Spitfire Audio Official website
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your sample libraries?
We’re a sample company founded by two composers, myself, Christian Henson & the brilliant Paul Thomson. We started the company because we were very unhappy with the orchestral sample libraries that were available at the time. Our approach was to do what we feel other libraries were failing on: To record performances not samples, to record the room, and in a live room, to record and include imperfection and character, but most importantly to record the best musicians playing the best instruments in London, England. Over our first 4 years we created a bespoke and exclusive range that covered the entire panoply of the orchestra. This was a deeply sampled elite line offered by-invitation-only to a limited number of users (at quite a price!) and we were delighted when a number of A-list Hollywood composers decided to go with our solutions and were very happy.
We also had a lot of encouragement from the VI community who watched on in envy and decided to release a commercial range of 5.1 mic controllable products to share our findings with the world at large. By getting the best session players in the UK we felt it only fair to pay them a substantial voluntary royalty from sales. We also feel that composers starting out deserve a leg up so offer generous unrestricted educational licenses to anyone who is either a teacher or student. We have a policy of not running sales or bundling packages so that we can keep the whole range as reasonable as possible to everyone all of the time.
Our range is basically split into three categories. A “definitive” range designed to lead it’s field as a VI a certain instrument or instrument group. Within this range we have the comprehensive percussion library, the greatest session harpist in the UK, solo strings, a harpsichord and a contextual grand piano.
We also have our “Albion” range which is sets of orchestral compositional tools designed to give customers that “British Sound” right out of the box. Albion I has won many awards and is an all-you-would-need range of instruments, tools and devices to give you that modern cinematic sound. We are expanding on this range with Albion II – Loegria out later this year.
Our final category is Spitfire Labs which are smaller experimental and esoteric one-off VIs available for free save a minimum donation to Unicef via our Just Giving page. To-date we have raised over £10,000 for Unicef and are their 4th largest donor via Just Giving.
How do you prepare or should we say, how does one start making sample libraries?
Having written over 30 film scores I go about it the only way I know how and that is to do it exactly the same! I think this is where our success lies, we simply recreate the film scoring environment and aim to record a score one note at a time, not as a series of samples. This process from experience is a detailed and forensic one with us scheduling exactly how much time we need getting the best orchestrators out there to provide parts and a fantastic fixer to make sure no big scores are being recorded anywhere else in town that day so we can get the crème-de-la-crème.
How long does it take to make a sample library? (recording, mixing, programming etc.)
Roughly the same time as hewing a length of string! It very much depends, we find each day in the studio gives us about one month of work in post production. We’re a small cottage-industry company and don’t employ dozens of programmers and beta testers. We find the best way to test our instruments is to use it in anger on the many productions we’re involved with as composers at any given time. It not only debugs it helps us to hone the tools to fit the needs of demanding schedules and budgets.
Can you give us a little insight on your creative process? (microphone placement, equipment used, vst software)
Urm, well I have to be careful not to give away the nuclear codes.
But I’m surprised you place the focus of the process on the equipment! It’s surely about the players and their instruments! We have remarkable relationships with many players who understand our philosophy and that this is a new totally legitimate income stream for British Musicians. So once you have the best player available to do the job, the rest is not easy, but certainly easier to realise into something truly special.
Our approach re. mics and medium changes between our definitive and Albion ranges. Albion is much more stylized so we go for an all ribbon/ valve selection of mics and record to 2” tape. The definitive tends to be a bit more a of a scientific and purist approach.
At Air studios you only get the best. Vintage mics including some priceless M50s Neve Monserrat mic pres, into a fantastic neve desk, studer 2” then into pro-tools at 24bit 96k, 5.1 surround via prism AD converters. I think you’d struggle to find a better signal path.
Other than that we simply record everyone in situ just as we would for a film with no apologies made for the sample recording process. For us the direct signal is only a part of the sound, the room is crucial as it not only provides that crucial “multiplication” in it’s early reflection it also impacts back and resonates the instruments but also effects the players performance. There is an interaction between the room and the instruments and players. Reverb units add none of these facets so in a lot of other libraries this is totally absent from the sound and very difficult to recreate.
