[a work in progress]
The topic met with great interest especially among the group of TV and film composers. In several surveys, young entrants and established composers, as well as emmy award winners or nominees, gave insights into the current working methods with virtual instruments and DAWs. Some TV and film composers agreed to further inquiries. Classical contemporary composers were involved only in small numbers.
Other results are from surveys and interviews with faculty members and tutors in the field of film scoring (film music schools, commercially-managed training institutions, individual specialized tutors).
In addition, there were surveys and interviews with developers of DAWs, notation programs, software instruments and other tools. Again, there was great interest in the topic; however, because of deadlines, international fairs, etc. unfortunately not always were the favorite contact available.
The evaluation of results is based on the workflow within the film music production. There is no given standard. Depending on the type of production, certain processes have proven successful. Three aspects almost always crop up: the collection of ideas, the preparation of mockups for coordination with the director, the main production phase after the determination of the cues. A possible scenario is described by the authors James Bellamy, Paul Thomson and Christian Henson.
Virtual instruments are most often used by TV, film or game music composers. With relatively little technical effort you can make music or sound to the moving picture today. The results, which often sound quite realistic, can then promptly be presented to a director or producer as mockups, and then produced in the studio, depending on the budget, or by the composers on their own. The use of software instruments in conjunction with DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) can help save time and save the budget. Almost all of the interviewed composers shed light on how limited the available time is and how well the production tools must be coordinated.
Stylistics and musical material were not assessed in this project.
Some participants attached importance to anonymity - quotes with attribution were authorized by the respective persons.
The information on this website requires basic knowledge on the following topics:
Film music production, composition and arrangement techniques, acoustics, instrumentation or orchestration, studio and recording technique.
It refers to speakers that are e.g. suitable for studio production, cinemas speakers, private home cinema or TV speakers, HIFI system speakers or headphones. This incomplete list shows how diverse the technical requirements must be in order to produce the most realistic sound images in the respective speaker types.
Anyone producing music or sound for speakers must be familiar with the phenomenon of sound generation. Acoustics, studio and recording techniques are usually offered during training at schools for film music or equivalent institutions. There are also professional training opportunities for these topics on the open market. Self-made composers should definitely keep their hands off the trial & 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 & Studioleiter]
Film music is only part of the soundtrack: other elements that overlay film music are e.g. sound effects and dialog. The final sound is not decided by the film composer. It is not unusual for directors to intervene at a late stage of completion: carefully expressed - a process involving many stakeholders and variables.
During the creative work, composers do not want to be bound by certain rules.
"How" composers get their ideas was not explored explicitly in this project. However, there were numerous hints in the answers: some have "that" directly in their head, some prefer work on paper, others try something out on the (acoustic) instrument or experiment from the beginning in the sequencer.
It was differentiated according to what kind of production it was: e.g. exclusive use of software instruments, hybrid production or studio production with acoustic instruments, ensembles or orchestras.
The most popular work surface while composing is the DAW.
The following statements apply in particular to younger-generation TV and film composers who ultimately produce the music themselves. There were different preferences for operating systems and products; reasons for this had to do with the personal way of working or certain technical features. However, some interviewees also stated that they sometimes work with several programs for corresponding work situations. Although there were many suggestions for future updates and special requests for possible further developments, the current technical capabilities of the DAWs were rated as very good overall.
Common arguments for using the DAW at this early stage of film music production were:
The number of TV and film composers working with music notation programs in this phase of film music production is much lower.
Arguments for the use of notation programs are, for example, that composers tend to be quite familiar with the notation interface, and that they favor the clear presentation especially for later studio productions with instrumentalists, ensembles or orchestras. Some also said that they do not even shy away from the double work that they would have to spend on later production with a DAW. Many interviewees are waiting for improvements in the collaboration between notation programs and DAWs. Some manufacturers are already working on it - with different approaches. The composers still have to be patient!
This group of composers also uses third-party plug-ins for their initial ideas, in addition to product sound libraries, which can then be used with DAWs as well. Moreover, some sound producers supply suitable sound sets or one buys sound sets from special providers and saves the time-consuming programming work. Above all, the critics of this working method complain about the extra time involved in using two different surfaces as well as the lack of possibilities to intervene in sound processing, although there are also new developments from the manufacturer side in this regard.
The use of notation editors within DAWs played no role in this phase.
Demos or mockups are almost always required for coordination with the directors. Also in this phase of the film music production there are differences in the way of working. While e.g. some composers work with synthesizer sounds, others already use audio recordings with vocals or other instruments. TV and film composers prefer demos using DAWs and software instruments. The reasons given are time savings and flexibility in sound editing and mixing. Often, composers can also reuse previously created templates in a modified way.
