So what’s the point of all this, you might be asking? If you want to create cheesy-sounding orchestral music, why can’t you just download some 8MB GM soundfont, load it into Kontakt or whatever modern sampler and be done with it? Well, of course you can. There’s no right and wrong and I’m not saying you shouldn’t. The reason I haven’t even mentioned using soundfonts — which is probably one of the oldest and most widely available sampling formats — is that all samplers interpret non-native formats differently and things are inevitably lost in translation.
A soundfont loaded into Kontakt will not sound exactly like a soundfont loaded into a Sound Blaster. The implementation of envelopes, filters, effects and even the very circuitry of the hardware itself will color the sound in ways that a sampler can never account for when just importing samples. It’s a bit like taking a photo of a painting. While you can see that it’s clearly the same image, the colors will be off, the image will be ever so slightly distorted due to the camera lens, and no matter the quality of the camera you will never get the same amount of detail as from inspecting the painting with the naked eye.
Does this matter? For the listener, most likely not. Hardly anyone listening to a completed track is going to say, “bah, s/he’s clearly using a soundfont in Kontakt and not the real thing!” But authenticity isn’t only about the sound quality, and that’s why it shouldn’t be dismissed wholesale.
There’s a reason that actual C64’s and other vintage computers are becoming popular again. If the real thing offered nothing whatsoever over an emulator, no one would be buying them. Sure, nostalgia plays a part and some people just want the complete experience, but there’s also the fact that the inherent limitations of technology directly influence how we use it to create something, and how that something turns out in the end, be it a computer game or a piece of MIDI music.
What I’m trying to say here is that just using old samples is only a part of the equation for getting a retro type of sound. If you’re using a modern sampler in a modern DAW you can do anything. You can load dozens of instances of the same instrument, you can have hundreds of MIDI tracks each playing tons of notes simultaneously, and more effects than you can shake a stick at. Whereas on the other hand if you’re using a hardware unit (or a virtual emulation thereof) with only 16 channels, a fixed polyphony and no discrete outputs, well, those limitations are most certainly going to affect how you approach composing music on it. And as a result, the music you create will have a more authentic vibe than something done with just old samples loaded into modern software.