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If copying you is all it takes then I’ve already won

There’s a great post by Splice on Facebook about a producer who gets berated by fellow artists for using loops. It goes something like this:

“I thought that using loops was cheating, so I programmed my own using samples. I then thought that using samples was cheating, so I recorded real drums. I then thought that programming them was cheating, so I learned to play the drums for real. I then thought that using purchased drums was cheating, so I learned to make my own. I then thought that using pre-made skins was cheating, so I killed a goat and skinned it. I then thought that was cheating too, so I grew my own goat from a baby goat. I also think that this is cheating, but I’m not sure where to go from here. I haven’t made any music lately, what with the goat farming and all.”

While humorous, it’s a common question among beginners and even intermediate producers: how much is too much? When do the presets, the libraries and samples start making us sound less like ourselves, and more like everybody else?

In short: they don’t. But through overuse can force us into a very generic style. So the real question is, “How do we use libraries/samples/presets within the context of our music while still retaining our own unique sound?”

Outside of the parameters included within libraries, I find it helpful to remember a few key points to avoid redundancy:

Libraries Are Tools, Not Replacements

It can be tempting to buy into the hype of a new release (Good marketing is designed to do that, after all). But it is important to remember one very important thing: libraries exist to make the job easier, not do the job for you.

Orchestras, for example, have been made incredibly accessible with the advent of all-in-one suites like Metropolis Ark 1, Symphobia, or Spitfire Audio’s Albion series. Articulations like legato, spiccato, and marcato are only a click away. In the case of Albion One the instrument sections have even been pre-layered.

But understanding the library extends beyond the library itself. Instrument combinations, seating arrangements for specific styles/time periods, and good orchestration are all imperative to a cohesive piece of music.

You would be surprised what free orchestral soundfont libraries are capable of when wielded by someone with good orchestration knowledge. Take a listen to this track produced with Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra (a free soundfont library).

Don’t Use it Unless You Can (Or Have Some Idea How to) Create It

Using a vengeance/cymatics/loopmasters/*insert library here* kickdrum? Synthesize one! Need a cello? Try your hand at physically modelling your own.

This kind of thinking has a multitude of benefits:

  • Less inclination to use or rely on libraries for certain sounds
  • Develops greater understanding of how your favorite sounds are made
  • You won’t sound like everyone else!

It is also worth looking into sound design for media (called ‘Foley’). Plenty of books and articles exist describing different methods to achieve sounds that might otherwise be unattainable or need to be enhanced in one way or another.

The list is extensive, but a few classic examples include:

  • Crushing cabbage to simulate breaking bones
  • Frying bacon to imitate the sound of heavy rainfall
  • Corn starch in a leather pouch creates a crunching snow effect

An upside of doing field recordings is that it forces you to leave the house and engage with the natural world and — wait for it — people!

Perceived Value Does Not (Always) Equal Success

You gain a lot of prestige in the sound design world when you can synthesize instruments like strings and make them sound real. Given how complex the instrument is, it’s not hard to see why this is the case.

But — not to discount from the previous point in any way — at the end of the day, nobody cares if you made every sound from scratch.

Your consumer base will include a certain degree of fellow musicians and sound designers who will — no doubt — have plenty of criticisms to level against your work. Most of your consumers, however, are normal people doing anything but music.

An additional, and often overlooked fact is that most sounds heard in popular songs are fairly simple to create. A saw wave run through NI’s Guitar Rig with some slight tweaks and you’ve — more or less — got the basis for the pluck bass Madeon used in Imperium, for example.

The factor that separates two songs of equal quality is good marketing. The more popular something is, the more willing people are to buy into it.

Final Thoughts

The argument against presets is largely the result of accessibility; those with no creative inclination whatsoever have access to tools that were previously only affordable by the elite. As a result, it is easier than ever to create professional recordings with limited effort.

Ironically enough, even with accessibility, the distinguishing factor in music made with the same tools is still the same as it was in classical times — slight nuances placed upon sounds to further accentuate their beauty, as well as the artist’s vision for what they want to sound like.

So, before using a sound as is or buying a product because you have to have it, ask yourself the question,”What do I want my music to sound like?”

Do you have an opinion on presets and libraries? Connect with me through Twitter @VisualMosaic and tell me your thoughts! Also be sure to visit my soundcloud to hear some of my music!