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Convincing proof that sample libraries cannot replace orchestral musicians!

You may think that anything an orchestra can do can be done using a sample playback software and a good sample library. But here is totally convincing proof that it cannot be done - from an unexpected source!


We have come a long way from the days when orchestral musicians tried to have sampling technology outlawed because it was doing them out of business.

It has done them out of business and there's no-one left to sue anybody!

No, that's not quite true. Because as good as sample libraries have become, they have never been quite as good as the real thing

But now one library - Garritan Orchestra Libraries - has put their technology to the test and created a demonstration sequence that takes a single piece of classical music - Dvorak's Ninth Symphony - performed by a real orchestra, and using their Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO) sample library, and intercuts between the two.

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The intention is clearly to show just how good the Garritan library is. In fact, it achieves the exact opposite - it demonstrates that the real orchestra can wipe the floor with the sample library.

It's not a small difference, it's George Foreman versus the 'tough' new kid on the block.

The differences are firstly in the texture of the orchestra compared to the blandness of the sample library. The library is like real fruit yogurt, but with the 'bits' sieved out. A massive difference.

That alone would be enough to convince. But there are details too...

  • The string samples sound thin, as though the orchestra used for the samples had only a few players in each of the string sections.
  • The real orchestra has a convincing sense of space around it. The samples are disembodied and unfocussed.
  • The dynamics of the orchestra, particularly hairpin crescendi/decrescendi are exciting, the samples are all pretty much on the same subjective level.
  • Sequences of similarly played notes in the samples have very similar dynamics where the orchestra shows much more variety.
  • The orchestra sounds well blended, the samples sound as though they were a real struggle to mix.

So the undoubted conclusion is that the only choice is the real orchestra. The GPO sampled alternative is a pale comparison.

Having said that though, there is a cost comparison to make. It is massively expensive to hire an orchestra for a recording session; the GPO costs a mere $249, and you can use it as many times as you like for that.

The budget for many TV programs is nowhere near enough to hire a real orchestra, even for one episode, so for a richly textured soundtrack, the GPO, or a library like it, is the only viable alternative.

Although the GPO is not yet serious competition for a real orchestra, one has to wonder what will happen when samples do eventually catch up.

But don't take my word for it. Hear the comparison for yourself...

By David Mellor Sunday November 13, 2005