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The top-selling video games today use 18-year-old sample libraries

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by Eric Nething, Nov 28, 2022.

  1. I found a spreadsheet that details the virtual instrument patches used in video games spanning the 1980s to now. It tells an interesting story about the history and development of instrument libraries, and paints a completely different picture from what the marketing teams at current sample library companies would have you believe. Music in games must meet a higher standard than in film, because the player may listen to the same song for hours at a time. Music that is poorly written or sounds unpleasant will quickly upset the player. Below is a summary of what I see listed again and again across the decades. The release date for each library is listed after the title in parentheses.

    1980s
    • Lots of Roland, Yamaha, Korg, and Kurzweil synths
    1990s
    • Best Service (Peter Siedlaczek's) Advanced Orchestra (1997)
    • Lots of Roland, Yamaha, Korg, and Kurzweil synths
    • Zero-G drums and loops
    2000s
    • Best Service (Peter Siedlaczek's) Advanced Orchestra (1997)
    • EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra (2004)
    • EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs (2005)
    • XLN Addictive Drums (2006)
    • Zero-G drums and loops
    • Lots of Roland, Korg, and Kurzweil synths
    2010s
    • EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra (2004)
    • EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs (2005)
    • Apple Loops
    • Apple EXS24 (2007)
    • Native Instruments Massive (2006)
    • Spectrasonics Omnisphere (2008)
    • XLN Addictive Drums (2006)
    • XLN Addictive Drums 2 (2014)
    • Sample Modeling Trumpet (2008)
    2020s
    • EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra (2004)
    • EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs (2005)
    • XLN Addictive Drums (2006)
    A few recent and well-known games for which everyone loves the music, and for which I have never heard any complaints about the sound. Some of these may have been complemented by live recordings.

    Elden Ring (2022) - 17.5 million copies shipped - $1 billion gross revenue
    • EWQL Symphonic Orchestra (2004)
    • EWQL Symphonic Choirs (2005)
    Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (2014 WiiU / 2017 Switch) - 57 million copies shipped - $3.4 billion gross revenue
    • Apple Logic Pro Stock Library
    • Best Service Ultra Gigapack (1990s)
    • EWQL Symphonic Orchestra (2004)
    • Kontakt Factory Library (early 2000s - 2012)
    Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) - 29 million copies shipped - $1.7 billion gross revenue
    • Apple EXS24 (2007)
    • Apple Loops
    • Best Service (Peter Siedlaczek's) Advanced Orchestra (1997)
    • EWQL Symphonic Orchestra (2004)
    • Kontakt Factory Library (early 2000s - 2012)
    • Roland Fantom X (2004)
    • Sample Modeling Trumpet (2008)
    • Spectrasonics Omnisphere (2008)
    Super Mario Odyssey (2017) - 24 million copies shipped - $1.4 billion gross revenue
    • Apple EXS24 (2007)
    • Best Service (Peter Siedlaczek's) Advanced Orchestra (1997)
    • EastWest Hollywood Brass (2011)
    • EastWest Hollywood Percussion (2014)
    • EastWest Hollywood Strings (2010)
    If you spend any time at all reading the opinions of virtual instrument library "connoisseurs", you will know that most of these libraries are labeled as "outdated" or obsolete and unworthy of use. But you can clearly see that the professional composers who create acclaimed music for billion-dollar video games do not agree. There were only a few cases where I found slightly more recent libraries being used in big-name titles, such as Final Fantasy VII Remake from 2020, but even these still used much older libraries.

    Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020) [does not include Intergrade] - 5 million copies shipped (not updated since 2020) - $300 million gross revenue
    • EWQL Symphonic Orchestra - Cymbal and Harp (2004)
    • Cinematic Studio Strings - Full Ensemble (2015)
    • XLN Addictive Drums (2006)
    • CineBrass Pro - French Horn Ensemble Rips (2012)
    • Kontakt Factory Library - Marimba
    • Metropolis Ark 1 - Bass Trombones (2015)
    This is further evidence to support the idea that tools play an insignificant role in the outcome, and it is up to the composer to write good music. The latest deep-sampled library with 10 dynamic layers and 24 microphones won't make any difference. Just as many of the best performances of classical music -- still regarded as such today, were recorded over 70 years ago in mono on a single microphone. Learning to effectively use the tools that you already have requires effort and persistence, as does any worthwhile pursuit, and there is no shortcut you can purchase.
     
