Fire Makes More Fire.
People are empathetic creatures. The human experience is highly contagious. We see others laughing or crying, smiling or yawning, and innately feel the urge to do the same. We have the uncanny ability to sense each others’ emotions and they affect us in fascinating ways.
A musician is one thing, if anything at all: A Translator. We try to find ways to take raw emotion that we feel (or emotion we wish others to feel), which is a rather intangible thing, and translate it into notes and rhythms, melodies and harmonies, chords and orchestrations that somehow induce and excite those same emotions in those who hear our music.
It is interesting to ponder how emotion finds its way from the souls of composers, programmers, performers, conductors, and engineers into the Ones and Zeroes of a digital audio file. (Read my thoughts about the digital audio revolution here)
Every one of the people involved with a piece of music must do their job well, or they will be the weak link in realizing the full potential of that music. A well written instrumental solo, if not performed well, does not reach its full potential. A beautiful performance, if poorly recorded or produced, never will sound as good as it did originally. and, of course, even the best musicians and engineers can’t make a bad composition shine. Reminds me a bit of I Corinthians 12!
Escaping the Castle in the Sky
When working with a modern sample-based score production, a composer often becomes the programmer, performer, conductor, and producer all rolled into one. This can become a huge challenge. Instead of being able to combine the unique skills, interpretations, and personalities of a group of talented collaborators, all aspects of a musical piece are controlled by one contributor. While modern composers have gotten very good at balancing all the hats, there usually is untapped potential in our work as a result.
I recently heard another composer admit they “have never been inspired by a MIDI-orchestrated (and produced) piece of music”. While my personal experience differs, I think this is the biggest challenge to a modern composer who doesn’t have live musicians at their disposal. The task for composers working with sample libraries is not only to “write” inspiring music, but also to create a compelling synthesis of that music.
There are a few differing approaches to surmounting the shortcomings of samples. Some composers take the challenge head-on with varying success, while others circumvent the difficult peaks and write to the strengths of their virtual tools and producing skills. Still others take a “hybrid” approach (we did this recently for Remember and A Love That Hurts) and combine live session musicians/soloists with virtual orchestrations.
Interestingly enough, a lot of A-listers now augment their live recordings with samples! As far back as 2000! Check out this fascinating example from Gladiator:
It is interesting to note that an amateur orchestra with unskilled players can completely destroy the performance of a classic, time-proven and loved piece of music. In the same way, it should be expected that poorly executed virtual mockups (often the final product in our world) can be just as devastating to musicality, quality, and emotiveness of a piece.
Of course, some like to cheekily push the envelope and ask: is badly performed music really bad? And with that: