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Are You Cheating?

I still remember trying to explain the concept of the Mellotron to a musician friend back in my college days, and she was of the opinion that it constituted gross cheating of the first order. After all, if you want strings, surely you should employ a string player, not have some mechanical 'piano thingie' that sounds like strings!

How times have changed. Today the debate isn't even about whether samples and loops are cheating, but how much creative input is needed before copy and paste becomes art. I'd be the last person to decry the use of loops, particularly percussion, as I often combine loops with my own programmed rhythms, but I do get the impression that some music technology students and would-be producers see 'making beats' as the be-all and end-all of creative music production.

Perhaps we shouldn't blame them, though. If you listen to the pop charts these days, you might hear where they get their inspiration. Take Soulja Boy's 'Crank Dat', which reached number two in the UK singles chart in December 2007; in terms of instrumentation, all you'll find is an 'orchestra hit' sample, some programmed percussion (including a prominent steel drum pattern, which gives the song its simple melodic content), and rap vocals. If you took the vocal off, you wouldn't be left with much!

I see the manipulation of loops and audio clips as being a bit like those Victorian montages made from photographs, postcards and prints of paintings. It is certainly a skill and an art, but it covers only a narrow part of the skill set required to be an all-round artist. You may be great at cutting out pictures and pasting them on a fire-screen, but if somebody wants a painting in the style of Monet or Dali, it isn't going to help you much.

Music production is much the same, and while a lot of dance and hip-hop music uses loops, there's a lot more to making a great track than figuring out which drum breaks to sample or by how much to time-stretch them. You also need to know about musical structure, melody and mixing. Loops and samples have evolved from being an almost completely separate area of expertise to being part of the general pop music recording process, and though they're no less important for that, someone who only knows about manipulating existing material is unlikely to be properly equipped for music production and engineering in the broader sense. Furthermore, even those who are currently successful working in a genre that relies heavily on loops and samples can't rely on that state of affairs continuing, because like every aspect of modern life, music production evolves and shows no respect for the people it leaves behind.

The core of broader music recording and production always has been — and is always likely to be — about putting microphones in front of real musicians. And while some elements can be replaced or enhanced by the use of loops and samples, the ability to use microphones and coax great performances out of singers and instrumentalists will always be a number one priority. So no, using samples, loops and clips isn't cheating, but if you're not prepared to look beyond your comfort zone, you might just discover that your skill set doesn't equip you for the kind of position in the music industry that you hoped for when you started out.

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published March 2008