Addendum to Game of Thrones

It’s been a fascinating week. Thanks everyone!Image

The scale of the reaction to my recent post was unexpected and very interesting.  Prior to expounding on that, however, I must take a moment to admit that I made a mistake. In my Disgruntled Iggy video, I used the wrong soundtrack – I set it to one that is indeed a MIDI version. The actual theme on the series appears to use a sampler* (or, VST – Virtual Studio Technology), not a MIDI. I will correct this mistake as soon as I return to my NYC studio.

(The television theme, though, is definitely not the same as the HBO “Official” theme found on YouTube that several folks pointed me towards. Since my beef with the series concerns only the theme used in the opening credits, the YouTube version is not relevant here).

So, what is that sound in the series opening? Scott Levitin, Chief Engineer at Warner Elektra Atlantic Studios in Burbank CA, had this to say:

“For the Game Of Thrones intro music question, I used the iTunes version of Season 2, Episode 1 as the test audio and listened carefully. I believe the cello sound is from a sampler, not live recorded real cello. The bow sounds are always the same and individual pitches always sound identical.  Plus, it just sounds artificial. I surveyed eight audio engineers who work here. I asked them to listen for whether the cello was real or from a sampler.  I told them nothing in advance. The first six thought it was from a sampler, not a real cello.  Engineer #7 said he didn’t know.  Engineer #8 thought it was a real cello, but he wasn’t sure.” 

 Hmm. This, from Montreal engineer/producer Jeremy Tusz:

“Game of Thrones is gritty with real characters and plot. Everything feels very real and organic. Why such a processed theme?The orchestra bed tracks are of course all samples. And that is pretty pathetic. To put it in context. I will be recording the music for a three part miniseries which has half the budget of one GoT episode, yet they have still managed to find enough money for us to spend two days with a 65 member orchestra and a day with a professional chorus to record about one hour of original music.”

And, from an Oscar-winning soundtrack writer:  “Fake strings always says one thing – this is a cheap show. Why spend all that money on super visuals when you won’t spend a few dollars on the score?”  ~ John Corigliano

I have also heard from a lot of musicians telling me that the opening music is the only thing they can’t stand about the show. They all have to fast forward. Interestingly, I also received a mail from a Mr. David Klotz, the Music Editor for Game of Thrones, telling me they used a live cello player for the opening credits.

So it would seem that several hundred folks who have spent their lives playing stringed instruments, eight out of nine audio engineers at Warner Elektra and dozens of composers are unable to tell that they are listening to a cello. That’s hard to believe. Really hard to believe.

Well, so be it. But what this all raised is an important question concerning orchestral music on screen. Why would a company with the innovation, power and panache of HBO fake an orchestra?

Imagine the uproar if John Boutté’s vocals for the Treme opening were done with autotune. Or Freddie King’s searing Going Down, for Eastbound and Down – if that was a guitar sample, think of the outrage it would cause. Why should orchestras be any different? When it comes to music, fake is permissible only as a last resort if there is truly no budget or time, neither of which is applicable to Game of Thrones entering its fourth season.

As for my offering the real cello stem to HBO –that was a tongue-in-cheek move on my part. Considering I posed in a wig holding a giant lizard, I didn’t imagine anyone would take me seriously. Obviously, you can’t put something real atop a mountain of fake – which is why, as many people wrote to inform me, Rubin sticks out in the mix with real cello. Yah, of course he does, especially because I asked him to play more and more passionately and over-the-top – kind of like Kubrick did with Nicholson for the Shining – and naturally used the very last take. I had a point to make.

What concerned me about the reaction to the real cello was not that some folks didn’t like it (everyone has a right to an opinion) but that those who didn’t were almost all young, and none musicians. Like the way that folks over 75 recoil from distortion at any volume because they are innately unfamiliar with that waveform, it slowly became apparent to me that the people complaining about a real string player had almost certainly never heard one.

Now, call me a ‘music snob’, an ‘elitist’, and tell me to ‘get over myself’, but I find this really disturbing. Can it be that there is a whole generation out there that doesn’t like real sound because it’s real sound? Like a person raised on fast food being unable to stomach haute cuisine, or lifelong city-dwellers fearing the woods?

The use of classics in Looney Tunes cartoons and the way the soaring orchestral soundtracks of John Williams, to name two shining examples, brought many generations’ ears to real orchestral music through a visual medium is something that needs to be continued by torch-bearers and trendsetters such as HBO. There is nothing holding them back – least of all, money.

