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Andrew Wrangell


1712QCM Info-Tech Arts

Desktop Publishing

Topic: Digital Sound Samplers

Word Count: 1000


Andrew Wrangell


This paper examines the effectiveness of sound samplers as tools for film composers regarding the variety of sounds and textures possible, authenticity and believability of samples, and their value in comparing the preliminary score to the film before recording. The paper finds samples to be an important and useful tool for composers.


Digital sound samplers are essentially instruments which create music by

rearranging pre-recorded sound (Davies, 1996). Commonly, a ‘sound library’

is used with a ‘sequencer’ to organise music, through the MIDI (Musical

Instrument Digital Interface) protocol. In the context of film scores, this

article discusses and attempts to evaluate the effectiveness of digital sound

samplers as tools for film composers. Specifically, the evaluation will refer to

the ability of samplers to increase the scope of compositions in terms of

instrumental variety, the musicality of sampled music and finally the value of

samples for demonstration of the score to film producers.

Literature Review

Historically, sound samplers evolved from instruments such as the Mellotron

which linked racks of tape recordings to a keyboard; playing the key would

play the respective tape recording and thus new music could be created from

previously-recorded sounds (Grove Music Online, 2010). The development of

this concept along with developments in computing hardware and software

subsequently facilitated these sound previously-recorded sounds to be

manipulated entirely through the computer (Cann & Rausch, 2007).

In the context of film scoring, numerous midi sequencing tools exist which

have the ability to arrange the sounds from a sample library according the

composer’s wishes. Rona (2002, online) explains that when required, live

instruments underscored with samples have the ability to provide the

appropriate backdrop for a film and a team of composers is able to utilise this

method to work to a strict deadline if necessary.

While some composers prefer to score using pencil and paper at the piano,

others score directly to the digital format (International Musician, p. 14).

Samples are often integrated into sequencing programs however others can


Andrew Wrangell

sometimes be utilised directly from notation programs such as Sibelius, attempting to provide composers with a realistic representation of their score through playback (Loving & Philpit, 2009).

How effectively do sound samplers increase the ‘musical palette’ of film composers in regards to variety of instruments?

One of the most useful aspects of sound samplers is that they can provide composers with the sounds and textures of exotic instruments whose performers may not be widely available or affordable. For example, if a Hollywood score calls for a didgeridoo, for example, the composer has the option of manipulating samples of didgeridoo to achieve the effect they desire.

According to Vail (1996, p. 72-73), in creating music for the television series Babylon 5, composer Christopher Franke needed to create an atmosphere to accompany an ancient race of aliens and used samples of the ‘Klavins’ piano in Germany whose strings were up to twelve feet in length. For another race, Franke utilised samples of two and a half metre long drums. By using sampled sounds of instruments that are not commonly available, Franke was able to create soundscapes with the unique texture required for the production where these instruments would usually be very difficult to record on their own.

This demonstrates that through digital sound samplers, composers are able to extend the scope of the instruments in their music far beyond the traditional Western orchestra. The challenge then presented is for the sampled music to sound less artificial.

What are some of the techniques composers can use to bring their sampled sounds closer to those of live musicians?

An undesirable aspect of samplers is their mechanical or artificial nature. Dorge (2002) notes that a live player’s music will be influenced by the sound of their instruments in different acoustics and insinuates that as samples lack this human element, despite their recording by skilled technicians, the music created with them lacks individuality (p. 28).


Andrew Wrangell

However, despite the mechanical nature of samples, some composers employ various techniques to ‘humanise’ the sound of their sampled music. The sampled mock-ups created by film composer James Newton Howard, according to Krogh (2000, p.34-36), are “evocative, musical and believable”. Krogh explains that Howard uses a volume pedal to soften the attack on a cue for bassoon, giving it a legato tone more like a human player and less like a computer. When orchestrating for samplers as opposed to the live orchestra, Howard doubles strings with muted strings to make the music more realistic, whereas he would use different instrumentation for the real orchestra.

By using quirks in the sequencing programs in addition to orchestrations adapted specifically for sampled instruments, Howard demonstrates that samples, when handled properly, can be made to sound believable. This is especially crucial when presenting a score to film producers.

How important are samples in regards to giving film producers an idea of how the music will work with the picture before recording?

An important step in film scoring is evaluation of the score against the picture. Often, sampled demonstrations of the score are used during preliminary previews of films. As quoted in Wherry’s article Scoring Pirates of the Caribbean III (2007, online), Hans Zimmer says “using samples of real orchestral instruments is going to give a better impression than the composer sat at the piano going ‘but you know, this is going to sound great when the horns come in!’”

Once ‘spotting’ (evaluating points where music is required and in what form) of the score has taken place, ‘mock-ups’ of the music are created by the composer(s) and presented to the producers of the film. For this stage, as Gerber states, the score needs to sound as real as possible, which requires skill in orchestrating and manipulating the sampled sounds (2004, pp. 30- 34). As the intention is often for the music to then be recorded with an ensemble, it is in the best interests of the composer to make the initial demonstrations sound as authentic and musical as possible.

This suggests that samples are useful and an important tool in the creation of demonstrations of the film score prior to its final recording.


Andrew Wrangell


Digital sound samplers are a useful tool for film composers in that they broaden the scope of textures and sounds for compositions. Although mechanical in nature, music created through samplers can be made to sound more natural through the employment of various techniques in sequencing programs, and music generated through samplers is able to give film producers an idea of how the music will work with the picture before recording with a live ensemble. Through using samples in the ways that have been described, composers are able to effectively manipulate any number of instruments to achieve the musical effects they desire.


Andrew Wrangell

Reference List

Cann, S., & Rausch, K. (2007). Sample this!. New Malden, UK: Coombe Hill Publishing.

Davies, H. (1996). Sampler. Grove music online. Retrieved March 3, 2010, from

Dorge, M. (2002). Being human. Canadian Musician, 24(4), 28. Retrieved April 26, 2010, from International Index to Music Periodicals database.

Gerber, J. The unreal orchestra: Part 2: The virtual concert hall. Keyboard, 30(2), 30-34. Retrieved April 26, 2010, from International Index to Music Periodicals database.

John Williams: writing the soundtrack to our lives. International Musician, 103(7), 14-15. Retrieved April 25, 2010 from International Index to Music Periodicals database.

Krogh, J. (2000). James Newton Howard: Master of midi orchestration. Keyboard, 26(12),



Retrieved April 26, 2010, from International Index to Music Periodicals

Philpit, J., & Loving, J. (2009). Quantum leap ra sibelius sound set user manual. Retrieved April 25, 2010, from


Rona, J. (2002). Black Hawk sound: It’s not the sound of one person. Keyboard, 28(5), 124- 126. Retrieved April 25, 2010, from International Index to Music Periodicals database.

Vail, Mark. (1996). Space as you’ve never heard it. Keyboard, 22(2), 70-73. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from International Index to Music Periodicals database.

Wherry, M. (2007). Scoring Pirates of the Carribbean III. Retrieved March 9, 2010, from