Are modern orchestral sample libraries really good enough to power an entire 90‑minute film score? Mark Russell found out the hard way...
The highlight of this year's Easter TV schedules on ITV was a feature‑length CGI spectacular called March Of The Dinosaurs, telling the story of the thousand‑mile migration undertaken by a group of Arctic dinosaurs 70 million years ago. While it draws on recent scientific discoveries, this is more drama than documentary, and the film is centred on the trials and tribulations of one young Edmontosaurus on the perilous trek to warmer climes.
This is an epic adventure, with an epic orchestral score to match. The film is around 90 minutes long, with no dialogue save for a voice-over, so the onus is squarely on the music to bring emotional depth and drama to this tale of itinerant prehistoric reptiles. The job of creating said score fell to British composer Mark Russell, whose task was not made any easier by budget and time constraints, which meant that using a real orchestra was out of the question. The whole thing would have to be done with samples.
There's a certain symmetry to the fact that the score for a CGI film should also be entirely created on a computer, but the sheer realism of the March Of The Dinosaurs soundtrack — quite apart from its abundant musical and dramatic qualities — is something else. The CGI up on the screen is clearly CGI, but the music is thoroughly convincing, with all the scale and power of a symphony orchestra blowing the roof off a Hollywood sound stage.
Russell wrote, arranged and produced the entire score from the small but well‑equipped studio in the soundproofed shed at the bottom of his suburban garden. No stranger to this kind of project — SOS first interviewed him about using samplers to produce orchestral scores way back in 1995 — Russell has forged a successful career scoring feature films and documentaries and composing music for TV, including such high‑profile series as Cold Feet and Kingdom.
Having trained as a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral in London, where he was introduced to the power and possibilities of music for picture via composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and Bernard Herrmann, Russell went on to study music at York University. Some of his most useful education, however, was gained on the job.
"I set up a really small studio and did some pop song arranging,” he says. "A friend and I had an ad in the back of Melody Maker, which said we could arrange and record a song in a day! That was very good training for doing things quickly. Later I got into doing music for commercials, and a lot of the directors I met then went on to direct documentaries — in fact, I still work for some of them. So from that I got into doing documentaries, then from documentaries into drama. When I was doing Cold Feet, one of the directors went on to do a film called Saving Grace and asked me if I wanted to do the music, and that's how I got into films. You can't ever plan your path, but you can make sure you're in kind of the right area, so that if someting comes up you can make use of it.”
Russell's formal training and practical experience were invaluable when it came to tackling this latest project as, when it came to the score, March Of The Dinosaurs' producers were thinking big. "When I first saw it, the film was temp‑tracked with bits of big Hollywood scores — you know, James Newton Howard, Michael Giacchino… all stuff from huge adventure movies,” he says. "That was what they wanted, so I knew what I was getting into. The film is 87 minutes long, and I wrote 84 minutes of music for it. And the music has to work really hard, because it's carrying so much of the action.”
"It's like any piece of music,” says Russell of tackling a feature‑length score. "You wouldn't start writing a symphony without first sketching out all of your main themes. You'd work out how many movements you were going to do, you'd work out your material and how you were going to use it. I'm not equating this with a symphony, but you have to do the same kind of thing, otherwise it's just going to sound like a load of random ideas all thrown together.”
This sketching process began with a notebook, the pages of which are filled with scribbled chords, melodies and themes for everything from individual characters and types of dinosaur to motifs like winter, summer, sunshine and snow. "It's interesting, the meeting of old and new technology,” says Russell. "The actual essence of music is still the same, whether you use computers or not. If you're writing 80‑plus minutes of music, you have to find a way of sustaining it, so you have to have these themes and chords that you can come back to and use in various ways. You still have to use all of the musical fundamentals. The only difference is that you're using computers to produce the music. I've got pages of themes written down, so that when I come to a certain section — when I come to scoring the pachyrhinosaurus, for example — and think, 'God, what did I write for them?', I can look through the book and there it is.
