Using Samplers vs. Real Musicians

Some say electronic music will not replace live musicians. Offcourse not everyone shares this opinion. In the world of film scoring, budgets to pay musicians are notoriously tight. As a result, more are more composers are turning to electronic music to replicate the real thing.

Session musicians worldwide are reporting fewer opportunities to perform in film and theatre soundtracks as composers opt for computerised scores in an effort to save precious funds. Will sampled music one day render live musicians redundant, or is it impossible to fully replicate the human touch? And which is the best path to take when it comes to the music for your next film?

Today composers have a vast range of computerised instrumental samples to work with. A computer-produced score may include a range of electronic sound effects, but can also include music produced to replicate live orchestral and acoustic instruments. Far from the days when electronic instruments consisted purely of cheesy synthesizers and cringe-worthy fake violins, today’s instrumental samples can be almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Great orchestral samples are a critical element in the film scoring tool kit. Composers will invest thousands in professional quality sounds. What makes today’s sample libraries so realistic is the time consuming way in which they are created. The best sample libraries such as Giga Studio and Vienna Symphonic Library are recorded by live musicians from the best possible orchestras. A recording is made of every instrument playing every note in its range, using every type of articulation or expression possible. When the composer plays these samples into their sequencer, what they are hearing is exactly the sound produced by the professional orchestra.

Whilst this is a great tool for a composer to have, the reality is that most sampled scores will not have the same quality of sound as a live recording. This is partly due to a keyboard input and the action of playing keys is different from the action of bowing a string, or blowing into a mouthpiece. The method of sound production changes, so to does the resulting sound.

For composers of indie and low budget films, the struggle to get their sampled scores to sound as real as possible presents a big challenge. There are many different techniques composers use to help achieve this, such as using different reverb effects to mimic instruments’ placement within the concert hall and layering samples unevenly to create the sound of a mass orchestra. Many composers will also mix sampled instruments with one two live instruments, usually voice or piano. Lisa Gerrard’s score for the New Zealand based film Whalerider is a great example of this.

For composer and director alike, a sampled score is usually the most convenient, flexible and certainly cheapest option, particularly if the lush orchestral sound is what is required. The film world has seen some fantastic quality sampled scores too; David Hirschfelder’s Strictly Ballroom earned him both AFI and BAFTA nominations whilst the 2011 Oscar winning score for The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contains many sampled elements.

However, in an ideal world, both composer and filmmaker would usually love to have the funds for a live orchestral score. The sad reality is, independent film budgets often struggle to pay even the composer, let alone hoards of musicians, a conductor and sound engineers required at the scoring stage. A small budget however does not necessarily rule out the use of any live musicians. Even with the high quality of samples available, most composers still prefer to use live instruments when possible.

Many professional and semi-professional composers work from a home studio complete with recording equipment and will be able to produce high quality live recordings from within their own office. Obviously, it is unrealistic to expect a composer to squeeze a full orchestra into their living room- and to expect an orchestra full of professional musicians to work for next to nothing- but there are certainly workable compromises that can be made.

Firstly, the composers will nearly always be a very capable performer themselves. By opting for a score that utilises their chosen instrument, composers will be able to easily produce live recordings themselves. They will also having the added bonus of intimately knowing the nuances of the instrument they are writing for. Secondly, the music industry, like film, is built around contacts. The composer will no doubt have a group of musical colleagues he or she can call on to help produce a small scale live score.

For many musicians, the opportunity to perform on a film score is a unique and exciting prospect and they will often be willing to lend their skills to the project for a reduced (or non-existent!) fee. Many well trained composers will also be proficient conductors and will be able to further reduce the costs of recording by leading their own small ensemble. Even for the smallest budget film, a live score is certainly not out of reach.

Filmmakers should take into consideration they type of score they envisage before hiring a composer for their project. Whilst many composers will claim to be able to produce anything and everything in order to land a job, the reality is that there are those who excel in producing large scale sampled orchestral scores and others who specialise in smaller, live recordings. Choosing a composer with the right expertise will ensure that sampled scores sound as realistic as possible and that live recordings are produced efficiently and cheaply.

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