real or sampled

Is it real? Is it true? It’s part of the human condition to be fascinated by these questions, as we are animals who thrive on honesty and validity. And that search for the genuine article is just as prevalent in music (creating and receiving) as in any other human activity.

Like many musicians, I’m caught in the middle in the production process, using both real and sampled sounds to achieve something with a ‘smell of honesty’ or ‘ring of truth’. As a listener, I can’t always be sure myself whether a music track is real or sampled, what matters to me is whether it communicates with honesty, the sound of flesh and blood. (And that comes partly from the the sound sources, but also from the commitment that goes into the whole music making process.)

Despite the fantastic achievements of sample libraries, we still want our music to have that smell of honesty and we may sense that more on a subconscious level that with rational analysis. But sense it we do, through the almost imperceptible nuances and subtleties of human performance.

The question or real or sampled comes up particularly in media music, which is often aiming to sound orchestral, on a budget. And the pressure to make music in media as ‘real’ as possible comes from 3 sides;

the composer himself wants his music to communicate with soul, to achieve the most convincing expression of his ideas,
the film maker needs integrity in the music to support his own message,
the listener doesn’t want lies or insincerity!

There is great story told by Oliver Sacks in “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” that goes something like this: a group of patients had a condition that meant they did not readily understand spoken word, but did read emotional honesty in a vocal delivery. They were listening to former US president Reagan speaking and they were laughing as he spoke, as they sensed he was acting, not speaking with real honesty. They weren’t judging the words, but the performance.

I believe, wherever we stand in the music process – makers, commissioners, or listeners – we will always want the real deal.


Wordle from

4 responses to “real or sampled

  1. As a musician, I completley understand what you are saying. I know when I have found a good song when I feel something. Even if it isn’t a musical masterpieace technically, or the lyrics mean anything, you have to feel something. Besides, music exist to provoke some sort of feeling from people, not nesessarily be a technical masterpiece or be a direct line to the human soul though words. It just has to make you happy.

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  2. Are samples or electronically produced sounds (e.g. NI Reaktor) not real?

  3. Hi spcmusictheory, I’m using the terms ‘real’ and ‘sampled’ here to distinguish between a sound played acoustically (such as a violin) or an electronic representation of it (such as a synth or sample).

  4. Does it matter?

    I believe there is a time and place for everything whether it involves synthetics or not.

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