"One of the down sides of using technology is that I quite often hear scores that are sort of making all the right noises without really doing very much — just kind of treading water. Sometimes it's that the composer just didn't have enough time, and sometimes it's just too easy to load in a few samples and make it sound like the score is doing something. I'm sure I've been guilty of it myself, and if you can get away with it, you will. The problem is, when you're trying to do 80‑plus minutes of music, actually you can't do that, because it would just get too dull.”
The process began with what is known as a spotting session: the director and composer watched the film together, making detailed notes as they went. Russell was then able to break the film down into a series of cues that could be transferred to the marker track in Logic. "I'll give myself markers across the top to say what's happening in the film, what I need to do with the score,” he explains. "What I tend to do first of all is write a guide piano part and draw a tempo map, so then I've got all my hit points and I know how it's going to work. Then I'll choose a chunk to work on and get started.”
However, making a plan and sticking to it was not made any easier by the fact that at the same time as the composer was trying to write his score, the film's visuals were still being developed, fleshed out and re‑cut. "When I first saw it, the film was pretty much still in greyscale. It basically hadn't been coloured in yet. Before that, there were whole sections which hadn't been animated at all — there would just be a card up saying what was going to happen. It's kind of pointless writing music for those bits, as you've got nothing to sync to. Right up until the end they were re‑cutting it. Quite often I would have written pieces of music that had been OK'd and signed off, and then I'd have to go back and edit them, and that was going on right up until the very end.”
Saving time by supplying only rough sketches is not really an option either: according to Russell, it's best to always show the producers a fully fleshed‑out score. "You have to work on the premise that the people you are working for have no musical imagination at all. And why should they? They're not musicians. So if I send them a piece of piano music and say, 'Just imagine the trumpets coming in there and the timpani will be swelling up here and it will be massive…' but all they can hear is some piano, it's not going to work. I have worked with some directors who are fantastic musically, but generally the reason why we have these big systems is so that we can do full mock‑ups quite quickly, to give an idea of what we're going to do.”
Speaking of big systems, it's interesting to compare the gear list from the aforementioned 1995 interview (/sos/1995_articles/apr95/markrussel.html) with the extremely powerful project studio Russell uses today. The array of hardware synths and samplers of 16 years ago (including the Roland S760 sampler, expanded to a mighty 32MB of RAM!) has given way to a predominantly software‑based studio, designed and assembled for Russell by Yellow Technology (www.yellowtechnology.co.uk). Two high‑powered audio PCs and two Mac Pros are dedicated to sample playback, feeding into a master Mac Pro running Logic 9 in 64‑bit, all tied together by a Rosendahl Nanosync clock and RME ADI-648 MADI and Metric Halo ULN8 interfaces. Remote desktop switching allows Russell to easily move between his multiple computers, while the whole system is piloted via a CME controller keyboard, though he prefers to use a pair of faders on a trusty Peavey PC1600X MIDI controller for the mod and filter adjustments that are so crucial in bringing added expression and realism to sampled parts.
The huge amount of memory and drive space afforded by Russell's rack of Macs and PCs is required to cope with the sheer quantity of different samples he needs to use, but this is a challenge in itself. Just as planning ahead is crucial to keeping a firm grasp on your musical themes, the same is true of the Logic environment, where Mark is juggling somewhere in excess of 50 sampled instruments.
"Whatever project I work on, I start by making a Logic template that I can use as the basis for the whole thing,” he explains. "If you're using lots of computers, you don't want to be loading up different samples for every piece of music that you write, because it would take forever. I probably spent about a week at the beginning of the project just auditioning loads and loads of sounds and deciding what kind of instruments I was going to use.
