I’m finishing up a fun little EP project right now. The artist is a phenomenal female singer/songwriter.

Early on in the project she told me she wanted everything to have a very acoustic, folky feel. Almost bluegrass. To that end, we avoided using drums or any heavy percussion, and we stayed away from “electric” instruments, like electric guitar and bass.

While this approach keeps the instrumentation fairly simple, it also poses all sorts of fun challenges. For two of the six songs, we sent the files to her brother to add some banjo/upright bass parts. They came back sounding VERY cool.

The problem was that he’s a busy guy and didn’t have time to record parts for every song. Adding upright bass to these songs took them to a new level of awesome. It’s just what they needed. Unfortunately, I only have upright tracks for two of the 6 songs.

At least two more on the project could really use a nice upright bass part. Otherwise the project as a whole may sound a bit disjointed and unorganized.

The solution? Virtual instruments.

While a purist may hold his nose up at the idea of using software instruments on a folk/acoustic recording, I don’t have a problem with it at all. I like to do whatever it takes to make the project sound good. (And so should you.)

I whipped out Xpand2 (the virtual instrument software included in Pro Tools), and found an upright bass patch. It sounded GREAT. So I recorded a quick (and very simple) bass line for one of the songs.

Once I mixed it in with the rest of the instrumentation, it sounded fantastic. If I solo’d the part, could you tell it was a “fake” instrument? Yes. But when I place it in the mix, it’s VERY hard to tell.

The key here was to keep the performance simple. If I started doing all these funky riffs on the bass, it would start to stand out. Keeping it simple helps it “hide” inside the mix, without drawing undo attention to itself.

2 Lessons to Apply to Your Next Session:

1. Don’t be afraid to use virtual instruments. Some of you may use them ALL the time. Others may think they sound fake and unusable. These, just like everything else, are tools you can use to make great recordings. Become familiar with them…you never know when you might need one in a pinch.

2. Don’t write off something because it sounds weird by itself. This applies to virtual instruments and recorded sounds. Just because something sounds funny or “off” by itself doesn’t mean it’s not the perfect thing for a particular song. I honestly don’t care what any of my tracks sound like by themselves as long as they blend together well to make an awesome mix.

Leave a comment below – Do you suffer from “it must sound perfect” disease?

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  • I would say the only real way to know is if the client (or you, if you’re the musician) likes the embellishments.

    I wrote about this here:

    http://www.homestudiocorner.com/2011/02/07/using-fewer-instruments/

  • Anthony

    I was mixing up a song today which we recorded on Monday, and the snare just wasn’t right, no amount of EQ or compression could get it sounding how I wanted. So I got it sounding the best I could, then in Logic, I used the Audio to Score function to create a MIDI track or the snare hits. Found the right sounding snare hit and blended it in with the original. The whole track now sounds AMAZING! I might use this technique more often!

  • A few years ago, I was always annoyed when I heard obviously virtual tracks in recordings. But now they’re so much higher quality, it’s getting harder to tell, and they are very viable options. Last year I purchased the Basic version of Garritan’s Steinway acoustic piano for $99 on sale. Not even the higher-end version with more raw audio files, etc., but just the basic version, but it still sounds great and just *plays* well on my cheap Yamaha digital piano. And it certainly cost me a lot less than putting a $80,000 Steinway Model D piano in my house.

    (That being said, I still play a real Fender Rhodes electric piano because I have yet to find a virtual one that sounds or plays anything like the real thing!)

  • Joe, when I first upgraded to PT9, the Xpand2 was a complete surprise…. what a bonus! On a client’s video project, I need some timpani. Xpand2 to the rescue. Beauty!

  • All the piano on my album is going to be “Fake”. I’ll actually play the parts and edit them accordingly, but they’ll be played by patches. If the keys were a big part of my music I’d probably spend the time/money to record them on the real thing is a great sounding room. But 1. I’m not a very good piano player. And 2. The piano on the album is only going to occur for a few verses throughout the whole thing. It’s also going to be mixed with acoustic guitar tracks, electric guitar tracks, vocals, bass guitar, and drums.

    I agree 100% with Joe. It usually doesn’t pay to be an elitist, as long as you can get it to sound like it’s supposed to.

  • Mcmaster

    Excellent advice Joe! Do whatever it takes to convey the message of your song. There really is no right or wrong way…. if you can convey the message and passion of the song to the listener, that is what is important.

  • I love virtual instruments, I can’t afford a real piano or old synthesisers so being able to have access to hundreds of sounds with the click of a button is to me like letting a child run loose in a toy/sweet shop.

    sure I use recordings where I can for that indescribable “feel” but don’t give sounds less credit just because they are virtual… there are some amazing plugins out there. the same goes with any out board gear as well I think.

    • You can actually get surprisingly close to a ‘real sounding’ grand piano with VI’s, especially with a few delicate eq and reverb touches which can make all the difference!