Printer-friendly version weekend vote: Game of Thrones: Real cello, or midi?

The Weekend Vote

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Published: February 16, 2014 at 4:02 AM [UTC]

Why would a wildly successful, high-budget HBO series with lavish costumes, special effects and exotic locations fail so miserably with its music?

That is, why would it use a midi cello solo, instead of one recorded by an actual cellist? Lara St. John asks this question in a blog she wrote this week entitled Lara Takes On HBO and Game of Thrones in an Open Letter.

In fact, Lara apparently felt so strongly about the problem that she actually paid professional Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli -- at 1.5 scale -- to record the music in question, to GIVE to Game of Thrones.

In your expert opinion, which version of the "Game of Thrones" music sounds better? Real cello, or fake midi? Let's chime in below, to describe why real strings matter!

Fake cello midi version:

Version with real cello:

So which one gets your vote?

Posted on February 16, 2014 at 4:09 AM
I don't really understand this article. The real Game of Thrones main theme which is being used by the TV show and also appears on the soundtrack features a live cello.

So what's the point of this?

From Christian Linke
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 4:10 AM
I don't understand this article.

The actual Game of Thrones main theme, which is being used by the TV show and also appears on the soundtrack, is featuring a live cello, unlike this first video in the article.

The linked blog post of Lara Jt. John is also written a little too lurid, especially since it is based on false assumptions. This here is the actual Game of Thrones main theme, and clearly features a live cello:

Finally, the "real cello" version Of Lara St John has some serious pitch issues..

What is the point of all this?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 4:29 AM
I'm not so sure that's real cello in that Youtube, Christian! It sounds awfully dead to me. And when it comes to "serious pitch issues," I kind of wonder if people have developed an ear for dead-static autotune pitch.
From Christian Linke
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 4:47 AM
Laurie, the cello in the actual main theme, and not that fake on in the article, indeed is a real cello.

And no, pointing out a 10-20 cent consistently sharp pitch is not having developed an ear for dead static auto tune pitch...

Yes, live strings are great and will always sound better. But talking bad and in a very condescending manner about HBO and Ramin Djawadi based on the assumption that they are using a midi solo cello in their main theme is plainly wrong. You can argue about their editing of the cello recording, sure. But it's 100% a live cello, and this article's original Game of Thrones theme is not accurate, and the whole article is therefore pointless.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 4:51 AM
Who is the cellist?
From Christian Linke
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 4:59 AM
Probably Martin Tillman, who plays all the solo cello material for Zimmer, Gregson-Williams, Djawadi etc., who all have their studios in the same building complex here in Santa Monica.

Midi instruments only work well for string sections, not for solo instruments as you can't fake the individual textures of the transitions between the individual notes. You can definitely tell when it's a midi solo instrument. Once again: In the Game of Thrones main theme, it's definitely a live cello. The phrasing of the notes is not possible like that with a midi cello. You could definitely argue that the frequencies on the cello signal sound somewhat harsh and could be more pleasant.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 5:00 AM
Listening to the Youtube version I must say, What phrasing? I guess the question is whether it's a midi version or not. It's very straight and sounds pretty flat (not pitch wise, but in terms of musicality). If it's a real performance it's been so altered as to sound computerized! When it comes to pitch problems in the live version, I think that it's pretty hard to make a live recording that's going to go over tracks that have already been laid, but I do see Lara's point, which is that it's nice to have something that sounds like a live instrument. And if they cut corners and didn't even bother to do a live version, which is her point, then I think that's a pretty sad statement of priorities. It happens all too often in projects that have HUGE budgets. Even pop songs -- why not have a actual musicians playing the string parts? It does not cost SO much extra, and it makes a difference. I do find that there is more energy in Lara's version.
From Christian Linke
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 5:07 AM
... the faster notes have no vibrato. the longer notes do, and they have a vibrato that develops based on the tempo of the music. a midi instrument is not able to do that. are you sure you are listening to the right version? once again: the first video in her article and the music that comes with it is not the actual game of thrones main theme.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 5:14 AM
I also think it's interesting, if it's a real cello there, that so many people assume it is midi and find it horribly annoying!
From Christian Linke
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 5:18 AM
Laurie, for the love of god, for the last time: Because the video that you and Lara are showing as the original theme is NOT the original theme. The music in the video you are showing and referring to indeed is a midi cello, but it is NOT the actual music piece, it is a different version! How often do I have to repeat myself...?
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 5:19 AM
People say it about watching the show; that's the thing that annoyed Lara so much, and other people have said the same. Lara has a pretty good ear, too. And owns a recording company.
From Christian Linke
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 5:21 AM
I give up.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 6:44 AM
As it turns out we're both wrong, Christian. It's not midi, but it's not live. It's very likely this, VST: Sounds just as dead to me as midi.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 6:51 AM
Behold our replacement:

From Andrea Ridings
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 9:01 AM
Here are the facts. This is not a midi, but actual musicians performing in the credits and throughout the show, every season thus far. The actual composer of this music is Ramin Djawadi and the performers are Czech Film Orchestra and Choir in season two onward; however I have not found the actual musicians for season one (most likely, this is hidden information on the season one soundtrack due to an HBO contract or producer contract... a problem that was obviously resolved in the later seasons). The two videos included here in this blog are covers of the original music and are NOT EVEN CLOSE to the recordings in the actual show. So there you go.

