‘Sample Blindness’ & The Awfulness Of Synth Sounds

Theater sound designer John Leonard has some provocative thoughts to share about synthesizers, samplers, ‘sample blindness’ and the awfulness of synth sounds:

Even with the array of sample libraries available today, I often wince at the awfulness of the sounds I encounter.

On a number of occasions, I’ve been so offended by what’s been presented that I’ve found money from my budget to bring in musicians, always with the somewhat bemused composer’s permission.

But much of the time, the wincing goes unnoticed; these people are my friends and colleagues, and I know that they don’t intentionally produce bad sounds. I believe they don’t recognize how poor some of the samples are and carry on in blissful ignorance.

I’ve embraced synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, and digital recording systems from the very earliest days, and I realize that the palette of sounds available to composers today is vastly larger than it was 50 years ago. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if a tiny percentage of the effort that goes into creating ever more lifelike copies of instruments that already exist went into creating something astonishingly original?

Great stuff – but it ignores the fact that many musicians actually embrace the aesthetic of lousy orchestral emulations.

What do you think? Should composers stop recreating the orchestra with virtual instruments and create new electronic palettes for orchestration?

See Leonard’s full comments at the site Live Design.

via ldandersen

15 thoughts on “‘Sample Blindness’ & The Awfulness Of Synth Sounds

  1. I have been saying for a long time that synths are instruments in their own right, and should be treated as such. Nobody tries to emulate a guitar on a trumpet, so why bother emulating an orchestra on a synthesizer? The landmark instruments with a keyboard interface are the piano, the Hammond B3, the Rhodes electric piano, the Minimoog and the modular. There are more but you get the idea. All Romplers, and most samplers which lack synthesis or grain manipulation engines end up the being main culprit of emulating other instruments and as such I use none of these anymore. I pretty much stick to analog synthesis and some virtual modeling and try to design sounds and music that highlights what synthesizers do best, rather than try to badly imitate a guitar or saxophone in that ALWAYS telltale horrid fake way.

  2. Coming from a theatre background, and having read much of Leonard's work, I can agree with him on this point, but only on the context in which he is speaking of. The theatre I work for in addition to putting on shows in a dedicated space, also has touring children's shows that tour all around the US. Most of them are musicals, and all of them have had their music composed on an Ensoniq TS-12 synth. When these shows were done in the early 90's, it was state of the art, and it was the best you could get apart from having real musicians playing the music. But now, 20 years later, the music sounds horribly dated, at least to my ears. But the thing is, this composer still uses the TS-12 for all his composing, only because he really knows how to use and get the most out of the equipment, which I applaud. But, I do wince when I hear it, because it isn't meant to sound cheesy or ironic that it sounds that dated. I'm probably the only one at my work that thinks that, but being a fan and producer of electronic music, I can only imagine how much better it would sound if he would get a modern workstation synth or even a really nice sample library.

    Taking advantage of these old synth sounds though is a good thing I think, as long as it fits your artistic vision, which is completely up to the artist. Then again, everyone has an opinion, so who's to say?

  3. Answering this would be analogous (pun intended) to asking "what is style, and who has style?" …
    You'll get an infinite amount of answers.
    The problem for me really starts with the movie industry wanting to all sound like a big-budget J. Williams / Hans Zimmer – scored movie. Oh, but can you do that without the orchestra, and on NO budget please… so cue the synths.
    I think most people DO think they sound horrible. But they are subjected to it over and over and over, and probably have just gotten used to it. I mean, coffee at a diner is horrible. But we all drink it and accept it. It's diner coffee. There's not much one can do about that…
    But what you CAN try to do is convince your client that you can work within the budget and create something really fresh, and different sounding, using the infinite sound design capabilities that we have now.
    I'm a violinist, and never TOUCH anything that starts with string… orch… Fake! With a touch of vibrato… 😉

  4. 1. With virtual sample-players, often more "realistic" an emulation, the more tedious it is to sequence (triggering articulations, etc.), thus taking away from the spontaneous/expressive playing aspect.
    2. Some less "realistic" sounds possess a certain "charm" that has it's own merits (e.g., mellotron).
    3. For arrangers, having fake instruments is a useful tool for reference, but not necessarily for the finished product. Ultimately, some music can have strong ideas/themes/etc., but because the sounds are fake, it can be really distracting– less so than if the instrumentation was simpler but more realistic (or actually real).
    4. In the early days, pipe organs, synthesizers, they all were somewhat in emulation mode, in part as a way of categorizing and naming sounds.
    5. I'd set the problems into two main categories: sonics, and playability. If sounds are poorly recorded, stupidly looped, or otherwise stupid selection & edits, it can be quarky and useable, but won't go unnoticed. Dynamic range, ease of use with a few types of articulation, and a general understanding of what is needed stylistically can make for some reasonably convincing sounds. Obviously, some instruments are easier to fake than others.

