TMCP 008: My Samples Aren’t Good Enough

By Richard Pryn •  Updated: 02/25/20 •  21 min read

When I started out I actually lost jobs because my samples didn’t sound “good” enough. Which sucked. Obviously.

This, however, led me to falsely believe that getting more and better samples would make my work better.

This is a challenging episode for me as I, like most of you, feel mildly obsessed with collecting sample libraries. And I ask the question,”Do I actually need all these sounds at my disposal or are they making me less creative in my musical choices?”

Transcript

[Intro music]

Hey guys, welcome to another episode of the Trailer Music Composer’s Podcast. In this session I want to cover this false problem. I suffered from this extension of lack confidence, this one: ‘my samples aren’t good enough’. Or, same thing really, ‘I can’t afford all these big sample libraries’. The wonderful thing about this is I’m looking back on this from a place of hindsight. So I’m gonna give you the way I approached it, which I obviously don’t advocate because, well, I’ll explain. Then I will give you my view now. Ok? So here we go.

When I started out, I actually lost jobs because my samples weren’t good enough. And what I mean by that is, I’ve recorded a piece of music and then the music supervisor came back to me and said, ‘Rich, your samples sound like a keyboard. Can we swap them out for anything good?’ And I was like, ‘Well, if you can pay me in advance, so I can get better libraries, then yes!’ That panned out I lost the jobs because obviously they didn’t pay me in advance because they were obviously tight on budget. And my way of writing changed, until I had a friend who could get me crack copies of all of the big libraries, in which case I still wasn’t able to make those sample libraries sound any good. That was the first hint that this actually isn’t a problem at that stage. Maybe it was my writing which was the problem. I was writing in an inappropriate manner, and I don’t mean swearing and drunk. I mean that actually the way that I was writing for samples wasn’t getting the best out of the samples. This is something that I speak to my students about. Actually, we’re not doing mock ups here, what we’re producing is finished pieces of music. So if our finished pieces of music don’t sound good, because we’re writing like a mock up, then it’s gonna sound rubbish. Or at least not good. Full stop. So for those of you who are not sure what I mean when I say mockup, a mockup is kinda like—they were more common years ago, but less common so now, because samples have come along so much. A mockup is a case of like, a production company has a budget for a film score. Say they’ve got a 50 grand budget, but they obviously wanna hear what your music is gonna sound like first, before they give you the 50 grand to go record it. What they do there is they say, ‘Can you give us mockups?’ Mockups are like the sample library equivalent of what was gonna happen. So you’d orchestrate it and write it as if you were gonna hand it to an orchestra in recording. Now the problem there is the mockups always sounded like midi mockups, they sounded like keyboards doing these awkwards runs and awkward articulations that just didn’t sound any good in practice. Obviously mockups these days sound a hell of a lot better, but that’s what a mockup is. So say you have a brass library, right? Maybe your brass library is EastWest and you can’t get your EastWest brass library to sound good and sound natural in sort of a choral brass way. They’re very harsh sounding samples or—I’m talking as an example here, not actually giving you my opinion on EastWest samples. They sound harsh and when they go in legato phrases they sound stunted and awkward. But those samples, when played like pads, actually sound pretty good. But you refuse to write like that, you wanted a legato phrase so you put in a legato phrase. But what you’re missing is, well the legato phrase actually sounds terrible because of the samples. So you’re not actually writing in a way that’s indicative of getting the most out of your samples. I mean these days you can get some fantastic articulations, actually for a bargainous price. Sample libraries, when I first started out, were hugely expensive. They still are expensive, but by no means not as expensive as they were. Again, I’ve done my usual, I’ve gone off on a tangent.

