Should you be using a sample library for composing?

I wanted to discuss something a bit different this week. You know, take a break from all the lists with contemporary music ensembles, composers, that kind of stuff. So, I decided to talk about the composition process this time. To be more specific, how, when and if you, as a composer, should be using a sample library.

But first, what is a sample library?

Well, before we move on, you might want to download my PDF on the Top 7 Tools for the Modern Composer. I talk about lots of things, including samples in the context of composing. Click here to join the email list and get your PDF.

What is a sample library?

It’s exactly what it seems: a digital library consisting of hundreds, thousands, or sometimes even hundreds of thousands of sound files. The company that created the library has recorded all the various instruments of, say, the symphonic orchestra, including all the pitches, articulations, long and short notes, and so on. Then, you oftentimes have this vast collection of sounds available at your fingertips. It’s usually in the form of a plugin for your sequencer of choice. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Here is a list of some of the most prominent orchestral libraries out there

  1. Vienna Symphonic Library – the king of orchestral sample libraries with over 500 GB of recorded instruments.
  2. Spitfire Audio: Albion
  3. Garritan Personal Orchestra (built in to Finale)
  4. EastWest: Symphonic Orchestra
  5. IK Multimedia: Miroslav Philharmonik
  6. Big Fish Audio: Complete Orchestral Collection

These are all high-quality orchestral libraries. Other libraries can be both smaller in range and also simpler in terms of the quality of the sample sounds and articulation, as well as the possibility to mold them to your liking.

Other than these names, there is a big selection of various libraries geared towards specific areas. Like film scores, or pop music with individual string collections, wind collections, percussion instruments and pianos, etc. So it all comes down to what you’re composing for:  the whole orchestra, the piano and strings, or something else? On top of this, you have a number of choir sample libraries too. In some orchestral libraries, choir is included.

Spitfire Audio has also made some very interesting libraries, such as Swarm, with very creative sounds and textures. These are certainly meant for composing and discovering new musical concepts.

Some composers cannot imagine doing their job without the help of sample libraries.

5 Ways of using a sample library

  1. Compose in a traditional way, on paper, and perhaps finalize it on a PC using Finale or Sibelius. Then, export that file’s MIDI information to your sequencer and apply the sample library’s sound to playback your piece and create the most realistic music rendering possible.
  1. Use the samples during the actual composition process. This is the way I usually do it. You simply record your musical ideas to the sequencer. Personally, I sometimes jot down a few sketches or ideas on paper. Other times, I improvise or record something “stuck” in my head straight to the computer. Then, what I do is experiment with the different sound files, sections, themes, melodies that I’ve recorded. As an audible composer, this process suits my needs. I must say that being able to experiment with musical ideas and sounds so easily opens up a lot of new music opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise.
  1. Some big films have real orchestras and a bunch of samples added to boost the sound. This is a great way of creating a more modern and sharp sound.
  1. Use samples in live electronics in combination with acoustic instruments. This is a cool thing to consider if you are dealing with processing of acoustic instruments. Let’s say you work with violin and electronics. Why not throw some violin samples from your audio sample library into the mix? You can still work with live processing and the direct violin sound.
  1. Compose by only using samples. Nowadays, this is very common in music for TV. If it’s a kids program, you might even make the aesthetic decision to only use samples (you don’t have to pick the best ones) to give it a more childish flavor.

In the end, it all depends on whether or not you like composing with the help of a computer and keyboard.

If you are old school and write down everything on paper, then obviously sample libraries do not play a crucial part in the process. But if you are like most composers these days (I suppose), you are using the computer even if you are not too fond of it. This also means you have access to sample libraries. Ultimately, using these samples in a more creative way is fully up to your imagination, musical style and preferences.

What about you? Do you use sample libraries on a regular basis? Do you have a favorite sample library? Let me know!

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