  2. As an addendum, enjoy these demos from the following libraries (click on "Hear" underneath the price):
    And read the reviews of these libraries upon release:
    Both sound great. As I dig deeper into the history of virtual instruments, I become more convinced that sample libraries have not fundamentally changed for at least 25 years, with streaming large samples from disk being the biggest innovation, and due to the rapid increase in power of computer hardware, and the corresponding rapid decrease in cost, it has become more widely available to everyone with an interest in creating music. The Sample Modeling Trumpet from 2008 marks the next largest innovation that eschews samples in favor of modeling, only using samples to obtain impulse responses. I believe Aaron Venture uses the same idea in his wonderfully ergonomic libraries. In the last 10 years, there has been a greater interest in the ergonomics of using a virtual instrument, leading to the development of clever legato programming and alternate ways to switch articulations. These are minor enhancements, but very much welcome for better quality of life.
     
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  3. Very interesting list!

    Just as a side note: The games you have listed most likely had real musicians and orchestras playing.
    There are behind the scenes videos where you can see that Elden Ring was recorded with the Budapest Film Orchestra and Mario Odyssey was also recorded in a studio.
    And I bet the others have a good portion of live musicians too, at least the Nintendo titles (they seem to value good music).

    So they probably used the libraries to extend the sound I guess.

    I like the point you're making and think you are right, but I also think that no one should think that they can produce the sound of these games with these libraries (if any), because for that you need real musicians.
     
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  4. Of course, you are right Michael. Today, the top games (with huge budgets) use live performances for the music, but they are always augmented with samples. The ratio of samples to live recordings varies depending on the budget and timeline. I am not sure how much of Elden Ring uses samples; it may be small. It is difficult to tell from the end credits. Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario Odyssey credit live performances, but obviously use a lot of samples for the huge variety of music present in the games. Final Fantasy VII Remake only credits a string ensemble, some vocalists, and some soloists, so I imagine that samples were used heavily in that soundtrack. The spreadsheet is incomplete, so no one can know for sure except the people who worked on it.

    The advent of live music performances in games became feasible in the late 1990s with the industry-wide adoption of the CD, but even today, most games only use live performances sparingly, typically for vocals and solos (and for the most important songs), because those are the most difficult to do convincingly with samples. As game budgets have increased, I have noticed more live performances. But when you need to create 3-4 hours of music for a game (which seems typical, considering the soundtracks in my collection), that would require 3-4 times the recording budget compared to a feature film, which tends to have about 1 hour of music.

    For the original Final Fantasy VII released in 1997 on PlayStation, there was not enough space left on the 3 discs to contain the huge amount of music composed for the game, so a decision was made to embed a midi player and sequence the music in real time. It sounded worse, but everyone still loved the music. Dragon Quest VIII (released in 2004 on PlayStation 2) used only samples for the Japanese release, but a live orchestra was recorded for the western release in 2005. Strangely, Dragon Quest XI was released worldwide with a sample-based soundtrack in 2016, then an updated version of the game with new content was released in 2019 that included a live orchestral recording. I bought the game mostly for the music. Most of my examples are of Japanese games, so there may be other factors involved in the ratio of live performance to samples.

    For Japanese games, it seems common to release the soundtrack in full, which is usually 3-4 hours in length. Later, a new concert recording may be released for a smaller portion of the score not more than an hour long. There have been at least seven different soundtracks released for NieR: Automata, all of which are new arrangements and performances of songs from the original soundtrack. Final Fantasy XII (originally released in 2006) was remastered in 2018 with a brand new arrangement and a live orchestral recording. The care and attention afforded to music in Japanese games is commendable. I thought it may be an interesting topic to bring to the attention of everyone here, as most of us are probably not aware of the wealth of great music hidden in video games.

    Some incredible game soundtracks which I believe to consist solely of samples include: Journey, Child of Light, and Shadow of the Colossus. I suppose an additional point I am trying to make with this thread is to not let tools hold you back from creating great music. The 4 (or 8) channels of beeps and boops in some earlier games contain masterpieces.
     
  5. I feel very, very validated in my beliefs seeing this sheet. I've never understood the argument that sounds are outdated. A good sample is a good sample. Sure, older products typically have more limited controls, but you can still pick out all the great stuff and sometimes limitations can actually inspire more creative use. And actually, older libs are typically not locked down as much. So when that one day comes when iLok servers or NA license servers go down and no one can work anymore, I'm still good.

    The hipster in me also likes the idea of using sounds that hardly anyone else uses because they dismiss them or don't even know the exist.

