If You Can't Hear The Difference, Does It Matter?

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Musical Composition By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Musical Composition
Last updated: 23/05/2017
Tags: aesthetics of music, digital revolution, music composition, music production, musical instruments

For composers, the choice between recording real musicians or using electronic instruments has become increasingly difficult. This was brought into stark relief in 2010, when the following piece of music appeared on the website 'spitfireaudio.com': https://soundcloud.com/spitfireaudio/co-raise-the-atocha-2-2 

The piece was written by the composer Colin O'Malley and was merely intended to showcase 'Spitfire Audio's new package of electronic percussion instruments. Yet it caused a much greater stir in the composing community than O'Malley could ever have expected, as it was revealed that all of the orchestral sounds in the piece had been produced entirely electronically. This was, in itself, nothing remarkable; electronic instruments had been sounding increasingly realistic over the preceding 40 years, but O'Malley's composition had reached levels of realism that made it almost indistinguishable from a live recording. 

Since the year 2000 it had become common practice for composers to use 'sample libraries'. (A sample library contains live recordings of every note on a given musical instrument. These note recordings are collected and installed onto a computer so that composers essentially have a playable version of that instrument at their fingertips). They had often been used in the background of television scores and pop records, with audiences oblivious to their synthetic nature. But whilst they weren't the 'tinny' strings associated with telephone 'hold music', a listener could still generally identify them as 'fake' or 'electronic', when heard in isolation. At the time of O'Malley's composition this was beginning to change. The realism of sample libraries was such that even composers were having a hard time discerning sampled instruments from real ones. Since then, electronic instruments have only become more convincing. 

The digital revolution has torn its way through almost every workplace, and the music industry is no exception. In recent years the number of live recording sessions has diminished significantly, as producers realise that audiences can't necessarily tell the difference between a real instrument and an electronic one, especially while they are distracted by dramatic dialogue on television or the lead vocal on a record. Opting for sample libraries, already owned by the composer, is a thrifty alternative. Nevertheless, the use of sample libraries has not replaced the recording of live musicians outright, as the emotional nuance of a real instrument being played is still not replicable by computers, no matter how much a composer can control and manipulate the sound.

Many articles have been written on this subject, and whether or not sampled instruments will eventually breach the 'uncanny valley' and supersede real musicians remains to be seen. However, these technological advances pose another threat to the world of music that is far harder to perceive, and therefore potentially more devastating: as they become increasingly ubiquitous, sample libraries are affecting the way composers write music.   

With so much composition taking place inside computer software, digital technology has already had noticeable effects on the writing process. For example, the tempo of music is rarely flexible these days, as it is almost always written (and therefore recorded) to a fixed digital click or metronome. Also, instead of writing a piece one bar at a time, and then orchestrating it, composers often construct the piece by adding one instrument at a time, building layer upon layer of sound. Sample libraries, however, have the potential to create an even greater impact on modern composition, for when music is written with electronic instruments, it must be written for electronic instruments. Samples rely on prerecorded performances, and while they are gradually becoming more versatile with each new library, they are always imitating a fixed style of playing that already exists. Conversely, live musicians can create several bespoke performances for each individual musical phrase in every recording session, and produce a truly unique rendition that is tailored to each piece of music. Composers are inherently aware of this, so when writing for real instruments they are, therefore, more or less unconstrained in what they can do. With sampled instruments the opposite is true. 

I observed this happening within my own compositions several years ago. Producers would often suggest that I save money by creating a score using only samples, in principle increasing my fee for the project. While this was initially appealing, I found the resulting music to be somewhat stilted or lacklustre. This was not because the instruments sounded fake (their sampled origins were all but undetectable), but because the music I was writing was less ambitious. It could still have an effect on an audience, but in a very functional manner. In order to maintain the illusion of real instruments I had to write within the inevitable restrictions of the sample libraries, which ended up curtailing the effectiveness of the music and its emotional impact. Realising this, I resolved to write my basic musical ideas without using samples, and fought hard to find money in the production budgets for recording real musicians. I found that other composers were experiencing similar things, and I have tried to convince them to approach writing this way: only use electronic instruments when they fit the requirements of your music, don't write your music to fit the requirements of electronic instruments. 

I feel this is an important distinction to make. Technology has always been an incredible asset to the human imagination, inspiring great ideas and assisting in their realisation. At their best, sample libraries do this - allowing people to create music for instruments they would otherwise have no access to. However, when using these sounds we must be careful that we don't lose sight of the vast potential of real instruments, and don't constrain our musical ideas according to the limited abilities of the samples. Otherwise, our ears may become so familiar to music that is produced when 'the tail wags the dog', that we don't even recognise it as such.

Jonathan Sims Musical Composition Teacher (South East London)

About The Author

I am very passionate about music and have been playing, writing and studying all styles and forms of music for most of my life. I am equally passionate about sharing my professional and practical knowledge with others.

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