Composers who produce demos for later studio productions with classical orchestral instruments often prefer notation software in conjunction with orchestral libraries. Again, the time factor plays an important role, especially as the score and parts for the studio production are already in the works. Composers who favor this method sometimes work with templates or setups for specific instrumentations that are constantly being improved or modified. The sound results are sufficient even without much reworking for demo purposes.
The surveys showed that TV and film composers also prefer DAWs in this phase of film music production. Several manufacturers are working on the improved integration of notation software into DAWs, since many music makers do not want to go without the most perfect score possible. However, notation editors in DAWs are not favored by the interviewed TV and film composers. Who needs scores and parts, accesses the favored notation software, even if he has the double work. The import of scores from notation programs via MIDI or XML in DAWs is possible, but requires rework. In addition, the material for the further production is at most a start. In the future, it should be possible to import entire templates including virtual instruments in DAWs. Manufacturers pointed out in interviews that their products (DAW and notation software) are not only being developed for TV and film composers. The group of users is considerably larger and the wishes in the forums are immense.
Starter bundles: "full orchestra"
Prices: under 100 EUR
That may be enough for a demo. Some composers even favor such products for the first phaese of production.
Special packages to complete orchestral libraries
Pricese: 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 join together and develop their own libraries. The advantage for the composers - their sounds can only be heard in their productions. This is not a mass product.
Note: this is about the pure samples, as offered by the manufacturers. There is a wide range of sound libraries on the market, which have very different intentions, ranging from simple single instruments to very handy packages with common articulations to libraries with typical Hollywood sound or orchestral instruments recorded naturally on scoring stages, packages with extraordinary articulations towards the best possible recorded sounds. The surveys showed that the choice of individual instruments or entire libraries depends on the personal taste of the composer or the director. And taste can be argued!
of the interviewed composers stated that they are familiar with instrumentation and that it is important to them how realistic the sounds are.
However, according to the survey, the optional equipment of soundlibraries goes far from one another: they range from "as simple and good-sounding as possible" to "unsmoothed sound", away from the "Hollywood Standard".
Many of the interviewed TV and film composers are no longer satisfied with offered standard sounds. The desire for individual sounds and unusual playing techniques is growing.
Some manufacturers have already reacted to this. But there are also composers who use self-produced samples. Another possibility mentioned was that you could "assemble" instruments yourself 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 causes problems because of the different recording techniques: some composers have reported problems when layering instruments.
"... Because I am somewhat of an "old school" type composer, I do not use my DAW the way a lot of younger composers do. I find it unfortunate that the world of DAWS has had so much influence in the way composition is done. In other words, a lot of composers write what sounds good on a DAW rather than what is possible to do with live players. Prime example - before DAWS and throughout the history of orchestral music, the strings were the busiest section of the orchestra - many composers today only have sustained notes (footballs or goose eggs, as they are derogatorily called) in the strings and all the movement or propulsion is in the percussion and keyboards. The entire tradition of orchestral writing has changed, except for the old school guys like John Williams. Has the music gotten better or worse? I suppose that taste plays a role here, but I know that the musicians are pretty bored with the parts they have to play a lot of the time..."
Emmy-award winning composer, arranger and sought-after educator, 2017
"The production work ... is first and foremost musical work and therefore requires musical skills. It is a serious mistake to believe that high-quality sample-based orchestral music productions ... can be "programmed" - above all, they are designed to be musically high-quality. Without this basic requirement, all the technology is worthless. "
"My own methods, which seem unconventional from the outside, apart from their own workflow are primarily there to stand out from mainstream sound. With a bit of experience, you can recognize one or the other library from distance, which is basically not reprehensible, but makes sounds very interchangeable. Personally, I try that as well, whether through my own sampling or through special instrumentation, such as the mix of synths and orchestra. "
"The so-called" standard players "are not state-of-the-art ... New concepts are already being built on the player architecture."
"It's annoying that different library manufacturers use different controllers for the same parameters, so while CC01 is mostly used for dynamics, some manufacturers also use CC11."
"Different libraries have different sample triggers – why can’t there be a standard for pizzicato across all string libraries?"
"Uneven tuning (440 vs. 442 or 443 Hz) in the various plug-ins and extreme level differences of samples…"
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 browsed their available sound libraries for suitable sounds for a specific situation. For instance, ready-made melodic lines with different sounds are often "tried and tested", rather than the other way round, a melody line being composed for a specially selected instrument. Lecturers in film scoring training then occasionally use the term "lack of imagination". There are also counterarguments, which say that you can just unexpectedly find the ideal sounds when browsing. Ultimately, it also depends on which libraries a composer has at his disposal and how much time he is planning to search for.
