Acceptable Use of Factory Presets and Samples?

An issue that I often contemplate is, when is it acceptable to use factory presets and samples? I tend not to use them most of the time in favor of inventing new sounds and sampling from my own recordings and instruments. However, sometimes I make exceptions, such as using presets for classic keyboard sounds like pianos and organs, or individual drum samples for programming beats. Personally I have an aversion to using them, but I don’t doubt that lots of excellent music is produced using unchanged samples and factory presets. So the question remains, when is it a good idea and when is it a bad idea to rely on what has been painstakingly produced for us by industry professionals?

When I use presets I usually make some adjustments to in order to get closer to what I’m after sonically. In the piece Rihaku that I wrote with Nils Westdal for our album Truth is Stranger I used the factory sampled piano on the Yamaha A3000. I would have preferred to use an acoustic piano, but opted to give the sampler a go for budgetary reasons. In order to get a bit more sustain out of the sound I made some subtle but effective changes to the patch including manipulating the envelope, adjusting the velocity sensitivity, and slightly compressing the output.

Rihaku by Keston and Westdal

15 thoughts on “Acceptable Use of Factory Presets and Samples?

  1. Wow, great tune.

    On your subject, I’m in no hurry to sample my own piano. I’d rather let someone else do that and give them $100 for their six months of work or whatever. Besides, I pretty much stick to the five presets on my Fender Strat. :)

  2. Yes. It is 100% acceptable to use factory presets. It is akin to using the ‘sound’ of a piano or guitar. The difference, of course, is that all guitars and pianos sound different AND ARE RECORDED differently. A factory patch in one person’s DX7 is exactly like the factory patch in another person’s DX7. How it sits in the mix is what makes it special. NEVER worry about using factory presets – worry, instead, if it works. (my loud mouth 2¢)

  3. Thanks for your perspective, user202n02. I think your view is sometimes true, but I disagree that it is 100% acceptable. New instruments and music technology has been developed to allow us to create new sounds. Sounds that have never been heard by human ears. Presets are often made to showcase the instruments capabilities. Why not focus on using those capabilities to create new sounds? I think the argument that it’s just like another instrument fails because instruments like Jeff’s Fender Strat are designed to capture the nuances of the musician while factory presets are programmed to illustrate the features of the device.

  4. This is a really interesting question.

    What about big hit songs using preset loops from GarageBand – for instance, Rihanna’s “Umbrella”? It’s still a great song, and no doubt the drum loop was enhanced using some super-expensive high-end equipment. Yet, if I’d been the producer, I might have felt it was somehow uncool to use an off-the-shelf break like that. But, in that song, it just works fantastically.

    Some musical styles pretty well mandate the use of presets. Old school Electro needs to use an 808; Acid House needs to use a 303 & a 909; old school Drum’n’Bass needs to use the Amen Break. Using these sounds is how you join the conversation. What you say with them is still up to you.

    I guess we’re mostly talking about using huge multi-sampled instruments. Personally I’m glad someone else has the patience to sample every note of a Fazioli piano at 16 velocities. I’m more than happy to pay them for their efforts. But…

    Many of these “virtual instruments” come wrapped in a software shell which makes it harder to mis-use the samples, to be incorrect & inappropriate in our use of the library. But that’s where the fun starts! Some orchestral libraries are hardwired not to allow the playing of instruments outside their natural acoustic ranges – so you can’t play a violin sample below G2, for instance. They do this to educate us in the habits of correct orchestration, I guess. But…

    When sampling first became widespread in the 80s & early 90s, there was this mischievous smash & grab energy about it. A sound was kidnapped from its original context, then placed somewhere new & unexpected. A lot of this involved serious copyright violations, & now the lawyers have caught up that era is over. Fair enough. But we can still keep to the spirit of insubordination, of not doing what we’re supposed to – if the virtual instrument makers let us.

  5. sometimes it feels a little unessecary to take a preset too far from home…I mean there are so many great sounding presets that we actually pay for…it doesnt make sense to never use them. If it sounds good, then im all about it, and that includes using samples, etc… On the other hand, i think the problem lies in using sounds from too limited a range of sources…For example, only factory presets from you choice daw, like logic, or reason…then you get into the realm of boring sounds. In my songs I tend to use sounds that are 8 bit, 16 bit, 24. Ill use a softsynth or two, mixed with hardware synths, hardward samplers and software ones, etc…I think thats where one begins to develop his or her own sound, in mixing a variety of sources.

  6. Write a great song. “Strawberry Fields Forever” uses a flute “preset” on a mellotron.

    Now it is thought of as the “Strawberry Fields Forever” sound.

    Composition trumps texture, always. Spirit and intent are more important than both of them.

    My advice: Don’t be self-conscious about being original. Just follow your instincts and use your imagination. I would hate for John Lennon et al to have altered the sound of “Strawberry Fields Forever” out of some neurotic concern for using a stock sound.

    I enjoy this blog quite a bit, by the way. I respect your love of sound. I can understand that, when you put as much emphasis on sound design as you do, the concept of a “preset” is vulgar.

    But I still say The Song always wins over The Sound.

    – c

  7. Nicely said, Chad. There are so many factors involved in this topic. Guy makes some great points too relating to specific genres. I would never go so far as to say using presets is vulgar, nor fault anyone for using them effectively. Upon reflection, I use them more than I like to admit, although usually with some sort of twist. And the philosophy of use-it-if-it-works makes complete sense.

    But it gets a little old hearing a sound made popular by someone else thrown into dozens of other songs and jingles. At that stage it becomes a “sound of the month” and is not being used so much creatively, but more so being exploited for commercial gain. Am I exposing my socialistic tendencies here? ;)

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  9. must agree with Chad

    “Composition trumps texture, always. Spirit and intent are more important than both of them.”

    Making a district sound takes indefinite number of choices to be made / parameters to be tweaked. Too many choices are always paralyzing!

  10. Kev, you hit the nail on its head. But I would argue that often the variety of presets available is the paralyzing factor. The first experience I had with too many choices was owning a Roland D-50 back in 1987. I found myself stumbling through presets at rehearsals for months until I manged to tweak a few patches into usable sounds.

    I was floored by the D-50s capabilities, but had trouble getting it to work in an ensemble. Ultimately the lack of limitations and button driven interfaces let to me largely abandoning contemporary keyboards in favor of vintage synths and the Rhodes electric piano. I have only gotten back into them in the last ten years or so with the advent of analog modeling and virtual instruments.

  11. Hey Peter, I play a late 90’s Fender Jazz bass with active electronics. Pretty simple EQ really. More back pickup than front. Bass at five and I usually have my treble setting pretty low since this bass has such a bright sound on it’s own. I think we used a little mild compression and some verb in spots near the end of the song. I’m lucky to have such an instrument.

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