In Defense of Real Horns: Why Software and Samples Are Not Always Worthy Substitutes

Just a few days before July 4th, I attended a fancy function in downtown Chicago for business muckety mucks. A trumpet player strolled out to play the Star Spangled Banner, and it was a sound to behold. The gentle vibrato and firmness of his notes punched the stiff banquet room air, and moved me in a way the National Anthem seldom does anymore. It wasn’t just what he played, buthow.

This made me think about horns in general, horn substitutes and the role they play in recording. I’m not here to trash the sampling technology that has brought startling sounds within reach of the home studio owner. I use it myself. But as realistic as the horns sound, they don’t always work.

There are practical reasons horn players don’t get invited to home recording sessions: It’s work to track them down and money to pay them. But here, I’m offering a defense of real horns—one that will hopefully convince you to reach for the brass ring on special recording dates.

1) Horns are timeless, synth horns dated

Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love” popped up on my radio recently, and the first thing I noticed was John Paul Jones’ synth solo, played on a Yamaha GX-1. The melody line is stately, mixing classical and rock influences, but it begs for something more authentic. What would it sound like with a trumpet? Hard to say. But I’ll bet it would tug at the heartstrings.

2) Horns and MIDI keyboards play differently

To play a horn via keyboard, you have to pull off the contortion of not performing like a keyboardist, but a horn player playing a keyboard to sound like a horn. That’s a long route. Every instrument lends itself to a particular kind of fingering, capability and root pattern. Trombones, for example, slide in a fashion that many home studio warriors would find hard to replicate faithfully via computer.

3) Horn sections rock

It’s that simple. I’ve worked with sections on several occasions in the studio, and while tuning and timing the players can get tricky, there’s nothing like the slight variations in pitch and phrasing you get—especially when musicians play in real time off each other.

4) Nothing beats a masterful horn player

Trumpeter Miles Davis worked all his life to give us “Kind of Blue,” as did saxophonist John Coltrane to yield “A Love Supreme.” Can you imagine MIDI-played substitutes? The “10,000 hours” they put into learning their respective horns don’t trade evenly for 10,000 hours on the keys.

5) It’s a different kind of thinking

Unless the instrumentalist behind the keyboard has horn training as well, he’s not going to do the job in the same way. And if he’s got the chops, why wouldn’t he play a horn in the first place?

6) The great pop songs used them

John Entwistle layered the various horns he played, including French horn and bugle, on “5:15.” David Bowie, who certainly had access to all kinds of electro gizmos, multi-tracked his sax to rock “Suffragette City.” James Brown’s horn section fueled his sassiest hits, from “I Got You (I Feel Good)” to “Mother Popcorn.” I wouldn’t touch those records for anything. Would you? (Keys to a new Ferrari don’t count.)

7) Triggered horns invite perfectionist trouble

How great is the temptation in a virtual studio to quantize and tune horn sections, airbrushing them from the realm of the soulful to the sterile? While we’re at it, let’s put Auto Tune on all those Beatles records. Flaws might bother certain studio rats, but as Miles Davis once said, “Mistakes? There are none.”

Granted: Triggered samples have their place in music and it’s a great one. (Danny Elfman’s film scores are thrilling,) But in the end, horns are their own beasts and each requires a unique playing approach (reeded saxes versus three-valve cornets, for example).

I’ve seen bass players get ticked off when guitarists pick up a bass for the first time and brag, “Hey, I can do this!” Really? I side with the annoyed bass players. When I play triggered horns, I do my very best. But it still doesn’t sound like the real thing. No one will ever confuse me with Maceo Parker or Clarence Clemons.

Coming up I have a session where I need a trio of French horns, or a three-layered overdub. The samples are there in my MacBook Pro if I want them. But if time and budget allow, I’m going back to the brass and see how it feels.

If it works, I suppose I can report back and toot my own horn.