Are composers relying on sound libraries?

With sample libraries becoming more and more realistic and budgets getting squeezed ever tighter, the average composer must be relying more on in-the-box options than John Williams-esque orchestras, right? Jerry Ibbotson finds out.

You’re slumped on the sofa watching the latest, “Mate, you’ve got to see this…” drama that you know will consume an obscene amount of your time. Or you’re plugged into a game that got 11 out of 10 stars on that review site you like.

The music’s great – a rousing orchestral score than really adds to the whole performance. But surely it’s all samples these days, isn’t it? Technology, costs of an orchestra, and all that?

Not so, according to TV and film composer Nainite Desai. “The danger of using samples is that it requires a lot of time when trying to either inject that human emotive touch into the music or when creating a distinctive score that stands out from the crowd. To counter this I almost always bring in at least a couple of live players.”

Film and TV composer Miguel d’Oliveira, whose work can regularly be heard on BBC dramas and documentaries, does dip into sample libraries but will always go with the live approach if possible.

“Whenever I can, I go for a live ensemble. Nothing replaces its sound. You may even get stuff that you didn’t write (which may sound better) and samples don’t tend to do that. If I start by picking up a guitar, a trumpet, a mandolin, etc. I know that samples, if anything, will come at the end just for a dash of colour. My libraries are an amalgamation of the ones I have been creating for projects I’ve worked on, and purchased bits from 8dio, Soundiron, Project SAM, VSL, SonicCouture, Cinesamples, etc.”

Finding your path

James Hannigan, who composes for broadcast media and games such as Transformers Universe, likes to pick an approach and stick to it.

“I try to be consistent with the production method of every cue, as it bugs me sometimes hearing scores that are a patchwork of different approaches. You can sometimes hear how certain cues have been prioritised, and it becomes evident decisions are being made in relation to budget that are having an impact on the realisation of the music.

“Low budgets can be a reality, but I think it’s partly up to composers to disguise those realities, or render them irrelevant. For example, if I find that I can’t use a real orchestra for a project, I’ll probably avoid trying to ‘fake it’ and will steer clear of anything resembling a big orchestra, but may use individual instruments or sections at times.

“My use of sample libraries tends to be for mocking up an orchestra or some other ensemble before actually recording the real thing, which makes them incredibly useful.”

Jason Graves, a composer with an impressive track record in game music, uses orchestral samples of mock-ups on every project to give the end client something tangible to listen to. He then re-records around half of that material with a live orchestra. And even when he does use samples, he goes for a grow-your-own approach.

“I’ve been building up my own orchestral library. What started as textures and effects has grown to an extensive list of articulations covering the entire orchestra – lots of very deep sampling of individual instruments, so I have complete control over each wind instrument and the individual string sections. This takes a lot of dedication – it’s been five years in the making – but it’s paying off for me. Last year’s score for Tomb Raider was entirely my personal sample library, plus me performing various solo instruments around the studio. When I do need non-orchestral sounds that I can’t record myself my first stop is Heavyocity. They have the most inventive and best-sounding virtual instruments out there.”

Custom work

Recording-your-own-samples is something that resonates with Ian Livingstone, who counts diverse examples such as Rome: Total War 2 and the Great British Sewing Bee among his recent work.

“I’ve got most of the major orchestral libraries, for example SAM, 8dio, Eastwest, VSL, etc, but I also developed a custom orchestral library with some friends, which we recorded in Utah and edited and programmed ourselves. Although it’s quite old now there’s still a few sounds and tricks in there which haven’t made it into commercial libraries yet. I also use a lot of commercial loops, breaks, and phrases but I always prefer to choose instruments which give you the flexibility of mangling and doing something unique with the source material – Spectrasonics pioneered this with its SAGE engine but it seems to be a growing trend that other developers are offering a lot of these features.”

Desai took a similar approach when working on three new BBC series: “I used samples to write beds of music just as a guide. The musicians are then playing on top of the music sometimes replacing the guide sampled melodies or adding layers and textures to the musical beds. I then edit/cut up all the playing afterwards as a kind of customised sound library and create a bespoke library of riffs that can be used. So alongside the samples I am using live players and I play a lot of instruments myself.”

Television and film composer Nainite Desai

Money matters

Christian Henson, who’s recently finished working on Alien Isolation for Sega and the movie Robot Overlords, says it depends on the budget: “Samples are usually in there somewhere with my main focus always being on using live players. So for bigger pictures I’ll use them to mock up and maybe bolster the final mixes with the live instruments in the forefront. For the kind of medium stuff I’ll use them to correct mistakes when we haven’t had enough time to record, and maybe (in the case of Poirot) help shifts to larger apertures for the odd big cue.

