Is it really important to use acoustic instruments when there's a MIDI sample available?

I do get asked this type of question from time to time: "Why are you recording that console piano instead of just using piano samples?"  And really, the question kind of surprises me.

Let's get right down to it, I have a picky ear.  Not only do I have a picky ear, but I have a really hard time settling for "that'll work" instead of "that's great."  To me, most samples sound like "that'll work."  Even when it comes to recording a console piano instead of using a piano MIDI sample.  I can typically tell if something is MIDI or acoustic in recordings, and to me, MIDI in a mix of acoustic instruments just sounds cheap.  It sounds like the artist was trying to save money instead of produce a great product.  Where as, an alright sounding acoustic piano comes across as an artistic take and flare, MIDI comes off as almost lazy.  (NOTE: I'm not saying it is lazy or it is bad to use MIDI.  If that's your thing, it's your thing and go for it.  I'm simply stating it's not my thing.)

I'm not against MIDI.  I have a MIDI keyboard on my desk right now next to me, and I have an old electric drum kit behind me that I use for tracking from time to time.  I use BFD2 drum samples and mapping, and yes, you can get it to sound really good...but it's not a live kit.

Now if you're doing electronic music, then using MIDI based instruments makes perfect sense and putting an acoustic instrument in the mix might just produce the same feeling as putting MIDI in with acoustic does to me.

But my passion in recording is acoustic instruments.  And yes, that includes electric guitars and organs.  So for me, recording the instruments available in the best way, producing the best possible sound, is what I'm going to do.  Really, if the acoustic instrument doesn't sound right, try a different mic placement, or different mic/mics altogether.  More often than not, the first mic placement isn't going to be the best; so if it doesn't sound good, move the mic.  If I had my druthers, I would have a Hammond B-3 with a Leslie in my studio; and I'd use it for every organ part!  But I don't, so I use a MIDI plugin.  I'm never fully satisfied with it, but it works and sounds fine.

Is it really important to use acoustic instruments when there's a MIDI sample available?

Is it really important?  No.

Is it important to me?  Yes.

That is the difference.  While in the big scheme of things, it's not a major deal whether you use an acoustic instrument or MIDI, it just depends on what you're going for.  Music is art and art is subjective.  That's why there are no "one size fits all" albums.

Plus, if you don't have an acoustic piano, and can't swing the $1,000+ for a decent one - maybe a MIDI sample is a good idea for you.  I just happen to have an acoustic piano.  To be fair, however, it was given to me by my mother.  She got it from...I don't remember where...and since I'm the musician in the family, I got it shortly after I moved out and got married.  So my piano was free.  Granted, it hadn't been tuned in over 15 years, so it needed some repair work; but hey, fixing it was a lot cheaper than a new piano.

Back to the "music is art" thought.

Really, your music is your art and YOU should be happy with it.


I have a good friend that put out an album that sounded a lot like Owl City's stuff.  Very electronic, very auto-tuned, very poppy.  Not my bag.  But it's what he's into, and he asked me to help him out a bit on it.  It was fun, and it was a great exercise to get out of my comfort zone and work on something new.  Now this was really different for me, even the acoustic guitar track was MIDI.  The MIDI was MIDI and if the vocals could have been MIDI, I'm sure they would have been MIDI too.  But it was a fun project and ended up sounding pretty cool.

All of this has been without considering some kind of fusion.  I love fusion, when it works.  And that again is what counts.  Love it, it's yours.  Don't settle for "that'll work," shoot for "this is great!"  Now go and make something you love.

Leave a comment

    Add comment