Returning back to the initial problem, my sample libraries weren’t good enough so I got crack copies of loads of libraries and realised that actually they still didn’t sound that great. This is where I can give you my advice now. You’re having that problem of, ‘I can’t afford these big libraries.’ Or, ‘I just can’t—I just don’t have the money to set aside to buy this massive string library.’ And you go, ‘Ok, well maybe I approach it in 2 different ways. So maybe I go, you know what? Rich is always harping on about creating my own sound. So how can I create my own sound? How can I get a string sound for less money?’ One of the ways I approached it was I got my friend Hannah, who played violin, to come and essentially help me create my first sample library. She played an A minor scale, and I used those as pads. And because it was a real violin, it gave my music a quality that me using a sample library would not have done. This comes into play when you’re buying big libraries, especially the big sort of trailer composer libraries, be careful when you use those because your music is going to start to sound like everybody else if you’re not careful. I mean they’re amazing if you wanna produce a certain type of sound, they are amazing, the quality of samples and things is phenomenal, but just be wary that actually buying that next big sample library isn’t gonna solve your issues. This is the problem with Black Friday, and I’m sure every other composer can attest to this, how many times has it come to Black Friday with—or if not Black Friday, we’ve just forked out a ton of money on libraries and then never used them. Because we’re trying to buy something that’s not a library. So, for instance… I’ve probably spent about a thousand pounds on libraries and I haven’t used them. [Laughing] It’s ridiculous. I haven’t used them! I feel a bit shameful saying that actually, a thousand pounds on libraries that I haven’t used. But that’s the thing. I wasn’t actually buying the sounds because I needed the sounds, or because I thought they would help my writing, I was buying the idea that the sounds were giving me. And what I mean by that is I mean they were giving me an ideal. They were kind of saying to me, ‘Hey, if you buy these libraries, you’re gonna be just like Thomas Newman.’ And I was a sucker! I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m gonna be like Thomas Newman!’ Bought. Never used them. In fact I loaded one of them up, it crashed my computer because it’s an old Mac Pro, which is probably why I haven’t used it yet. I do intend to use them guys, just before you jump in there. But that’s the problem. The libraries aren’t gonna solve your problems.

So what I tend to do is this: a little anecdote for those of you who do have money to buy libraries but have a problem with buying too many. When you start a new project, think about the sounds you need. If there is a sound that you need, that you are going to use on that project, you buy it and you put it in the template. Because if you do that, then you’re gonna ensure that you use the sounds. So I did 4 albums of beautiful cinematic drones and I bought a Spitfire library for it, because I thought actually, you know what? They’d be perfect here. And I used it all over the library, all over those albums, and I haven’t used it since. Because that’s the other thing, I made sure I got my money’s worth, because I put them into the album, but that also then shows you how you’re going to use them. So you’re buying the library, if you have to buy the library, make sure you use it in the project and put it in the template. But I’m digressing again, aren’t I?

The problem is, I don’t have the money to buy the library. And do you know what? It’s probably a good thing, because then most of the time they’re not gonna solve your problems as a creative. They are just going to give you more tools that you’re going to struggle to choose from. I mean, honestly, who needs all those articulations? Sometimes I’m just like, ‘Come on guys, I mean, am I really gonna use these articulations?’ I mean that’s the one-off thing about Spitfire, I think, is that they’ve—a lot of their libraries have honed in on the core articulations that you use. It’s just shorts, longs, legato, thank you!

So I want you to think about that. Why did I want to buy that library? If you want to buy that library because you don’t think your piano samples sound good enough, do you know what? Maybe you can just go and create your own piano sampler library. Or even, go get some free ones. There’s some amazing free ones. Christian Henson’s Pianobook, there’s some amazing free samples. There are tons of free things that you can get. I mean for me, the big ones were horns, strings, and drums. They were the ones that I’m still a sucker for. I say horns, I mean brass. I felt like my samples were never good enough on that front. And actually now, having spent a ton of money on all of those things, I still don’t think my strings sound that convincing. I still don’t think my brass sounds—actually, I do quite like my brass, but I use my brass specifically for one thing and one thing only really, and that’s [noise]. But the thing that I fall back on when it comes to libraries is the drums. If you can find a decent drum library, and there’s quite a few of them out there and—there’s quite a few of them? There’s tons of them. That was the one thing I found hard to emulate. But everything else, you can actually emulate yourself. And this is where it comes back to again you using this limitation of you not being able to afford these tools, ‘cause these tools don’t make you the composer. You make you the composer. The tools give you more tools.

So what I’m trying to say is this: you’re sat down at your computer. You have, let’s say Cubase, right? No, I’ll say Logic because I don’t know what the presets are in Cubase. You have Logic, but you don’t have any of those big libraries that Richard Schrieber and all the other guys have. Great. You’re actually starting on a positive, because now you can create your own voice, right? You don’t need those libraries. I’m saying this from a point of view where I turn back and look at my career and go, ‘You know what? Most of those libraries I didn’t need. I still don’t need them.’ I still tell myself this and I’m very proud of myself not buying anything on Black Friday. Most of the time you don’t need it. And if you really, really need it, you have to really think about how you’re gonna use it and be meticulous with your thinking about it. Because sometimes, maybe you can approach it differently. And here’s the magic: you’ve just got Logic, you’ve just got the stuff that comes with Logic, but you wanna do trailer music. How am I gonna do those trailer drums? How am I gonna do those trailer [noise]? How am I gonna get good strings?

