The huge number of high-quality virtual instruments on today’s market is a blessing and a curse. It has become fairly easy to create professional-sounding music, including large orchestral scores. However, this development entails the risk of many composers ending up with a very “clean” and easily recreatable sound. That is why, when composer Christian Henson (Alien: Isolation, Assassin’s, Creed IV: Black Flag) founded his own company selling sample libraries, he tried something different. We sat down with him during SoundTrack_Cologne 13 and had a talk about creating and using sampled instruments in this day and age.


Christian Henson at Soundtrack_Cologne 13

Since founding Spitfire Audio with Paul Thomson in 2007, Christian has come to learn that there are two types of music makers: “Those who gather sounds and those who make sounds,” as he puts it personally. He himself belongs to the latter kind and always has, going to junk shops and finding things that create interesting sounds.

One day, before Spitfire existed, he brought home a Charango – a small, guitar-like instrument – from a folk shop and rang up his bass-playing brother to help him create a virtual instrument from it. However, while recording the notes, Christian asked him to use a different part of his finger every time and to provoke, or at least permit, small imperfections that were different from note to note. The result was what Christian described as “the best sample I had ever heard in my life.”

Thereby, the core principle of Spitfire Audio’s sample libraries was born; to make every note of an instrument sound different and unique:

I think the difficulty you have if you take a finely-tuned Steinway to studio-sample, is that it all sounds the same. Whereas if you take something that’s maybe 80 years old, every note sounds different, so you instantly get the human variety that the ears are striving for.

Wealth of Content vs. Wealth of Performance and Character: Two schools of sampling

Nowadays, Spitfire consists of a big team that is not only united by a belief in the “Spitfire way”, but also by a unique and efficient workflow. “One of our biggest libraries we turned around in two weeks; from the minute we started recording to the minute we released it”, Christian told us. However, they have collaborated with some composers (and their teams) in the past, including Hans Zimmer.

Thinking back, Christian said: “I think there are two different approaches to sampling, and Hans has a very exact, scientific approach. What he goes for is wealth of content which gives you the natural variety that you need: dynamic range, round robins. Whereas we at Spitfire go for a wealth of performance and character.” However, you don’t have to be Hans Zimmer to be considered for collaboration with Spitfire Audio. The most important prerequisite, according to Christian, is that you be a maker of sound rather than a gatherer.

Flexibility vs. Uniqueness: Spitfire’s pre-curated imperfections

Wealth of content and wealth of character, it seems, can only coexist to a certain degree: A very clean library aims for flexibility, whereas a purposely imperfect one aims for uniqueness. However, even this character, Christian admits, is somewhat pre-curated, since the imperfections are stuck on their respective notes. This, in turn, may open up possibilities for creative use or, in some cases, a creative workaround. In Christian’s words: “I think there are always ways of hacking that.”

As an example for the uniqueness Christian Henson is going for at Spitfire Audio, you can watch a short video about Olafur Arnalds’ ‘Evolutions’ sample library below:

Behind The Curtain – Olafur Arnalds 'Evolutions'

“You can just continue sampling forever.”

Those who don’t see this focus as an advantage should still keep an eye on Spitfire. Who knows, maybe in the future, their libraries might include round robins of different imperfections – or even keyswitches to choose between them? While this would be amazing, Christian seems to plan on sticking to the (very successful) current Spitfire formula: “I guess what Hans learned many years ago and what we’re learning is basically: You can just continue sampling forever.”

The personal urge for better sampled sounds got Christian started in the very first place back in 2007 and so, despite himself selling sample libraries, Christian encourages every composer to create their own virtual instruments. Read more on this topic in our upcoming article on sampling advice by Christian Henson. In the meantime, consider visiting Spitfire Audio‘s official website for more information on their sample libraries.

You can watch an official video about how Spitfire was founded below:

Behind The Curtain – Spitfire HQ

Posted by Julian Colbus

Freelance composer, producer and sound designer at Mediacracy Music.

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