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Alex Marten: Too Many Sonic Possibilities

Sounding Off By Alex Marten
Published December 2011

The modern producer has a vast array of sounds at his command, but does that make for musical misery?

One of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges' most celebrated short stories is The Library of Babel. In it, he describes a universe in the form of a library, which contains literally every possible 410-page book — a practically infinite array of texts — with all conceivable combinations of letters, numbers, spaces and punctuation marks.

The inhabitants of this universe spend their days wandering through the library in the desperate hope of finding a book that makes some kind of sense. They know that some of the books in the library must contain useful information, but they have no way of knowing which ones these are. Because of the immense array of information at their disposal, that information is rendered worthless. Sometimes, this is how I feel in my studio.

Working in a music technology shop, my job includes the onerous task of testing new software by installing full versions of cutting-edge sequencers and virtual instruments on my home computer, then tinkering to my heart's content. I know, it's awful what's expected of me, but I grin and bear it. As a result, I find at my disposal a dazzling collection of sounds and effects, all within clicking distance of my desktop.

You may be thinking that this isn't so bad, or you may be thinking quite uncharitable thoughts about me and my horrible smugness, but one of the most popular music software products of our time can put you, too, in a similar position.

I am, of course, talking about Komplete 8, or specifically Komplete 8 Ultimate. It's the latest, utterly all-encompassing package from the hot-shot programmers at Native Instruments. Incidentally, I suggested they abandon the numbering and call it "Kompleter”, in the style of the film Dumb and Dumberer, but they ignored me.

This software bundle includes a total of 50 separate plug-ins, and some of these plug-ins themselves contain several of their own instruments. The Reaktor plug-in alone has over 70 instruments. Each of these instruments contains hundreds of patches. Now, I'm not a mathematician, but I added that up, and it comes to approximately one bazillion different sounds.

That's a lot of sounds, and that's just in one software bundle. A producer could also have a workstation keyboard like the wonderful Korg Kronos in their studio (giving them a total of two bazillion sounds), a few EastWest ROMplers (three bazillion) and a box of toy percussion instruments (three bazillion and 67).

How can puny human brains be expected to cope with such a surfeit of sonic possibilities? No wonder the ukulele is enjoying a bizarre resurgence in popularity: it's got four strings and they all sound the same. At least you know where you stand.

I like to imagine a sample library in the form of Borges' Library of Babel: every possible sound, recorded via every possible microphone, running through every possible processor, in every possible combination. The ultimate sound library: with every noise ever made, and that could ever be made, included.

It would feature the most wonderful piano samples known to mankind. It would also feature the sound of your grandmother sucking her false teeth, recorded with a Neumann U87, going through a convolution reverb recreating the atmosphere of the frozen goods aisle of the Croydon branch of Lidl.

I see desperate producers eternally trawling their way through hours, days and eventually years worth of sounds, in the vain hope of finding that particular cowbell sample, the one they need for their latest dubstep and easy-listening crossover hit. By the time they've found it and completed the track, planet Earth will have long since become a barren husk incapable of sustaining water-based life-forms.

My point is that it's possible to have too many options at your disposal. Although NI and the like offer excellent search facilities in their software and the sounds are amazing, sometimes the wealth of possibilities can get in the way of just producing a piece of music.

About The Author

Alex Marten runs the online music store, stockists of an (almost) infinite range of music-making products.