Ok, so here’s the trick: don’t! [Laughing] Create your own sounds. I don’t know, Christian Henson is a massive advocate for this and I’m very—you know, I love hearing him talk about it because I completely agree. If you have a sampler, which you do in Logic, you have your EXS24, and you have a microphone, and you have Logic, you have so much more than so many people had years ago. You have the ability to make your own sounds. You can create booms and rumbles in Logic, easy. I’m talking about the presets. Just load up a kick, put it through a massive reverb, put it through a low pass filter in the reverb, and you’ve got a cinematic boom. [Noise] Wonderful.

‘Ok Rich, this is my boom. What about those massive trailer hits?’ Well in my trailer music course I teach you how to make those massive trailer hits using default Logic sounds, because a massive trailer hit isn’t always a massive drum. A massive trailer hit is a broad spectrum hit, which you can create by adding together 5 sounds. Your low booms, your sort of thuddy-low-tom sounds, which again, you’ve got on Logic. Your kind of mid-high-toms, the kind of punchy-in-the-face sound, the crack of the snare, and then the [noise] of a symbol. That all happens in an epic hit, and you can do that. You add that all together, boom, and you can create your own hit library, which admittedly you can then push to a publisher and you have a product to sell as well as you have tools to use. And this is what I do! I create my own sounds, I then use them in my tracks, and then push them to a publisher, usually Vic at Elephant ‘cause he’s my go-to guy.

There’s your first thing, you’ve gone, ‘Ok well you’ve sold the epic hits, you’ve sold the booms and rumbles, what about strings Rich?’ Ok, so you’ve gotta think about what strings do and how you’re gonna be using strings. Because strings are gonna be doing sort of 3 things, really. They’re gonna be adding those short staccato sounds, those gritty, crunchy, [noise], and the long pads which imply the kind of cinematic scale, and then soaring top lines, and melodies, and things. Obviously if you want to be writing orchestral music you might have a problem here but I think, to be honest with you, most people writing trailer music are quite happy just writing trailer music. ‘Cause it has a specific sound, even if you’re going into the hybrid, even if you’re going to orchestral, even if you’re going to sound design, there’s a specific set of tools and sounds that we all use. Across the board. So what you can do is you can go, ‘Ok well then if I’m using sound, kind of doing a gritty string, maybe I’ll just take some of the library sounds that I get from Logic, and I’ll just play with them.’ I don’t mean play with them like, ‘Yay, playing the keyboard.’ I mean chuck them through some effects. Put them in a compressor, put them into an ABIT processor, put them into a hall reverb, see what that sounds like. Eventually you’ll stumble upon a loud you like. Save it as a preset. Then you have your short strings. And you do that and you gradually build your own articulations up. And what you’re doing is you’re creating your own sonic vocabulary. Then what will happen is, you can then start to pitch this to publishers and they can be like, ‘Hey, great. This is great!’ You will get some placements and people will start to be like, ‘Hey, I love that sound! How did you get that sound?’ And you’ll be like, ‘Haha, funny you should say…Hah-hah!’ And that’s the beauty of it.

If you must, buy a library. I would probably say a good drum library is the most important one, because to be honest it’s quite hard to emulate things like taikos. It can be done, but it’s quite hard. If you’ve got the time and the patience to do it, great, go for it. The best thing I’ve found so far is—so here in England we—obviously everywhere in the world, most places in the world, have rubbish bins for the houses. We used to have these kinds of—they’re kind of like rubber, black cylindrical bins. If you whack on that with a soft headed timpani stick, it’s a very convincing taiko. So I’ve done this as well, just gone into the garden and hit all the bins and stuff. And I guess you get some decent sounds. With a microphone you can start recording your own things. Play them in, quantize them. Play them in, sample them. So there we go, you’ve got your drums, so you can do that using garden stuff. Or even buy a drum. In fact I found a kick drum in a skip when I lived in Bristol. Great, sampled that. And that’s the great thing, go on your local Freecycle, or whatever the network is around you where people give stuff away for free. What can you find that has the sonic potential for trailer music? [Cockril] Oh, morning! So ok, you replace the drums, replace the strings, brass, you can effectively replace brass with synths, which you have in Logic. And guitars, which you have, probably, because most of us are guitarists, let’s be honest. If we’re not guitarists, we’re pianists. And if you have a piano then great! [Laughing]

