Master Class – From Samples to Score

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From a purely technological point of view, it’s hard to imagine a better time to be composing music for motion pictures. Those of us who grew up striping VHS tape with SMPTE and trying to get it to lock up a MIDI-only sequencer are forever thankful for the ability to score video in a DAW that offers both audio and software instrument tracks. This month, we’re going to focus on the last item in that list: using software instruments, and more specifically, sample libraries, for film music. I’ll draw from both my own experiences and advice from award-winning NY-based commercial composer Fritz Doddy and from Ben Newhouse, Music Composition for Film and Television instructor at, the online continuing education division of Berklee College of Music.

Of course, scoring with samples is nothing new: The practice goes back to the days before mass-produced samplers, when top composers would spend enough money to buy a nice house on DAWs like the Fairlight and Synclavier—and earn it back in short order with all the work those systems generated.

Now most DAWs come with more content than anyone would ever be able to—or want to—use. Third-party libraries offer increasingly complex and realistic options to composers and producers. That’s all great, but with the number and size of the samples available in today’s top libraries, you can easily find yourself dealing with terabytes of sounds and thousands of presets. So, like a carpenter, the first step to any job is gathering your tools and knowing where they are.

Setting Up Even with today’s faster computers, film scoring demands a lot of system resources—especially from your hard drives. If at all possible, use separate drives for your system, samples, audio tracks, and video playback.

Managing the second element in that list—the samples—requires some pre-planning. Large software instrument collections like Native Instruments’ Komplete are a godsend for film scoring because they put so many sounds at your fingertips. But the content takes up a ton of disk space. The default location for all those gigabytes of samples is usually the system disk, but you can customize the installer to place the samples on an external volume (Figure 1).

Fig. 1. Managing samples requires pre-planning. Komplete, for example, lets you customize your installer to place samples on an external volume.

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This is easier if you use a desktop system with multiple drives, either internal to external. The “sounds” drive is always available. If, however, you’re like me and use a laptop for the bulk of your work, you need to use external drives, keep them handy, and—I say this from painful experience—keep them backed up.

In addition to the raw sample data, you’ve got to manage the presets that draw on those samples to create playable sounds. Most DAWs will remember the last settings you use on any software instruments you load—even on third-party plug-ins. But it’s still a good idea to save and name presets and store them within your sampler’s memory. Not only does this act as a kind of backup in case the DAW file gets corrupted (or you forget to Save As and overwrite a file by mistake); it also allows you to use the same sounds while migrating between DAWs or even when working on someone else’s system (assuming they have the same software).

Setting up a template within your DAW can help speed things along as well. My personal view is that the templates that come with most DAWs are a little overloaded with plug-ins to be useful. I prefer to start with a blank slate and load my own instruments based on the project, then modify that. Figure 2 shows an example using Logic Pro 9, with Kontakt, iZotope Iris, Logic’s own Sampler, and Addictive Drums all available. I’ve also made provisions for ReWire tracks from Ableton Live, Sibelius, and Reason. I may not use these, but having them available in the template means that I can easily bring them in, even after I’ve started writing and saving cues.

Note that the Arrange window is empty, save for the video track and a few markers. I don’t always know what I want to use before I start working, so the basic templates get modified as I write some rough material. Once I have a basic sense of what I’m going to want to use, however, I remove any MIDI and audio from the track and do a Save As with a blank slate. It just gives me a chance to go back to a starting point. At the same time, as soon as you write a cue, be sure to Save As with its name. I like to include something about the video scene in the file name. If I’m really being organized, I’ll even add a note about the location in SMPTE time: for example, 1_30_11_01_dialog_bed.logic. I create a master folder for each film and store the template, along with the files for each cue, within it.

Fig. 2. A Logic template for loading instruments based on your project.

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A template is useful because it not only saves time, but it helps you focus on a cohesive sound palette. Remember, with film music, your goal is almost always to either connect the listener to the project’s universe—or to disconnect them temporarily. Using too many different kinds of sounds in too many places will sound random. Instead, establish a range of instruments and then use variations within that range to keep the viewer connected.

Templates not only include the instruments you’re using, they can save the presets loaded into those instruments. But you may not want to rely on the template solely. “The biggest rule for sample library management is saving all Kontakt multis outside of the DAW session so I can open them on different versions of Kontakt depending on what studio I am working in,” says Doddy, whose credits as Creative Director of Elias Arts LLC include “Got Milk” and a recent commercial for the Verizon Cloud that relied heavily on sound libraries. “Even if you don’t have the original libraries, you have a record of the patches used, MIDI assignments, etc.,” he says.

Fig. 3. EastWest’s Hollywood Orchestra Woodwinds Platinum edition.

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Know the Instruments Today’s instrument libraries are amazing, and the best part is that the products available as I write this are likely to seem like stone tools in a couple of years. First, there’s the matter of storage: The ability to stream samples from hard drives means that there’s almost no limit to how long a note can sustain, or how many variations of a single pitch on a single instrument you can have.

