For many film and TV composers, creating sample and virtual instrument based compositions has become an important part of their work. We can debate endlessly whether this should be the case, whether real players are superior (they are) but at the end of the day with budgets, deadlines, and producer demands being what they are, unless you are working on a very well-budgeted project or work with a producer like J.J. Abrams who fully understands what real players brings to the music, film and TV composers are stuck with the reality that they are going to have to spend, or hire someone to spend, a lot of time making samples and virtual instruments sound really good. For some, good means “as real as possible”, for others (like me) simply good to my ears.
Either way, the good news is that our choices keep getting better and better. However, the developers approach the goal of giving us great stuff to work very differently with very different philosophies.
All samples are recorded in some kind of space, be it a room, a hall, or a recording studio, and all of these spaces have a sound to them that can be more or less recorded into the samples depending on microphone and baffling techniques. Some try to minimize the sound of the room while some try to maximize it. Most fall somewhere in the middle and try to give a range of microphone positions options. Close mics add less of the room while a Decca tree will add more for instance.
This is not a new philosophical issue. There are engineers who never track through EQs or compressors because they feel that it limits their flexibility when it comes time to mix because you cannot remove it form the sound. Other engineers will include them because in their mind they know what they will want that sound to be in the final mix and want those properties as part of the recording.
I am not going to be making value judgments on the competing philosophies in this column as since I work part time for EastWest I can hardly be credible as being unbiased in this regard, but I would like to help explore the options. Nor can I discuss every single developer worthy of mention so please forgive me dear developer or fan of developer if I have not mentioned yours. No disrespect is intended.
Vienna Instruments is one of the most well established purveyors of respected sample libraries. They were perhaps the first to record libraries with a terrific number of articulations and attention to detail. Their philosophy was to give the user as much control of the sound as possible and they built a custom recording facility that they call the Silent Stage.
The advantage to very “dry” libraries like these is that you have more control over the ambience that is added to the instruments that you can create by your personal choices of reverbs, processors, and even space emulation plug-ins like their MIR Pro. Composers who like this approach love the level of control it gives them. The disadvantage, if you perceive it as a disadvantage, is that they do not sound as ready to go straight out of the box and therefore require additional work and some expense to get them to sound the way you want them to sound. As with all this stuff, however, once you have made your choices and built your templates, you can have a palette that is very much customized to what you like best. If you buy the concept, you probably will buy the execution.
On the other end of the scale arguably is Spitfire Audio. They became well known for creating expensive libraries that were for sale “by invitation only” with the idea that thy would be used for mockups but ultimately replaced by live players, as they did not want to damage the prospects of work for real players. They recorded with top-notch British musicians. The expensive price tag made it only feasible for composers who get bigger budgets anyway. (Very admirable IMHO.)
In recent years however, they have released a few commercial libraries that were more affordable and available to all, including Albion, Percussion, and Solo Strings. They do not attempt to be Swiss Army Knife libraries with every articulation known to man as some others attempt to do.
So why does anyone care? Air Studios Lyndhurst Hall is why. Founded in London by the Beatles’ producer George Martin, it is widely regarded as one of the best sounding recording studios in the world. The Spitfire people have “bakes” this sound into their samples and even the close mic positions are not as dry as some of its competitors. The advantages are obvious: great out of the box sound. The cons: not as many articulations and not the same level of control as there is only so much of the sound of the studio that you can minimize.
In between these competing philosophies is a wide range of products along this sliding scale of philosophy.
EastWest’s Hollywood Series, strings and brass (and soon, woodwinds) were recorded in their own studio in Hollywood, which was formerly known as United Western, then Ocean Way, and later Cello Studios. Designed by Bill Putnam of UA fame, it is indeed a legendary venue with a great history of famous artists and scores recorded there. Traditionally, their Gold version of libraries offer fewer mic choices and the included ones tend to be “wetter” while the Platinum versions of the libraries offer more mic positions that give you a range of how much baked in room you get. So it can sound great out of the box and give the user a range of control, although not as dry as the Silent Stage of VSL.
CineSamples has also chosen for their recent brass library the path of recording on a renowned Los Angeles scoring stage, now called the Streisand Scoring Stage at Sony. They too therefore boast a legendary room and once again give you a range of mic positions that provide more > less of the baked in sound. Once again though, not as dry as VSL perhaps.
Other popular libraries that are considered by most to be on the dryer side would be Audiobro’s LASS and Kirk Hunter’s Concert Strings & Brass, while most would consider the fine offerings from Project Sam, like Symphobia, True Strike, and Orchestral Essentials, to be a little wetter.
Some users find mixing wetter libraries with dryer ones to be problematic while others do not.
Finally we come to so-called “modeled” instruments, like those from SampleModeling. Because they do not create most of their sound from samples recorded in a room, they are very dry indeed and therefore making them sound great out of the box requires an approach more similar to working with the Vienna Instruments offerings than the wetter libraries.
So where does all this leave us? It leaves us with a wide range of excellent products created with varying philosophies that we as composers have to create a path for ourselves with. Wetter? Dryer? Somewhere in between? More control, but more required effort? Less control, but good results with less effort?
It can be a daunting challenge but nothing worthwhile is ever easy.