Who Rules, Man or Machine?

If you are a young composer who wants to make a career scoring films and television shows, the simple reality is that with the budgets that are prevalent today, you will have to use sample libraries and computers a lot. If you break through to the higher echelon, you may still get the budget for an orchestra, especially if you are willing to go overseas to record. If you are not in that league but reasonably successful (a group that is vanishing) you may get the budget for a small ensemble of players that you may or may not wish to augment with samples, depending on the musical needs of the project, as determined by you and the director or producers.

This requires another whole skill set than traditional composition, orchestration, and conducting skills, as I discussed in previous columns. It also, however, raises some interesting philosophical issues that I would like to explore here.

First and foremost, how much do we need to compose to the strengths and weaknesses of the sample libraries and virtual instruments we are utilizing and how much do we attempt to bend them to the will of what our creative muse is dictating to us?

This is actually not a new issue, although the technology employed heightens the imperative of dealing with it. Traditionally, concert hall composers have always written what they hear in their heads and then tried to find players or orchestras that could play it, unless they were commissioned by a specific group, in which case they were unwise if they wrote things that were unplayable by that level of musicians.
Also traditionally, if you were a working film/composer, you generally recorded in cities like Los Angeles, New York, London, etc. where you had access to musicians of the highest caliber who could indeed play anything you composed that was actually achievable with the instruments.

Thanks to (or cursed by, depending on your point of view) the internet, this is no longer so. If you are networked to clients who like your work, it is entirely possible than you live in Podunk, Nowhere and still find some film/TV composing work. However, it is unlikely that you will have musicians of the same caliber, and it would be very foolish of you to write something that they simply cannot make sound good.

However with sample libraries and virtual instruments, even if you live in a media center, you now have to deal with this philosophical conundrum. No matter how many of them you own, no matter how skilled you are at programming and manipulating them, sooner or later you are going to be inspired to write something that works great with the picture that you know full well from your experience that good live players could make sound great that you cannot make sound great with your software equivalents.

Conversely, sooner or later you are going to be inspired to write something that works great with the picture that you know full well from your experience would be quite difficult to make sound good with even excellent live players in the allotted time that you can make sound great with your software equivalents, given some time, hard work, and skill with them. Of course, some libraries by design (EastWest’s Hollywood series, VSL’s libraries) are geared to give the user as many choices as possible where some are by design intended to be less complete but easy to work with and great sounding with less effort (Symphobia, Albion).

You may even choose to write something that live players simply cannot do that the samples and virtual instruments can, although most of the better orchestral library developers adhere fairly strictly to what the real guys do.

So we must each decide for ourselves how much we write to the samples. A lot of where one comes down on this issue has to do with self-perception.

Some film composers think of themselves as artists first, and film composers second. They believe that they, at least on occasion, have a somewhat unique artistic vision to contribute to a project and so that achieving exactly what they hear in their head is extremely important to them. Amongst current film composers, I think of Randy Newman and Danny Elfman as following into this category, although I have no idea if they also think of themselves that way.

Others think of themselves more as craftsman whose primary job is to serve the picture, and are less concerned with being unique and artistically pure, for want of a better term. The may be able to write competently in a number of styles and genres but do not have a unique compositional persona. I think of composers like Allan Silvestri or John Debney as following into this category, although again, I have no idea if they also think of themselves that way.

Personally, I hold neither in higher or lower regard. They are both valid and sincere to approaches to the challenge of scoring a film or TV show. I consider myself to fall in the latter category.

I think for the “artist” types of upcoming composers, having to write something different than what they hear in their head that they know they could achieve with real players is very painful and as a result they will go to rather elaborate lengths and invest a lot of time into trying to achieve it with the samples and virtual instruments. For the “craftsman” types, I suspect it is considerably easier to simply say to themselves, “Well that is not sounding very good, so I will write something else.”

Some of this comes down to temperament. There are guys who are perfectly content to work a great amount of time manipulating and programing who do not become bored to tears or unbearably frustrated and then there are those who can only do so for so long without throwing their computer out the window. The other major factor is scheduling. If you have three months to score a film, it is one thing. If you are scoring two or more dramatic television series and do not have a team of assistants to help you, even if you are the “artistic” type, you simply will not be able to spend that amount of time and still deliver your music by the required deadlines.

In the end, we can view these limitations as a prison, or merely the realities of what we must find away of coming to terms with as contemporary film composers. I wish all of you success in finding that fine line that is acceptable both to your musical soul and the requirements of your clients.


  • Erik M
    March 13, 2013 @ 2:23 am

    I think it’s time we all come to understand that the industry and technology is forever changed in the composing business. An endless sea of composers that can all do a decent job with an iMac and string library. Budgets are ancient news. Being a mid level composer is no more. Either your big time or your broke. Best of luck .

  • March 15, 2013 @ 6:59 am

    If you are correct (and I do not concede that you are) sad that “decent” has become an acceptable goal rather than striving for excellent.

  • March 27, 2013 @ 7:35 am

    Well written and thoughtful article, Jay. For several decades, I worked with live musicians, though not in the area of film scoring. So, I know what recorded live musicians sound like. A live instrument pushes air when being recorded, giving the recording a different (“fatter”) feel, unlike MIDI which, obviously, does not push air. And, frankly, writing music via computer can be a bit of a time-waster. I recall one A-list composer saying that “paper is a power tool,” meaning that much can be accomplished quickly in the hands of a professional composer with simply pen (pencil) and paper, as opposed to a digital audio workstation. But, our industry is what it has become, and we must strive to do the best for whatever project we are given, within the constraints of time and budget. And, yes, I agree with you that we should always strive for excellence in any case.

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