  5. Ooop. typo. In #3 I meant to say that using simpler instrumentation can be less distracting than more elaborate fake arrangements.

  6. I do agree to a certain extent, but one can't blame it all on "the sound". There's a mass of musicians that lack the understanding of and the experience with acoustic instruments altogether, resulting in mindless use of the samples in question. The fact that an emulation, being sample or synthesized, still needs to be treated as the original instrument, is usually completely ignored.
    Having sold many electronic instruments in the past, I have seen (and heard) some painful examples. Customers that judge for example the likeness of an "acoustic piano" sound, on the basis of what they have heard on records or on the radio, which in many cases was not even a real piano. When asking if they have ever stood in front of a real piano, be that upright or grand piano, they often had to admit they did not. Of course those were the same "musicians" that bought such synthesizer or sampler (the one with the best piano sound) without a sustain pedal. No wonder their musical end result will lack realism. And it is of course obvious that one can't expect anything better from a prospective buyer who judges the likeness of a saxophone sound by hammering a few organ chords on the keyboard. I have seen to many hair raising examples like this.
    In my opinion, the quality of emulations of acoustic instruments would be n times better, when those that use them have the least bit of understanding about the character and playing techniques of the originals.

  7. I'd say, blame nothing on the sounds. It's not the sounds…It's all available out there, if you look and listen… there is not such thing as good or bad sound…. Even the most stupid little noise, or the most unrealistic, cheesy sounding virtual version of a known acoustic or amplified instrument, can become highly valid in the work of a brilliant composer and/or performer. The "problem" is that all this access today, to making noise and "music", produces such an awful lot of shit that really clogs up and covers many of the true pearls out there. There's such a shit storm of horrible music and more people than ever with no significant cultural contributions to offer, and so incredibly many people with very, very bad taste and a lot of ear wax… There are no filters anymore… Just my 2 cents.

  8. In addition to the sounds – the tools for playing electronic sounds have been a barrier to playing expressively!

    You an always tell string and winds sounds that are played on a piano style keyboard.

    It's great to see new expressive electronic instruments coming out like the Eigenharp – but people seem to gravitate to easy interfaces, like the monome/launchpad/tenori on. Great for dance music, but they do seem to enforce a grid on people's music, too.

  9. I think this criticism is unfair and doesn't give the impression you have read the quote with the attention it deserves. In his opinion a large number of the imitations of acoustic (orchestral) sounds is poor, compared to the original. I can only agree with that. The limited range (and possibilities) of available user interfaces only makes it worse.
    Another valid point he makes is that people should put more effort into creating original sounds, instead of mimicking acoustic instruments ad infinitum. Now I might be wrong, but I have always thought that this was exactly what synthesizers were made for: the creation of new and wonderful sounds, not heard before. When you want the sound of a flute, play a flute and not a Minimoog or a Rompler.
    Just my two cents.

  10. Senso – have to agree with you, though. It's probably not the synths as much as some keyboardists not having a clue about what an orchestra really sounds like.

    This is a pet peeve of mine, too. It usually sounds awful when keyboard players try to do orchestral emulations because they just play some chords with the "orchestra' sound.

    And why do they even put sax sounds on keyboards? They always sound horrible, along with solo "violin" sounds.

    I was watching the movie The Princess Bride the other day, and the soundtrack is laughably bad, just completely ruined by horrible synth orchestra sounds. Movie directors have gotten a clue since then, but it seems like a lot of keyboardists haven't.

  11. John Leonard sounds like an idiot who needs to expose his ears to more than his little one dimensional world.

    Pay the right people good money and give them time to do a good job, and samples will sound freaking awesome.

  12. He may have been including synthetic sounds in his opinion as well as imitative sounds. Just because something is original doesn’t mean it’s beautiful. Like a fine wine and and an exquisite typeface, the singularly beautiful sound, even if it is beautiful in its ugliness, is a rare breed. Simply twiddling a few knobs and saying Ooo, that’s different, doesn’t mean it should be included in a composition or performance. But, the more I think about it, that applies to just about everything. There can be poorly composed fireworks and improperly brewed coffee. Even a donkey ride through the Grand Canyon can be a botch job in the wrong hands. I think Leonard may have been indicating that enthusiasm alone and piece-of-cake easiness don’t necessarily lend themselves to the creation of new AND great sounds. Maybe if it were harder to create a sound in the first place, it would require more time, care, and patience, and the end result would be so much more appealing. I’m reminded of a comedian who postulated that the way to reduce gun violence in America is to raise the price of a single bullet to $10,000. If a musician new it would take at least three days to develop the first version of a new sound, he or she would made darn certain that sound is worth the effort, as opposed to coming up with a hundred new sounds in an hour. You want pancakes? Go to IHOP like everyone else. You want gems? Get a shovel and start digging.

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