7 Ways to a Better Recording Part 6.2 – 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 split it in two! Read part 2 below.

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.

Not only can we replace the kick with a real recorded sample kick, but we can tune the kick to the best possible pitch. The replacement often perfectly preserves the expression of the original track.

It is true that in most situations where the budget allows, there are sounds that should always be recorded with the “real deal.” You also have to balance budget, time constraints and the needs of the song. For example, if your song requires a sax solo, 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.

“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. It can also 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. 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.

At 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.

Using real musicians playing real instruments can be the ideal in most situations. The problem is we don’t live in an ideal world. 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.