The other key area is to “produce” the sessions and this is where our experience as composers come into playing. We know, specific to our area of expertise – film – what sound we need how to get it and how to get every sample to sound different and individual with the requisit number of warts ‘n all. How “wrong” we can go before requesting a re-take.
How much sound design is involved in making sample libraries?
We’ve started doing more and more of this with our Albion ranges. I find that synthetic/ other-worldly sounds are easier to mix into orchestral music if they are derived from an organic source. So we sound design in a quad format, where the surround information is derived from the true surround information. Even when the sounds are mangled out of all recognition this helps to maintain a relationship between front and back that is reactive and genuine.
What inspires you to make such amazing products?
Why thank you. Film composition… It’s a very difficult job so why make it more difficult by using tools that require impossible levels of craftsmanship to work into any listenable form. Why not simply take a film score one note at a time so that we can put it back together in infinite different forms quickly and easily and without a furrowed brow and a tired mouse scrabbling for hours at end upon a dirty mouse mat.
I am also a patriot and believe there is a wildness running throughout the cultural history of Britain. It is this wildness that has inspired the greats, from Shakespeare, to Blake, through Dickens and Longfellow. It was our ambition to capture this wildness so that it can inspire other composers and hopefully re-enforce and promote the idea that Britain is a wonderful place to come and record a film score. I was working on an Adam Sandler movie once and after one particularly offensive and inappropriate comment made by yours truly (I’m known as “potty mouth” to my peers) during a score shoot, Adam turned and said “I’ve got it now, you Brits, you’re just a bunch of savages…” I think he got it just about right.
Any specific “lessons learned” on a project that you could share?
Don’t book trumpet players in the mornings! The reason we have such an eclectic bunch of musos in London is it’s very unique cultural demographic. There are two opera houses, several world class concert halls, 80 odd pits (in the theatres), half a dozen world class symphony orchestras, the BBC, the pop movement and the film & TV session scene, with Abbey Road and Air considered to be amongst the greatest recording studios in the world. This means in any single brass session line-up you can get someone who has led a section of the LSO, played part of the ring cycle at the ENO, players who have done »ma ma mia« and »Chitty chitty bang bang« played on stage with Coldplay, done two sets at Ronnie Scotts and played an impossible concerto piece with an esoteric new music ensemble at an obscure chamber location all last night!
Trumpeters are more likely to be working the pits, the culture their are very different from the Royal Opera House, so 9 times out of 10 they’re knackered and don’t fancy holding there instruments up for 3 hours after jusy 6 hours sleep, with possibly a bit of a sore head for other reasons. This has been the surprise for us. Sample sessions can be difficult on the lips of blowers but the real test of endurance is physically holding their instruments up for that length of time.
How can a composer approach you to become a demo writer for your sample library? (Do you accept demo reels from composers?)
We don’t currently have a scheme like this but are considering it. The difficulty I have is I always think demos are a bit fibby. I go on about recording musicians in a real world scenario, conversely are most demos made as you would working as a modern-day jobbing media composer? I am currently having to produce about 10-20 minutes of fully realised orchestral music a day and cannot remember the last time I got to spend 2-3 days, a week even on 2-3 minutes of music. So my question would always be, »nice demo, how long did it take, and what hours did you work?« and if the answer is »April« I’d be a bit suspicious of the samples! This is why we’ put up our real-world mockups and walk-throughs. However there are plans for a users demos section of our site if nothing else to promote the talents of our fantastically enthusiastic user-base.
What are your plans for the future?
Now that would be telling. To have more fun, meet more brilliant musicians and composers…. Oh and to fight to keep Air Studios open!
Any tips, hints or motivational speeches for the readers?
Develope a good taste in music and find a voice. If you’re trying to sound like someone else it’s likely that there’s someone else who does that better, quicker than you and did it some months ago. You are 180 degrees and 360 miles behind the minute you start even writing. If all you listen to are popular sound tracks then you are allowing someone else to dilute reduce down and decant for you their lifetime’s consumption of music. Buy full orchedstral scores of the greats and read them whilst listening to them. I recently read Holst’s Planets and got more inspiration from that in the first 16 bars than I had from going to the cinema for an entire year. Consume as much good music as you can, immerse yourself in it. Don’t obsess, find a composer, listen to his or her stuff and then find out what she or he listened and then get that and move on. Eventually these great works will inform every decision you make and if you’ve been listening to the good stuff you’ll naturally make good decisions.
