Real Orchestra vs Synth Mockup – Part 1/6

English Session Orchestra at AIR Lindhurst

Hi there, Tom Player here – it’s been a while since my last post! This is the first 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 me, undoubtedly the ‘highlight of the job’ is getting to work with live players. There’s nothing like the moment at the beginning of a session you hear the first note, and suddenly your work is brought to life by an ensemble of talented players. You can breathe! And then the rest of the hard work starts. :)

I hear lots of sample mockups, and undoubtedly they are getting better – but there really is something irreplaceable about a live orchestral performance, which to me will always be preferable. For one, there is the sound – but it stretches further than this, with the psychology of writing better music once you know it’s going to be played live, and so many other factors. In my first example – I’m taking a very simple opening to a track of mine titled “Beckoning”, from the album “Resonance Theory“. It’s the intro and has simple gesture for the Celli & Viola.

First, the synth – then the live orchestra. The orchestra in this example was the English Session Orchestra – approx 70 players, recorded at AIR Lyndhurst. It’s a simple line, recorded in isolation. This is probably one of the hardest tasks for a convincing midi demo… simplicity in isolation. In the real recording, the orchestra breathes as one. Literally – you can hear the breaths as the leaders of each section signal to the rest of the players to come in.

The sound seems to feel homogenous, like one gesture – rather than layers of separate sounds. There is no ‘organ-like’ overlap of the notes from artificial reverb (in fact, no artificial reverb at all was used on the live mix, it’s purely the sound of players in the room). The sound is richer, deeper and alive with feeling. The synth version feels flat and lifeless.

Later on in the example, the lines are embellished with harmony and soft brass. The clearest difference here is at the end – where the cellos take a descending arpeggiated line. They clearly cut through the background texture – without playing too loudly, whereas the samples don’t cut through in the same way. In general terms, there seems to be much more air and high-end excitation in the live recording too.

Live Orchestra 1 – Synth Orchestra 0.

Don’t forget, if you manage to use an orchestra, you’re supporting your friends and colleagues, as well as getting a better product. And you’ll have some incredible memories to go with your job. So… when the opportunity presents itself, call your fixer (or email me for help) and get writing!! Oh, and if you’re a great programmer, I invite you to mock-up better than me. Most of these demos were done knowing they would be replaced, but if you’re great at it – there might be a job in it for you! Stay tuned for part 2.

Tom Player

I’ve been approached by many mock-up pros, and Pedro Almeida has kindly offered to re-mock this section.
Here it is

11 thoughts on “Real Orchestra vs Synth Mockup – Part 1/6

  1. I agree with everything you said, live orchestra is a performance of the players’ life experiences expressed in one dedicated moment. You can get better performances from MIDI than shown here however, although considering the mock-ups were to be replaced anyway, it’s understandable. What samples are you using?

  2. I agree Sam – the mockups were purely for approval purposes. It’s probably a mixture of the adagio and project sam samples as I didn’t have Spitfire at the time. But they are quite interchangeable now, samples are getting much better.
    There is an interesting discussion on this thread on the SCORECAST:London facebook group if you’re a member

  3. This is a joke. The orchestral lines are much more complex than the synth lines and the synth you’ve chosen to use… is terrible. That is hardly a fair comparison.

  4. Hi Tom, thanks for the post! Nice words in describing your experience with real orchestra players. I’m a progressive rock keyboard/piano player and I have just started to think about some orchestra compositions although I have had classical music background too. Last comment about that fine intro. I like such simple and beautiful melodies and then all the folks came after like handling a bride’s veil!

  5. some esoteric theories would even point out that when the musician plays one particular melody, he is transmitting to his instrument a unique mood that has effects on the heat, the shape & response of the instrument. Chemical stuff. If you have 20 musicians conveying that mood but each with their own little particularities, you may get an impressive interpretation of the melody. If 5 of the 20 are not in the same mood at all, you’ll still get something convincing. Now if you take 20 musicians recording an Am for a software, even if they go first for a Happy Am, then a Careless Am, then a Weeping Am, the job to recreate the chemical magic is going to require so many hours of tweaking ! Though, if the hours lead to something truly convincing, it was worth it in a way as you have eventually found a working combination of software and skill. But you’ll probably still miss the chemical that creates magic. I doubt they’ll ever be able to numerize this.

  6. I truly would like to make a serious Auditory Test, and i’m sure that many of us won’t be able to distinguish a real orchestra performance from a great quality synth orchestra mockup…That’s the point everyone should focus on…

  7. not directly related to the contents itself – love the way you are going about with this, but….perhaps you can perma-link the other articles in the posts you share. for ease of linking-through the posts. cheers | andor

  8. In a search for comparison I found your site and I am glad that I noticed the beginning of the first sample as synthetic instantly.
    It’s just so undercooled! I think the difference is very obvious.

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