Although the technical difference between them is significant, what really sets sampled orchestral music and electro-orchestral music apart is the idea behind the composition, and the type of sonic character and musical expressions the composer prefers to communicate these different ideas with. Let’s take a look at these two approaches to music composition, which can result in very diverse types of music.
Basics of a Sampled Orchestra
A sampled orchestra is a close imitation of a real one, or rather, the special-purpose recording and triggered playback of the sounds of individual orchestral instruments (or section of instruments). The playback of the sounds is accomplished by a new musical performance on a keyboard or with another type of midi- or non-standard digital controller. The way the samples are made ready for a composer’s use – the sound sourcing process – is fairly simple and standard:
First, high-quality recordings of individual notes played by various instruments are made, one by one across their entire musical range, capturing each note performed with different expressions and techniques, possibly using different microphone setups and even various spaces (concert hall, performance stage, studio, etc.).
Secondly, the combination of the hundreds of recorded samples are organized in a digital sample player (hardware or software) in order for the appropriate notes (samples) to be played back when striking the keys across a keyboard (or other midi controller) with various strength. For instance, when one hits a middle C softly on the controller keyboard, the “soft middle C piano” sample (a short recording of the instrument’s softly played middle C note) will be played back by the sampler, sounding until the key is held. Once the key is released, the “middle C string soft damping with hammer action noise” sample is played back, imitating the noise of the real piano key’s release. The keys of the controller keyboard act like playback start buttons, each triggering the playback of the appropriate combination of recordings.
The performance can be quite convincing, especially to the untrained ears. The majority of the orchestral scores of movies and tv films made in the past 10-12 years were produced with this technique. The goal is to create an orchestral recording, which gives the impression of a real orchestra’s performance – without the logistic challenges and serious expense of hiring an orchestra, support staff, renting a sound stage or concert hall, etc. Sample libraries produced by several companies who specialize in sample-set production can be purchased – you can put together an imitation orchestra sample library for as little as $500 (or for serious professional work for as much as $50,000). However, the challenge isn’t so much in achieving a great sound quality (today’s samples are usually pretty high quality recordings), but in making the performance believable.
The character and expressive playability of real instruments come in large part from their design – the way they are designed to be played. In general, we know not only the sound character of an instrument, in case of a violin, the timbre of the violin, but we know the sound of the violin when played by a violinist. After we transfer the various sound samples into a sampler, we will be playing every instrument using a keyboard. Without a bow, without strings, and without the techniques acquired and perfected by years of violin practice, we will not be able to use the pure sound of a violin with the same expression as a violin player can.
Of course, technology tries to have an answer for everything – in this case mostly by imitation of reality (though never a perfect copy – which would defeat the purpose anyway). Sample manipulation, software programming and audio mixing tricks, as well as the use of various performance controllers on keyboards (buttons, levers, pots, sliders, ribbons, etc.) can add more life and expression to the sound by changing certain characters of it (i.e. the more important parameters of the samples). Moreover, some less traditional midi controllers have emerged in the past decade, with the promise of a more varied, sometimes more natural performance communication between the player and the sample playback device or software. While some of them are played by blowing and striking, other controllers use buttons, digitally cnotrolled valves, touch-pads and laser, infrared or ultrasonic beams. Although with all these controllers we can add a wide range of expressions to the sound, or smoothly switch from one playing technique / sample to another during the performance, something is missing. It is the organic, human touch what makes a real performance come alive; the imperfections, noises, and the fact that on real instruments, the same notes never sound the exact same, and they rarely sound perfect.
A popular technique called sweetening is often used to help this issue; by adding a few real musicians’ performance on real instruments to the mix of the digitally-created orchestral parts, imperfections, noises and subtle variations in performance can be introduced. The intention is to “humanize” the piece and mask the overly polished sound of the sampled orchestra at the same time. Although this masking doesn’t make ones and zeros become organic material, the difference between a real orchestral performance and a well-produced sampled orchestra can be unrecognizable by most listeners. (Some exceptionally well-produced compositions can give a hard time even to professional composers and orchestrators when trying to guess whether they are listening to sampled & sweetened or an entirely orchestral performance).
Sampled orchestras tend to work better for large symphonic pieces, than for solos and chamber setups, where the digital nature of the sampler performance is harder to hide. Of course, knowing the attributes and limitations of all traditional instruments, their performance techniques and tricks, as well as being experienced at orchestral work is a major advantage for composers who venture into performing sampled orchestral music. Naively, some feel like an instant “orchestral composer” by simply playing a keyboard and switching between various orchestral samples. The affordability and convenience of technology has falsely empowered many, often only to result in embarrassingly fake-sounding recordings (even in “professional circles” – let’s not mention the A-list examples here).
Sounds of the electro-orchestral music
Since electro-orchestral music isn’t really orchestral music as far as the instruments concerned, we approach it with a healthy absence of preconceived notions or expectations. In the above example of the violin, we all know what this traditional instrument sounds like, what sound to expect to come out of it. But, we usually don’t know what an electronic musical instrument sounds like before we hear it. Synthesizers and other electronic instruments sound the way we make them sound. Not only there is no “perfect sound” to match, nor centuries-old standards and performance techniques to imitate, often, the more original or unique character they produce, the better. As the phrase “electro-orchestral” suggests, the music is usually composed on and produced with electronic instruments, and the sound itself is electronic in nature… but then what makes electro-orchestral orchestral?
If a piece of music sounds “kind of like orchestral” but it’s not, the chances are it was simply poorly produced; it might be trying to sound like orchestral, but the quality of samples, or more often, the sub-standard performance gives it away. Many who don’t have the access to high quality samples or the knowledge and experience to write orchestral music for an orchestra, make the mistake of trying to sound like one, using a common rompler plugin, cheap samples or a digital synth or workstation. It is not what electro-orchestral music is.
