t all necessary but it feels good to me. A big difference I see between my musical rendering of this clip and the 4 or 5 others that I listened to so far searching the hashtag #westworldscoringcompetition2020 is that I changed keys and tempos more. I am taking note about this and maybe there is something I can learn from this realization. Often, less is more. Minimalism can be striking and beautiful.

I had a very long night scoring, and the next day after working some other tasks that I had already committed to, I found myself not finished with the project with only a few hours until the submission deadline. I pressed forward knowing that I would not have time to review my work, make adjustments, or even mix it before the deadline hit! I pressed on determined to submit as much as I could and I was still there tracking drums and keyboards until about 10 minutes to the mark. I actually scored music to the end of the clip, and I was really liking what I had, it was just not polished and perfect but it was a solid composition. That last 10 minutes was enough to save a file, upload it to youtube, and fill in the submission form. So I made it! I wish I had found out about the contest one day earlier, then I would have been able to tweak and mix it properly but the whole process was a great success for me. A few days later I did clean it up a bit and that’s what I have linked here, but compositionally I didn’t make changes to what I scored in my frantic 1 day blitz. Great fun, and I’m just going to keep the ball rolling from here. Thanks to Spitfire Audio, and HBO Westworld for organising this competition and throwing it out there for us.

Demo Reel 1 Now Posted!

Music for film, television, and advertisement – 10 audio clips of a variety of styles, moods, and instrumentation are included in Demo Reel 1. The songs are action packed and trimmed into a six and a half minute file but it demonstrates the capability of JGT Music in a broad range of sounds and textures. It’s a great feeling to have this completed and posted, 9 out of the 10 pieces were written and recorded in the last week and a half for the sole purpose of showing the quality of work I can deliver. Take a listen:

The tenth piece is from a track used on a new Gillwire release, Big Win 2020 and is a dynamic funk rock arrangement with string and vintage keyboard accents, check out the full version with vocals below if you have a moment. It has a theme of striving to achieve, working hard to reach a goal, win a championship, or succeed in the face of a big challenge.

Now that we have actual media on the site the goods are publicly on display. This is the first of many pieces that will be shared. Thanks for coming by to see and hear what I can do. Please let me know if you need music for anything.

Music Creator Blog

I have this new website, perfect for letting all interested parties know what kind of music I create and a little about who I am and what I do. That’s great, it’s just what I needed, but I can also publish regular posts and updates in blog format, and that gives me the opportunity explore this space for purposes beyond the initial targets of the website as needed for showcasing my music. I intend to take advantage of this opportunity to dig into the craft from an academic perspective and share my voice in the community of creators. My vision is that those who are interested in the process of music composition and production will find these posts interesting and valuable. Topics will range from music theory, arrangement, orchestration, instrumentation, electronic audio mixing and recording, to dramatic effect and emotional responses to music.

On Theory and Notation

My first passion is the music, the notes, the sounds, the melodies and harmonies. I developed a keen interest in the mechanics of notation and chord structure starting in my youth and I encourage musicians to learn the “rules” of music theory, learn it well but not so well that you live and die by the rules. The ultimate rule above all is to use your ear and your heart; if your ear is telling you something contrary to a rule then by all means disregard the rule and listen to your ear. After all, the rules were just created based on what sounded good to the ears of masters who preceded us. The rules and conventions have merit, of course, and I have much respect for them, but I regard the formal definitions and vocabulary of music theory not as an eternal law but as a tool of convenience for helping us create, preserve, and share musical ideas.

The traditional system of tone classification, harmonization, and notation is an excellent one. The fact that we can represent the pitches and rhythms of works of a wide range of complexity on a concise staff of 5 lines that can be read, played, and understood worldwide by instrumentalists and vocalists of all different types is a wonderfully beautiful thing. As a musician, you should embrace that and know that by learning the formalities of theory and notation, you open yourself up to be able to play a more connected part in the history of humanity that is found within music. The ideas of theory and notation have evolved a lot over history into the very efficient system that we have today, it would be a shame to toss it out the window.

Of course you can be an excellent storyteller and be illiterate, but given the option wouldn’t you also prefer to learn to read and thus be able to appreciate a wider range of art and expression? Your own storytelling would likely benefit too. This analogy is naturally applicable to music and I’m sure it’s clear the point I intend to convey. I will add though that there have been master musicians who play solely by ear and haven’t been able to tell you a C sharp from a B flat by name, this in no way diminishes their achievements, but given the choice, it’s always a good thing to learn the “rules”. You can then reap the benefits available and when the time is right you can surely also learn to break the rules so you needn’t fear that your education will constrict you.

