Composing With Sample Libraries: Make it “Real” or Make it “Good”?

By • September 17, 2010

As I discussed in last month’s column with Bruce Miller, the likelihood of a composer having an orchestra record his/her score is sadly smaller than 20 years ago. Most will have to create their scores with a small group of musicians augmented by sample libraries and virtual instruments or only the latter.
So we need to learn how to do this well. The good news is that while they are not yet (and I hope never will be) as good as the real thing, in recent years some pretty dramatic progress has been made.

How we approach the craft of composing with these tools is somewhat determined by our philosophy and that of our clients. The reality is that some parts we conceive of in our mind and ears that would sound stunning with a real orchestra may not sound good with the libraries we own or any available . Conversely, we may be able to conceive of parts with the samples that real players simply cannot do. For instance, with a slide trombone playing the B flat a 9th below middle C to the B natural a half step up means going from 7th position to 1st position so there will always be a gliss. I do not know however of a single library that has that built in limitation. Harpists have to deal with certain lines of notes by pedaling enharmonically as no library requires.

So what is the best way to approach all this? There are essentially 2 prevalent schools of thought:

1. Write the music that you hear in your head and if your libraries cannot quite do it, seek additional libraries (or bitch and moan about the inadequacies of even the great libraries of today:) I see this approach sometimes advocated on forums.

2. Don’t worry about what the real guys may play, write what sounds best on the samples, unless you know you are replacing the parts with real players, at which point it is more or less a non-issue other than for the client to hear it before the recording session.

Or is there perhaps (timpani roll) a THIRD way! :

My approach has always been a third way that leans more toward number 2. For me real, shmeal, none of it sounds real when you put it next to the real thing, so if writing something differently or eliminating something that you would write if it were real players because it does not sound good with the samples, then so be it. That said, it is always in my mind what the real players do. You break the rules better when you know them.

Back when I was scoring “Zorro” I used to add a Memorymoog to the real celli parts to fatten it out, along with some E4 samples. Did the end result sound more “real?” No. Did it sound better? To my ears, yes.

However, as I have discovered, my view is not universally accepted. So I reached out to some colleagues to get their take on it and found some really interesting differences in point of view and yet, surprisingly, a sort of consensus seems to emerge.

John Frizzell advised, ”Take an existing ‘great work’ composed by one of ‘the masters’ and sequence it (choose something in the ballpark of what you plan to write) then import an actual recording of this ‘great work’ and match it as best you can, including tempo. IF your sequenced version of the ‘great work’ sounds like a ‘really good work’ then your samples are ‘really good’. If it sounds like crap, your samples are crap and you know that if you compose your own ‘master work’ it too will sound like crap even though it might be a ‘master work’. I have sequenced many many ‘master works’ and some portions of a pieces sound incredibly real (with great samples) and some sections sound like crap with the best samples money can buy. This is a constantly evolving thing as new libraries and technologies emerge.”

C.J. Vanston replied to me: “I write what’s in my head, the sample libraries are not as important as the way I play the stuff in live, using volume pedal, pitch/mod, basically a live performance. My libraries have evolved over the years and are more than good enough to express what I’m trying to say. And I’ve been emulating live instruments since a Prophet 5, coaxing emotion out of less than great sounds. I’ll take that any day over some guy with the great sound library who draws in all the expression, volume, vibrato, etc. but that’s just me. My live performances are a huge part of my sound.”

From Michael Levine: “The third way: write for your samples to sell it to the client then fix it on the page before the real guys play it. Not so often with voicings and instrument choices but often with articulation, note lengths, and effects on the instrument. But you can get bitten – many times I have replaced samples with more exciting real performances only to be told to go back to the demo. There are also demo “tricks” I use like doubling string groups with synth pads for smooth transitions in demos that are unnecessary once you have a few dozen individuals making the same move at slightly different times.”

Nathan Furst was pretty much in accord with Michael: “3 (ish) – write what’s in your head, and when the samples make that difficult/impossible, adjust for the strength of the library and move on. Not unlike live players- sometimes they can’t pull it off, so you make changes and move on. “

John Graham had a response that was..err… colorful! “I think there is a third way, though it may really be number 2 with a half rotation. If it exists, the third way would be this:  Write what you hear but be willing (as I just did on a score) to drop, say, the clarinet sample if the flute samples sound better on the line, even though a real clarinet would sound better and that’s WHAT I BLOODY WANTED, Y’BASTARDS!!!  And that’s even if you are replacing sounds with live players later. I never, never, never hand over even a demo of a piece unless I think it sounds practically good enough to put into the film even without the live players.  If that means substituting one instrument for another, I do it.  If that means that I have, in effect, 200 strings or 18 French Horns playing a passage, I care not.