When realism is your goal, the more samples per note, the better. The most obvious implementation of “more-really-is-more” is where velocity-switching is used to select among individual samples recorded at various dynamic levels. Humanizing algorithms can also randomly select individual samples within the same dynamic and pitch bands to create the kind of variation a real player might produce.

Drum sample libraries like Toontrack’s Superior Drummer and XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums have been go-to programs for me, for both song and scoring production. Part of what makes them so effective is the subtle variation they can produce even when playing a repeating MIDI pattern. They’re especially good when mated to MIDI libraries created by live drummers.

Similar levels of realism are available with pitched instruments—though you’ll need to learn how to harness these tools. Figure 3 shows the main screen for EastWest’s Hollywood Orchestra Woodwinds Platinum edition (which is so massive that it actually comes on its own ESATA hard drive). In this example, the preset uses alto key switching to access variations on an alto flute part. The lower full octave on the keyboard allows you to change the samples on the fly, while the gray shaded notes change the pitches. For some, this realtime control is ideal.

Doddy, however, prefers a two-stage approach when working with a complex library. Working under constant deadlines, he keeps things simple when he’s getting ideas down, then goes back and works with the samples to add the little details. “I’m not a big fan of key switching, as it pulls me out of the creative flow,” he says. “I try to start everything as simply as possible for sake of speed. For example, I’ll flesh out a melodic line for an oboe using a sustain patch, then I’ll go back and replace the short notes with an appropriate staccato/spicatto patch to give it realism and life.”

While it may be tempting to simply play parts that sound good to your ear, your score will be more convincing if you actually know something about the instruments and ensembles you’re trying to imitate. “Go listen to live music to pick up arrangement and orchestration tricks,” Doddy advises. “There’s a reason there’s usually only one piccolo player in an orchestra! There are a lot of violins. Violas? Not as many. Cellos? Even fewer. There are only a handful of basses. Mimic a real ensemble’s player count with your samples and it will feel more like the real thing.”

Some composers with classical training like to score using programs like Avid’s Sibelius and Notion Music’s Notion3 because they’re based on musical notation. Both programs can record performances via MIDI, come with impressive, multi-gigabyte sound libraries of their own, and can integrate with traditional DAWs via ReWire, which allows you to use them to score directly to video.

Fig. 4.Ableton Live’s Grain Delay is ideal for manipulating a sustain.

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Even if you’re like me—that is, not classically trained—notation software can be useful. Every project is based on the musical staff, and there are templates for both single instruments and ensembles. When you add an instrument, the program automatically assigns the appropriate samples to it—you don’t need to load a sampler per track and then load the correct preset, as you do with a DAW. This can be a pretty big time saver when you’re dealing with, say, a virtual chamber orchestra of 12–18 instruments. Also, the display can give you a heads up when you try to write outside of an instrument’s range, and if you spend some time getting to know about articulation and expression marks, you can “write in” some nuances to your score.

According to Newhouse, who also teaches orchestration at, it’s important to consider how samples and the acoustic instruments behave differently. “It takes no effort for a violinist to switch articulations, meaning they can alternate between staccato and tenuto with complete ease,” he explains. “But with MIDI sequencing, changing sample types requires an extra step, be it adding a key switch or switching to a new track.” As a result, it’s easy for MIDI orchestrators to bypass those techniques, especially when they’re under deadline.

If you want to get more out of your sample library, you can do the same thing you did when you were learning to play—practice. Take some time to get to know how the sampled instruments respond to controller input, velocity, etc. Try mapping some controllers of your own. But simple moves can add realism. “A mod wheel assigned to track or instrument volume can impart a lot of dynamics to a part, as opposed to moving the entire section/track up or down,” he says. “You can also mix articulations. With strings, I like to combine arco [bowed] and pizzicato [plucked] parts.”

But don’t just focus on the attack: Controllers can be used to ride a note as it sustains. “Variable decays are more challenging in the world of samples than in the acoustic world,” Newhouse says. “A trumpet player in the real world can change dynamics on a sustained note with complete ease. While holding a note, they can crescendo, decrescendo, remain level, or some combination of these dynamic changes. While using samples, we generally have access to many different decay types. Some samples have a level sustained sound, others crescendo, others decrescendo, and so on. However, once a sample is triggered, the decay of that sample is generally predetermined. If you want to change that decay, you have to add MIDI continuous controller data—be it volume, expression, modulation, or something else.”

It’s also important to spend time listening to the instruments in your sample library and get to know the details about their overall tones. Doddy says he chooses different collections based on the way the samples are recorded and the kind of processing he plans to do for each individual final mix. “I use all of the Native Instruments’ Kontakt factory libraries, LA Scoring strings [which runs under Kontakt], Abbey Road Keyboards for Reason, EastWest Symphonic Orchestra—especially woodwinds—Heavyocity Evolve, and Symphobia; the Sordino strings are just awesomely beautiful,” says Doddy, who runs Digital Performer, Ableton Live, and Reason under OS 10.6.8 on an eight-core Mac Pro with 16GB RAM. “I rely heavily on LA Scoring strings for realistic legato string lines, plus the standard patches have no reverb on them. I prefer to use one instance of a reverb, either algorithmic or convolution to impart a sense of real space. If I am going for an intimate feel, I’ll use more of the Kontakt factory library for woodwinds, brass, and short strings, as those patches have no ambience on the samples. If I am going for a larger feel, I’ll use the EastWest libraries primarily, as they all have some natural ambience on them and the ensemble feels cohesive.”