Video portals such as YouTube or Vimeo have a large number of tutorials on a wide variety of work processes during music production; including many helpful posts from users, but also videos of "self-proclaimed" specialists. The information content fluctuates very much! (Main) manufacturers offer their own channels with product videos, but also instructions for specific scenarios. Despite search function, it often takes some time to find usable material. Furthermore, learning platforms for film scoring, e.g. ThinkSpaceEducation offer numerous videos, tutorials and interviews in addition to their paid offers. There are also e-learning providers such as Lynda, who offer courses lasting several hours to work with specific products or deal with higher-level topics such as "editing and mixing". This offer is free for many universities. Otherwise you can inform yourself about the offer using a free trial access.
I create a separate track for each articulation (for example, legato | staccato | pizzicato, etc.) and play the music with the MIDI keyboard.
I play the music with the MIDI keyboard; I add keyswitches later in the MIDI Editor or Score Editor.
I play the music with the MIDI keyboard (real-time or step-by-step), with one hand playing the corresponding keyswitches.
I play the music with the MIDI keyboard and then edit articulations using Expression Maps in the MIDI Editor.
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.
I play the music with the MIDI keyboard and then edit the articulations using Expression Maps in the Score Editor.
Note: Expression Maps are a Steinberg® technology. Not all composers use this brand. However, the technology was missed by some respondents within their favored products.
Respondents could make comments on the cooperation between software instruments and DAWs in other text fields. Regardless of the selected operating system or the favored DAW came out very differentiated answers. The fact that this project is not about the evaluation of products, we do not publish details. Tests showed that the most common criticisms or wishes for future versions are also listed in the respective user forums.
"The maps are often not programmed properly or you use a DAW that does not support it (eg Logic, Pro Tools, Studio One etc.) Many manufacturers (unfortunately) do without the current VST3 format, here it would be possible to automatically extract maps from a loaded instrument."
"All the help procedures, all the automatisms, all the "things" that are repeated over and over again are music killers. It's probably because you want to do everything quickly today."
"In my productions with samples, there is no note that does not get any small change from the previous one with the mouse - no repetition with copy & paste, which also distinguishes professional productions from others."
"The whole thing is that neither Expression Maps nor anything else can take away the work of the actual musical design.The best DAW and the best sample library will make for you just as little music as the highest quality Steinway grand piano will play on its own."
"The idea behind it is good; but working [with Maps] in the key editor or score editor is not yet perfect and sometimes very confusing ... Not for all Libraries exist suitable maps. I mostly work with separate tracks."
"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 favored the simultaneous input of keyswitches when playing the music. For this purpose, various reasons have been mentioned, e.g. also had to do with the size of the input device or position and division of keyswitches. It was also often criticized that the key assignment is very different, sometimes even within the same library. Some respondents wanted flexible keyboard layout. When working with keyswitches, the subsequent input by keyboard or mouse was preferred by the respective respondents.
from the perspective of composers, instructors and producers
The polls listed more points of criticism than positive reviews.
This says nothing about the frequency of use in practice.
"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 project, the name Hans Zimmer appeared in many different contexts. Above all, the templates typical of his work inspire respect for many composers and obviously encourage imitation. Claas Tatje wrote in "Die Zeit" (January 2015) about the "vampire at the mixing console" an article about Zimmer's film music company [go to article - in German language].
Working with templates consisting of several thousand (!) tracks is possible with current DAWs and is not uncommon today. For the surveys and interviews, setting up and working within the templates played an important role from the perspective of the composers. Videos and tutorials (to be found on YouTube for example under the search term "orchestra template") show how "easy" that can be realized in practice. However, the number and length of the comments of the professional composers showed that this subject requires a lot of training and experience. It is not unusual for composers to seek professional advice or find specialists who create templates for their own purposes. There are tutors or small companies on the market who are specialized in this subject and help film composers save a lot of time.
Marc Jovani wrote an article on the site of www.cinematiccomposing.com on this topic [go to article].
"The most time needs the initial setup, so that the libraries work exactly as I want. But that's more of a necessity to ensure an optimal individual workflow."
"Steps that you have done during the mix (share of sends, volume, etc.) can not be undone [in my DAW] via Ctrl + Z."
“My only complaints are load times and some plugins/ libraries that aren’t coded well and have issues with stability.”
"Disabling different midi tracks for memory optimization in the template, you just do not need, is possible, but only for instrument tracks. But I like to work with ... instances with 16 patches / instruments in each, routed to the corresponding midi channels… Disabling midi tracks is not yet possible."
"Order is half of life!"
