Evaluation of surveys and interviews

[a work in progress]

An inventory

Recent contributions from practice

The project generated a lot of interest, particularly among TV and film composers. In a series of interviews, both young and established composers, including Emmy Award winners and nominees, gave insights into their current working methods with virtual instruments and DAWs. A number of TV and film composers were available to answer further questions. Classical contemporary composers were represented in smaller numbers.

Further results come from surveys and interviews with lecturers and tutors in the field of film scoring (film music training centres, commercially managed training institutions, individual specialised tutors).

Finally, there were surveys and interviews with developers of DAWs, notation programs, software instruments and other tools. Again, there was a great interest in the subject, but unfortunately, due to diary commitments, international trade shows, etc., the preferred interview partners were not always available..

The evaluation of the results is based on the workflow within film music production. There is no fixed standard. Depending on the type of production, there are certain processes. Three aspects are almost always present: The collection of ideas, the preparation of proposals for coordination with the director (mockups), the actual production phase after the cues have been determined. One possible scenario is described by authors James Bellamy, Paul Thomson and Christian Henson. James Bellamy, Paul Thomson und Christian Henson 


Virtual instruments are mainly used by composers for television, film and game music. With relatively little technical effort, it is now possible to create music, sounds or noises for moving images. The results, which often sound quite realistic, can then be presented to a director or producer as a mock-up and, depending on the budget, produced in the studio or by the composers themselves. The use of software instruments in conjunction with DAWs (digital audio workstations) can help save time and money. Almost all composers interviewed noted how tight the time available is usually and how well production tools need to be coordinated.

Stylistics and musical material were not assessed in this project.

Some participants stressed the importance of anonymity. Quotes with attribution have been authorised by the individuals.

The information on this website requires a basic knowledge of film music production, composition and arrangement techniques, acoustics, instrumentation and orchestration, studio and recording technology.

"The sound we're talking about here always comes from speakers"

This refers to loudspeakers that must be suitable for studio production, for example, loudspeakers for the cinema auditorium, loudspeakers for the private home cinema or TV, loudspeakers for the hi-fi system or headphones. This is not an exhaustive list, but it shows how different the technical requirements must be in order to create the most realistic sound possible with each type of loudspeaker.

Anyone who produces music, sound or effects for loudspeakers must be familiar with the phenomenon of sound production. Acoustics, studio and recording technology are usually taught as part of the curriculum at film music schools or similar institutions. Professional training in these areas is also available on the open market. Do-it-yourself composers should definitely keep their hands off the 'trial and error' method - you can hear the shortcomings!

"They use high-quality microphones, create ideal recording conditions and some productions sound like they were produced with a bad MIDI module from the 80s."  [Tutor & Studio Manager] 

Film music is only one part of a film soundtrack: Other elements that overlay the film music are background noise, sound effects and speech. It is not the film composers who decide on the final sound of a film. It is not uncommon for directors to make changes late in the production of a film: a process with many participants and variables, to say the least.

The first phase

Collecting ideas, experimenting etc.

"Creativity at your fingertips?"

During the creative work, composers do not want to be bound by certain rules.

The project did not explicitly ask "how" the composers came up with their ideas. However, there are many clues in the answers: For some, "it" happens directly in their heads, others prefer to work on music paper, while others try out (acoustic) instruments, keyboards or experiment with the sequencer from the beginning.

A distinction was made according to the type of production: e.g. exclusive use of software instruments, hybrid production or studio production with acoustic instruments, ensembles or orchestras.

Reasons for this are ...

No. 1: Digital Audio Workstation

The most popular workspace for composing is the DAW. The following statements apply especially to the younger generation of TV and film composers who ultimately produce the music themselves. In terms of operating systems and products, there were different preferences based on personal working methods or certain technical features. However, some respondents also stated that they sometimes work with several programmes for specific work situations. Although there were many suggestions for future updates and specific requests for possible further developments, the current technical capabilities of DAWs were rated as very good overall.
Common arguments in favour of using a DAW at this early stage of film music production included:

  • Synchronisation with the film
  • Easy integration of virtual instruments
  • Access to key parameters
  • Ability to work with the production tool from the start.
No. 2: Notation Software