Craig Sharmat’s view is somewhat mercurial: “Yes there is, at least for me…and that is write what is in my head and sometimes adjust to the samples…or write what’s best and realize if you take what guys would play into consideration, start altering your parts so they are more realistic. I come at it either way depending on how I feel inspired that day.”

Kays Alatrakchi’s take: “I just completed scoring an animated project very much related to the Star Wars universe which required an original, but heavily leaning towards John Williams approach. The way I compose in those instances might very well be the “third” way you’re mentioning.  Essentially I start out to write the music that I hear in my head, however as I pull up samples to realize the various parts of the score, I am forced to change and adapt my original vision to fit what sounds best and what the samples can handle.   I suppose you could describe this as a hybrid between method 1 and 2?   I also think it’s important to do things while writing with samples that would not be done with a real orchestra. For example, I’m bound to play the trombones in octaves because I like to layer the crack of the low end with the definition of the high end.  One of the things I do very often is also add “noise” to the background…this is activity in samples that in many cases might be playing “jibberish” but that add to that sound of 80+ players doing stuff.  These are all things that in real life I would never do, but that I find necessary when working with samples. There is another trick that I have used to great effect that I think many composers would find extremely controversial…so I’m not sure if I should even mention. The good news is that due to the added capabilities of sample libraries, it is becoming more and more feasible to create what’s in one’s head without having to adapt or resort to cheap tricks.”    

Peter Schwartz raised a great point: “Unless a composer conceives their music solely in their head and writes all of their ideas down on score paper before embarking on a mockup, it’s inevitable that the samples will shape the sound of their music. The degree to which this occurs depends on the libraries they have and what kinds of emotion they allow the composer to express. In a talk with Bruce Broughton the other day, he was of the opinion that his score for Silverado wouldn’t have sounded the same were he to have had to mock it up first, for the type of emotion he wanted to portray just wouldn’t happen with samples.”

Andrew Keresztes, (who is also the developer of the highly regarded LA Scoring Strings library) pretty much came down where I do: “The answer is fully predicated upon the end-use of the mockup. If it’s for commercial use (as opposed for demos) then you cater the composition to the strengths of the library and use what you have to the best of its abilities. If it doesn’t “sound” good… then don’t use it… I find that shoving a square peg in a round hole rarely makes the piece work.

Tom Salta was succinct: “Coming from more of a record producing background, I usually use #2 with a little #1 sprinkled in!”

As was Ray Colcord: “I’ve always written towards the strengths of the samples I have. I’ve got a bunch of libraries, but there are some articulations, especially in strings, that the samples just don’t do well, so why swim upstream?”

So, how little or how much to be guided by “reality?” Aye, there’s the rub. For those who compose “concert hall’’ music who think it unlikely that they will ever have an orchestra or those film/TV composers who have clients who demand that it must sound “just like the real thing” well, they are going to move heaven and earth to bend the samples and virtual instruments to their will, and that is understandable.

But for the rest of us, here is where I believe the general consensus falls:
Knowledge of what the real players do is very helpful and should guide you but should not shackle you.

Every respondent agreed that adding even a few good quality real players when possible usually helps with both believability and quality.

I would add this final thought: try to enjoy the process. Don’t make the elusive attempt at “hyper-reality” turn it into drudgery. Yes, it is hard work, but that does not mean we must suffer.


By Nick Weston on September 17th, 2010 at 8:55 am

Great article, Jay. Seems to me that our sound palette has evolved, which is a good thing. I mean, why must everything exactly resemble an orchestra? Just an old paradigm that is followed because that’s what we’re used to hearing, and that’s what the employer is used to hearing. I say mix and match, do whatever it takes to support the PICTURE. Music is #2. And please composers: do not become confused that you are too important, the actors and the story come first, otherwise you would be on the movie poster.

