A keyboardist-composer friend at work, BJ, was talking to me about some sampled string libraries she had recently been auditioning. “They sound incredible” she said, in reference to Vienna Strings. “But the thing is, if you don’t understand the idiom of the instrument you’re writing for, it’s not going to be believable.” I nodded and told her about a South African musician I once encountered in a Brooklyn studio who built (in minutes) a lush zulu pop song arrangement using the most unremarkable MIDI sounds. “It’s almost as if your ear can be tricked when you hear something done well” I said to BJ. “That reminds me” she replied, “there’s this guy on YouTube who has a video showing how make your string arrangements sound super realistic.”
BJ’s comment about the distinction between musical technology and musical idiom got me thinking about my own work and about what gets my attention when I’m listening to music. I’ve spent a fair amount of time privately fretting over sounds—whether I’ve made them, sampled them, or found them as synthetic presets. For a while I was convinced that only real acoustic sounds were worthy of working with. I guess that reflects my training as a musician and its emphasis on sound Quality. But electronic music making complexified the situation. I’ve played and made electronic sounds that people think are acoustic, and I’ve encountered electronic sounds that are as enchanting as acoustic ones. The music software on my laptop has brought the Uncanny Valley concept front and center, and to some degree, leapt over it altogether. My encounters with electronic musical sound had me thinking about idiom too. If you pick up a music magazine or explore YouTube instructional videos, an ongoing theme is how make your electronic music more realistic—how to make it sound more like, well, acoustic music. You see it with how producers program drum tracks, or how they arrange a virtual string section. There is an art to this mimicking the acoustic. But the most compelling musics create their own idioms: idiomatic ways of playing it, listening to it, and understanding it. Who says acoustic real-time music has to remain the gold standard against which all others are compared? Some musics should be unrealistic, impossible constructions not possible by any other means.
Back to my conversation with BJ: sometimes your strings should sound real, but sometimes they should sound fake.