Our relationship with the virtual instruments we use is full of paradox. Thinking of MIDI composers/musicians as a group, at one end of the spectrum are people who are primarily concerned with the music itself, and don't want to get bogged down dealing with MIDI and audio technical matters. At the other end of that spectrum, there are composers who may be just as concerned about focusing on their compositions as people in the first group, but they're spending more time on technical matters so they can produce the best sounding recordings possible.
For the most part, both groups use the same basic tools - virtual instruments which usually consist of cleverly programmed audio samples of real world instruments. Because those kinds of software instruments are the preferred type, rather than old school synthesized approximations of instruments, it means that verisimilitude is important to the composers. They want their music to be played by software that at least approximates the sound of live orchestras and bands.
My attitude is paradoxical, and I think it's shared with a lot of MIDI musicians/composers. I have a love-hate relationship with software instruments. I simultaneously enjoy the degree of naturalism they have and yet often wish we were still back in the day when MIDI instruments were all synthesized and nobody had the expectation that they would be "realistic." There was a kind of purity to using MIDI back then. One could focus on the music, and then leave it to abstracted blips and bleeps to suggest instruments without slavishly imitating them.
Now, in the sample era, I enjoy getting the sound as "organic" in a recording as I can, but at the same time feel that many MIDI users get hung up on trying to sound more and more "real," constantly chasing after and throwing money at more and more software instrument collections in the quest of being able to produce recordings that "fool" people. I feel they spend both too much money and too much time in that quest.
All the above was a rambling prelude meant to bring up the point that it's not unusual for our relationship with software instruments to be conflicted. Here's my actual point:
--I recently produced a recording of a soft rock pop tune from the 1960's. The recording is to be used a backing track in a live performance. I can't mention what the title is, but suffice to say, it's a song that was a big hit, something very simple and catchy. The original recording had just drums, bass, piano, and vocals. In my version, I stuck with the original tempo and arrangement, but added a "combo organ" typical of the period, and a sax trio.
It was a really fun project, and I was as happy as I ever am with anything I've finished. As always, as I worked, I felt like I was working with a group of musicians who were just somehow magically invisible and living inside my computer. It took no effort of imagination to simply accept that I had real drums, a real bass, real everything. Referencing back to something I said above - I would have that same frame of mind back when I was still using hardware synthesizers. That square waveform with its simple ADSR envelope wasn't just an abstraction of a clarinet, it Was a clarinet to me. That sudden burst of white noise Was a timpani. It would always startle me a bit when I'd play those old recordings for people, and hearing the music anew through their ears (as always happens when we play something for an audience) - I would be reminded again, "OH yeah, this is definitely artificial, synthesized, but it doesn't matter - it sounds interesting."
Getting back to this recent project - I sent an MP3 of my recording of this pop-tune to a music industry guy who needs to be happy with the results. Here was his response:
--"Get some real drums."
--"I'm not a fan of keyboard horns."
--"You need to generally punch it up more."
THAT pretty much bummed me out for the day. I'd worked on that project for a couple of weeks. Sounded great to me - I'd used my very "best" software instruments, and felt it sounded as good as anything else you could hear of this sort.
That feedback was quite a sudden dunk into the cold waters of Reality. Despite my best efforts, using my best tools, it was received as just a mediocre MIDI thing which was a barely adequate substitute for "the real thing."
Geez! I'd Worked those saxes to the point that to me they were totally convincing as a pop-rock backup section. The drums have excellent samples, and I'd assembled its track from unquantized MIDI clips recorded by real drummers, as I usually do. It had all been lovingly put together - But it was a fizzle for this guy I needed to impress.
So that makes me think more kindly of those MIDI users I was talking about earlier - the ones endlessly chasing after The Latest and Greatest, on their never-ending quest to sound more and more REEEEEALL. They don't want to get the ho-hum reaction from listeners that we all dread, like - "meh, sounds fake." I can sympathize, and I can picture myself becoming equally obsessed - But I don't have the budget for that quest, so maybe I'm fortunate in that regard, because I Don't want to spend any more time than I do fretting over how "reeeeeal" my projects sound.
It can be depressing.
But it can still be rewarding - So we keep on doing what we do.