Many people agree that what you need to write to picture is a computer, a keyboard controller, an audio interface, some speakers and a DAW (digital audio workstation, i.e. Logic, Cubase, Reaper, Pro Tools, Ableton, GarageBand). Many would also argue that depending on your neighbours or housemates, a pair of headphones could come in handy. But the next step is divided with many suggesting: “some sounds” or “a sample library”. However, I feel (somewhat suicidally – for a sample developer!) that the next must-have item is a microphone, to ensure you can make sounds of your very own before you use any others. I hope my film above demonstrates some very basic principals of creating a basic virtual instrument that I have annotated below.
Taking an instrument you can’t play and making it a tool
The magic of sampling enables us all to play or imitate instruments we have little understanding or even ability to play. Whether it be slavishly multi sampling an instrument into its ‘virtual’ form, or indeed conjuring up a totally new alien incarnation – say by pinging some wine glasses and tuning them down two octaves – sampling is an un-sung creative force within modern music making. When people ask me what you need to aim for as a young composer I always reply with the same answer “create your own voice, and be daring with it”. You often hear of people reining stuff in, of coming from the left field, but rarely reining stuff out, or coming out of centre field! So start with a wide aperture.
First of all get* a half decent mic, and sample something in your house or studio. If there’s nothing to sample (although there is, start by popping your cheek!), head down to your local charity store, or if you’re rich, folk music instrument stockist. Pick up something you can’t play and have a go at sampling it, because once you’ve done this, you will immediately own an instrument no one else on the planet does.
Rules to sampling should be the same as the rules for recording music
There have been (and still are sometimes) rules to sampling. However, Paul and I have never really subscribed to them. Surely to make the best samples you must apply EXACTLY the same rules to recording and producing music, not some newly acquired laboratory technique. So we select our players according to their spirit and personality, as you would any musician for any recording. We select microphones and signal paths according to established best practice (and our particular sonic aesthetic) and during the sessions we work hard to coerce the most spirited and unique performance out of the player. Even if the poor sod is having to play one note at a time!
Contrary to a lot of common practice with sampling, we aim for the opposite of consistency (particularly when we’re making little ‘personal gems’ as we’re doing here in this video). Of all the rules here, just getting your player to play as randomly as humanly possible would be uppermost.
Other than that, here is a quick summary of our recommended best practice: TRACKING
Before placing a mic in front of an instrument use your ears. Kneel down (if appropriate) and place your ears where you think the microphone should go. Don’t Google “where do I place a mic for a guitar” because the person who has prepared this response is not recording the guitar you’re recording, doesn’t know what sound you’re after, and isn’t sat there in the same room as you and the player.
Place a mic that gets the best sound, not the cleanest signal, and if you’ve got that Google enquiry up that says you shouldn’t use the mic that you’re using but it sounds brilliant…. ignore Google.
Sorry to stress this again, but encourage the player to try and make every note different. Advise using different fingers, parts of fingers, moving around their whole body, their seating stance, just as she or he would during a performance.
If you’re a novice and don’t want to go down the advanced “round robin” route (lots of the same notes to avoid ‘machine gunning’), err instead on lots of dynamic layers (we find soft, mid, loud is a good starter. If you want more? Go softer before louder!). If you can only be arsed with one, go with the quietest!
Don’t be afraid of capturing a little bit of room… this is what makes the instrument sound real.
Concentrate on the lower dynamic layers, especially the ones on the edge of silence…. This is where the magic happens.
Modern noise reduction software is inexpensive and easy to use… So always try to roll back a bit of the room tone from your recordings. The minute you play more than one note on your sampler, you’ll double the number of notes (which is what you want to do) but also the amount of room tone and noise (which you don’t want to do) and if you’ve adhered to the last bullet point and have captured the really quiet magic, you’ll be faced with a lot of room tone!
Once you’ve recorded the ‘obvious’ articulations (ways of playing the instruments, bowed, pizzicato etc etc) have a think about really cool stuff that your player may not be able to play in a performance but would be great for technology to capture (here we’ve taken some super slow tremolandi) and turn into an unfamiliar instrument.
Once in the box, keep organised; time spent now on this = quadruple time in the future.
When editing by all means cut into the first transient of a note, but then nudge back by a fixed amount for every sample (here we nudged back 500ms) This will mean you can adjust the global (and individual) trigger points within the sampler without having to go back to your multi tracks.
Try and be meticulous in your titling. A poorly titled set of samples will keep you awake at night.
For more spirited instruments, try and tune with your ears. Don’t whack an auto tuner on it as you will botox the life out of it.
When assigning regions to groups and determining velocity layers, don’t make 0-90 too detailed. We naturally play more dynamically above 90, so making this as detailed as can be.
TWEAKING AND SPLOSH
Adjust your sample start points and ADSR so you find a balance between playability, responsiveness and reality. Sometimes the tightest triggered samples will not sound realistic, but if you pull the start point of each sample back too far, it can be unplayable.
Don’t be afraid to add reverb to your new personal sample instrument, in order to glue everything together and make it a believable entity, or indeed to show your partner or spouse why they haven’t seen you all day!