And lest I be in any way misunderstood, allow me to clarify that I am a big fan of the books, the show, the cast, the theme song and Mr. Djawadi. It’s an extraordinary production that stems from a prodigious imagination. I have (probably less than) nothing to gain from these posts, except that I really want to watch the show. That’s all. And because dragons.


*A sampler is basically a machine or software into which a real instrumentalist has played each note of a scale, and the composer can then play them back in the order of his melody. It’s as though you recorded someone saying every word in the dictionary, and then created a spoken poem out of those words, perhaps adding some inflection where you thought it was cool.

A sampler is a useful tool for composers to get the basic idea of what they’re creating. Expensive samplers can do all sorts of different articulations and dynamics as well – the most famous orchestral one being the Vienna Symphonic Library.

Though one might think this would sound better than a midi, to a string, wind, or brass player it sounds soulless and devoid of meaning. The connection between the notes and the idea within the phrase is lost.DSC02506

10 thoughts on “Addendum to Game of Thrones

  1. You’ve probably already gotten people saying the same thing, but I just wanted to correct your use of the word ‘midi’ – you seem to use it to refer to a non-sampled synthesizer, but in fact it has nothing to do with the sounds produced. Midi stands for ‘musical instrument digital interface’, and is basically the way different electronic instruments can be connected together. It sends messages like ‘start playing a2 at volume 45’, and then ‘stop playing a2’. So when you plug an electronic instrument (whether it’s a sampler, other synthesizer, keyboard, midi harpsichord – no really!) into a computer, or connect a keyboard to a synth, those different devices are communicating over midi.

    So chances are very good that the sampled cello that you’re talking about WAS also using midi.

    Other than that, thanks for the great posts, and boo to HBO for such a ridiculously fake theme song.

    • I would like to add something to your reply Jonathan. Not only is a sampler generally used via MIDI, but VST which Lara mentions above is also MIDI. The distinction Lara makes between samples, VST and MIDI is entirely false. MIDI is simply a digital means of expressing musical notation to whatever trigger one chooses. In fact, MIDI could theoretically play “real” instruments. Remember the skit on the Muppets where Marvin Suds plays the Muppaphone? Well, one could easily use a digital interface to hit singers on the head, or strike strings. If I notate and trigger a piano using this digital language rather than writing notes on paper it is just a complicated version of something like the old player pianos of the late 1800s. If I then hire Olga Kern to play Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 on this piano, it will be able to play back what she played.

      MIDI is a language just as written musical notation is a language. In fact, MIDI is simply a way of changing written musical notation into a digital code.

  2. I can’t really put my finger on why this whole debate bugs me so much. For whatever reason, it’s been brewing in the back of my head since I read the first of the storm of articles about it in the past month. I feel the need to vent and hopefully move the debate along by presenting a complete picture of the situation here at the source.

    I’m a professional cellist in a major orchestra on the west coast. I’ve played for more than two decades of my life, and have made a career out of the instrument. I am also a lifelong soundtrack aficionado, and have been ever since Hans Zimmer blew my young mind with the combination of orchestral music, electronic elements, and crazy deep Navy choirs in the soundtrack to Crimson Tide. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Game of Thrones theme, and even after 3 seasons, I still get goose bumps when the elevator at Castle Black creeps up the wall in the opening credits. Apparently I am in the minority among my classical colleagues when I say this, but I think what Ramin Djawadi has done with this soundtrack is amazing and worth defending.

    First, let’s talk “cello solo”. It’s a real cello. We’ll get to exactly why in a second.

    To me, as a cellist, this sounds like a real cello, albeit a highly filtered, processed one. I think the understated, solemn nature of the interpretation is appropriate to the relatively dark, medieval character of the music and the show. One point I am completely willing to concede – the fake string backing in this particular example is crap. No doubt about that. Yes, of course, live string accompaniment will always be better than fake strings. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will genuinely argue that point with you. I’ve always been able to deal with the electronic stuff, because honestly, it doesn’t bug me that much, but I can fully appreciate where folks are coming from on this one.

    In any case, here are the facts about the cello solo, assembled from the interwebs

    Exhibit A – HBO has issued a statement saying it’s a real cello, found here

    Updated: Following publication of this story, HBO officials reached out to The World with the following statement. “There has been live cello on all recordings and on the series opening itself. Apparently, Lara found a version online which was not ours and made her argument based on that incorrect version.”


