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Just wondering if there's any guidelines as far as recording a real instrument versus using a midi controller or synth. For example, let's say I have a song that I need a piano part for. I could set up a microphone on an actual piano or I could just use a midi controller or synthesizer with a piano sound. Are there any benefits to recording a real instrument- wouldn't the mic introduce background noise and make things harder to edit?

In my specific case, the background beat is midi based but I'm trying to decide if I should make the melody using a real instrument or midi.

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    Going to remove these comments. Shev - you know your comment is entirely opinion based, and both - let's not get into pointless bickering in comments. – Doktor Mayhem Apr 10 at 14:58
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[are there] any guidelines as far as recording a mechanical instrument versus using a midi controller or synth?

No, only pros and cons. It all depends on what you want the finished product to sound like, and what instruments and equipment you have available to you.

Are there any benefits to recording a real instrument [eg piano]?

Assuming you have an adequately skilled pianist, a decent quality piano which is in tune, and a decent microphone or microphones for the job, then yes, absolutely there are benefits. It will sound real!

wouldn't the mic introduce background noise and make things harder to edit?

Yes, it will introduce a little noise. But assuming you have a relatively quiet space to record, it shouldn't be an issue. As for editing, that all depends on what sorts of edits you're doing and why.

Personally, I would use midi in these situations:

  1. I'm just working on a mock-up, not a final recording
  2. I don't play the instrument and don't have access to someone who does
  3. I play the instrument but don't have access to a real one
  4. I am not concerned with realism and actually want the sound of the sample or synth.
  5. I don't have microphones (or any other recording hardware) required to do a decent job of recording the real thing.
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    You could also add 6. Even with microphones I don't have the skills or the time to experiment with getting a good recorded sound. And 7. I don't have access to a decent instrument in a decent acoustic space. And possibly 8. I'm recording with microphones, but I've got MIDI facilities on the instrument so I'll record that as well, just in case, because it doesn't take much space or extra time to set up, and it gives me another layer of backup. – Graham Apr 10 at 13:17
  • And even 8) I'm not consistently good enough to play the part needed on that instrument, although it's very similar to (2). – user45266 Apr 11 at 17:28
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The real instrument will sound more real, but as you note, there are many challenges to recording acoustic instruments or anything with a microphone that are completely bypassed when using a virtual instrument plugin.

With a plugin, you don't have to have an audio interface, microphone or cables. You don't have to have an actual acoustic instrument, which usually cost much more than a good plugin, DAW, computer, and controller combined. You don't have to make sure the plugin is in tune. You don't have to have a quiet room with good acoustics to record in.

So in all ways except sound quality, plugins are much easier to work with. These days plugins sound very good. They still don't sound exactly the same, but the convenience and cost savings that they offer makes them a very popular tradeoff.

Regarding editing, in my experience it's about the same. Editing an audio recording of a plugin is about the same difficulty as editing audio of an acoustic instrument. Editing the MIDI that is fed into a plugin can be easier than editing audio, but it has its own quirks.

Note that there are services online where you can send you MIDI tracks to and they will record the actual acoustic instruments for you in quality studios with quality equipment. The costs vary, but if you really want the acoustic sound and don't want to have to figure all of that out for yourself, you can pay to have a track recorded "for real".

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    Bizarrely, in the 90s I used to do that the other way round. Record a performance on a real Disklavier in one of the piano demonstration rooms at Yamaha, then take the midi back to the studio & replace it with a rompler. [It was all for promotional purposes, not a route I would ordinarily take] We actually released a physical album of material done that way. – Tetsujin Apr 10 at 9:21
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For most instruments (apart from piano), if you have access to the real instrument and a real player, and cost isn't a factor, and realism is seen as a plus point, then you'd probably go for the real instrument. It's very hard to achieve a performance with most synthesizers (including plugins) where all the articulations sound at they would on a real instrument.

Some of the same logic holds for piano, but piano is perhaps something of a special case as there are relatively few difficulties in synthesizing it well, and the market for piano-style midi controllers is much more developed than that for controllers for any other instrument. So if you can find a player who feels able to perform on a controller and synth you have access to, there's every chance of capturing an acceptable performance, with some added possibilities for directly redefining the midi, or changing the instrument sound or the ambience after the fact.

Even then, for a critical part (such as a solo piano piece) there will be plenty to be said for captioning the sound of a performer interacting with a suitable real instrument in a nice-sounding space.

  • Additionally, real acoustic pianos have problems with being out of tune. Unless you get the piano tuned right before you record, it will likely be out of tune with the other instruments and possibly out of tune with itself. – Peter Apr 10 at 3:26
  • @Peter: You seem to have some reservations against pianos in general. One of decent quality will surely be more than adequate if tuned somewhat recenly. It is completely normal, that other instruments have to adjust their tuning to the piano (instead of the other way round), because a technician is expensive and it takes him quite some time to complete. – guidot Apr 10 at 8:28
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    @Peter It'll only "likely" be out of tune if it's poorly maintained. If you're planning on recording with it, you spend a small amount on getting it tuned first, which is a trivial amount compared to the cost of making a recording. – Graham Apr 10 at 9:39
  • @guidot - I'm not sure where you got the idea that I'm against pianos. They are great, but I was trying to give some extra info to the OP. Unlike other instruments with strings, pianos can't be easily tuned by an amateur, so they tend to get slowly out of tune, but the notes don't all go out at the same rate, so even if others adjust, it can be out of tune with itself. – Peter Apr 10 at 11:56
  • @Graham I think we're in 100% agreement. I pointed out that a piano needs to be tuned right before recording in my post. Perhaps you haven't played many pianos in the real world, but they are often out of tune. – Peter Apr 10 at 12:03
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I think miking up a piano for the first time in your life, in a non-tuned room, is going to be several levels of hell harder than getting something acceptable out of a sample player.

Piano recording is a whole study in itself & really no two engineers agree on exactly which is the 'best' way.

Conversely, pretty much any half decent piano 'rompler' will have had all that time & effort already spent on getting the sound right - you just have to pick the one you like best & suits the part best - something you also couldn't do with a single piano in a single room, even if you had all the rest of the expertise.

Additionally, you can fix bum notes in midi without having to do re-takes until the performance is perfect.

Go with a midi rompler & don't look back.

If you ever get to re-record the piece at Abbey Road or Air Lyndhurst, forget all I've said & use their piano & engineers - & hire a pianist who can get it in one take. ;)

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