So what I would like you to do is, I challenge you to this: to remind yourself you don’t need those sample libraries. Find ways to create the sound without them. I know of a couple of composers who write in a hybrid style, so it’s essentially orchestral writing but they’re using synths instead. Maybe you just dive down into synths in orchestral writing. Or maybe you do what I do, which is organic sound design. You sample the instruments you have at hand, played badly or goodly, however, and you have your own sounds. That is what I think people say when they talk about finding your own voice. Using your own limitations that are unique to you and capitalising on them. Which is what I do! I have a violin, I have a chello, and I have a treated acoustic guitar. I use them an awful lot in my tracks. Admittedly, yes, I use the drum libraries and string libraries, etc. Those of you who have seen my courses, you’ll know I’m a big advocate of Hans Zimmer drums by Spitfire. I’m a big advocate of the first Albion. Which unfortunately I think they replaced with Albion 1, which from what I hear from the forums and my students, they are not the same. Well, at least playability is not the same. So find that sweet spot where actually, can you create your own voice using these sounds? It’s kinda like Stomp, they created this amazing show using household objects and actually when you hear the Stomp drums being played, which are just bins and stuff, they sound like trailer drums. Hence me going out and smacking bins with timpani sticks. So you could replace all of those things with sounds around you. You can replace pads with yourself whistling. You could replace brass with kazoos, which actually works really good! Also the duck calling ones, you know the ones that sound like ducks? [noise] They sound amazing [Laughing] when you pitch them down and put them through some distortion.

Find ways to play and we’re doing this currently at the Trailer Music School, we’ve got a brief that’s basically not to use any libraries, except drum libraries. I get—they all have drum libraries so it’s not like I was placing any limitations on them, but I was trying to get them to play and find—because otherwise if we’re all using the same sounds, we’re all going to sound the same. We’re all writing the same, we’re all using the same chord progressions. It’s gonna be very difficult, but if we start exploring, creating our own sounds, then we’re kind of doing a double whammy again. We’re creating our own voice and we’re potentially even creating our own sample libraries. We’re potentially even creating our own sample packs to pitch to publishers. It’s a win-win. A huge win, actually. And again, it comes down to getting that creative juice flowing, and not stopping. Just recording tons of sounds and playing with them. You don’t need those libraries guys. I’m not saying in every situation you don’t need them, because there are situations. If you are asked to write a piece of taiko music and you don’t have a taiko library, that’s the situation I was talking about which is a positive one. Which is where you fork out the money for it and the money will pay for it, the money of the placement. So the first library I bought was Stormdrum because they wanted a Stomp sounding—not a Stomp sorry, I’ve got Stomp on the brain—they wanted a taiko drum, sort of war drum thing going on. So I forked out the 500 quid, or whatever it was, for it back then and I got the 500 back for the placement. So I made no money on it, but now I had taikos. Well not just taikos, but Stormdrum. Which again, I realised I couldn’t use anyway, because I didn’t know how to write with that stuff.

I do hope you enjoyed this podcast. I really do hope that my view is at least giving you some confidence that actually you don’t need those sounds and you are creative enough to create your own cool stuff. I’d love to hear it as well. I’d love to see you in the Trailer Music School so you can show me the stuff that you’ve created with your own limitations. Because you know what? Publishers and trailer houses love weird. They love it! If you can give—that’s why there are signature sounds. If you can give a trailer its own unique voice, you’re doing something well.

Thank you so much, again, for taking your time to listen to me ramble. I do hope you enjoyed it. I do hope it’s helping you in your aspirations and even just sort of a professional reassurance really of me saying all these things. I—hopefully see you in the Trailer Music School, otherwise leave a review, leave a rating, subscribe to the podcast, subscribe to my YouTube channel, and I’ll see you around guys. See ya!

[Outro music]

Richard Pryn

Hey there. I am an award winning composer for movie trailers, including Bladerunner 2049, Diablo II, WandaVision, and loads more. I am the founder of The Trailer Music School where my aim is to teach everything I know about music composition, production, and generally being a functional human being. I podcast, blog, vlog and jog (sometimes). I also love coffee, nachos and self-improvement. I live with my wife, three kids and numerous pets. I am also known by my pseudonym, Richard Schrieber (it’s a long story).