The Tools We Use And Potentially Abuse

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In recent years we have seen the release of a rash of quite wonderful sounding and easy to use products like Project Sam’s Symphobia, Sample Logic’s Morphestra, Spectrasonic’s Stylus RMX, and most recently Cinesamples’ CineOrch.

The good news is that they allow busy composers to turn out good sounding cues much more quickly, regardless of their proficiency in composition, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc.

The bad news is that they allow busy composers to turn out good sounding cues much more quickly, regardless of their proficiency in composition, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc.

While some of these kind of libraries and virtual instruments still require a fair amount of work to make sound good, others are really just are a matter of holding down a key to compose and orchestrate. While this is not a new phenomenon, as I discuss later in this essay, now there is a great incentive for developers to spend a good deal of energy and time in developing these kind of products, as the demand has clearly increased. Or is it more a case of “If you build it, they will come.”

There has been a lot of debate whether this is a bad thing or a good thing. I am interested in what you composers out there, whether you are toiling in a major media area or not, think as in recent discussions on forums, opinions have varied widely. There are those who say that for themselves they simply will not use them because it is not really composing in their view, it takes way from the uniqueness of their sound, and it blurs the line between those who “know what they are doing” and those who do not. Also, they worry that producers and directors will expect composers to work faster and even more cheaply because the tools enable them to do this. To an extent of course, that is already happening.

Other take a totally opposite position which is that since they frequently have to turn out a lot of music for little money, they will use anything they can to do it quickly and have it sound good to the client. Also, it is worth noting that amongst the younger generation of aspiring composers, there are many who have little regard for traditional compositional craft. Their attitude is that if they can get the job and please the client, it is not worth the effort spending years learning composition, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. It is more important to spend that time learning production values, mixing skills, and sample library and fx plug-in manipulation, since the sound the client is demanding is frequently big and rather stereotypical. Indeed, when you listen to music composed for trailers, video games, and frequently TV shows and films, it is sometimes hard to make a real world argument against that view.

However, I think that most of us, particularly trained and experienced composers, fall somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, we are excited by what these products bring to the table sonically and by the ease of use and appreciate the time saving potential but still want to put our personal stamp on them.

One thing is for certain, these tools are here to stay, and in no way do I mean to criticize the very talented developers who are creating these remarkable products. Some of them apparently got quite upset with me for starting a discussion about this on a forum that I regularly post on but I think it is important for composers to think about these things.

Anyway, what I am interested in is where composers draw their own very personal lines as to how they will use the tools, nakedly or perhaps more artfully.

Speaking for myself, I am certainly not a purist. Back in the day I used a Korg Wavestation SR with its “sequences” and now I use Stylus RMX and string runs, harp glissandi, even some loops occasionally etc.

BUT: Back to when I had the Wavestation SR: It had some sequences like “Pharoah’s Jig” and “Midnight Run” that became fairly ubiquitous. I heard them all over the place. The sequences were rather difficult to program and some successful composers would hire guys who had learned to do this well to make custom sequences. I learned to do a little programming with it and would always try to change it or put it in the mix in a way that it sounded quite different. Why? Because in my own mind simply holding down a key and letting a sequence play did not feel like composing and was not emotionally and creatively satisfying. That is important to me as I do not compose solely to make money but also because writing music to picture is a task that I find very fulfilling.

A very successful and respected TV composer whose work I generally liked was scoring a very good show where he was doing precisely that, holding notes to trigger the sequences just as they were, totally unadorned, with maybe a string pad underneath. First of all, I didn’t think it worked with the picture. But secondly, in my mind, that just was not my concept of composing. Had I asked him, he probably would have said something to me like, ‘Jay, I have 6 weekly series on the air and a lot of minutes of music to turn out. I think it works fine and so do the producers.”

And while he would be right in terms of the end result, I could not live with it (I don’t think.) Call it ego, call it pride of authorship, whatever, I would feel compelled to do more or alternatively bring in another composer to help.

When I use RMX i.e. I always change or add/remove some MIDI notes, re-quantize, change the FX, etc. I was doing precisely this on a hip-hop oriented comedy I scored for Lionsgate entitled “Hittin’ It” and played some cues for a composer friend. He questioned the wisdom of my spending time doing this and said to me, “Are you sure you are improving them?”

My response was “I may be making them better or I may be making them worse, but at least I am trying to make them mine.”

A distinction without a real difference? Perhaps, but it allows me to continue to feel like a composer and I do believe it keeps my music from sounding just like everyone else’s. Which is IMHO perhaps a real danger. If we all buy and use the same libraries with pre-configured combinations of instruments and sounds, is there not a distinct possibility that everyone’s music is going to start to lack an individual personality? Or will the composer’s personality always shine through, regardless of the tools that he/she utilizes? And when using these tools, is the outcome likely to be more musical with a composer who really knows what he is doing than one who does not and is simply holding down keys of pre-configured combinations and loops?

