Some months ago, my producer friend Kevin Kadish called me up from Nashville, Tennessee and told me he wrote a tune with a young songwriter named Meghan Trainor. Kevin had the vocals, guitar, and drums fleshed out, so he sent me a Pro Tools file and I told him I would “play what I heard” on it. My involvement with the now worldwide hit “All About That Bass” started there. Kevin and I played all the instruments on the song, including real Yamaha upright piano and Hammond C-3 organ.
Now for the simulated parts. I heard a baritone sax part in my mind but had no budget to hire a real sax player, as Meghan was still unsigned at that time. I fired up Native Instruments Kontakt and loaded a very old sax sample originally from a mid-1990s CD-ROM. Samples don’t always have to be the latest and largest to work well. In fact, I played that same sample on Lenny Kravitz’s “Lady,” a single that went gold. The lesson: Take the time to explore your sample libraries deeply. Let’s look at some more ways to fake instruments well. [Editor’s note: For copyright reasons, and because this tutorial is chiefly about creating sounds, the musical passages notated below are different from “All About That Bass.”]
1. Baritone Sax
The key to playing a convincing baritone sax sample is arranging an appropriate part, like the one in Ex. 1. What does a bari sax usually play? Is the tonality correct for the genre? The sample set I like has an appropriate growl for ’1950s-’60s rock ’n’ roll. The sound starts with a short hit, followed by a crescendo. I played the part with a combination of short notes and long swells, the way a real saxophonist would play it. I didn’t quantize it. You can hear the mixing up of articulation, which contributes to the part’s human quality. In combination with other instruments, a part like this can sound very real.
2. Bass Guitar
Instrument samples are now so good that you can fool almost anyone. Why, then, do some keyboard-played parts sound real and some sound fake? Again, it comes down matching the right part to an appropriate sound. Think like you are a bass guitarist. Which instrument would you choose? An active or passive electric bass? Dirty or clean? Pick or fingers? Make all your choices based on the genre of the song. Play root notes followed by rhythmic passages that allow the lead vocal or other lead instrument to breathe. Try not to simply mimic a kick drum pattern, unless you’re going for a robotic feel. Combine long and short notes into convincing phrasing. I tend not to quantize bass parts, but I will frequently line up certain hits with the kick drum, yielding a tighter feel. I also frequently delay my bass parts 10ms or so back after I have played them. Ex. 2 demonstrates such a simulated bass part.
3. String Section
Ex. 3 illustrates a short, simulated string part. There are a lot of fantastic sampled string libraries on the market, but my biggest issue with these in pop music is that the many of them are often so large (both sonically and memory-wise) as to be appropriate only for film scores. They sound amazing by themselves, but they can turn into mush against pop instrumentation. When faking strings, again I think like an arranger, e.g., what is the appropriate number of virtual string players in the section? Sometimes the only musical space left in the track is high above the vocal. Explore your sample sets, and not just the typical long and short variations. Sordino (muted) strings are fantastic for quiet textures. Swells are great to lift you into a section. Tremolo can add excitement. I frequently do a ton of volume automation on string passages. If you play strings statically like an organ, they’ll sound like an organ, so use your controllers and key-switches!
4. All Together
Ex. 4 illustrates how the above three sounds might be combined in arrangement where no one sound “steps on” any of the others.
Compare and Contrast: “When faking instruments on keyboards, always listen and analyze your choices at every opportunity. A/B your options, and never settle,” says New York-based keyboardist, composer, and producer David Baron. Baron’s work appears on new albums by Lenny Kravitz and Meghan Trainor. Baron is currently scoring the feature film Ashes and Snow for Gregory Colbert, and he teaches audio production and film scoring at Bennington College in Vermont. Visit him at edisonmusiccorp.com.