Digital Instruments vs. Real Recorded Instruments

The other day I was looking for tea in the grocery store. I didn’t have an exact idea of what  kind of tea I was looking for and this became a problem because I was confronted by a 6-foot-high, 20-foot-long wall made, not of bricks, but of thousands of little boxes of tea of various brands and flavors. Eventually I gave up because there were just too many to choose from and I realized I wanted coffee instead.


In the music recording world, I get the same feeling every time I work with digital instruments (also sometimes called “MIDI” or a “VST”). The idea behind digital instruments is great. If you don’t have a bass guitar, or a drum kit, or a piano, don’t worry, just get a computer and you can have digital versions of thousands of instruments at your fingertips. In the past couple decades, the quality of MIDI instruments has increased dramatically. But when you suddenly have thousands of instruments at your disposal, you have a potential problem. The problem is: You suddenly have thousands of instruments at your disposal – and you can’t make up your mind what you want to use!


“Cello legato”

“Cello pizzacato”

“Cello stacatto”

“Cello harmonic”

“Space Cello”

“Disco Cello”

“Cello Delay”

“Sad Soundtrack Cello”

“Distorted Funky Cello”


Etcetera. And that’s just an example of what you might find for a single instrument. Anyone who’s ever goofed around with MIDI instruments knows what I mean. It’s fun to search through seemingly limitless instruments, but after a while, it’s easy to get confused about exactly what kind of sound you’re really looking for.


Over the years, I’ve often made use of digital instruments in recordings. Especially when shooting for a techno/electronica sound, it’s fun to play with a vast array of different digital instruments, and see what works. But this past year, I became somewhat dissatisfied with MIDI sounds. Even despite being high resolution sounds, they sounded too fake. Also, the instruments sounded mismatched when put in the same mix as real recorded instruments or vocals. This is partly because programmers usually add effects to the instruments which you sometimes can’t remove, making it difficult to make the MIDI instrument sound as if it were recorded in the same environment as everything else.


Even though it put a huge limitation on what I could try instrumentally, I made a conscious decision to only record an instrument if I had it in my studio. If I had a mandolin lying around, I’d try recording it.  If I wanted an accordion sound, but didn’t have one, I’d just skip it and make do with something else.


I think I’ve benefited from switching to real instruments for two reasons:




It forces creativity. In the absence of a drum kit, I’ve stomped on a guitar box, pounded on the body of my acoustic guitar, or just stomped on a nice ‘boomy’ floor to get a nice driving beat. When I had wanted to record an electric guitar, but didn’t have one, I tried an acoustic for the same thing and came up with a cool, unique sound.




You actually learn the character of the instruments you have. When using MIDI, most of the time you’ll be ‘plucking’ a guitar string by hitting a key on a synthesizer or even just clicking a mouse button. When you play a real guitar, you get to explore it’s capabilities as an instrument, rather than just activating a pre-recorded sound sample over and over.


So until I start a new electronica project, I’ve decided to limit myself to only recording real instruments. Here are a couple recent results:




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  1. Enjoyed listening to your music. I understand and feel this post. I’m currently working on my album and paid lots of money for digital beats and after listening to the music I purchased that I self composed the sounds sound dead and not alive. I’ve made a big decision to redo all my current and make all my new track instrumentals with only real instruments.

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