“Let’s Get Real” – Instruments Of Choice

Through the years I have often heard the debate over which kind of instruments are to be used in order to make a good recording. Acoustic, electric, samples, loops, all being debated as being better for creating specific types of music. As a studio engineer, my first and foremost goal is to create a recording that fits the needs of the artist, the budget, the project and the song. So sometimes the choice of what to record is not as clear as some would think.

This is not a new debate. Many of Bach’s works are written for organ or harpsichord. Yet most of us have no problem listening to them performed on a modern day piano. And make no mistake, in the history of instruments, the piano is very high tech. Harpsichords lack the ability and expression of a piano. Since the strings are plucked as oppose to struck, you have little control over the volume of each note. Some purists would say that Bach should only be played on the instruments for which they were intended. So is it wrong to play these compositions on a piano? Or simply a more modern choice?

Those who talk about these choices often have a predisposed prejudice. Some like to insist that a “good” recording must be recorded with specific types of instruments in order to be successful. But if we look closer, we discover that the choices are much more complex. For some, I believe the choice is more a philosophical choice. And in my opinion, the results hinge more on the talents, musicianship and creativity of the people involved than the choice of instruments.

Let’s begin by clarifying some of the types of sounds we are talking about.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. By itself it produces no sound. There are a standard set of sound labels used with MIDI controllers. But in general, MIDI is simply an interface. It can be used to control sounds. But also to make changes in a mix, program changes to guitar effects or even sync a computer to a digital recorder. It’s a tool that unfortunately gets reviled for being fake or not as “real.” Would be akin to saying typing on a computer is fake compared to using a pen or pencil. MIDI simply transmits and records information which, in many recording scenarios, can be a very useful tool.

The term “synthesizer” is too often used to describe anything that comes out of a keyboard. There are, in fact, many types of keyboards. Synthesizers, electronic keyboards, electronic pianos, organs, sampled keyboards and keyboard controllers to name a few.

Synthesizers generate a sound electronically which is then controlled by a keyboard or other means. Synthesized sounds are usually meant to sound electronic. There are typically an array of knobs, sliders and controls to alter the sounds as they are performed to create even more interesting variations. A true synthesizer does not come with pre-programmed sounds. (i.e. Moog, Arp) Some refer to every sound that’s not “real” as being a synthesized sound. This is a somewhat out-of-date concept.

Electronic keyboards often have pre-programmed sounds meant to simulate real instruments. The sound is generated electronically much like a synthesizer with a few knobs for variations. But differs from a synthesizer in that the choice of sounds is programmed into the keyboard for ease of use. Some electronic keyboards are better than others at producing realistic sounds. Some also have pre-programmed synth sounds which leads to them being labeled Synthesizer. But their ability to simulate sounds is limited due to cost and memory capacity.

Sampled sounds are real recorded sounds of real instruments. They are not fake nor electronically generated. Samples can also be loaded directly into a recording system and controlled through a keyboard, MIDI controller or drum pads.

High-end sampled sounds will have many variations and recorded nuances. For example, a piano sample will have all 88 keys recorded separately. Not only each and every note, but each note recorded many times at various volumes to capture the changes in tone and response.

“Civil Tongue” by James Coffey
Ivory Piano Sample Software – Setting: 9 foot Steinway
Notice how the sound responds to different key pressures. I have a beautiful baby grand in the studio ready to use when there’s lead time to have it tuned for a session. If there isn’t time, samples can be a better choice.

Most keyboards do not use samples of this caliber because of memory requirements and cost. Standard keyboards simply don’t have enough memory to hold the gigabytes of information needed. Those that do, can cost thousands of dollars.

“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” Arranged by James Coffey using sampled flutes
This was for a low budget toy doll project so the use of sampled flutes was the right choice.

Moreover, high quality sample libraries are recorded by experienced engineers in state-of-the-art studios. Sometimes a particular set of sounds can even be recorded by a well-known studio musician.

It has been a practice for many years that studios will replace real live drums with electronic or sampled drums oftentimes using the live session as a guide. An example can be heard in the early recordings of Steely Dan such as their hit “Hey Nineteen.” Many famous songs you’ve heard and thought were real drums were actually sampled replacements or at least enhanced. In as much as we’d like to use real drums, they can be difficult to mix if not recorded and performed well.

Samples are often used to simply enhance a drum set. I personally like the kick to have a real low end presence. So I often add an extra kick drum sound to the mix to give the song that extra low end thump. Making the recording more even in tone doesn’t make it any less real. It rounds out the recording in such a way that it makes all the other tracks shine even brighter.

Oftentimes there’s an issue of a kick drum clashing in tone with the bass guitar. Even though we don’t think of drums as being a melodic instrument they do have pitch and if the pitch of the kick is contrary to the bass line or key of the song, it can cause problems.