On Gear and Technology

Oh how we love our gear, almost every musician I know gets some childlike excitement out of trying out new instruments or the prospect of adding instruments to their collection and learning the features and benefits of all the various types. While I do love a good guitar, I don’t lose sleep over whether someone is using a Stratocaster or a Les Paul. I’d much rather spend my time picking apart a chord progression than doing A/B comparisons of amps and distortion pedals all day. But tone is important and there is a time and place to get very particular about it and the gear that helps you achieve that tone. I tend to stick to the vintage and classic tools of the trade for the most part; I feel that there is a real relatable quality to those dusty old sounds. On an emotional level I can really get into a track where you can hear the sound of the room and little squeaks and things that some may consider imperfections as compared to the sterile sound of an all digital track that is synched to a click and processed to exactness. So in a way I suppose I am rather particular about gear and tone.

Among the considerations of a modern artist beyond the music itself is the necessity to record your art in a distributable form and in the current setting that is to say a digital format. For a musician today, acquiring at least a basic level of proficiency at audio engineering is almost imperative. You need to be comfortable recording and editing with the apps, digital audio workstations, otherwise known as multitrack recording software. It doesn’t need to take up all your time and attention but take the time necessary as an initial investment to get up to speed here and as you go forward utilizing these skills on a regular basis you will be rewarded.

Finding ways you can take time saving shortcuts with the aid of digital technology is a great way to boost productivity especially when you don’t have to sacrifice any quality. There are a lot of ways that digital technology has made things easier and better for us, one of the biggest benefits is that you can create a professional level studio setup at a modest cost. There will always be more items you can add to your studio that have large price tags but you can definitely start out with a small budget and get great sounding results if you work realistically with the resources available to you.

I have a warning for you regarding digital audio recording: Beware of overdoing it, yes you may have hundreds of plug-ins at your fingertips, you don’t need to use them all! How can we manage having so many options? It’s difficult, there is data that shows that having more options is not always a good thing for the human psyche. Having a few good options is great, but if we have hundreds of reverb options (not a hypothetical situation) then do we have to try them all out on every track we work on to find the best one? I don’t think that activity is even humanly possible, our ears and minds would fatigue to the point that we couldn’t make a sensible decision. My approach is to find a handful of good ones that work for a lot of situations and just stick with those for 90% of what you do. If you try 5 or 6 and find one that sounds great then use it and save that setting for next time. There will probably be a voice in your head that says “but you haven’t heard the other 300 settings! you must try them all!” but don’t listen to this voice. You will never finish your project if you get caught up like that. If something comes up that requires a unique sound then you can spend extra time in those rare instances tweaking every knob but there are a lot of reverb presets in my toolkit that I have still never tried even after making hundreds of recordings.

If my primary goal was to be an audio engineer or producer then I would allow more time to fully explore the nuances of all the bells and whistles of the tracking and processing gear but I am first a composer, and a musician, and second a producer. For me being a producer and recording engineer is a means to an end, the goal being getting a great sounding recording of the music. I still hold myself to a high standard for audio quality but as long as I have met that goal, I move forward with creating new music instead of listening to that voice that would have me spend my time comparing between many passable options. You must define your priorities and determine the correct balance for yourself to achieve your specific goals.

In writing an overview of the scope of what this blog is about I’m seeing that there is a lot to talk about. I’ll dive into specific topics in detail and I’m sure new things will come up that interest me as related to writing and creating music. I’m excited to share my thoughts, procedures and philosophies; I don’t imagine this will cause any big waves but maybe someone out there will get something from it. You can let me know if so, but it’s a good exercise for me regardless.

JGT Music (.com) Goes Live

Today is the unveiling of the JGT Music website. An event marked in solitude as I publish this draft of the site. There is no fanfare, no champagne cork popping, no congratulations; it is not the arrival at a destination, but the next step in a path full of hard work. As of now, I have a website, a group of compositions and recordings that will soon be compiled together as the first version of my demo reel, a multitude of musical ideas and themes that I can draw on for future work, a stubborn ambition to see my composition and production skills utilized publicly, and I have a studio of gear and instruments that will serve their purposes. Thanks for stopping by, much more to come.