“So I’ll use a chamber band for 70% of the score, then I’ll have to bring in a purely ‘symphonic’ element on top of the chamber band for more cinematic cues. For low-budget stuff, I’ll largely use samples but with a few cherry-picked soloists. As for libraries, I only use Spitfire products. As they are all recorded in the same room they all fit together. Other than that I make my own.”

Being flexible

You might think that using a library would make life easier from the angle of flexibility: when creating new elements to match a change in the brief or just an upping in the action.

Henson disagrees: “One must simply adapt one’s craft to work with the materials we are either given or give ourselves. For every project I create a different set of rules that I must live by. By purposefully limiting one’s resources, one becomes more resourceful. So on Robot Overlords we purposefully went in and recorded the orchestra too early. This meant we had to work with the audio to hit the lock and with this extra time using Pro Tools and audio not Logic and MIDI I was able to do some very different stuff. I look forward to people hearing it!”

But for Desai, it’s the polar opposite. For her, only samples can keep pace with rapid changes in content. “You have to be very fluid when writing to picture – being able to make constant changes and re-edits to new versions of the film to very tight deadlines especially at the end of the edit process,” she explains. “I recently completed The Day Kennedy Died a major doc for ITV/Smithsonian. It had wall-to-wall music (around 80 mins) all written to picture during the seven-week edit.

“I was writing 4-6 minutes of music a day, sending it to the edit. They would then edit with the music, send a shortened new edit back to me, and then I would re-edit and re-work the music to fit the new edit. As the music was heavily synchronised around the dialogue and many visual hit points, working with samples made things very flexible. Using live musicians for the whole score would have been hard to work with.”

Graves says you can be adaptable, whichever route you go down: “Samples are obviously a lot more flexible in terms of making last-minute changes, but I’ve been known to be pretty dangerous with some discrete orchestral stems and an audio editor. I think most occasions defer to samples because of budget, obviously. A proper orchestral recording will easily double the music budget.

“Too many think of computers as crutches we depend on to make things easier and faster. But to me, computers and samples libraries are simply another tool to utilise when necessary, just like a particular ribbon microphone or a specific Les Paul guitar. When I do need non-orchestral sounds that I can’t record myself, my first stop is Heavyocity.”

Hannigan says there’s a danger in using samples when working on an initial mock-up. “In having to create a good mockup for approval, there’s a danger of ‘composing for sample libraries’ to best exploit them, losing sight of the orchestra and its unique capabilities,” he says. “Ask yourself, for example, would the sheer musicality and richness of, say, a John Williams orchestration be present if he had to mock up his music before having it approved? I suspect not, because he is a master working directly with the orchestra, which is an art in itself. A second pitfall is the emerging need to have a live performance closely resemble an earlier mockup – which, again, means that the composer may only go into territory with sample libraries they know they can faithfully reproduce.”

The flip side of this, he believes, is that the unique properties of a sample library might be under-used. Take movie trailer music for example. “The goal there isn’t necessarily to emulate an orchestra, but often to simply use an ‘orchestral palette’ of sorts, and to tap into a specific musical language and form we’ve become familiar with in that context,” explains Hannigan. “You might even call it a hyper-orchestra (if you want 36 French horns, why not?) And some of that music is so huge, tight, and mechanical (not to mention heavily processed) it isn’t even playable by real people anyway – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid in its own right.”

And the future? Henson paints a picture with a gloomy edge to it. “For music? Good. With the democratisation of technology the best composers will be able to make great sounding work. For the industry? Bad. The technology behind the delivery of IP changes radically every 3-5 years. You therefore cannot legislate quickly enough for these delivery methods in order to monetise them effectively.

“Composers are having to take on more and more work to make ends meet; the quality is dropping; and consumers are becoming normalised to this. The net result is that our profession is becoming de-professionalised and that will have a direct effect on the quality of our music culture.”

Hannigan thinks it’s time for the samples vs. real debate to be over: “For me at least, sample libraries are simply another weapon in the composer’s arsenal, finding their own domain to operate in and new applications all the time. As to whether they will ultimately replace the need for live musicians or not, I just don’t know, but I hope not because I see libraries and musicians as complementary rather than mutually exclusive or in conflict. Both have huge value to composers, but nothing for me can really replace the unique, personal, and ‘once only’ performance you will get out of a real human being in the studio.”