    You admitted that MIDI version you initially posted on your page was not the original, and I fully acknowledge that fact. You argue that the actual version used in the opening credits is this Virtual Studio Technology. Fine, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that HBO PR is not being 100% forthcoming about the origin of the solo. Not too much of a logical stretch, so let’s move on to more credible witnesses, maybe a little closer to the source

    Exhibit B – Hans Zimmer, film composer extraordinaire and mentor of/frequent collaborator with GOT theme composer Ramin Djawadi, also says that the cello solo is real, found here, under the username Rctec

    Ramin did it with a real cello…Can’t remember who, right now, but one thing we have at RCP is a grand choice of cellists.


    So what we have here is one of the most respected and successful film composers in Hollywood saying that the solo is a real cello, (not VST) in an industry forum. Hans has no stake in this – he doesn’t need to protect his image, his career is secure, as is the career of Mr. Djawadi. There is zero incentive for him to lie about it. Add to this the fact that Hans and the composers working at his studio Remote Control Productions (RCP) have a long history of working with outstanding live soloists, including world-class violinist Joshua Bell in the phenomenal “Angels and Demons” soundtrack, Cellist Tina Guo in Sherlock Holmes, and cellist Martin Tillman in pretty much every movie with a cello solo in the last 15 years (check out his credits here – it’s actually kind of absurd how ubiquitous this guy is! Tillman also worked with Djawadi on the Iron Man soundtrack, so he would be a prime candidate for the so-far unsung soloist in the opening track of GOT.

    Again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that there is a vast conspiracy to conceal the diabolical truth about the non-existence of this shadowy cellist who allegedly played or didn’t play the theme.

    Exhibit C – In your addendum above, you mention, quite briefly that you yourself received a message from the sound editor for the show, telling you point-blank that a real cellist was used.
    Interestingly, I also received a mail from a Mr. David Klotz, the Music Editor for Game of Thrones, telling me they used a live cello player for the opening credits.

    So I’m assuming from your next statement that you are summarily dismissing Mr. Klotz’s message as part of the HBO veil of secrecy:

    So it would seem that several hundred folks who have spent their lives playing stringed instruments, eight out of nine audio engineers at Warner Elektra and dozens of composers are unable to tell that they are listening to a cello. That’s hard to believe. Really hard to believe.
    Well, so be it.

    Really? OK, cool, we’re not taking the word of anyone even remotely involved with the show, that’s been established. So even disregarding the word of the network itself, one of the most respected composers in Hollywood, and someone who was directly, personally involved with the recording of the piece, there’s still a big piece of the puzzle missing, I guess. Fine, moving on –

    Exhibit D – For me, the single most compelling piece of evidence that the cello solo in the opening theme is real can be found in the rest of the soundtrack: There are GORGEOUS examples of real cello used EVERYWHERE in the show. Here’s a list of the most relevant tracks, there are quite a few more if you listen to the entire albums, these are just the most prominent solos. I can’t link to the individual songs, but if you take just a couple of seconds to navigate to the snippets of just the first two songs on the list – Winterfell and I Will Keep You Safe – you’ll have a good idea of my point, which is this: it is plainly obvious that a real live solo cellist was regularly utilized throughout the recording of the soundtrack.

    Season 2
    6. Winterfell
    19. I will keep you safe.

    Season 1
    3. Goodbye Brother Track
    5. The King’s Arrival
    24. King of the North

    Season 3
    2. A Lannister Always Pays His Debts
    7. You Know Nothing
    9. Kingslayer

    Alright, cello solo dead-horse-beating over…

    I want to address a few other points you made in your addendum. Audio Engineer Jeremy Tuz writes on your page

    To put it in context. I will be recording the music for a three part miniseries which has half the budget of one GoT episode, yet they have still managed to find enough money for us to spend two days with a 65 member orchestra and a day with a professional chorus to record about one hour of original music.”

    That’s awesome, as an active professional orchestral musician, I am obviously fully in favor of hiring live musicians. Game of Thrones has, in fact, been using live orchestras and choir. This is from an interview with Ramin Djawadi regarding the GOT soundtracks. Note that this interview was from April 2013, so he was saying this before the current debate even existed.

    Sometimes at big epic moments we say, “We gotta go live with this.” At the end of the day there’s nothing better than having real musicians play.