Finally, since the use of the tools makes it possible for us to deliver on a shorter schedule and therefore perhaps charge less money, are we digging our own graves metaphorically? Also, is this not just another, perhaps the final, dagger in the heart of live musicians?

These are not easy questions and I am not sure there are clear answers. In point of fact, I am still grappling with how I feel about it. Wherever you come down on this issue, I think it is one that warrants some time and serious thought from each of us. The ramifications for the craft we love are great.

So, what do YOU think?


  • December 29, 2010 @ 12:16 am

    “I may be making them better or I may be making them worse, but at least I am trying to make them mine.”

    That sums it up perfectly. Take the tools and make them yours. Push their boundaries and explore their possibilities. That’s why we call them ‘tools’.

  • Scott Glasgow
    December 29, 2010 @ 1:12 am

    Samples do not make a composer, choices with those samples and the notes picked do. Tools are just that, tools to help a composer write. If you are concerned about how a composer is using that same orchestral fx found in symphobia, then you shouldn’t use it for fear of sounding like everyone else! However if your music voice is clearly developed how you use it should make the difference.

    These new libraries certainly gives tools to people who don’t know how to really write the chords or make those harmonies (a point which will become painfully clear when they get their first job with a LIVE orch and then those same Symphobia effects will have to be transcribed) but getting the job is the job.. If they can make the director happy with the film they figured out a way to land, then all the power to them. Use whatever tool you can— I know I do.

    All this new quality sampleware available to the masses means real composers must step up– write good music, use unique composition techniques, work the craft, etc with these same samples to stand out from the heard who are using these same samples..

    Once a composer develops his voice– all this does not matter. Style, craft, uniqueness is what makes the difference.

  • December 29, 2010 @ 2:47 am

    Technology will always roll forward. The bottom line is that talent and hard work make a product stand out above the rest.

    I enjoyed your post.

  • chimuelo
    December 29, 2010 @ 5:04 am

    Too bad they don’t have a clause that makes a composer list what virtual instruments they used for the score.
    The only time I notice virtual instruments and their inherent sound qualities are in the video games my son buys.
    Perhaps the movies I choose to pay and watch aren’t using them.
    If I enjoy a movie and become entrenched in the plot and acting skills, the music usually enhances that, if it doesn’t the movie hasn’t done it’s job very well.

    Interesting POV’s.


  • Phil
    December 30, 2010 @ 12:17 am

    I am guilty of having some “loop libraries” in my arsenal. My personal opinion is that these libraries can compliment an already written score quite nicely, however if one relies on them during the composition process, many pitfalls await (e.g. many of these libraries have everything sampled only in 4/4).

  • December 31, 2010 @ 5:06 am

    I like music when it’s new, fresh, heartfelt. Samplers are at their best when they sample new sounds, or process sounds into something unique or original. The labor saving aspect is welcome, but also kills jobs. Music is already devalued, when it becomes push-button, it’s hard to see the public paying much for that. But it may be tempting to try and do it all in the box.

    A lot of stories here: Live or canned, man or machine, integrity or expediency. What will happen next? Is everyone really a composer?
    I feel the public will grow tired of automated music. Given a choice, I want more heart and less franken-score.

    I do my best to add live players, but in a time crunch, loops are handy. A friend in visual effects pointed out that VFXs went through an in the box stage, and now they go to real photography, then process. I hope performers and composers get together to bring back live soon. Plus samplers.

  • January 2, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    Great article, Jay! I think you hit the arguments and counter-arguments quite well.

    When I’ve got to cover a lot of ground quickly (like 48 minutes of music in 6 days), I try to determine which of the scores’ moments will be the most crucial. When I make a first pass, I’ll use more of the pad-atop-loop approach as place-holders to fill in the less critical sections so that I’m leaving as much time as I may need to hit the more critical sections. Once I’ve gotten through the show’s end, I’ll then go back to the placeholders, and will make ’em my own by tweaking loops, adding parts, etc…as time permits before I gotta’ start mixing.

    In short, I’m using a hybrid approach: My tools’ usage and level of customizing will ebb and flow with the score’s demands.

  • Jose
    January 2, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    I too try to create music that is on some level unique. It’s by far the hardest road to travel and in the end I’m not even sure it’s the right road to travel. But, also I feel very uncomfortable with products that take away the creativeness of the composer. I think that in the very least the composer is responsible for the notes on compositions that he/she puts his/her name. Products that compose for you seem to be a line that I cannot seem to cross. It’s a line that separates composer from digital arranger in my opinion.

    Granted I think my attitude is hurting me a bit. I recently heard a composer who has no training what so ever using some of the tools that you mentioned. And, I must admit that it did sound pretty good to my ears. It’s possible to use loops and ensemble patches these days and come up with something that sounds good. I cringe at that reality but it is a reality none the less.

