The Value of Real Musical Instruments in the Time of Computer Magic

This article on real musical instruments first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk! PS: you may find affiliate links in this post and I may get a commission if you buy something. 🙂

It wasn’t long ago that you could spot an amateur a mile away by the cheesy sound of their fake drums and lame piano samples. Back in the dinosaur age – aka 15 years ago – you couldn’t make a record if you didn’t have a bunch of great players, instruments, and a tricked-out studio to record them in – unless you were specifically making “synthy” music.

Oh, how times have changed. Now even the most experienced of us are hard pressed to tell what’s “fake” and what’s not. You can create a convincing drum track from samples or pre-recorded loops (which aren’t actually fake…), piano soft synths are phenomenal, and many film scores are done entirely with virtual instruments. Even sick basslines are often virtual (see Charlie Puth’s “Attention”, done with Trilian Bass Module).

Not only that, but certain genres of music aren’t exactly trending toward “organic”. So, is there even any value in recording real, live instruments? This month’s theme should tell you where we stand on that.

Real Musical Instruments Do Have Value!

Real instruments aren’t getting replaced any time soon, for a variety of reasons. Some of the biggest include:

  • Convenience – Sometimes creating a virtual track that sounds “real” takes a lot longer than just plugging in and playing – especially for a great player.
  • Live music – Not all recorded music gets played live, but when it does, it’s still cooler to actually play it than call up a track.
  • Some fakes don’t cut it – Horns are a great example of an instrument which is still really hard to get right virtually. As a backing track maybe, but solo horns are still just better in person, as are guitars (mostly).
  • Collaboration – It can be a lot more satisfying to work with other people than all alone – unless you’re Deadmau5. Using real players is a great way to do it.
  • Human performance – Even the best pre-recorded drum loop is still a loop. Sometimes a drummer – or a bassist, or a guitarist, or a pianist – just gives you that extra something.
  • Really real stuff – Some genres are still not cut and paste, computery genres – Jazz ensembles, for example.
  • Fun – It’s super fun to mess with big things like cellos and Hammonds and oboes and microphones and rooms and knobs! Why would we stop doing that so we can look at a screen all day?
  • Skill – Some people are better at playing and conceiving music with instruments than with a computer – and not just old farts.
  • Who’s going to record the loops – Many drum loop libraries are actually recorded by drummers…you see where this is going.

These are just a few of the reasons real instruments still have value – and why it’s still important to study and improve the technique of recording them. But it’s not really an either/or situation. The fact is that now more than ever, recordists have a multitude of tools at their disposal, and there’s no rule about which instruments should be “fake” and which should be “real”.

Combine Real Instruments with Everything!

Use EZ drummer and a MIDI bass line and record your shredding with a PRS and a virtual amp, then get a real cellist to overdub a track and top it off with a virtual choir – nobody cares! As the great Andrew Scheps has said, “all that matters is what comes out of the speaker”.

It means that all of it – from vintage Steinways to ultra-modern soft synths – is valid. It is indeed a beautiful thing that a whole world of sound is available to anyone with a laptop and an idea, and nobody wants to go back to the days where only rich folk could make something great come out of the speakers.

But if you’re a player, don’t count yourself out just yet. After all, the technology to record a real, live instrument is also much more accessible now, so there’s a lot of need for great instrumentalists too – and people who can record them.

Still, at the end of the day, who’s to say what’s “real” or “fake”? If it sounds good it is good, as they say -which is a case for virtual instruments and old-fashioned playing.

It’s all just a matter of making something beautiful with whatever tools you have.

I can play a few things, program a few things, and I spent decades waiting for it to be “ok” to use MIDI drums on a track. Talk to me about it at Facebook @AaronJTrumm or Instagram @AaronJTrumm

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