If you play an instrument, that is a strength from which you can create your own voice. Even if you’re crap at it…. I think 21 grams by Gustavo Santollala is one of my favorite scores, he plays an electric guitar simply exposed, primitive, just 3 or 4 notes, but boy they’re definitely the right notes. Buy instruments you can’t play and use them for your scores. Switch the computer off and write a good tune. Spend all day doing that, not making a legato string line more believable….. it just doesn’t matter. You’re only as good as you’re tunes, and a good tune’ll sound good on anything. When you switch your computer on make sure there’s a mic attached to it and use it!
But most of all, look after yourself. It’s a long competitive grind and it’s pointless to kill yourself in the process. An Oscar winning composer once said to me »I always thought the composer of the future would thank the younger me for all the work and time I put in…. Well I AM that composer of the future and I don’t thank myself one bit!«. Take at least one day off, every week. If you don’t your music will be shitter, and you wont be as productive it’s a simple fact. If your producer doesn’t like it say you’re spending time with you’re family, I have not met a producer who has queried that ever. Eat a good balanced diet and never do any drugs of any sort in your work place, whether it be pot, alcohol, charlie or tobacco. Your workspace needs to be a healthy space, save it for after! Go for long walks. Your tunes don’t come in dark rooms in front of computer screens, they’ll come from a walk down parliament hill (or up it if you’ve taken my health advice). Or a tune may come from out of a independent record store in Soho.
Finally. For those who are at the start, in your early 20s. I want to say something that all the courses seem to be missing. It is not directors who hire you it’s producers. A composer is a head of department and producers don’t hire composers, they hire heads of department. If you haven’t been a head of department a lot of times before they probably don’t want to hire you, because they’re not sure if you’ll be able to deliver, and they wont have a producer friend of a friend who has worked with you and can vouch for you. They don’t give a shit if your the next Vangelis if you’re going to keep them waiting six months for a score they’re going to run out of money to keep their kids in private school and they don’t want this to happen. If you haven’t been a head of department before and you look like a child they definitely won’t hire you. Producers are often north of 45.
If you’re 25 no matter how well that goatee is coming on, you will look like a child to that producer, hey you may even be the same age as one of his or her kids. He or she will not hire you. Even if you’ve done 30 short and student films with the young protege director they’ve hired, they’re not going to hire you they are going to surround that young protege with the most seasoned HODs so he doesn’t make a total Horlicks of it. So, it’s highly likely that you are not going to get your first proper commission until you’re well into your 30s. This is a fact of life. So get as much experience of life as possible. Travel as much as possible. Immerse yourself in music. Produce pop acts, program dance music, write some concert music. Conduct arrange, orchestrate, copy. Make yourself and your mind as interesting as possible so you become interesting and your music becomes interesting. Help other people make their scores. Don’t copy what they do creatively, or try to nick their sounds but observe the way they act as an HOD as much as possible. All the boring admin, the people skills, being able to throw out weeks of work without having a nervous breakdown, how do they do that, ask them. How to fudge something in minutes when an indecisive director decides he suddenly hates what was formerly his favorite cue, all whilst there’s 60 sullen musos facing you behind a large sheet of glass. Then fling on a rucksack get on an EasyJet and go to Prague for the weekend and drink beer and listen to some Dvorak in the Rudophinium.
I speak so vociferously because I can assure you I didn’t in any shape or form follow any of the advice above. I’ve ended up in hospital and nearly died because of my ridiculous »work ethic«. And as a consequence I lived through my 20s in penury, mostly unhappy, always hungover, thinking the world had something against me, and slowly shaving years off my life. I don’t think I went to the park in 15 years! I certainly didn’t go in the sun for ten, so now I can’t go in it at all. Please don’t do what I did it’s not worth it!!!
Two final tips. PRO TOOLS!!!! They don’t teach it at schools…… which is nuts. It’s the ONLY universal music software, so you need to be advanced. Get really really good at it, then composers will want you to assist.
Finally, and this is for any composer, novice or seasoned (and in my case pickled). Read this article. Our industry is infested by them, and it’s good to be able to spot the signs so you know what you’re dealing with and how to avoid a really really nasty experience: