Seems like there are a lot of ways to spend your money these days, often more money than may be coming in. What are the right choices to move your career forward? Here are a couple of contrasting ideas, both worth considering in their own context.
You probably know that digital audio, in the files we create and the way in the signals can flow from one piece of equipment to another, can be in a variety of different sample rates (44.1KHz, 48KHz, etc.) and word lengths (usually 24-bit for most professional applications). (If you need a refresher, check my article “Technical Guidelines for Film and TV Scoring — Part 1“.) Recently there has been a lot of talk about “32-bit” and “64-bit” — how does that fit into all of this?
The new Apple Mac Pro computers with Intel Core2 Duo processors and the newest operating system, 10.6 (Snow Leopard) are said to be 64-bit capable. Do they sound even better? No, not necessarily. 32-bit and 64-bit don’t have anything to do with digital audio formatting or fidelity. What this is all about is the ability of any individual software app to access on-board RAM memory.
With 32-bit capability, which is how things have been up until now, an app such as our familiar DAW hosts Digital Performer, Logic, etc., can have a current working file size of up to 4 gigabytes. This includes the amount of memory that is needed for plug-in soft synths, many of which are getting to be pretty substantial memory hogs. This would include, but not limited to, such popular products as Omnisphere, Trillian, Ivory, and the various orchestral library sample players. Maybe you’ve noticed, by the time you get a few of those instantiated, your DAW becomes logy, slower and less responsive, maybe crashy. It’s not just processor power, it’s memory handling.
When clients ask me about buying a computer, a common question is how much RAM memory to equip it with? The computers can hold more and more, but if the DAW can only be filled up to 4 GB then the practical guidelines have been maybe 8 GB total. But that’s not the case anymore; on a new machine I would recommend 16 GB or more — I think very shortly you are going to be able to put that to good use.
In order to run more soft synths, there have been work-arounds that some composers have used. A common and practical one is Plogue Bidule. This app runs in the background along with your DAW, talks to it (sound and MIDI) via ReWire, and can act as host for plug-in soft synths in a variety of formats. The instruments connect to and can be programmed in your DAW software but are not limited by how much memory an individual app can access, at least up to the 4 GB limit. So effectively you can double your capacity, with some soft synths in your DAW and some in Plogue.
But now we are entering the era of 64-bit memory accessing, so this limitation is going to go away. With 64-bit, a processor can address up to 16 exabytes of memory (that’s over 16 billion gigabytes)! Now the DAWs, sample players, and other apps have to be re-written in order to take advantage of this. Some already have: Logic 9.1 is 64-bit ready, and (some) SpectraSonics synths. Others can be expected to join the party certainly within the next year or so.
Meanwhile there is another “background”-type host which looks to be an even better bet than Plogue: Vienna Ensemble Pro. This was built for their excellent Vienna Orchestra sample sets, but can work with other brand plug-ins as well, and the advantage is that it comes with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions — you can run both at the same time, hosting whichever format your individual sample instruments might support. Composer Joel Goodman, recently installed these and reports that his performance with Digital Performer 7.1 has been generally smooth and trouble free (well … we are talking software here!). (Special thanks to Joel who brought me up to speed on this stuff.)
Now let’s talk about something that will make your music even more exciting than the best software instruments, I promise.
How many of you would be willing to take your entire fee from a gig, maybe even several gigs, and invest it in the newest greatest computer software or hardware upgrade? “Yeah, I can see that, it keeps getting better and you gotta keep up, right?”
Now, how many of you would be willing to take that same pile of money and invest it in a room full of expert studio musicians, for one day? Or maybe just a few of them?
Not so easy, is it? “My clients don’t really care. There’s no budget for it, or time. I’m barely making ends meet as it is.”
I’ve observed something from my engineer’s chair: Everybody’s got about the same computer tools, and you need them of course. But the typical one-man band-in-a-box score is a pretty good way to get more of the same kind of work you already have, but not necessarily to move a career forward.
A couple of examples come to mind: most people are familiar with the composer Michael Giacchino. A couple of years ago at the SCL annual meeting, he told the story of his big break, when he insisted on using a live orchestra to score a video game. Now of course that’s not uncommon — thank you Michael! I don’t think he’ll ever reach for Omnisphere when he wants to pull someone’s heartstrings.
Or, closer to my home: composer Miriam Cutler, whose documentary scores always feature as many live warm human beings playing instruments as she can possibly squeeze in. Often they are recorded one at a time, in her personal studio, and sometimes layered with electronic textures as well, but the net effect is an organic and emotional sound that keeps her in demand in her chosen genre. I know she’ll agree that insisting on live musicians is a big part of what gives her music the magic that clients notice.
Think about it: when you add even one more expert player to your mix, you are doubling the intellectual and creative firepower. And in a city like Los Angeles, there is an incredible wealth of experienced players who have “been there and done that” over and over. They bring not only the ability to play a part in tune and expressively, but help solve dramatic problems, improvise in just the right way for the emotion of a scene, or give an immediate sonic spark that you’d never get out of East-West Quantum Leap even if you worked all night.
If you’re not in Southern California (or just want to stay off the freeway), ask me and I can refer you to amazing musicians with personal studios and high-speed Internet who can work with you anywhere in the world — guitarists in every style from metal to ethnic world sounds, woodwinds and brass players, harp, bass, a pianist with an amazing Bösendorfer piano, some percussionists, fiddle and other strings, kick-ass drummers, even a pretty good mixing engineer . All with experience in major motion picture and television scores.
I have to admit, I’m not a composer and I don’t write the checks. Maybe yet another episode of a reality series is not the time to suddenly splurge on a bunch of live guys (although check out “Lost”); if so then what about the next big pitch demo? You will have to find the right time and place, but I strongly believe it’s worthwhile.
What do you think? I’d be very interested to have composers weigh in with comments about when and if you have worked with expert live players (no matter where you are located), and what your experience was.
Who is your secret weapon (don’t worry we won’t tell), player or players that you couldn’t do a score without? Did you ever try live musicians and then regret it? Did you ever work with a musician who gave you fantastic results that you never would have expected? Did you learn something? Did your clients (or demo targets) care, or notice? Did you get the gig? Would you do it again?