The number of TV and film composers who use notation programs at this phase of film music production is much smaller.
Arguments in favour of using notation programs included the fact that composers are generally familiar with the notation interface and prefer the clear presentation, especially for later studio production with instrumentalists, ensembles or orchestras. Some also stated that they did not mind the double workload for later production with a DAW. Many respondents therefore expressed a desire for improvements in the way notation programs and DAWs work together. Some manufacturers are already working on this - with different approaches. Composers need to be patient! This group of composers uses third-party products (plug-ins) for their initial ideas, in addition to internal sound libraries, which can then also be used with DAWs. Some sound manufacturers provide suitable soundsets, or you can buy soundsets from specialist suppliers and save yourself the time-consuming work of programming. The main criticisms of this way of working are the extra time involved in using two different interfaces and the lack of control over sound processing, although new developments are being made by the manufacturers. The use of notation editors in DAWs did not play a role in this phase.

behind it Paper & Pen etc.

During this phase, a few composers attached great importance to working with music paper and pencil. These were either (renowned) composers who did not need to work out and produce their works alone, or composers who were unable to visualise certain sonic phenomena either on the notation surface or in the DAW.

The next phase

Producing demos, creating mock-ups etc.

"It's a constant process, which means an existing setup is constantly evolving."

Demos or mock-ups are almost always required for coordination with the directors. There are also differences in working methods at this phase of film music production. While some composers work with synthesiser sounds, for example, others already integrate audio recordings with vocals or other instruments. 

TV and film composers prefer to create demos using DAWs and software instruments. The main reasons given are time savings and flexibility in sound selection and design. Composers can also often reuse previously created templates in a modified form.

Composers who create demos for later studio productions with classical orchestral instruments like to use notation programs in conjunction with orchestral libraries. Again, the time factor is important, especially as the score and parts for the studio production are already in progress. Composers who prefer this method sometimes work with templates or setups for certain instrumentations, which they improve or modify over and over again. The sound results are good enough for demo purposes even without extensive post-processing.

The production

(partly divided into further processes)

Surveys show that TV and film composers also prefer DAWs at this phase of film music production. Various manufacturers are working on better integration of notation programs in digital audio workstations, as many music creators do not want to do without a perfect score. However, notation editors in DAWs are not favoured by the TV and film composers surveyed. Those who need scores and parts use their favourite notation program, even if it means double the work. Importing scores from notation programs into DAWs via MIDI or XML is possible, but requires post-processing. Furthermore, the material for further production is only a start. In the future, it should be possible to import entire templates, including virtual instruments, into DAWs.  In the interviews, the manufacturers pointed out that their products (DAW and notation software) are not only designed for TV and film composers. The circle of users is much wider and the requests in the forums are immense.

Virtual instruments

The project focuses on virtual orchestral instruments
(a possible selection)

Starter bundles: "full orchestra"
Prices: below 100 EUR
That may be enough for a demo. Some composers even prefer these products for the early phaese of production.

Special packages to complete orchestral libraries
Prices: about 200 EUR to...

Manufacturers offer products for various applications.

Extended orchestral libraries
Prices: partly over 10.000 EUR

Millions of samples with a great variety of articulation.

The sounds of high-level film composers
not available on the open market

Top film composers form alliances and have their own libraries developed. The advantage for the composers is that their music can only be heard in their productions.

Note: This is first of all about the pure samples offered by the manufacturers. There is a wide range of sound libraries on the market, with very different intentions: from simple individual instruments, to packages with the most common articulations, to libraries with typical Hollywood sounds, or orchestral instruments recorded naturally on scoring stages, to packages with unusual playing styles, to sounds recorded as perfectly as possible. The interviews revealed that the choice of instruments or libraries depends on the composer's personal taste or the director's brief. And taste is a matter of personal opinion!

"... I know what it is going to sound like in my head – a DAW rarely sounds like a real orchestra unless one spends a lot of time really working on each individual note..."

