One thing that has drastically changed in this modern era of technology is sampling. Sampling in music can have two distinct definitions. The most recognisable is an artist using a portion of a sound recording of an existing track, and then using it either as the basis or a part of a new track. A classic example of this is Robbie Williams’ 1998 hit single Millennium. The track features a sample of the string line from John Barry’s 1967 title track You Only Live Twice. Here is an example of the original track’s opening string line: Original Track. And here is the sampled version: Sampled Track. Therefore, Millennium contains a sample of You Only Live Twice. This is common amongst artists such as: Mike Oldfield, Eminem and Dr. Dre.

The other act of sampling is to make use of a sound recording by turning it into an instrument. For example, you can sample a drum kit by recording each individual drum and cymbal being struck at different dynamic levels. These recordings can then be assembled to create which is known as a sampled instrument. Although a very laborious process, with todays advanced technology, you can end up with a sampled instrument that sounds so true and realistic (because technically, in a way, it is a collection of real recordings of a real instrument), that it can almost be virtually impossible to tell the difference between a real performance and a mocked-up one… or is it?

You can have an array of high quality sample libraries that sound fantastic straight out of the box, and when played via a keyboard, can be very inspiring to write with. However, although the sampled instruments may have a great sound quality and are deeply sampled with plenty of features, you – that is the composer/producer – have to put in a good bit of elbow grease to get those sampled instruments to sound and feel as though they are being ‘performed’. It’s all too easy to load in a sampled trumpet, key in some notes, and then expect it to play back like a real trumpet. You have to enrich the MIDI* track with more information other than the relevant notes you want the trumpet to play. You have to characterise the ‘performance’ with nuances. In other words, you have to pretend to be a trumpet player, or at the very least, know how the instrument works, so you can consider things like vibrato, breath and legato transitions. Assuming you have a deeply sampled trumpet that caters for these features, you can include the relevant MIDI CC messages to control these features to enhance the ‘MIDI performance’.

This is something I strongly believe in, and it’s something I adhere to in all the projects I work on. I’m still learning of new ways to provide more realism when working with sampled instruments, and I’ll probably go on learning as sampling technology evolves even more in the future. I know from experience that there’s nothing worse than having a stale arrangement or music track that’s been created using samples, simply because of the lack of effort during the MIDI sequencing stage, and that’s why when it comes to working on a track, I’ll put in the extra effort to add in the little nuances that, whilst most people wouldn’t necessarily acknowledge or appreciate, add a sense of realism.

The sample libraries I mainly use are created by a London based company called Spitfire Audio. Established in 2008, they have since grown into one of the most prominent sample library companies in today’s market. The reason I prefer the Spitfire samples over others is, besides the fact they are British and are bloody fantastic, for every sample library they sell, the musicians and engineers who are involved in the sampling recording sessions all receive a royalty. This to me seems like a very ethical approach to sampling and allows composers/producers, like myself, to feel as though we’re still supporting fellow musicians who rely upon performing as a living.

Whilst someone like myself and many other composers and producers around the world find sampling technology to be of great assistance, in that they allow us to create realistic mock-ups of our work, I personally hope that sampling technology doesn’t become too relied upon for the end product, eventually replacing real musicians – i.e. human beings. Sadly, the use of sampled instruments has become all too common amongst various forms of media over the last decade, and the use of real musicians is continuing to dwindle year by year. A healthy balance of both would be a positive outcome in the future, but with even tighter financial budgets looming over various forms of media, it looks as though the music department will be the one to suffer the most…

So, the question I have to ask myself is: Am I being contradictory in believing in creating realistic mock-ups to rival that of real performances? My answer would be: No. If I receive a project that has a relatively low budget that won’t even stretch to bringing in even one real musician, I’ll do my utmost to create a realistic performance of the desired instrument(s) to give the client what they would like, but in the hope that if one day they receive a larger budget in the future, the realistic mock-up I created for them will inspire them to stretch that budget to allow for real musicians to come on board future projects. Afterall, as good as sampled instruments and detailed mock-ups are, they can’t ever replace a real human performance.

* An explanation of MIDI