Fake vs. Real – Samples versus Live

This time I would like to focus on a topic which might be interesting to both film-/game-makers and musicians alike. It’s not a secret that with the evolution of technology, orchestral music generated on a computer is hardly distinguishable from a real live performance anymore, especially for non-musicians. However, I think most of you would agree that hiring musicians still makes a difference – but what is it exactly that makes “the real thing” superior to “the fake”?

Once the composer is committed to a project and the writing process begins, he or she is usually asked to create a so called “Mockup” for the director or an equivalent person in charge. The Mockup, which is basically a demo of the final music – and sometimes more – , is created on the computer with virtual instruments (sample libraries), which the composer already owned or specifically purchased for this individual project. There are several companies who produce and commercially sell such sample libraries, like the Vienna Symphonic Library, East West, Spitfire Audio, or Native Instruments, to name a few. This type of software is nowadays used by almost every modern media composer. However, the creation of a realistic sounding Mockup, which mimics the sound of a real orchestra as close as possible, is a craft of its own and takes a lot of effort and time to master.

As mentioned earlier, technology evolved dramatically within the last two decades. Processing power increased, virtual instruments improved both in terms of content and playability, and composers got more experienced using them. We are now at a point where a well-crafted Mockup is good enough to make it into a short movie, a TV-Show, game or even a feature film, without being noticed as “fake” by most of the average listeners. Further, the approach of having a Mockup prior to the expensive recording session has some real benefits for the directors, who can now evaluate the music early and ask the composer to make adjustments if needed. No more surprises at the scoring stage!

However, for projects with sufficient budget, like blockbuster movies or AAA games, the music is usually still always recorded with live musicians. But why is that? Well, because “not being noticed as fake” is not enough. The emotion and expression a musician, who has spent his whole life on mastering his or her instrument, can put into a musical performance is unparalleled. Musicians will adjust their playing to the individual melodies and the intention of the music, which samples simply cannot.

I made an attempt to showcase the difference between a Mockup and a live performance of a little piece I wrote.  Please compare (use good speakers or headphones) the following examples, the left one being the Mockup and the right one being the same piece recorded with a medium sized, 36 piece orchestra:


Real Orchestra

Judge for yourself! What is your impression? Where are the differences and what was your emotional response?

At this point, I should mention that here the live recording was layered on top of the Mockup, so basically in the right example you are hearing both samples and the live orchestra at the same time, although the samples (brass, woodwinds, strings) are much lower in volume in the mix. This method is also commonly used in film scoring, as it provides the wonderful emotional quality of the live players while the samples add a lush, big sound to the recording. Percussion, vocals and synths are all created with samples in both versions.

Even though I put a lot of effort into the Mockup, I feel that the live orchestra sounds so much better. While the version relying solely on samples does not sound bad at all, the live players have truly performed this piece of music, putting all their heart and soul into it and really brought it to life! If you listen closely, you can even hear the “air and depth” of the scoring stage! By the way, this track was recorded at The Bridge Recording Studio with some of the top session players in Los Angeles, conducted by Bruce Broughton.

I think this little example proves that a score recorded with real musicians is money well spent! And even for smaller productions with limited budgets, keep in mind that a single player layered on top of virtual instruments can really make a difference!

P.S.: Liftoff was written to one of my favorite scenes from the Disney Pixar Movie Up as part of the USC Screen Scoring program 2017. Here you can watch it synched to the picture!