Around 75 % of the composers surveyed said they were familiar with the instrumentation. For them, it is important that the sounds are realistic. However, according to the survey, the desires for sound libraries vary widely, ranging from "as simple and good-sounding as possible" to "unsmoothed" sound, away from the "Hollywood uniformity". Many of the TV and film composers surveyed are no longer satisfied with the standard sounds on offer. There is a growing demand for individual sounds and unusual playing techniques.

Some manufacturers have already reacted to this. However, there are also composers who use self-produced samples. Another option was mentioned: "making your own instruments" for certain situations. This involves combining samples from different manufacturers: e.g. violin pizzicato from manufacturer A, violin legato from manufacturer B etc. In practice, this sometimes leads to difficulties due to different recording techniques: some composers reported problems when layering instruments.

Feedback from the surveys:

"Actually, it does not matter how you work - the main thing is, it sounds good!"

A note from a professional:

„... Too many times contemporary composers do not write to the strengths of the orchestra but rather to the strength of their samples.” 

More than half of the respondents first browse the sound libraries available to them to find suitable sounds for a specific situation. They like to 'try out' ready-made melody lines with different sounds, rather than designing a melody line for a specially selected instrument. Teachers of film music sometimes refer to this as a "lack of imagination". There are also counter-arguments that the ideal sounds can be found unexpectedly while browsing. Ultimately, it depends on the libraries available to a composer and how much time he or she has to spend searching.

How to 'enter' music?

Video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo offer a wide range of tutorials on various aspects of music production, including many helpful contributions from users as well as videos from "self-proclaimed" experts. The information content varies greatly! (Major) manufacturers offer their own channels with product videos, but also tutorials for specific scenarios. Despite the search function, it often takes some time to find useful material. In addition, film scoring learning platforms such as ThinkSpaceEducation offer a variety of videos, tutorials and interviews in addition to their paid services. There are also e-learning providers, such as Lynda, that offer multi-hour courses on working with specific products or on broader topics such as editing and mixing. These courses are free at many universities. Elsewhere, you can find out more about what is available through free trial access.


Method 1

I create a separate track for each articulation (for example, legato, staccato,  pizzicato etc.) and play the music with the MIDI keyboard.


Method 2

I play the music with the MIDI keyboard; I add keyswitches later in the MIDI Editor or Score Editor.


Method 3

I play the music with the MIDI keyboard (real-time or step-by-step), with one hand playing the corresponding keyswitches.


Method 4

I play the music with the MIDI keyboard and then edit articulations using Expression Maps in the MIDI Editor.


Method 5

I play with the dominant articulation in real time and write a CC automation for the articulation changes in the instrument track | A mixture of different tracks, e.g. 1. long, 2. short and there via keyswitches between different articulations, I edit the music with the mouse | I play the music including articulation change and controller rides live as far as possible.


Method 6

I play the music with the MIDI keyboard and then edit the articulations using Expression Maps in the Score Editor.

Expression Maps, Keyswitches & Co.

One of several possibilities

The best method is ...?

Note: Expression Maps are a Steinberg® technology. Not all respondents used this brand. However, some respondents did not include this technology among their favourite products. 

Additional text boxes allowed respondents to comment on the interaction between software instruments and DAWs. Regardless of the chosen operating system or preferred DAW, the responses were very varied. As this project is not a product review, the details will not be published. Random samples showed that the most common criticisms or requests for future versions were also reflected in the respective user forums.

"The basic technique of expression maps is well-developed, but unfortunately has not become standard ..."

"Here the manufacturers of virtual instruments would have to ensure a better adaptation ..."

"A really next step will probably be to construct algorithms that for the most part transform the sample selection and editing in a very human way ..."

"To be honest, I am glad that there is no absolute standardization, that would lead to a pabulum that would undermine the "principles" of the real orchestra and legitimize musical mischief."


Keyswitches are used to switch between articulations. Not all respondents were in favour of using keyswitches simultaneously when playing music. Various reasons were given for this, including the size of the input device or the position and layout of the keyswitches. There was also frequent criticism of the fact that key assignments varied widely, sometimes even within the same library. Some respondents wanted a more flexible keyboard layout. When working with keyswitches, participants preferred to use the keyboard or mouse for subsequent input.