"For example, there's one dinosaur that's got a scaly back. As soon as I looked at it I thought 'That looks like a marimba,' so I use a marimba to score that dinosaur, and as kind of a lighter moment it works quite well. I tried out loads of different marimbas and one that I really loved is made by a sample library company called Spitfire Audio [Spitfire Percussion]. It's absolutely amazing — the most realistic percussion library I've ever heard. Auditioning samples and knowing your library is really important, but it's probably best to do it at the very beginnning of a project when you've got more time, or if you have a couple of days when you're not doing anything to go through your sounds.”
"Early in the project, the director rang me up and said, 'I'm worried that your strings aren't sounding real enough,'” Russell says. "My first reaction was to think 'Well, how about we get some violinists in then?!' But it had been made clear to me that if I wanted to do that, I would have to pay for it. So I thought about how I could put together a more realistic violin section using samples. I viewed it as a challenge.
"I thought, what is it that doesn't sound realistic about a sampled string section? In order to sound realistic, what you really need to hear is that there are lots of people playing and that they're all playing at slightly different times. It mustn't sound like just one instrument playing — I think the director's original criticism was exactly that. So what I did was, on lots of different MIDI channels, I experimented with putting up various string sounds. I basically went through all my libraries, working out what worked well together.
"I've used a lot of [Project SAM's] Symphobia 2 on this, because I think they've really paid a lot of attention to the front‑end articulations. There's a really good string patch I used a lot that has a very good attack, which you can vary with the mod wheel — or, in my case, the mod fader. I also used Vienna Instruments Solo Strings, so that I can do legato between notes to give it a bit of realism. I used a lot of the [Audiobro] LA Scoring Strings, which on their own don't sound very nice — they sound quite harsh — but they work well stacked up, and also there's a Sonic Implants string library which I like. So with all of those things layered up, it doesn't sound like just one thing. That's where having this kind of system comes in. If you've got lots of memory across your computers, you can do that.”
But creating truly realistic orchestral scores from samples is about more than having plenty of RAM and a load of high‑quality sample libraries. "I think the key to realistic orchestration is to think about how a player would really play it. So if you were programming a timpani roll, in real life it wouldn't just get louder. The roll itself — the frequency of the hits — would also change speed. So actually knowing what all the instruments do is important.
"It also helps to know conventional orchestration. If you took a Mozart piano concerto and did a version with samples, it would probably sound pretty good at whatever level you did it, because the writing and the arrangement is so good to start off with. So when I'm writing something, if I can get the basic orchestration right, it's a huge help. Then it becomes a question of selecting the best samples to do it.”
While that's not the best news for those of us without classical training hoping for a quick fix, Russell is keen to offer what encouragement he can. "There are some shortcuts — for example, the Symphobia libraries are just brilliant. What they've done is recorded the ensembles in place. I used the brass ensemble a hell of a lot in this, as well as one that mixes brass and strings. They sound fantastic.”
To illustrate this, Russell shows us how a Symphobia brass pad, with a solo flute from the Vienna Symphonic Library played over the top of it, can combine to stunningly realistic effect. "It's about knowing your material,” he says. "It's about selecting all your components very carefully and knowing how they're going to work together.”
As sample players have become more powerful, sample libraries have grown to include a vast, detailed array of articulations, runs and special effects. However, these should be used judiciously, Russell warns. "I used quite a lot of sound design‑y elements — harp glisses, piano effects, string runs — and a lot of the Symphobia [orchestral] textures and effects, but again it's about how you incorporate them into your piece. I used to laugh when I heard those old orchestral stabs in pieces, but this is like the modern equivalent. Now you hear all these trailer rises, and they're fantastic because they do sound very realistic, but you have to try and incorporate them in the context of the piece of music where all the sounds blend together.
"For example, I've got some nice string harmonics, where you can hear all the detail of the bowing on the string. So if I was doing a really gentle string passage, I'd probably use that at the top, mixed in with the other strings, so it just fools the ear into sensing that there's some movement in the air. You're thinking, that doesn't just sound like one instrument there. There's actually quite a lot of synth in this too. Here's a good trick. Where you want the bass end reinforced — not only on action sequences but also slow, moody sequences — just use a simple sine bass to underpin the strings and it just gives you that 'oomph' and presence at the bottom. It's subtle, but you can feel it's there.”