By David Whiteside on September 17th, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Great article. Very relavent to today’s scoring world. Every composer struggles with this. I would like to add too, that coming from the Hip Hop production world, don’t be afraid to allow the samples themselves to inspire you. You just might come up with a sound that you never would have imagined otherwise. Timbaland style!

By Lawrence Nachsin on September 19th, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Great article, Jay. Very well thought out and balanced.

By Dave on September 20th, 2010 at 8:13 am

Nice to know this is happening with everyone… working as a composer can be insulating sometimes! Another thing, maybe this is just spilled milk… but it makes me sad that it’s so hard to get a room full of players! I mean, as a player myself, or at least somebody who started out loving an instrument… I’d really like to see a room full of folks on a union date playing my stuff. I know it’s just not realistic (especially on the current thing I’m doing…) But is there any hope to move MORE towards the old-school? This article seems to focus mostly on moving towards evolving libraries. Is it just a done deal?

By Paul on September 24th, 2010 at 8:27 am

Great article, Jay. I find myself facing the “CHOOSE” sign pretty often, and I see this topic come up in different forums from time to time. I give a +1 to every comment before mine as well!

By David N. Edwards on September 24th, 2010 at 2:05 pm

This is possibly the most practical article about composing that I’ve read on this site. Full of genuine nuts-and-bolts insight from veteran composers. Please thank all of them again for contributing.

I would like to add just one more thing: The overarching mentality these composers have articulated is fully applicable outside of the film music world.

What we do is all about supporting the PICTURE, and that picture may very well live, not in a movie theater, but in a concert hall. For me, it lives on a stage where dancers tell a story in harmony with music I’ve written.

A composer of music must do, WILL do, whatever it takes to support the PICTURE that lives in her or his imagination (or that of a director). And, yes, I include composers of “absolute” music, whose picture, at times, happens to be a little more abstract than mine.

Throughout history, our best composers have fully exploited the musical resources available to them while carefully respecting their limitations.

Every instrument, every player, every orchestra, every sample library has its strengths and its limitations. It’s the composer’s job to understand them and to write music that makes the most of all the musical resources available.


By Yadgyu on September 26th, 2010 at 9:51 am

If you are NOT using a computer or sound libraries, your days are pretty much limited in this business.

I think making things sound good makes the most sense. Fans do not care about what was used; they only care about the end product.

The arguments about using real orchestration are usually fought by composers who are past their prime. Today’s world really has no use for musicians who are not willing to adapt to the modern music scene.

By Jesse Hopkins on October 9th, 2010 at 7:05 pm

My philosophy is in line with 1. If the client can’t afford or won’t pay an orchestra, but they want an orchestra sound, then it’s just going to have to sound a little bit unrealistic. If I’m going to write orchestral sounding music, I’m writing it for orchestra, not samples. Electronic music where it’s not supposed to sound like an orchestra is a different story.

By Jesse Hopkins on October 9th, 2010 at 7:34 pm

The average PS3 game is 15 million dollars. A music budget of less than 5% of the budget would handily afford an AFM orchestra, composer, the works. If the budget is 2 million, they can afford a smaller orchestra and less music at around 5%, or if more music is needed, go with a chamber score, or electronic score where the samples are unfamiliar. The goal is to avoid using samples to do what acoustic instruments can already do better.

Orchestral samples are great for mock-ups, but as final music, really not good.

By Jay Calm on August 30th, 2013 at 9:31 am

Great article, very helpful. Although I just wanted to point on thing out… In the beginning you mentioned the trombone having a glissando when going from, what you meant to say as, Bb in first to B natural in 7th, or vice versa. In that case there might be a slight scoop but with a tenor trombone with an f attachment, it would be B natural in 2.5 with the trigger pushed down which would make quite a nice legato sound moving from B natural in 2.5 to Bb in 1. 😉

By Jay Asher on September 3rd, 2013 at 2:13 pm

True Jay, the F attachment changes that.. The bigger point is the difference in the challenge of writing for “real” instruments vs virtual ones.

By Colm on March 2nd, 2014 at 8:43 am

Fantastic article sir!

I stumbled on this when researching for my dissertation on the topic of the larger debate on technology’s role in composition, and have found it incredibly informative.

It is also rather refreshing to see a composer take the practical approach and see the benefit of using samples for composition and not take the attitude of “it ain’t real so it can’t be good’. Sadly, that view has become quite rife in the orchestral composers’ camp.

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