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The Sound Library of Babel

One of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ most celebrated short stories is The Library of Babel, in which he describes a universe in the form of a library that contains literally every possible 410 page book – an almost infinite (is it possible to be “almost infinite”?) array of texts containing 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 contain useful information, but they have no way of knowing which ones these would be. Because of the immensity of information at their disposal, the information is rendered worthless.

Sometimes I feel like this in my studio.

Having worked for some years in music technology retail, my job includes the onerous task of testing out any new software that is released by installing fully working, unrestricted versions of all the latest, most cutting edge sequencers, virtual instruments, ROMplers and so on onto my home computer for me to tinker with to my heart’s content. I know – it’s awful what is expected of me – but I grin and bear it and find at my disposal a dazzling-to-the-point-of-long-term-retinal-damage array of sounds and effects within clicking distance of my desktop.

Now, you may be thinking this isn’t so bad. Indeed you may be thinking quite uncharitable thoughts about me and my horrible smugness at my own good fortune but, though getting all the latest software is something of a rare position to be in and I have to admit I quite like it, one of the most popular music software products of our times puts any user in a similar position – all they have to do is shell out £849.

I am of course talking about Native Instruments’ Komplete 9, or specifically Komplete 9 Ultimate, the latest, most utterly all-encompassing package available from those programming demons at NI (I personally thought they should call it “Kompleter” in the style of the film Dumb and Dumberer, but for some reason they ignored my suggestion).

Komplete 9

This software bundle includes a total of 50 separate plug-ins, some of these plug-ins themselves contain several of their own instruments (Reaktor alone has over 70), and each of these instruments contains 100s of patches. Now I’m not a mathematician, but I added that up, and it comes to approximately 1 bazillion different sounds included in the whole collection. That’s a lot of sounds. A lot of sounds. And this is just one software bundle – a professional producer could also easily have a workstation keyboard such as the wonderful Korg Kronos in their studio (giving them a total of 2 bazillion sounds), a few EastWest ROMplers (3 bazillion) and a box of toy percussion instruments (3 bazillion and 67).

How can our puny humanoid brains cope with such a surfeit of sonic possibilities? No wonder the ukulele’s 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 on every possible microphone, running through every possible processor, in every possible combination. The ultimate sound library: every noise ever made or that could ever be made would be included. You would have the most wonderful piano samples known to mankind, but you would also have the sound of your grandmother sucking her false teeth recorded through a Neumann U87 going through a convolution processor sampling the reverberant qualities of the frozen goods aisle of the Croydon branch of LIDL.

I imagine desperate music producers eternally trawling their way through hours, days and years worth of sounds in the vain hope of finding that particular cowbell sample they desperately need for their latest dubstep / easy-listening crossover hit and, by the time they’ve found it, planet Earth has long since become a barren husk incapable of sustaining water-based life forms. Perhaps this would not be such a bad thing.

My point, if indeed I have one, is that sometimes it is possible to have too many options at our disposal. Although Native Instruments and co. offer excellent indexing and search facilities in their software (not available in Borges’ Library of Babel), and the sounds are amazing, sometimes the sheer mind boggling wealth of possibilities can actually get in the way of just producing a piece of music.

I’m not going to get rid of my software library, but sometimes I find it pays to restrict yourself: stick to one sound (preferably not a ukulele) and see what you can do with it.


About The Author

Red Dog Music

Dawsons Music is delighted to announce that the Red Dog Music brand is now part of the Dawsons family. This is an exciting opportunity to bring both communities together and create a stronger, wider network of people passionate about music gear. We both share a common heritage to support musicians throughout the UK and Dawsons want to support Red Dog Music customers in their continued musical journey.

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