Real Orchestra vs Synth Mockup Part 2/6


Hi again. This is the second part in a small series of blog posts I’ll make about the real-world differences between orchestral mockups (or synth orchestras) versus real orchestras. As a composer who is fortunate to work regularly with live orchestras, I’ll try to help show the difference from a decent demo recording, to a mixed and mastered finished recording.

For this example, I’ve chosen a piece that was recorded at Abbey Road studio 2, with the English Session Orchestra, and was used for the 2013 TK Maxx Christmas campaign. It was an arrangement of the 80’s synth pop hit, “Only You” by Yazoo. A simple piece which relies on expressive playing and fluid, agile string movement is always going to be tricky for samples. Here’s the before and after.

*There are a small number of live string players in the synth-demo.

For those who have commented on the previous real-vs-synth article, it’s important to stress that the function of the demo was simply to show what the orchestra would do, rather than replace the session or be a shining example of technical excellence(!)
Mix-wise, the demo is clearly over-compressed and fighting to breathe. The piano sounds thin and weak, and the strings are too loud. However, the bass pizzicato is MUCH better in the synth demo. These differences are easy to pick it apart in hindsight when you have it recorded…which is precisely the purpose of these articles!

For the live recording we were able to get the best players – and just that week, Abbey Road had a brand new Yamaha CFX piano in (£££!!!), which sounded utterly divine. It was performed by Simon Chamberlain. Leader of the orchestra was Thomas Gould. For me the biggest differences here are in the ‘connecting of the dots’. The way the players move between the notes. In the synth demo, you feel a murky uncertainty as the notes change – but on the live orchestra, there seems to be a natural fluidity to the legato, which really helps propel the melodies.

Secondly, on the legato note, the orchestra in the synth demo seems to change ‘size’ between notes. Effectively as one note trails and another enters, you have 2x notes overlapping. This temporarily doubles our orchestra, and is fairly unnatural. Also, the strings in the live version are quieter, but are more emotionally resonant in terms of their tone. They don’t NEED to be as loud, to have a similar emotional effect.

Simon Rhodes (the engineer who did the mix at Abbey Road) knows the room incredibly well, and was able to mix the piece with the minimum of reverb, eq and fader moves – simply because the material soundED so good at source. When you put together a demo using sample packages from so many different makers, it can be an arm wrestle to get them to fit together.

This session was one of my most treasured memories and rounded off an incredible year of music writing for me. The single is for sale on iTunes if you want to buy it, with 20% of profits going to Cancer Research.

Live Orchestra 2 – Synth Orchestra 0. (If you want to re-score the piece with samples, be my guest – submit a link in the comments below)

Tom Player

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