The sample quality myth: Part 1

All that glitters is not gold

As a newbie reading various recording-related online forums you could easily get the idea that top-dollar sample libraries are key to capturing a convincing orchestral sound. The general opinion appears to be that the more advanced and expensive stuff you have, the easier it will be to create believable, professional-sounding music.

While not exactly untrue, this is an oversimplified form of reasoning that leaves out so many other fundamental factors that I can’t just keep biting my tongue. It doesn’t really work like that. So let’s poke a few holes in this myth, shall we?

First of all, I can see only two potential reasons why people would be handing out advice like that:

1. They are experienced composers, likely professionals, who are so far removed from the newbie stage that they don’t consciously consider all the other requirements. When someone asks, “what do I need to make this kind of music?” they respond “the best samples available”. Why would anyone be asking if they didn’t already know all the rest, you know?

2. They are inexperienced composers who have received the same advice from other inexperienced composers, and are now perpetuating this misconception partly because they think that’s the way things are, and partly for rationalizing for themselves that they did the right thing, spending all this money on something that hasn’t yet led them to a major compositional and/or professional breakthrough.

Don’t get me wrong here, a pro-grade library can surely be helpful in many ways, no matter your level of skill and experience. If nothing else you won’t have to worry about sample quality being the weakest link in your virtual orchestrations. And as these libs are usually very comprehensive, you won’t have any nasty surprises coming up, like when you suddenly notice in the middle of a composition that your violas don’t come with staccato articulations or whatever. Having plenty of articulations for every instrument will also make it easier to add variation and realism.

Looking at it that way, it makes all the sense in the world to splurge on libraries and stay on top of the orchestral samples arms race.

On the other hand, “pro-grade” is a moving target. A couple of the oldest orchestral libraries I personally use were extremely advanced and absolutely top notch back when they were released. Nowadays they are clearly showing their age, but does that make them less useful than modern offerings? Not at all, as long as you know how to play to their strengths.

The same thing will inevitably happen to all the high end libs around today. One or two decades from now, they will have become a cute paragraph in the ongoing history of orchestral sampling, to be snorted at by the virtual orchestration snobs of tomorrow. So at some point sooner or later, you’re going to have to start working with what you have or spend the rest of your life sinking ridiculous amounts of money into upgrades you don’t even know how to use to their full potential, because you’re not spending enough time with them.

So, we’ve established that having high-quality tools is never a bad thing. What they can’t help you with, however, is knowing how to use these tools in the first place. I could go to a hardware store and buy two hammers. One cheapest of the cheap $5 hammer and one $100 professional hammer. I will likely notice differences in quality and construction between the two, but the $100 hammer will not make me 20x better at using it than the $5 hammer will. I will be just as bad at hammering nails with either, because buying a hammer regardless of price will not make me a carpenter.

The same goes for sample libraries, virtual instruments, plugins and even your DAW software itself. Great music will not happen magically just because you’re using the same software as the pros. In fact, an experienced composer will without much effort be able to make great music with a very basic library, whereas a newbie will probably struggle to make any music at all with an advanced library, as s/he will have little or no idea how it’s supposed to be used.

So, in case you’re thinking about whipping out your credit card and ordering Vienna Super Package or something similar, here’s a list of things I would consider far more important if you’re new to all this. I know, I know. Shiny is fun. Shiny makes you feel like a better musician, a better person. But trust me, you’ll thank me in the long run.

Next: The sample quality myth Part 2: Know your instruments

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3 Responses to The sample quality myth: Part 1

  1. Pingback: The sample quality myth: New article series |

  2. Your articles on midi orchestration are nothing short of superb. You say everything I’ve been saying for years, and you say it better. Every musician tackling midi orchestration should be required to read Westlund. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort.

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