Live vs Virtual Sounds

Finding The Balance – Live Instrumentation vs Programming Instruments


So this is an idea that a friend and recent collaborator brought to my attention. I’ve given it some thought in my production but I never personally sat down with the idea and really took a second to dwell on it so I figured this would be a great opportunity to share my thoughts on the subject, on the fly. We were winding down a creative brainstorm and he asked me what I think the pros & cons are of Live & Programmed Instrumentation. Now this creates a whole can of worms in itself because there are so many things factoring into either actually becoming the sound you want to achieve. When it comes to live instrumentation, you have to consider your recording source, the input signal, any sort of amp processing needed for the instrument itself, if the instrument can even be recorded in a room in general sometimes! Then when it comes to programming instruments, there’s obviously the human feel taken away, but sometimes it’s replaced with what now is a retro-futuristic nostalgic vibe. Both have their own individual charms, so rather than highlighting one back and forth, I figured I would put both of these subjects on the spotlight in some very honest sections.

Making Your Vision come To Life

When it comes to production, its all about taking whatever vision you have for that moment of what something sounds like, and bringing it to life. It comes to some producers easier than others, and with all the right resources or even with none at all, it can come as second nature to some. The thing is, sometimes to realize that vision you may need to have access to sounds you readily don’t have control over. Be it some random French horn you can’t afford, or that Moog Voyager XL you’ve been drooling over for 5 years, sometimes you just cant get that sound. When it comes to making you vision come to life with either live instrumentation or programmed instruments, it helps to know people who can get you in front of the right sounds. Actively networking to get yourself into a position where you can achieve that vision and find those sounds you’ve finally been looking for is never a bad idea.

Is It Even Real?

When it comes to live instruments vs programming sounds in a DAW, the difference breaker between the two can be if the sound you’re looking for is actually a real instrument. The beauty of the programmed instrument world is that even though sometimes it can have sub-human results, sometimes the melodies and arpeggios you can program are beyond even the most talented virtuoso. Along with that, the sheer plethora of voices that a DAW can hold can sometimes outweigh any humanly possible concert while still giving you a rich tone; so the digital production value definitely has something to offer beyond its saw tooth and sine wave foundations.

Direct Sampling

Sometimes you may be blessed with access to the tools you need to get that specific sound you’ve been looking for with the right resources. Sampling directly from the source to get the sound you’re trying to find is always a fun experience, and sometimes it can even serve it’s purpose beyond your original intentions for the song. A story I always remember hearing is how when Just Blaze tried to get a sample clear for what eventually would be Drake’s “Lord Knows,” he went and hired a church choir to create his own rendition, free of samples, free of limitations. We all know what the end result came out of with that track, so when you do get the opportunity to go live, take it and knock it out the park.

Getting THAT Sound & Conclusion

When it comes to live vs programmed instrumentation, it’s all really about getting a specific sound you’re trying to tap into and nailing it. I know I keep going back to that but that’s really what this debate would boil down to. Finding the right sound on a live level, or on a programmed level is met with equal satisfaction from my observations in the studio. For me, the process is only relative if the product comes out with a clear vision, and for that it goes way beyond where you are choosing to find your inspiration for which style of instrument to use. Create how you create, and never stop looking for THAT sound….its out there, waiting for that deserving producer to find it.

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