I spend most of my day working with samples, as I’m sure many of you do. I try and record real instruments whenever possible, but I don’t have a good sounding piano, and my violin playing sounds like what might happen if you give the Hulk a violin. You’re probably in the same position. If you’re a film composer, you probably want to write for an orchestra. Even if you don’t, you’re still going to be using sampled instruments for at least some of your sounds, unless you somehow get a score that’s all synth, and then kudos to you. The problem is, everyone is using the same sample libraries., unless you have the time and budget to record your own samples, and that’s another article. Or book, really. And a lot of the sample libraries out there just aren’t that great! They’re edited, tuned, stretched, and perfected to an inhuman level. We want our songs to breath and sound human.
So what can we do? Well, a lot of things. But you can find other articles on most of them, such as just adding one real instrument, or not quantizing so heavily, and proper use of reverb. I want to talk to you about something that’s not really covered often. Noise. Go through your library of samples, and I doubt you’ll find one instance of noise. I love my Kontakt libraries and EastWest sounds as much as the next dude, but they’re unbelievably perfect. The signal chains used to record them are top of the line, and then any noise is edited out to give you the most perfect sound possible. Listen to this track https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sc1IkYwKCtM. The first thing you might notice is IT’S CRAZY NOISEY. There’s white noise from the recording chain or maybe just a loud room, there’s noise when he hits the keys, you can hear the hammers against the strings. This is a pretty extreme example, but the noise is what gives the piano it’s character. It’s just as much of the sound as the notes themselves. If you played the same thing with a typical piano sample, you wouldn’t get anything close to the same result.
What’s my point? I think our quest for perfect recordings has gone too far. Real instruments have noise. Guitar strings will squeak when you move your fingers. The mechanics in a piano make noise, although on a good piano they might not be noticeable, but they are there. Try adding some of this back into your recordings. My favorite piano library, Giant by Native Instruments, has a place to add back in the various noises made by the piano. I’ve also recorded myself, in my pretty loud and noisey living room, sitting at my piano and just moving around like I was actually playing the keys. It’s a crummy sounding piano, but that extra element of humanism will improve your recordings drastically. Get some natural reverb and noise by putting some speakers in a room, and put a microphone at the other end. Play back your track and record it. Blend it in to taste. Or just stick a microphone in a room and record for a few minutes. I’ve been doing this to all my tracks recently, even when I’m working on electronic music. If you have access to a good piano, or even a decent piano, go make your own samples. Doesn’t have to be 127 different layers of velocity and 8x round robins, but get something imperfect. Maybe the pianos a little out of tune, and there’s that one key that doens’t work correctly. Great! Record it, and blend it in with your favorite piano library. Even if it’s not noticeable, it will instantly sound more human.
We’ve gone too far in our pursuit for perfect recordings, and maybe it takes statements like Jon Hopkins “Abandon Window” to get us back in the right direction. Thanks for reading.