Electro-orchestral music is one that sounds “almost like an orchestral piece” because of the overall grand feel of the sonic experience and the structure/arrangement of the music, but it does not intend to sound like an orchestra at all. The various sections of an orchestra, like strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, can be represented by electronic sounds with similar general character to their related orchestral instruments/sections, but with no intention to imitate the traditional orchestra’s sound. Their place in the overall sonic palette of the music and their role in the arrangement and orchestration (electro-orchestration would be a better phrase) can be very similar, however. For example a violin-like sound playing a melody line in the higher octaves, a bright brass-like sound playing a mid-range melody or stabs that the horns would play in an orchestra, or a flue-like sound playing a counter-melody or small micro-melodies in the style of a typical woodwinds section. However, these sounds are not created by traditional instruments nor by their samples, but by various electronic components found in hardware instruments such as synthesizers, or by software algorithms.
In addition, sounds not even remotely reminiscent of traditional instruments can be used, often adding important flavors to the electro-orchestral piece. An arpeggiated bass, a randomly changing lfo-d filter, a glitch-y percussion part, a sweeping pad, an ethnic instrument’s lead or some manipulated environmental noise can complement the more standard parts of the orchestration structure well. In a sampled orchestral piece, they might work against the goal of imitating an acoustic instrumentation, but in electro-orchestral music, they can add original character, a unique feel and expression to the piece. At the end, a deliberately electronic instrumentation, giving the overall feel (but not the sound) of an orchestral-size performance will carry the composer’s message to the listener.
Differences beyond technicalities
The type and purpose of music that the composer desires to create determines the approach, tools and techniques (s)he uses to achieve the best results. For example, to score an emotional cue in a romantic movie, a composer might use real strings, woodwinds and piano, but without the budget (mostly the case) or time to record live players, a good alternative is to imitate them by a sampled-orchestral performance. This also gives the composer the flexibility to easily re-write and re-arrange parts later. The goal is still to sound as close to the real soaring strings of an orchestra as possible.
A completely different purpose and style might inspire the composer to turn to the electro-orchestral approach. Sounds created by electronic instruments can introduce the new element of sonic texture to the musical environment, a dimension relatively limited in pure orchestral (real or sampled) music. This new element can strongly influence the feel the music carries or creates, and ultimately effect the entire idea behind the composition and the compositional process. An example of this would be a score for a futuristic movie, that requires the music cues typically used in such movies (action, romance, surprise, mystique, etc.) to support the plot and characters, however, carries the futuristic environment in every bit of the sound. Think of Blade Runner – an orchestral score could have worked fine, but the electro-orchestral approach doubled the impact and unique feel of the movie. While sounding somewhat traditional, the score was entirely produced with synthesizers.
(A challenge for composers: let’s switch up the instrumentation and genre of the last two examples. Writing an orchestral score for a sci-fi movie is the easy part – can be done routinely, have been done many times. But how would you approach scoring a real-life story’s romantic scene with electronic instruments? This forces you to think about sounds, textures… go beyond the traditional musical elements of rhythm, melody and harmony, and ultimately create something more original.)
While movie scores are the most representative examples, the same is true for musical works. We often don’t realize that the reason behind the largish feel and “full”, “well-though-out” and “complete” sound of a track is its orchestral-like arrangement- and instrumentation structure, but it being performed with non-traditional sounds doesn’t make the similarity obvious. This is even true for many mainstream songs today. It is interesting to note, that some typical sounds and sound categories of early (and actually, even many of today’s) synthesizers are named mirroring their orchestral “inspirations”; some of the most known (and now classic) synth patches are the likes of “Jupiter-6 strings”, “CS-80 brass” or “DX-7 piano”. Although at more than one point in the history of electronic music (see “Ambient vs. New-Age”) these instruments did try to imitate their real counterparts, they remained far-from perfect impressions of them, but with a unique character of their own, responsible for great success of some excellent non-orchestral composers. (They eventually became classic electronic sounds themselves, subject of imitation and sampling by newer electronic instruments and software – more about this later in another post, until then listen to some famous sounds here).
Tradition and Progression
Personally, I have a great respect for the traditional instruments of the symphonic orchestra, and have used them quite a lot (from large real orchestras to cutting-edge sampled orchestral setups). But I have an even bigger appreciation for the electronic instruments; when using them, we don’t imitate, rather create sounds (and even new imaginative instruments). We create more than just a melody, a theme, a piece, a mood, we create a feel that even a single note can carry! Why limit ourselves to the 35-40 traditional orchestral instruments when writing music with grandiose feel or for expressive instrument solos, if we can have the luxury of using thousands of traditional and non-traditional ethnic instruments (or their samples) and an unlimited number of electronic sounds as well?
I believe that the electro-orchestral (and various electronic, ambient, etc.) music opens up the boundaries and greatly expands the limits of the (otherwise fairly versatile) traditional instruments. It must have been super exciting to first explore these possibilities in the 60’s and 70’s with the first synthesizers, however with today’s music technology industry on one side, and the challenge to create truly original sounds and new musical instruments on the other side, it is still a never-ending adventure. Many of us have first-time memories of a feel or a sonic experience created by some non-traditional sounds in a movie, a film trailer, or even just a song on the radio. And while some of yours might be electronic in nature, it’s interesting to realize that their role in the music might have been the same as a traditional instruments role in the most known classical pieces a few hundred years ago.
Same structure or not, the new dimension of sonic textures might just be what gives us the amazing feeling of discovering new musical landscapes today.