Dilemma of Today's Unrealistic Expectations of Composers & Music

February 1, 2018

Often times, I hear people telling me something along the lines of: "The music sounds way too MIDI", "The strings don't sound real enough", "The drums sounds too stiff and unnatural" and "The track sounds...like cheap samples" and so on. People usually put the blame on the composer for not living up to expectations or lacking in experience and skill. While I'd say it could be true a lot of the times, but what if I suggested another way of looking at it?


Let's ask ourselves a question: Would we ever have an architect do the work of brick laying and carpentry for our new house? I'm guessing our answers would be a resounding NO, right? An Architect's job is to DESIGN a building, not BUILD it - This person may have a deep understanding of the multi-faceted aspects of constructions, but building certainly isn't his/her job. How about having a film director single handedly do the task of acting, editing, cinematography, set building, make up, casting etc? I'm guessing probably not either, unless it's a director that loves a one man show or has literally "no budget".


If that all makes sense, then why do we expect composers to do the job of more than a dozen instrumentalist and expect the result to be the same? A composer's job is to COMPOSE music for the most part, but nowadays a composer's sleeves is expected to include the ability to perform every single orchestral, band, world and synthesizer instrument and do it like a virtuoso. With an astronomical task expected of a composer, tighter deadlines and a shrinking budget, yet we have people complaining about the quality of music and composers? No wonder music is simply declining...


Today we live in a world where a lot, if not most music are produced electronically with the computer. Synthesized "Electronic Music" aside, real instruments like guitars, bass, drums, an entire orchestra, choirs and a wide array of instruments are being triggered by the tip of a composer's finger on a midi keyboard. We know these as "Sampled Instruments" or just simply put "Samples".


Samples weren't really invented in the first place to replace live performers, they were there to satisfy the urgent need of "instant playback and feedback". There was a time back in the day where the only way to hear what an orchestral score sounded like was either placing a stethoscope on the composer's head or on the recording stage. And it could easily be a logistical and financial disaster if things didn't turn out anything other than perfect. The director could decide the music wasn't fitting, and there goes the session. The orchestration could have some errors, and needed time to be fixed with 100 people waiting and there goes more spending.


So now we know samples were pretty much invented to solve this problem - To provide instant playback that would save a tremendous amount unnecessarily wasted time and money. But who knew it would take a much different turn in terms of it's commercial usage. Nowadays people take the "saving time and money" part quite literally.


If we were to compare a composer to another profession or discipline, a composer would be the equivalent of an Architect, Army General or a CEO for that matter. If we gave good thought about it, we'd agree that people of these professions/disciplines have a breadth of knowledge that would help them craft the overall picture and delegate the task to people specializing in their respective fields. Of course, I don't doubt there's always the occasional exception of some generals in the front lines bayoneting enemies, or CEO's working the xerox machine. But we do know that it doesn't hold true across the board.


When a composer is hired to single handedly produce a score/song/track with a budget that can only pay him/herself. The composer isn't just "composing", he/she is literally performing the task of a violinist, violist, cellist, bassist, horn player, trombonist, tuba player, flutist, clarinetist, oboist, percussionist, timpanist, choir, bassist, guitarist, drummer etc on top of composing, arranging, orchestrating, accounting and dealing with the client. Can you or anyone on earth simultaneously pull off 20+ tasks like a virtuoso? If the answer is no, why should a composer be expected to in the first place?



The above video is a good example of comparing the performance of an actual violinist and the attempt by a composer/producer to mimic the performance of a violinist. Having good samples can't ever replace decades of dedicated practice and superior understanding of the instrument. So the next time when you hire a composer with only a $500 budget and don't get that Joshua Bell violin sound and performance, you know why.


A well skilled and knowledgeable composer will have a thorough understanding of many instruments, but being the operator of the actual instrument is a completely different story. As much as we can try, we will never achieve the same level of emotion and auditory pleasure with a sampled orchestra compared to a real one. A non-guitarist composer will never be able to produce an authentic guitar performance using samples and a midi keyboard. The same goes for all the instruments that a composer does not play proficiently. One person can never replace the expertise and experience of many.


Of course, I'm not saying that sampled music doesn't sound good, or a one man show composer will never be able to produce breath taking music. But rather I'm writing this for the sake of awareness and helping others who aren't well versed with the inner workings of a composer to manage expectations and eventually recognize the reason behind the value of a composer and hiring skilled professional live musicians.


As a rule of thumb, if you're only willing to pay $500 for original crafted music, you're never going to get the result of what in your head is a $50,000 production that requires a team of passionate, dedicated and committed composers and musicians to make happen.



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