To Buy Or Not To Buy: That Is The Question

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It seems like weekly we see new libraries and software instruments being made available that are absolutely stunning in their sound quality and creative potential. Some are more expensive (for the purpose of this discussion I would call these libraries and software instruments over $1000) while others are more affordable.

Most of us are software junkies and start to salivate reflexively. So how to choose when and what to buy and what to pass on?

I would think this should be determined by finances, perceived need, and the nature of the work you are trying to do. I am struck lately however by how many folks seem to just reach for their credit card without really thinking about these things, even those who cannot really afford to do so.

These libraries and software instruments essentially break down into two categories: those that are trying to faithfully simulate real instruments and those that do not have that as their primary goal.

If you are a composer doing the level of well budgeted films like Michael Giacchino, you have the budget for a real orchestra and so probably that great new string library that you think sounds more “real” than any you own is not much of a necessity. Except that perhaps you have to do MIDI mockups for jobs or have someone who does that for you and you want those to sound great. Either way, you need some tax write offs and presumably money is not much of an issue, so perhaps you pull the trigger.

Busy film composer Mike Andrews (“Funny People,” “Donnie Darko”) told me that essentially he only looks at new libraries when what he has is not meeting his needs due to system changes, etc. Then he decides if the candidates will be inspiring to play, mesh well with the rest of his sounds and if the workflow is intuitive and easy to incorporate. He has neither the time nor the interest in libraries and software instruments with a steep learning curve. He prefers libraries that are not trying to sound huge with multiple mic positions, and looks for what he considers a simpler, more “honest” sound for his mockups. By the way, at his studio he has an awesome collection of vintage keyboards.

If you are a composer working on a TV series or two where you have to season after season create interesting cues that do not sound like 50 others you have done like Jeff Cardoni (“CSI Miami”), then perhaps what you are looking for most are software instruments and libraries that give you fresh sounds for new creative options. Except that I talked to Jeff and in fact that is not the case! Jeff says he hardly ever buys new libraries to augment the acoustic parts he does. He prefers to use the libraries he has had for years and knows really well, which still sound good to his ears, and manipulate and “mangle” them to create new stuff. He thinks that sometimes buying a new library can be for some a substitute for the hard but rewarding work of creating new signature sounds and can lead to composers sounding rather alike.

So what about the rest of us? Most are working in or trying to get work composing in various styles for different media: TV, film, games, trailers, etc. For one project that is well budgeted, we may only need what we perceive to be a better library to create a better mockup. If we have worked with the client before, we probably have a sense of the degree to which he/she can discern the differences or cares and we will have to
factor that in. For a lower budgeted project, we may need these libraries to sound as realistic as possible as that is what the client wants and there will be no orchestra. So now that library we perceive to be better may not only be desirable but arguably necessary.

I recently spoke with filmmaker Dennis Dugan (“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” “Don’t Mess With The Zohan”) about the importance of the quality of MIDI mockups he hears from his composers from his perspective. I told him that some composers are telling me that their clients want the MIDI mockup to be so good that if it were the final version it would pass muster, whether or not there is a real orchestra involved where others just want to get a basic idea and then they will trust the composer. Dennis said he is somewhere in the middle. He describes himself as not particularly musical and not able to speak the language of music, so to hear it fairly representatively of what it will sound like on the recording stage is very helpful, but for him it does not need to be absolutely stellar, just good enough for him to get the sense of it to where he can make comments about what he is liking and not liking.

I suspect this middle ground is where most filmmakers are at, but obviously it helps if you know your client or potential client well. If it is an orchestral simulation largely and it will be the final result, then presumably the bar is raised for the necessary quality.

Also however, the nature of the score is a big factor. I may want to do actions or horror films or trailers or library music with big bombastic music but if in fact what I am getting hired for is sitcoms or quirky contemporary indie films, purchasing that great new library of massive choirs singing in Latin may not make all that much sense as the scale of the score must be appropriate to the scale of the film. If I am hired to do a techno style score, buying that great new expensive string library may make less sense than purchasing a couple of new softsynths. But if we are doing trailers or library cues, we may indeed need to create a massive sound that can better be achieved with today’s libraries than those of years ago.

Tis a puzzlement. Clearly, there are no simple answers but here is my take on it. When a new appealing entry appears, if I am working on a score or submitting for one that I have a realistic chance of possibly getting I ask myself the following questions:

1. How much of my budget can I afford to use for new purchases so that I am amortizing the purchase? If it is for a project I do not have, how much will the purchases impact my finances if I do not get the project?

2. Will the product make the music sound better to the client and the end listener or to only to me and my fellow composers? If the latter, is that a worthy end unto itself? Maybe if it is $200, but what if it is $1200?

3. Will the product’s sound and capabilities inspire me to actually compose better music?

4. What is the product’s learning curve? Will it be quick and easy to integrate into my workflow or will it take an investment of time that could be better used for other purposes? Does the product feature workflow methods that will save me time in the long run?

In the end, I am composing for (or hoping to compose for) a project with the best music I can write that serves it and the clients, who I want to love my work and hire me again. I try to take my ego out of the decision-making and not worry about what other composers may think of the sounds I use. I factor in my finances, and make the best choices I can make for my projects and my life.

So what do you think?


  • October 1, 2010 @ 12:11 am

    You can only work within a realistic budget and work to the best of your capabilities. Your article offers some nice perspective.

  • October 6, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of endless upgrades, whether it’s synths/samplers, hardware, instruments, etc., instead of facing up to the task of writing quality music.

    I may print this article out to help mitigate future impulses.

  • October 7, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    I think alot of composers have got eyes too big for their systems as well – buying a host of new libs which their system can’t handle without another beefy outlay for more hardware. So I think that your system’s capability should also be a consideration. Great article :P

  • October 11, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

    I’ve stopped buying products that use propriety sample engines outside of the two I currently use. Sample libraries that overpower my system don’t make much sense either. Having said that, we will all be in trouble if the companies we purchased our libraries from were to go out of business.

  • Phillip Park
    October 13, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    I still use EW Symphonic Orchestra Gold as my core library for my works, even though many would today consider it “dated”. In my humble opinion, with a sample library of this quality in conjunction with educated programming and mixing, the result is satisfactory (solo instruments is a different story though). The more modern libraries do sound better, however I find the differences are harder to perceive unless two identical recordings are played back to back.

  • Dick the Flick
    October 20, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    I record orchestra’s and real musicians for films I score but where the better sample libraries are invaluable is papering over cracks! I noticed recently in an old Jerry Goldsmith score a couple of places where what used to be called a “string machine” was brought in to a scene to extend an orchestra cue when my guess is the cut was changed after the session.
    This exact same thing happened to me yesterday ……. we’re dubbing a film reel where a piece of CGI couldn’t be finished in time, so we changed a few seconds of score …. this was just 6 hours before the reel had to be finalled and the musos were recorded 2 months ago. I’ve replaced odd notes where i may have had performance problems. I suspect when the amazing JG was working on famous scores in the 70’s /80’s and 90’s the union may have taken issue with this but I find myself in scenarios now where we end up getting very close to the wire and a director will still decide to change his ideas about part of a cue …… and the only way to fix it is often with a sample library. Producers and directors are more inclined to change their minds about EVERYTHING at the last minute because with a computer yo can change you mind at the last minute ……. in its extreme I heard a story about a digital print being screened in cinemas and STILL the movie came back a re-work!

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