    I think for me it’s come down to using the tools we have available and making them as unique and good as possible. It’s funny that on these forums some of the same composers who criticize certain composers as being “push button” composers are the first ones to embrace the newer push button technologies, and yet I’ve met a lot of composers who are electronically based that really wouldn’t touch some of the products mentioned, preferring instead to craft their own sounds.

    But, in the end, even with tight deadlines and shrinking budgets I think we owe it to ourselves and our music to endeavor to be as creative as possible regardless of the tools we use.

  • January 3, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    Jay, great article – I enjoyed reading this.

    I think it’s worth noting that there is no “original melody” loop. That is to say, a tune with emotional expression, perhaps inspired by picture, can’t come from a loop machine (I know stylus has “licks”, and yes, I’ve used them on mock-ups, but I’m talking about an expressive, potentially pregnant melody that can develop over the course of a film). This is a priceless contribution that can only come from a human and his/her muse. So, in that sense, I don’t think these technologies are really a threat to or a replacement of a composer’s core musical offering.

    Of course, a lot of producers seem to want pure beds and backgrounds. I would argue there is always an opportunity for original melody, even if it is not specifically demanded. And long term, it’s job insurance. After all, if the music is just constructed of pads and loops and chaotic string effects, anyone CAN do that, so anyone will. It’s very risky to be generic.

    I start composing at the piano with pencil and paper, almost always. Then I go to the computer to create the mock-up. I do as many live instruments as I can play or afford for my demos.

  • January 5, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    I believe in having a wide variety of resources to count on when working with tight deadlines, but holding down a series of keys on a controller and stamping it as your own music is not the best idea. I would try tweaking, modifying, revising until I have added a piece of my creativeness to the process…if not, all those years listening to the great Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Varèse, et al, playing in orchestra, orchestrating for live instruments, etc., would have been in vain just for a push of a button! What concerns me the most is that if these techie composers get hired to do a semi-big budget film or even an indie and they want to add live instruments…where will the buttons or loops be then?? He’ll have to hire one of us paper/pencil composers and ghostwrite…etc.

    Technology is great though, with an active, and creative mind guiding it. :)

  • January 7, 2011 @ 12:16 am

    This article raises an interesting question:

    Should we criticize a classically trained composer for using pre-fabricated orchestral textures & percussion loops ?

    Or should we only criticize the laymen of the profession ?

    Or vice-versa ?

    Or, as the article might suggest – all of the above ?

  • Max Tofone
    January 9, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    Great Article Jay and interesting comments…

    I personally feel that all of these musical tools do not make up for lack of craft, but if a tool can help create great quality music, is very welcome!

    I personally do not compose for films, videogames and the like but I can very well see why, even well trained composers, would use these new tools to create orchestral muck-ups fast. Sample library developers are seeing a gap in the market and will do their best to fill it up with these kind of tools, nothing wrong with that.

    Until media music in general is forced to those tight and frantic deadlines, composers are forced to use these music tools shortcuts, like or not!

  • Alex
    January 26, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    Very good article and comments.
    I myself have to use these libraries, the films I work on don’t have the budget, but they want “The Sound”…we all know what that means.
    I agree with so many of the postings, It’s not the gear, it’s how one uses it. I was speaking to a director who asked me if I thought Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner would have embraced our current tech offerings, I can only imagine what that group of composers would have accomplished with “our” available gear. If we could have enjoyed 7 more symphonies from Mozart because he could play the parts into a DAW faster than notating it out…well, I’d be thankful!
    Hans Zimmer, among others of course, have married tech. and trad. in a very effective way and it looks as though the train has left the station for sure. Not a bad thing, not a good thing? It’s THE thing. Originality can emerge through any resource and the cream will always rise, always has, always will.
    I remind myself, as a film composer, that my job is to help a director fully realize his vision…I don’t have to agree with the vision, I have to fulfill it…any way I can do that, with any tool available, I will.
    I wish much success to all on here.

  • Mike
    January 30, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

    I score several features a year that have extremely tight deadlines and very low budgets. In one case I had to produce a complete score in 7 days! So I’m always on the look out for any tool that will make my scores sound great and help me crank out quality sounding cues fast. Plus I have to keep up to date because my competition use the same tools! But that said, I always try to get a few l live players on the scores… usually a vocalist friend of mine, guitar, violin and me on cello. But the rest is sample based, Symphobia, VSL, Omnisphere, etc.. Yes, the downside is… someone will hear my score and say…oh thats that loop or thats that patch, etc… But as long as there is actually ‘composing’ going on, then I feel like I’ve done my job. The only cues I don’t enjoy preparing as much are the ones where alot of sound design type arranging/layering is going on.. Ambient Omnisphere/Heavyocity loops & patches layered for effect. That is not as much fun. But the scores where I’m actually composing – that is what I love to do.

  • sharvis whitted
    December 6, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

    The tools are just tools to me as well. When I used stylus, I rarely use a loop as is. I always adjust the midi notes are do something to make it my own. IF you’re just cutting and pasting loops, is that really composing or manipulating what some else composed? Great article!

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