Mix of live drums.
Notice the out-of-tune sound on the very last note.
Could be the kick or tom clashing with the bass.

Turned out to be the tom.
Here’s the song with the tom replaced with a tuned tom.

So not only can we replace the kick with a real recorded sample kick, but we can tune the kick to the best possible pitch. And most of the time the replacement preserves the expression of the original track.

I would agree that, in most situations where the budget allows, there are sounds that should always be recorded with the “real deal.” Meaning real instruments played by real human musicians. But you also have to balance budget, time constraints and the needs of the song. For example, if your song requires a sax solo, yes hire a saxophonist. If your song has a few notes of strings in the background, then using a sampled or even electronic sound can be a wise choice. If performed well.

“Over the River and Through The Woods” Arranged by James Coffey
Real strings, electronic or samples?
Answer at the end!

As with any instrument, some are better than others. We’ve all heard songs with cheesy drum machines or electronic strings. But it is short sighted to paint all instruments and sounds with the same brush. There are cheap electronic sounds just like there are cheap acoustic guitars. When you are listening to great samples played by professional musicians, you don’t read disparaging comments because, even to the trained ear, they may be indistinguishable from the real deal.

I have experienced situations where the effort to preserve a certain sound leads to using musicians who are less than professional. I remember a project where the artist really wanted to add violin to a track. What I received was a lackluster amateur recording of one of her friends playing slightly out of tune. Adding this track really brought the whole recording down in quality. Again, I emphasize the need for musicianship no matter what instrument is being performed. I’d rather hear Clapton play a $10 guitar than an inexperienced wannabe play a vintage Martin.

Also much depends on the style of music. If you are a traditional folk trio, then adding an electronic keyboard may be inappropriate. And it can depend on whether you are a band that creates your own original music or a songwriter who is having their songs recorded for release by a studio.

“Slide On Up” by James Coffey – Is the harmonica real? Are the drums real or samples?
Answer at the end!

“Pickin’ Pumpkins in the Pumpkin Patch” by James Coffey
What instruments are samples and which are “real?” Remember samples are real sounds so it might be hard to tell.
Answer at the end!

Another factor is the quality of the initial recording sessions. Some artists choose to record the instruments at hand and perform their songs as if they are performing live. That certainly is a very valid approach if that is the sound you are looking for. Many artists want the more raw live sound. That’s why I encourage artists to have a recording strategy firmly in place before recording begins. If indeed it’s decided that the goal is to use all acoustic instruments, then everyone involved can make an effort to balance the tonality of the sounds through a thoughtful arrangement as well as proper tuning of instruments.

To the heart of the matter, I believe, is always musicianship. Many times when a keyboard or an electronic drum set is used, they are being used by musicians with low budgets and perhaps little experience performing those sounds. You need to have experience and skill in string arrangement to get the most of sampled or electronic string sounds. Knowing each instrument’s range and nuances. Not just playing chords as you would normally do on a keyboard. But arranging the notes and harmonies as if they were being performed by live instruments. In many ways this, more than the sound itself, contributes to the “fake” sound.

I’ve also had situation where a performance has a slight problem and the time and budget do not allow for the track to be re-recorded. Once or twice I’ve had someone send me a bass guitar track where the string buzzes slightly as it fades at the end of a song. The songwriter could have had that part re-recorded but instead asked me to fix it. Wasn’t too hard to find a sampled bass sound that matched perfectly and I replaced that one note. May seem like a small thing but in a recording the details count.

I agree that using real musicians playing real instruments can be the ideal in most situations. Problem being we don’t live in an ideal world. And we’re not trying to put musicians out of work. But in the studio, quality comes first. Drums can be out of tune, mic placement can be off, real instruments may contain harmonic content that clashes with other tracks. If every instrument is recorded well, any studio engineer, including myself, would welcome the opportunity to mix all live instruments! But when we know a recording can be better, we need to deploy every method in our audio toolbox.

Any and all sounds are tools for musicians and songwriters. And all can be used effectively if applied with creativity and musicianship.


“Over the River and Through the Woods” In this case the client had the budget for a REAL string quartet. Did you guess correctly? However it was extremely helpful to create and score the arrangement using sampled strings first.
“Pickin’ Pumpkins in the Pumpkin Patch” All live acoustic except drums and accordion. Yes the penny whistle is real! Must be my Irish roots.
“Slide On Up” The harmonica is real. Some of the drums are samples mixed with live acoustic instruments.

For more insight into how electronics and samples are used to in a studio to enhance live instruments, you can watch “Under African Skies” a documentary about the recording of the Paul Simon’s Grammy Award winning album “Graceland.” There are a few short segments during the mix illustrating several examples. Available through iTunes and Amazon Video.