Composing : Digital vs. Real? by Pierre Chlebaque

Pierre Chlebaque

Digital vs. Real?

Hello! I compose music using various software and some live sounds. I'd like to start using more actual instruments. But this leads me to my question.... Do any of you know what percentage of films use live orchestras (or simply real instruments) versus virtual instruments? And does it matter to a music supervisor if your music is digital when they are looking for music that will be played by an orchestra? Thanks!

Joel Irwin

I am not in the Hollywood scene so I will give you my 'perception' from the perspective of the Houston indie film community. >Do any of you know what percentage of films use live orchestras (or simply real >instruments) versus virtual instruments? here the electronic delivery is likely over 95%. I am not aware of any film here that has live instrumentation of any type. Occasionally, there is a feature produced that uses live musicians. Since the prices of live musicians here are very high because of the rates set by the AFM (the American Federation Of Musicians - the union), they hire musicians from eastern Europe. But that may account for probably less than 5 films in the last 10 years. Using a full live orchestra outside of an LA produced film is highly improbable because of the cost (tens of thousands if not higher). Most films, even the ones produced in Canada for TV such as Lifetime and Hallmark channels, have relatively small budgets and can not afford live musicians and when they do, they usually augment electronic instrumentation with a couple of instruments like a guitar or a cello. The TV audience, especially for the episodic films, have in my opinion no expectations for live instrumentation - its all about the action and so it is done almost always electronically. Another reason is time constraints - episodic works have extremely short fuses and a tv composer sometimes has one day to score the whole episode. >And does it matter to a music supervisor if your music is digital when they are looking >for music that will be played by an orchestra? I am not a music supervisor but have a friend who is (who also runs a well known site for studio music supervisors called aptly, www.musicsupervor.com). When they look for music, they are often interested in the track and how well it supports the action. Tracks are often vocal or bands and mostly live. Music supervisors don't as often get library orchestral tracks, they have the composer do that. My perception is that they care about the track and how it sounds and how well it fits in - and don't care, for example for a vocal track, based on whether the backup instrumentation is electronic or live. However, saying that, a live track will mostly 'sound better' and be more 'competitive'.

Joel Irwin

Brandi makes a great point and here is an excellent example from something I did back 9 years ago (2007). I wanted to write a big band piece but none of the bands I knew wanted to play it. So I scored it live and then mixed two live musician friends I knew with electronic instrument samples. Back then I didn't even add convolution/reverb to my pieces and this was the first time I tried scoring an electronic piece with a jazz drumset myself (and I really don't play drums :) ). 1. When you score with a piano, if you can use an instrument sample that matches one of your live instruments, it helps in the realism. Back 15 years ago I purchased a Yamaha P80 piano and when my pianist friend played it live, I recorded it via midi instead of through analog. I could do that since my Yamaha sample set, a Yamaha C7 (www.sampletekk.com/) sounded exactly the same. My friend played the right hand in the piece and I added the left hand to it in the score. 2. The guitar player was recorded and mixed live directly into the computer without a mic The piece can be heard at: http://www.icompositions.com/music/song.php?sid=122243 You can see here the first page of the score. The whole PDF is available upon request if you want to follow along. Back then I used to write much simpler, so this piece has no baritone sax part, and is limited to two trumpets and one trombone instead of the more expected 3 or 4 trumpets and 3 trombones.

Pierre Chlebaque

Thanks for the great info and ideas Joel and Brandi! I had assumed that live music was far more common. Wow. Gives me a little more hope, since I don't have access to a ton of real instruments. :) And I like your song, Joel! I've only just scratched the surface of Latin music, thus far.

Susan Lockwood

Ditto Brandi's comment... in my experience it's mostly virtual due to money constraints, but sometimes there's budget for a live player to "sweeten" the track. On my last commercial layout the producers budgeted studio time to bring in a trumpet player, so I delivered the trumpet score in PDF format along with my track for the session, then layered the (beautiful! live!) trumpet into the final mix.

Matt Milne

virtually none these days, a few composers blend databases with one or two live instruments, but that then leads to mis matches between the quant digital score, and the un quant player. ten years ago, only fox had a studio orchestra, don't know if that's still on the go. No other studio in the industry has their own orchestra, nobody can afford it. The reality is, that the glamorous view of a composer hand-writing music with pen and paper, and hiring a whole concert hall of musicians to perform it, died the day digital audio workstations came in. I've got a whole orchestra and choir on my desktop, and that's all I need to score award-winning films and games. I wrote a feature article for SimHQ about this very thing a few years ago, as the game I had scored featured 3 hours of orchestral music covering ww1, and neither myself or the studio had the millions of dollars it would have taken to live-produce it. I often hear east west samples in blockbuster films, those same films will do a big feature on how they live recorded the soundtrack, but the reality of what's there in the theatre is so very different.

Pierre Chlebaque

Thanks for the insights, Matt. To be honest, I find it a bit disheartening to hear that so few projects use live musicians. I guess it's the same reason I'm not crazy about movies that use tons of digital effects. No matter how realistic, there's something about finding out that it's not live or real-world that makes the film less impressive in my mind. Isn't that what makes the great films great, knowing that people actually pulled these things off despite the odds? Oh, well. I'm probably in the minority. :)

Jonathan Price

Hey Pierre, check out the live orchestra sites for F.A.M.E.'S, PARMA, Moscow Recordings, etc. to see which projects are using live orchestras. You'll see large budgets and small budgets...it all depends on whether the project/director values live performances or not. I've worked on shorts with a shoestring budget that included a budget for live instruments from inception, and I've worked on large budget projects that only budgeted for the composition fee, assuming the composer would produce everything in the box. Scores with live performers aren't dead, you just need to find producers who value them. 20 years ago, there wasn't an option, and filmmakers who didn't have an ear for music used live instruments because there really wasn't a choice (well, there was, but the live-emulation samples back then could turn off even a director with a tin-ear for music). Now there's a choice, but there are still producers out there who value the expressive-/musical-ness of live performers. Try to find those producers, and let your current producers know how important live musicians are to you. It might not be something they've explored.

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