If you need many tracks, you need to keep overview of the big picture. A three- to four-part instrumental set quickly spreads over a multiple of tracks. The manufacturers of the DAWs deliver new features over and over again, thereby optimizing the workflow. However, the best search options of a DAW use little, if e.g. the track designations are created unsystematically by the user or they follow the names of samples.
"Order is half of life". Those attending a course on "Mixing & Producing" will find out in one of the first sessions.
Interviews with users showed that there are many different ways of working. That's why the surveys did not include 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.
Manufacturers invest a lot of money in the production of their samples. They offer music creators a source material that can be used both in its original form, but also in modified form through the use of the corresponding players. Depending on the player architecture or other attached tools, the behavior of the sounds can be influenced via MIDI controllers - "in the extreme case beyond recognition".
A studio director wrote that using the virtual instruments is not a problematic affair. The danger is that it is often believed that the mere use of virtual instruments can replace musical skills, knowledge and sensitivity. It is not so!
It was also criticized by studio technicians that, unfortunately, much too often without proper technical knowledge, the elaborately produced sounds are manipulated.
"The sense of sound can go so far that an orchestration should not appear colorful at all, but on the contrary: "bald and colorless”. That depends on the specifically desired tonal-expressive character of a piece. As “bald and colorless as possible” can be given on occasion just the right thing, as "colorful as possible" on occasion can be completely wrong." [Composer, Arranger & Lecturer]
"You should always try to create new colors and leave your own scent mark ... Otherwise, you sink in the uniformity."
"However, composers and arrangers should always work on their personal sound concept. If this is stunted or lost, the use of virtual instruments will not help."
The difficulty in the production is due to the general sound behavior of instruments: the shorter the sound information, the more realistic is the result is. But this is different with longer sounds or sound surfaces: reasons for this are e.g. variable behavior of the dynamics, subtle changes in the vibrato, etc. Here you can see the advantages of the DAWs. The production process becomes more time-consuming the slower and more fluctuating the music is, and the more exposed e.g. strings are especially in the solo section.
"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]
"Sometimes the compressor is needed, because the industry requires a special loudness level: under a certain volume, nothing works - otherwise the listener or viewer switches off ..."
„Acoustic orchestras do not blend the same way that live players do. Techniques such as having a low chord in the low brass doubled with the low strings sounds glorious in a live setting and not so great using samples. The way one has to orchestrate an electronic demo and then re-orchestrate for a live ensemble are similar but not exactly the same. In some instances they can be quite different.“
"Assertiveness, hierarchy and position of the instruments often have to be "adjusted". Only then deviations are easily possible."
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. Not infrequently therefore own sounds are developed.
It is not without reason that sample producers like to present demos with impressive music, for example to action scenes, drama or fantasy. Such (often elaborately produced) demos are often used as a basis for own projects - which is not reprehensible at first. However, it is quite noticeable that you get to hear certain orchestrations over and over again in slight modifications. Not quite innocent of these stereotypes are also bundles with ready-made sequences for strings, winds or percussion, which slow down any creativity and exhaust their possibilities soon. For learning or for beginners, these products are helpful - rather not for professionals.
producers are happy to demonstrate that their products can even
"copy" classical compositions. In plain language: with most
providers, this intention goes wrong. Either a selected piece was unsuitable
for the sample library or the production failed for a variety of reasons.
The question of whether it makes any sense to compete with a CD recording of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is not discussed within this project!
Often it is also overlooked that quite realistic-sounding productions required a tremendous amount of work. On the other hand, you will find virtually no information on the demosong pages.
in the film scoring business reported that these are instruments that you have
to learn first.
You also have to practice with them to get good sounding results. To write a really good sounding solo line you need some years of training and then a lot of experience.Demosongs from different libraries give different quality categories in his opinion: from extremly bad (people who hardly understand any of it or total beginners), then average mockups (reasonably musically elaborated demos), then a very high-quality area, in which the production skills are positively visible and finally the absolute high-end area, where in the double blind test even experts (musicians and producers) have to give up. This requires a high degree of experience.
What is suitable for editing?
Samples from different manufacturers are recorded very differently. There are string sounds that sound "absolutely dry” and "lean". For the marketing this is initially a deterrent. However, this quickly turns out to be an advantage for further processing. Because the reverse case, “too wet" samples can be badly reworked for various reasons. But this always has to do with the taste of the composer & producer, who chooses the samples.
If you master it, of course you can do it. Only then the sound does become individual. No composer has to justify why he overlays his string samples with synthetic sounds.
However, if one tries to imitate the sound of a classical symphony orchestra, it would certainly make sense to orientate oneself to its sound aesthetics.
And the expert will perhaps smile when during a fortissimo tutti suddenly string harmonics have the same intensity as trumpets - this is only possible in the virtual orchestra.
[work in progress]summary