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?