Keyswitches: pro and cons 

from the perspective of composers, instructors and producers


"To try out articulations of an instrument it is basically a popular method, especially because you do not have to create any extra tracks - you can use the keyboard or the mouse to edit differentiated sequence so quickly ..."

"Keyswitches are displayed in the notation editor of the (most) DAWs, which seriously affects the score, and some manufacturers have already gotten the problem under control."
"... When working with keyswitches, no balancing between articulations is possible, which can lead to very unnatural volume ratios."
"You can usually only play one articulation per instrument, and polyphone keyswitches need special tools for common standard players, which are only available for a few products."
"I would like to have access to the continuous controllers (CC) for production because it's the best way to edit ..."

The fine tuning

The real production process

Working with templates and setups

The "Hans Zimmer Method"

The name Hans Zimmer appeared in many different contexts during the course of the project. Above all, the typical templates of his work inspire respect in many composers and obviously inspire imitation. Claas Tatje wrote an article in "Die Zeit" (January 2015) about Zimmer's film music company entitled "Der Vampir am Mischpult". [go to article (german)]

​Working with templates consisting of several thousand (!) tracks is possible with current DAWs and is not uncommon today. In the surveys and interviews, setting up and working with templates played an important role from the composers' point of view. Videos and tutorials (e.g. on YouTube, search for "orchestral template") like to show how "easy" this is in practice. However, the number and length of comments from professional composers show that this topic requires a great deal of training and experience. It is not uncommon for composers to seek professional advice from specialists or to have templates created for their purposes. There are tutors or small companies on the market that specialise in this subject and save film composers a lot of valuable time.

Marc Jovani wrote an article on the site of on this topic [go to article].

Feedback from surveys:

How to keep the overview?

"Order is half of life!"

If you need a lot of tracks, you need to keep an overview. A three- or four-part instrumental ensemble can quickly spread across many tracks. DAW manufacturers are constantly adding new features to optimise the workflow. However, even the best DAW search options are of little use if, for example, the track names are created by the user in an unsystematic way, or possibly according to sample names.

"Order is half the job. Anyone attending a Mixing & Producing course will learn this in one of the first sessions. 

Interviews with users have shown that there are many different ways of working. We have therefore refrained from describing a typical workflow.

Virtual instrument manufacturers are mainly focused on developing and perfecting their libraries; the competitive pressure on the market is too great. The user has no choice but to learn the intricacies of each player in order to, for example, create automation processes with his own DAW. For several years now, software developers have been looking for ways to further simplify the interaction between DAW and sound library.

In 2021, Presonus released an interface for Studio One that detects which articulations are supported by the currently loaded preset in a virtual instrument plug-in. This Sound Variation API has been made available to plug-in and host developers. Time will tell if it becomes standard.

The Vienna Sound Library's Synchron Player and Studio One now work together intuitively. The Studio One Toolbox can also be used to convert Cubase Expression Maps or Cakewalk Instrument Definitions into SoundVariations for Studio One.

Babylonwaves has done even more. Their Art Conductor ... is the most comprehensive collection of articulation sets on the market. It consists of over 10,000 templates for all major libraries including Spitfire, Vienna Symphonic Library, Eastwest, Orchestral Tools, 8dio and Cinematic Instruments. These sets are available in DAWs for Logic, Cubase, Studio One, Digital Performer and Cakewalk (from 2023). Switching between articulations is becoming more and more convenient - there is no need to reserve individual tracks for each articulation, which would improve clarity within the DAW.

Up to version 3.x, Noteperformer by Wallander Instruments provided alternative sound libraries in addition to the programme's own sounds of the notation programmes Sibelius, Finale and Dorico, which fit the most important programme-internal articulations (e.g. pizz., col legno, glissando etc.). From version 4, it is also possible to load VST3 plug-ins from certain manufacturers directly into one of the three notation programmes - without Sound Sets, Expression Maps or Human Playback Rules. These include selected editions from Spitfire Audio, Orchestral Tools, CineSamples, Cinematic Studio Series, EastWest, Steinberg, Audio Imperia or the Vienna Symphonic Library. 

pure sound vs. 'mixing & editing'

How much should / can / may be tinkered with the pure sample?

