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.