7 Ways to a Better Recording Part 6 – By James Coffey

Part 6 of our on-going series from James Coffey of Blue Vision Music covers an aspect of recording that is always ripe for discussion, so we’ve split it in two! Read part 1 below, and part 2 tomorrow.

“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.

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. 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 bias. Some like to insist that a “good” recording must be recorded with specific types of instruments in order to be successful. If we look closer, we discover that the choices are much more complex. For some, I believe the choice is more philosophical. In truth, 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, 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.” That is like 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 very useful.

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 This is a somewhat out-of-date concept.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

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. They differ 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.

1 comment

  1. Fascinating post by a master engineer. I always learn a lot from Jim Coffey.

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