Get the Real Score Ultimately, your realistic parts will be more realistic if you spend time learning the basics. “Even if you write for orchestral samples as the final product, it’s extremely beneficial to study traditional orchestral scores,” Newhouse says. “Studying scores lets you learn from past composers. People have been writing music for orchestra for centuries. Many composers have already come up with some wonderful ideas. There’s no sense reinventing the wheel; studying scores teaches a new composer what past composers have already figured out. It also trains you to think of an orchestra as a complete unit. While looking at a full score, you can readily see how all the instruments are working together—which instruments have the harmony, the melody, the countermelody, and so on. It’s often harder to visualize the big picture when simply improvising at the keyboard one sample at a time.”

Finally, studying scores and arranging basics will help you avoid what Newhouse calls “impossible possibilities.” “There are things the samples can do that the real instruments cannot play,” he explains. “Even if these impossible possibilities sound good in the studio, they will sound less like an actual orchestra and should be avoided when recreating the sound of an orchestra is the goal.”

Fig. 5. An example of electric guitar loaded with Iris presets.

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That doesn’t just apply to orchestral parts, either. “One of the biggest mistakes I hear,” Doddy says, “is drum programming that features a ‘drummer’ with too many hands—hi-hat still playing during drum fills or cymbal crashes.”

And no matter how powerful they can get, it’s important to understand the limitations of the technology. On high-budget film projects, composers often get to replace their sample-based scores with the real thing. But even on a smaller budget, one well-placed “live” musician can help. “When a solo instrument—wind, strings, brass, etc.—is in the forefront, a sample can sound very unrealistic,” Doddy says. “Please spend the $112 for a session player to play the part.”

Surrealism Of course, scoring with samples doesn’t have to be strictly—or even a little—imitative. Plenty of libraries focus on sound design with an eye to film composition. These can be both useful and inspiring, but as with loops, the more time you take to individualize the presets, the less likely you are to hear another work with the same sound.

Simply changing parameters like attack, sustain, and filter settings can offer pretty good—and easy—results, especially if you operate those parameters with a realtime controller like the mod wheel.

Samplers and synthesizers excel at one of the least exciting (but still important) film scoring jobs: creating a bed underneath a scene. This can be nothing more than a drone if there’s a lot of dialog or other onscreen sound. The trick is to make the drone interesting without being distracting. I like to layer a sustaining low string section sample with a basic analog synthesizer sawtooth sound on separate tracks playing the same MIDI part, then use the mod wheel to adjust the filter cutoff and/or the attack time of one of the layers while keeping the other static. That little change in texture gives the sound some friction without making the audience think that they’re watching a horror movie.

Purposely unrealistic modulation and vibrato can also work, especially when you combine them with effects that change over time. Ableton Live’s Grain Delay (Figure 4 on page 84) is one of my personal favorite tools for mangling a sustaining sound. The ability to grab a parameter and drag over a graphical interface works well. I don’t really think about whether I’m changing delay time or pitch, I just move controls and listen.

When your score includes elements of sound design, it’s nice to be able to sync timbral changes to picture. The ability to see and draw your synth’s or sampler’s parameters using DAW automation can make this a lot easier than it would be if you were just riding the controls while watching the screen.

I write this as I’m composing for a new documentary project where I’ve been asked to twist familiar sounds into something ominous and sinister. iZotope’s new sample-based synthesizer Iris, which has a unique visual interface that lets you “draw” the parts of the sample you want to hear over time, is proving to be a good tool for this job. It can layer up to four samples at once, each can have its own set of parameters, and the samples can be of different lengths and kinds (i.e., single notes and loops can be used together). Figure 5 shows an example in which my own electric guitar playing is layered with a couple of Iris presets. The light areas show the parts of the guitar you’ll hear. The result is an eerie pad with plenty of forward motion.

According to Doddy, the old-school approach of playing samples from a keyboard can also be very effective. “If the goal is not realism, I much prefer finding a sample, dumping into a one-shot sampler and mangling it from there,” he explains. “Vocal samples are great to turn into percussion sounds, as there is always a little pitch envelope at the front of the note and that gives it a real organic feel.”

Ultimately, whether you’re using a sample library to create something that captures a specific place or era, imitates a traditional film orchestra, or serves as a jumping-off point for your own sound design, the connection with the visual will determine its effectiveness. Listen to what the director and the action on screen are telling you, and choose your colors accordingly.

Emile Menasché is the author of Home Studio Clinic (Hal Leonard), editor of In Tune Monthly magazine, and composer for the Oscar-nominated documentary Incident in New Baghdad. He’s currently composing music for two new films by Incident director James Spione.