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Virtual instruments – the secret ingredient of film, TV, and video game music

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Not long ago, film scores were recorded in studios and on sound stages. These days, that brilliant score may have come alive thanks to virtual instruments.

virtual instruments
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (
This has happened – hopefully – to any movie fan: You leave the theatre after a great movie, and you sigh, “That was awesome… And the music!” There are some recent examples of films with extraordinary scores, such as The Dark Knight, which won a Grammy for the best movie score. But what goes into a film score? Most of the average entertainment consumers are in the dark about how music for any film, TV, or video game was made, and they often assume that actual musicians were recorded live to achieve the sound on the recording.

The Hollywood sound

In the not so distant past, a film composer would write the bulk of a film score at the piano and arrange parts for a live orchestra to be rehearsed, revised, and recorded on a Hollywood sound stage. This required large amounts of time and money, but was the only way to get that full Hollywood film score sound.

With the dawn of personal computers and the exponential advancement in power and development that followed, the composer migrated to the desktop to write and mock-up scores in the virtual realm, giving him or her the ability to arrange, edit, and even score to picture without the expense of an orchestra or a sound stage. Still, virtual mock-ups didn’t live up to the realism of live players, and an orchestra would still have to be employed for the final product.

Virtual instruments

virtual instruments
EastWest's Hollywood Strings Interface.
Fast-forward to today, when not only is film composing on the desktop computer environment commonplace, but the technology has gotten so good that it allows virtual instrument developers to create near-identical versions of real-life instruments. In turn, composers are incorporating more and more virtual performances, and in some cases entire scores, into a film’s final cut.

What exactly is a virtual instrument? It’s a real instrument played by a real musician. Every note, dynamic, and articulation is recorded individually with several microphones that pick up the sound from every angle.

These recorded sounds are played back through software controlled by a composer. There is a multitude of virtual instruments available, varying greatly in prices and quality.

The company that pioneered this technology is EastWest Sounds. EastWest’s founder and producer, Doug Rogers, started out by producing sample CDs which he sold through musical instrument retailers 27 years ago. As computers got faster and more powerful, Rogers began to perfect this concept and ended up producing virtual (software) instruments virtually indistinguishable from real, human performances.

With the demand for visual content online – in addition to TV, film, and video games – there is a growing need for scores and original music to accompany a variety of visual projects. While virtual instruments offer a solution that opens the door to composers to work on their own, many cost $1,000 or more, limiting many composers to only a handful of instruments. Truth is, many composers and hobbyists cannot afford high-quality virtual instruments. That is also a problem for music students and creative professionals who are bound to a low budget for the audio portion of their production.

Subscription services

A demand for these virtual instruments, and the reach of the Internet, has spawned a new era of online subscription services. Most people are familiar with the Adobe Creative Cloud service that gives the subscriber access to a host of different graphic tools and provides always the latest version of the included software. That model had not been possible for virtual instruments due to the massive amounts of content data involved, and no off-the-shelf management software was able to handle it.

That is beginning to change. In 2015, EastWest launched Composer Cloud, the first subscription model for virtual instruments, aimed at up-and-coming composers and anyone on a limited budget who wants access to professional samples.

Real musicians and human performances are still used for big budget film productions, but more often than not, a good number of virtual instruments are also in the mix. And for any other project, no matter how small the budget, virtual instruments can be the way to go. Listen closely to some of these demos – you can’t tell the difference, can you?

Composer Cloud offers subscribers more than 9,000 instruments and over 1 million sounds for $29.99/month ($14.99/month for students for 7 products). Subscribers have access to a wide variety of award-winning instruments in every genre. Try a one-month free trial today.

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