    Ok, so that begs the questions – why can’t the whole soundtrack be live musicians? The 3 released soundtracks to GOT are about 3 hours long in total, and when you include all of the cues and music that didn’t make it onto the albums or onto the show at all, the actual amount of music composed and recorded for this show is probably significantly more than that, representing a phenomenal amount of work on the part of the composer and music editors. Even if you only consider the length of the actual shows (about 600 minutes a season) it’s most definitely a larger amount of music than your average movie, and since it’s a fairly music-heavy production to begin with, probably greater than your average drama series on HBO. The budget to hire a full orchestra for every second of the soundtrack would be prohibitively expensive even by big-budget modern TV standards – even Family Guy, ironically renowned as one of the few remaining bastions of full-time real orchestral accompaniment on TV, only utilizes a smaller big-band group for a lot of their soundtrack to a 22 minute show. So instead of deriding the GOT producers for being “cheap” as John Corigliano puts it, maybe give the producers of the show and Mr Djawadi credit for moving more and more towards full orchestra and choir as the show moves forward and has progressively bigger budgets? The finale of the last episode – Mhysa (Season 3 soundtrack, #18) is unassailably full choir and orchestra, with a children’s choir thrown in for good measure, and as a final showpiece, is incredibly moving and powerful. So as an artistic whole, while it might not have started off on a stellar note with the synth strings backing the over-engineered cello solo, the show is moving in the right direction in regards to the music.

    Yes, in a perfect world, we’d have full-time, real-life orchestral accompaniment to everything. I, for one, am ok with the occasional blip of synthesized strings, as long as they go full-on real when it’s most appropriate and dramatically effective. ALL THIS BEING SAID – Of course, I would not object at all if HBO deigned to re-record the opening theme with a real orchestra, but I think it’s unfair to villanize the makers of an otherwise stellar and groundbreaking show for a necessity that is an unfortunate reality of how Hollywood operates. I’m gonna watch the show because I think it’s an amazing piece of work, and it makes me happy. Millions of other people out there (5.39 million and growing, according to Nielsen) feel the same way, which brings me to my final point.

    This whole kerfuffle actually makes me kind of sad – you admit that you are a huge GOT/George R. R. Martin fan, yet from what I can tell, you refuse to watch the show solely because you object to the opening credits. Argh! Each opening sequence is a little less than 2 minutes long. The total running time of the show is around 1800 minutes for all 30 episodes, so allowing for the presumed fast-forwarding of the opening sequence, you’re missing out on around 1740 minutes of multiple Emmy-winning, Kevin-Spacey approved AWESOMENESS. Seriously. Disregard this whole debate, and forget everything everyone has said. Do yourself a favor and just watch it. I PROMISE, you will not be disappointed. It’s so worth your time, and the soundtrack just gets better as the series goes along. Really. Do it for the dragons.

  3. You ask, “Can it be that there is a whole generation out there that doesn’t like real sound because it’s real sound? Like a person raised on fast food being unable to stomach haute cuisine, or lifelong city-dwellers fearing the woods?”

    A very closely-related phenomenon has actually been studied and documented: there has apparently been — at least in the subjects of Dr Berger’s eight-year study — an increase in the *preference* for compressed audio (e.g., MP3) over fuller-spectrum equivalents (e.g., AIFF/WAV); see, for example, Yes, you read that correctly: people tend to PREFER compressed audio to the uncompressed version of the same song.

  4. Pingback: Lara Takes On HBO and Game of Thrones in an Open Letter | Saurian Saint

  5. Pingback: Invite Them In to the Game of Cellos (and Real Music)

  6. I appreciate the way you have called this out to public attention. I had a similar complaint about the show, “Grimm” in which one of the characters (“Monroe”) purportedly plays the cello. In one of the episodes they had a short clip of him playing, and they dubbed in synthesizer sound. A cellist friend here in Portland had been hired for a couple of days to coach the actor on how to “look like” a cellist — why not hire him, or some other professional musician to actually play the clip, instead of using a synthesizer?

  7. After carefully listening with excellent headphones to a number of different uploads of the G.O.T. opening credits, I can indeed confirm David Klotz’ statement – that is a real cello, and a real cellist playing. Just very cleanly, with spot on intonation, and a cello that is slightly nasal in tone. It’s especially evident in the shifts of position, and a couple of audible string ‘creaks’ on the eighth notes. Also, the vibrato is slightly varied among notes of the same pitch.

    I also thought, when watching the show on TV, that is was fake, simply because it sounded too clean. But take it from a fellow cellist, that cello is the real deal. 🙂

    That does not defend the use of synthesizer strings in the rest of the music though! 😉

  8. Hey Lara, with the new season coming out, can you write a new article to update this issue? I still think you should campaign HBO to use all real strings for the main theme. Yes, they used a real cellist, but it’s hard to tell with all the fake strings in the background, and it sounds canned because of it. Also, you should try to find out who the real cellist is… obviously its someone who can play so consistently that they can fool professional sound engineers!

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