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Real Sounds, Real Instruments: Discourses of Fidelity and Authenticity in the Design and Use of Digital Sampling Technologies

Harkins, Paul



This paper explores how an ideology of realism was central to the designers of early digital synthesizer/sampling technologies and how discourses of authenticity remain important to the contemporary users of digital technologies in the production of recorded music. With a conceptual framework based around what Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch call ‘the co-construction’ or ‘mutual shaping’ of music technologies, I follow the designers of digital synthesizers at Fairlight Instruments, E-mu Systems, and New England Digital whose aim was to replicate the sounds of acoustic instruments. However, users of instruments like the Fairlight CMI were more excited about recording the ‘real sounds’ of everyday life. In the second half of the paper, I follow the contemporary users of digital synthesizer/sampling technologies and show how discourses of authenticity continue to be employed among users of hardware and software instruments. Using data from interviews, I present three short case studies: (i) Marc Leclair (aka Akufen) uses software synthesizers but is critical of the way they are unable to faithfully reproduce the sounds of hardware synthesizers; (ii) Found use software samplers to imitate the sounds of acoustic instruments but prefer to use the ‘real’ instrument where possible as part of a more authentic live performance; (iii) Matthew Herbert avoids sampling pre-existing recordings and uses field recordings to record the sounds of the ‘real world’. This paper argues that as digital technologies become increasingly entangled in the social practices of musicians, an ideology of transparency and realism remains and there is an even greater desire to use ‘real instruments’ and ‘real sounds’ in the production of music.


Harkins, P. (2016, December). Real Sounds, Real Instruments: Discourses of Fidelity and Authenticity in the Design and Use of Digital Sampling Technologies. Paper presented at Art of Record Production (ARP) conference, University of Aalborg

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Conference Name Art of Record Production (ARP) conference
Start Date Dec 2, 2016
End Date Dec 4, 2016
Deposit Date Mar 9, 2017
Keywords Digital sampling, music technology, studio tools,
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