Sound library manufacturers invest a lot of money in the production of their samples. They provide music creators with source material that can be used in its original form, but also in modified form through the use of appropriate players. Depending on the architecture of the player or other tools used, the behaviour of the sounds can be influenced via MIDI controllers - "in extreme cases to the point of unrecognisability".

A studio manager wrote that the use of virtual instruments is not dangerous in itself. The danger lies in the fact that it is often believed that the mere use of virtual instruments can replace musical skill, knowledge and empathy. This is not the case!

There was also criticism from the studio sector that, unfortunately, far too often the elaborately produced sounds are manipulated without any real technical knowledge.

"The production work with these tools is first and foremost musical work and therefore requires musical skills ... Without this basic requirement, all the technology is for nothing."


The difficulty in production lies in the general sound behaviour of the instruments: The shorter the sound information, the more realistic the result. However, this is not the case with long sounds or surfaces: reasons for this include variable dynamic behaviour, subtle changes in vibrato, etc. This is where the advantages of DAWs come into play. The slower and more variable the music, and the more exposed the strings, especially in the solo section, the greater the production effort.

"If you want to make music as close to reality as possible with samples, you need to be familiar with the musical instruments used, and my recommendation is to attend at least one lesson each for a string, woodwind and brass player. The professional musician should demonstrate the most important articulations and should talk about the difficulties. At least that's how you learn that a real violin can not play a looped [material] [or] that wind instruments can not play an infinite legato without breathing." [studio manager] 

It should sound different than the others ..."

Finding your personal sound?

“Then the music is produced to the taste of the director – in the mainstream manner or just once completely out of line."

Just as TV and film composers develop an idea or concept for the music to film, they search for and collect sounds and samples that match the style of their music and production. Developing their own sounds is not uncommon.

How do you find your personal handwriting?

It is not without reason that sample producers like to offer demos with impressive music, e.g. for action, drama or fantasy scenes. Such (often highly produced) demos are often used as the basis for their own projects, which is not a bad thing. What is noticeable, however, is that certain instrumentations are heard over and over again, with slight variations. Not entirely innocent of these stereotypes are the packages of ready-made sequences for strings, winds or percussion, which slow down any creativity and whose possibilities are quickly exhausted. These products are useful for learning or for beginners - but not for professionals.

Sample manufacturers like to claim that their products can "even" reproduce classical compositions. To put it plainly: Most of them fail. Either they choose a work that is not suitable for their sample library, or the production fails for various reasons.

The question of whether it makes sense to compete with a CD recording of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, is not discussed in this project!

What is also often overlooked is the enormous amount of work that goes into a realistic-sounding production. You will find almost no information about this on the demo song pages.

A lecturer in film scoring reported that these are instruments that have to be learnt. You also have to practise with them to get good sounding results. To write a really good-sounding solo line, you certainly need a few years of training and then a lot of experience. In his opinion, there are different categories of quality in the area of demo songs from different libraries: from grotty (people who hardly know anything about it or total beginners), then average mock-ups (reasonably musically elaborated demos), then a very high quality area where the technical production skills also stand out positively, and finally the absolute high-end area where even experts (musicians and producers) have to pass the double-blind test. This requires a high level of prior experience.

"Without equalizing, appropriate placement of the instruments, without performance shaping, the best DAW does not use much. You have to have learned that first - programs do not automatically do this work for you."

What is suitable for editing? 
Samples from different manufacturers are recorded very differently. There are string sounds that sound "dry as bread" and absolutely "lean" in the raw format. For marketing purposes, this can be off-putting. However, this quickly turns out to be an advantage for further processing. The reverse is also true: samples that are too "wet" are difficult to process in many ways. 

However, this is always down to the taste of the composer or producer who selected the sounds.

How much should / can / may be tinkered?

Once you have mastered it, you can do it, of course. Only then does the sound become individual. No composer needs to justify layering synthetic sounds over his string samples. 

But if you are trying to imitate the sound of a classical symphony orchestra, it makes sense to follow its aesthetics. 

And experts may smile when string harmonics suddenly have the same intensity as trumpets in a fortissimo tutti - that's only possible in a virtual orchestra.

Summary (Tips from practice)