    Having watched my fair share of Farkle's videos (Michael Worth), I know he still uses a ton of (reprogrammed) old libraries, some of which sound absolutely great. Dan Dean Brass anyone? Westgate Studios? London Orchestral Percussion?

    This video from Michael is very insightful and inspiring imo. Stars around 16 min mark.

     
  6. I'm mildly disappointed that EWQL is still being used on various scores, because those libraries are a pain in the arse to balance and engineer. On the upside, it's a good reason to not buy more sample libraries and finally set up a more complete orchestral template.

    I'm also kind of skeptical about the degree to which some of those games utilize the score. Uematsu is a highly praised composer and has written numerous live symphonic arrangements for the Final Fantasy series, and it's relatively easy to hear the main themes being real orchestras. That said, I think there's close to 6h of music in the FFVII remake so a good deal of the more repetitive ambient themes are undoubtedly samples. Ditto Mario and Zelda, given their even larger budgets, but reading back through the comments I think Eric covered this point well -- there's no way a 3-4h score would be entirely live.

    Would be curious to see what they do to those libraries and how they get them to sound good, although I'd wager most are being used in the context of "full and loud" or otherwise less nuanced music (i.e. non-main themes).

    Mike mentioned his template is a good deal more simple now though, would love to see it in an update class.
     
  7. I realize this thread is a few weeks old, but I'd add some things:

    Almost every game on the list is Japanese in origin. Excluding the ones that enhanced/replaced the samples, it seems to be a thing in the Japanese music industry to hold on to older hardware and techniques.

    You will still hear quite a bit of J-Pop that is using classic 80s and 90s sounds by Roland and Yamaha (Japanese Companies). Throughout the 2010s even, there were still plenty of Japanese video games that were using old ROMpler patches for the score, and many games that have come out even in the last 10 years from Japan still have PS2-era graphics. So at least the Japanese market still seems to enjoy these older aesthetics.

    Another thing worth considering that the indie market is massive now, forms the bulk of the industry, and the "retro aesthetic" is really popular there because its most affordable and technically feasible for a homebrew game to do. Some of those indie-games have become best-sellers.

    I'd bet though, that if you examined the scores of best-selling American and European games, many of which are now employing Hollywood composers unfortunately, you will definitely see a lot of the newest and most-expensive toys.

    Also:

    Most film composers in the '90s avoided video games because of the low-quality sound. MJ famously backed out after having composed the soundtrack to Sonic 3 when he was disappointed in the Genesis' soundchip and didn't want his name on it.

    The reason that a lot of older video game music was so good is twofold: The first is that, with the NES only have three channels and unable to play chords and just using beeps and boops for music, you really had to know what you were doing in polyphonic writing and composing a catchy tune in order to make something worth listening to. The other is that, before Metal Gear Solid and video games convincing themselves they are in competition with and need to be films, games offered a lot more musical freedom and generally the composers were pop/rock musicians who primarily wrote songs and not incidental scores. So they specialized in crafting earworms.

    Castlevania doesn't require all this meticulous, dramatic underscore: It just needs some badass gothic-tinged rock song or something that vibes with the level and slaying vampires. So that opens up a lot of possibilities, and you don't have to sacrifice as many good musical ideas to suit the picture.

    In closing: It's true that the general public isn't really bothered by lower-production quality, but I don't think that means that you should just accept it. There are indeed still people, like Tobias Scheel, composing amazing pieces with SO Gold, but those same pieces would still sound markedly better with better samples that have superior programming, vibrato control, more ornamentation and articulations, etc. or best yet — a live orchestra.
     
  8. I paid attention to a lot of the music from the FFVII remake and it sounds pretty clear that the "primary" compositions are done by orchestra, which doesn't surprise me given the renown that Uematsu has and his overall orchestral competence. The areas that sound more "programmed" are background areas with repeating music that attempts to create atmosphere. I'm not really sure doing these sections with Berlin strings, or whatever X new string library would really make much of a difference given how in-the-background and generic they are. If you're trying to make music that sounds more like a real orchestra, you'd obviously spend a lot more time trying to make samples sound realistic, but there doesn't seem to be a great need in larger-budget settings. As was pointed out earlier, there are often multiple composers working on a game in order to fill out all the "extra" music in addition to the forefront composer (how else would they have 6+h of music for a game?), and it's likely that a standardized "palette" of instruments and libraries are used. It seems like a ProTools phenomenon more than anything else -- is it the best program? Unequivocally not, but everyone uses it, so best get used to it.
     

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