With March Of The Dinosaurs, Mark Russell has shown just what can be achieved with samples. But, he says, the limitations of this approach are still very real. "You tend to hear people 'writing for the samples', and I've definitely done that for this project,” he candidly admits. "If I know that the score I'm writing is not going to be played by an orchestra, there's no point in writing something that won't work with samples, then saying, 'Well, it would sound great if it was played by an orchestra!' So you won't hear any solo oboe on this — I haven't found a good sampled solo oboe yet. I found a good solo clarinet, so there's some solo clarinet on it somewhere — there's a mating dance, it's a very silly section… The [VSL] flute is also fantastic, but lots of string articulations just don't sound realistic enough to me. I've got tons of string libraries. I've got the LA, I've got all the Vienna, I've got the Symphobia, I've got the Spitfire string libraries. They're all great in their own ways, but they don't really sound like a string orchestra! If you go into a room and hear a string orchestra play a phrase, it just sounds fantastic, whereas you have to work so hard to get that same level of realism using samples. Often it ultimately depends on how hard you're willing to work to get it sounding good, and whether you've been given enough time to program it.
"There is another side to it, of course. I sent a cue to a friend of mine who's a composer, and he said, 'I was just imagining how much work it would be to get that played by an orchestra,' and actually he was right, because in some ways it's much less work doing it all here, inside a computer. Given the choice, I like the mixture of a real orchestra together with samples, with synths, with grungey loops — whatever it is, I like that mixture. The bottom line is that a real orchestra would always sound better, but I think samples can get pretty close.”
While the music‑makers continue to debate the merits of the two approaches, from what Russell tells us, it sounds like the producers and directors — who have the final say as far as any score is concerned — are past caring. "Even when a score is recorded using an orchestra, often it's surprising how much of the sampled mock‑up ends up in the final soundtrack, because people get used to the sounds. And samples can have a kind of attack and a presence that real players sometimes don't have. I remember once doing a theme tune for a drama, and it had a really elaborate banjo part on it. I did it all on a sampled banjo, and it sounded kind of stupid, but quite funny. Then I got this brilliant banjo player in. He was delighted to do it, and he learnt it all and played it absolutely brilliantly. I sent it off to the TV company and the producer rang me up and said, 'Mmm… Well, we preferred the original'. And I said, 'But you can't! This is a real banjo player, he's fantastic!' She just said, 'Yeah… It just doesn't sound as good.'”
The March Of The Dinosaurs Soundtrack is available via iTunes. The DVD/BluRay of the film is released 9th May.
The small building at the bottom of Mark Russell's garden, looking for all the world like a large and rather well appointed garden shed, houses the purpose‑built project studio where he produces his stunningly realistic sample scores.
"I did a lot of research before I built this,” he explains, "and I found this guy in Nottingham called Dave Fowler (www.extrarooms.co.uk) who specialises in building soundproof rooms. Basically, it's built up off the ground and there are two layers of wall with about eight layers of stuff in between, and the soundproofing is amazing.
"When you get your own room built, it seems you can go one of two ways. Some companies will build you an architecturally beautiful room but don't offer any level of soundproofing or sound treatment — it's an add‑on. Whereas with this guy, it's not a very beautiful thing — in some ways it's rather basic compared to a really chi‑chi design — but it works really well for me.
"I designed the interior of the room with Yellow Technology so that all the angles are slightly different, and the sound of the room is good. There aren't too many nasty reflections and I'm sitting close enough to hear what's going on. For a job like this, where I'm doing all the mixing, I need to know that I can send a mix off and it will sound the same in the dubbing studio — or anywhere else — as it does here. Monitoring is really important, and these monitors — the ADAM S3As — I absolutely love, because I've never been into a dubbing room and not heard what I've expected to hear. "