• André Miranda

Why you should be recording with real instruments instead of VSTs

Virtual Instruments, or VSTs, have evolved a lot at since the MIDI era and are now the preferred method of recording music for a large number of producers and composers. The rise of VSTs can be attributed to the perception that they are cheaper and more accessible than recording with live instruments. While this may have previously been true, with Musiversal you can record your compositions with real instruments in a professional recording studio for a price that is competitive with VSTs and will produce a much higher quality piece of music.

So why should you record your song with real instruments and what advantages do they have over VSTs? The benefits can be divided into two categories: the physical and the “emotional”. By physical we are referring to certain techniques and sounds that simply can not be recreated virtually, or even if they can, it is generally of poor quality. Emotion refers to the substances in music that a listener forms a connection with.

By and large, people prefer music that is recorded with live instruments. We find it preferable to music recorded entirely with software and VSTs which can sometimes have a robotic feel to it. The human ear is drawn to imperfections in music. This can be seen in recent trends such as lo-fi music, electronic music artists incorporating more real instruments into their sound, and the resurgence of vinyl and even cassette tapes.

Distortion, crackle, and reverb are all examples of imperfections that sound good. But the imperfections that are the most difficult to recreate in a digital audio workstation (DAW) are the many infinitely small and complex deviations in tempo, pitch, and timbre that will naturally occur in a studio recording that make music feel alive and pleasurable. Even the most expert musicians are not able to play exactly on the beat, but unless it is completely out of sync, this is positive for the sound rather than negative. When notes are slightly offbeat it gives music a more human feel and creates a swing.

A skilled musician can use this to their advantage, adjusting the amount of swing and deviation to add their own unique take on a composition. It is, of course, possible to change the accuracy of the quantization and adjust the velocity of notes in your DAW to create swing. But this can be a fiddly and time-consuming process and will often come across as either robotic or overly random, lacking the natural intuition and consistency of a highly experienced musician. However, quantization is only addressing a single variable out of an ocean of physical variables that make up a good musical performance.

Musicians can add depth and emotion to a piece

These variables are often inextricably tied to the emotions of each musician playing a piece and how they react and interact with the music they are playing. Often in a composition the notation is incomplete, in that it doesn’t tell each musician exactly how to play every part. This leaves it up to the interpretation of the musician, as well as the conductor in the case of an orchestra. The way that musicians use the emotion they feel while playing to interpret a piece, improvise parts on the spot, interact with other musicians, and put their own spin on a section is one of the joys of music and something that a VST can never replicate.

There are also physical aspects of a live studio recording that, despite their rapid progression, VSTs still can not accurately recreate. The unique interaction of the instruments with the recording room, or acoustics, can be very difficult to replicate with software. There are many plugins that attempt to recreate certain acoustics but none of them can quite replicate a recording in a big, well-treated studio room.

The harmonics of the instruments in an orchestra are also very difficult to recreate with software. Harmonics are the wave frequencies caused by the vibrations when a note of music is played. A pure tone would mean that only one frequency is being produced, whereas with harmonics, the vibrations cause multiple smaller notes to be produced. When a brass, string or woodwind instrument is played, the playing causes standing waves to be formed along the string or air column. Sound-waves are caused by the interaction of the standing wave with the air around it. Because this is a physical process, the timbre for each individual instrument can’t easily be recreated accurately on a computer.

A well treated studio means you will have superior acoustics to what VSTs offer

As computers assisted by AI slowly catch up to real musicians in recreating many of the aspects we have mentioned there are other still other factors to consider. For example, there is the time that it takes to recreate all the physical components of a live recording. Programming things a musician can do on the spot, like add swing to a track, is very time-consuming. If you are working on a commission then it is important to consider the value of your time.

In a studio recording, the musicians will have a couple of takes and the recording is done, perhaps only needing a small amount of mixing and mastering afterwards. To achieve the same result in a DAW could take tens of hours to program. When you consider the cost to buy high-quality VSTs and plugins, as well as the time it takes to create a piece of music on a DAW, booking a recording session with Musiversal works out to be much better value.

There is one final factor that is out of your control, even if you are fantastic with VSTs and can create amazing, realistic pieces. If you are recording a song for a professional assignment or for a commission, the people you are working for will be more impressed with the quality of a piece recorded with live instruments. If someone wants an orchestral style soundtrack for their movie, TV-show, or video game then they will want a real orchestra to have recorded it.

Overall, the pleasantness and sound quality of a live recording will be vastly superior to a fake version of it. When you consider the quality, as well as the time and costs associated with high quality VSTs, then recording a composition with live musicians in a recording studio is the clear winner. While previously this may have seemed out of reach for the average composer, thanks to Musiversal studio recordings are now highly affordable, easy to book, and accessible from anywhere in the world!

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