Here is the legit opening music to the show.

From N.A. Mohr
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 3:20 PM
Cool! There's hope for me making a recording! LOL...

The thing I like best about 'real' music is that it isn't perfect - that there is variability, and dare I say it...mistakes. This adds richness and life.

'Perfect' can often be perfectly dull.

...and yes...everyone's definition of 'perfect' and of what constitutes a 'mistake' will vary...I can only make generalizations.

Posted on February 16, 2014 at 5:05 PM
Here is my favorite version of the Game of Thrones Theme, played by real string instruments.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 6:10 PM
A series of "real cello" samples that are stitched together and manipulated by computer don't sound the same to me as a real cellist/musician playing a piece of music.
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on February 16, 2014 at 8:17 PM
Can there be any real doubt about which is better - living music or dead synthetic? It's almost like a debate on the relative virtues of plain gut v. synthetic core strings ;)

On two occasions recently I was required to listen seriously to midi versions of two substantial works, one a concerto for double bass with orchestra, and the other a 6-movement suite for strings. The composers of these works were also the respective conductors of the two orchestras that were to give the first performances. The composers had composed at the computer keyboard, so it was an easy matter to produce study CDs of the music in midi format. In view of the structural, harmonic, and contrapuntal complexities of these two works (can't composers compose simple music any more?) it apparently made sense to the composers/conductors for their musicians to get a preliminary idea of what the music sounded like before the rehearsals started.

However, I can't say I enjoyed listening the midi CDs, even though they helped me to understand what was going on, but the live rehearsals and performances in both instances were far more enjoyable. The double bass soloist, in particular, took the concerto to his heart, and I believe it is now part of his repertoire.

By the way, I don't know what this "Game of Thrones" is. Is it a computer game, a TV series, or a movie?

Posted on February 16, 2014 at 8:54 PM
I'd like to be very clear about something. The music from the first video is definitely HBO's own Game Of Thrones theme. I know this because I spent 99 cents on it.

You can find it here. It is called Main Title.

It is most certainly a computer generated cello sound. It is not a real person.
All my best, Lara.

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 19, 2014 at 3:34 AM
I chose "MIDI." The MIDI track was more faithful to the overall heavily (artificially) re-textured sound of the recording. The real cello, while definitely providing more verve and punch, sounded disconnected from the track, sort of like someone playing along to "music minus one." Someone above suggested it was an intonation issue. I couldn't really hear that, but my pitch sense is not the greatest.

These devices do not threaten real stringed instruments or performers thereof, just as the existence of chess software that can destroy a grand master is not a threat to human chess. Like all such things they have their proper place and can be used to great effect, by us.

Interesting related book: "Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession" by Joe Mansfield. I have a digital piano that I love and an Alesis drum machine (which my violin-studying 11-year-old daughter figured out how to use and then showed me), and I often practice jazz tunes using the iRealPro Android app on my tablet as a bass/drums accompaniment. It's very limited musically (it's essentially non-musical) but I think of it as a less annoying metronome.

PS I have never seen "The Game of Thrones." Such things do not interest me at all.

Posted on February 19, 2014 at 12:28 PM
Hans Zimmer has confirmed it's a real cello in the original. Although he really didn't need to - it's obvious to anyone without cloth ears that the solo strings are real, and the sections are fake. - it's mad to see people saying stuff like "Yeah - it's totally obvious that the original sounds midi and terrible" just because they're swept up in the indignation and they expect it to sound bad. Fake instruments where real ones are possible is a worthy thing to criticise, but this particular case is a non-starter. Unless you were to try and record a 40-piece string section to replace the fake one?
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 19, 2014 at 6:29 PM
Regarding the post about, this is from the "Virtual Instruments Composers Forum"?????

How is a live cello and a virtual cello the same thing? A live orchestra and a "virtual orchestra"? Are we living in a time when people, even musicians, really are convinced these are the same thing?

I want to know if a cellist actually played the whole thing, or was it made from "real cello virtual samples" and done on a keyboard?

Posted on February 19, 2014 at 9:45 PM
It's a forum for composers, regarding (amongst other things) virtual instruments as well as real ones. For reasons of time, budget and occasionally aesthetic, virtual instruments are often used in productions rather than real ones.

I don't understand where the ambiguity you're seeing is from. Hans Zimmer (posting as Rtec in the linked forum) confirms that a real cellist played the part.

Many virtual instruments sound very, very good indeed. Samplemodeling, orchestral tools, spitfire audio and others are doing brilliant things for composers. All of whom jump at the chance to use real instrumentalists when the possibility is there.

No-one is saying that a virtual cello which uses cello recordings/samples as a starting point would be considered as 'real' by anyone, apart from in the context of 'sounding real' which many virtual instruments do in the right setting. But regardless of their effectiveness, no composer would use the term 'real cello' when they're referencing a virtual one.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 20, 2014 at 12:14 AM
Ah, the cellist is "can't remember who." I'll back down when we have a name. :) If it is a real cellist, seems he/she should be credited.
Posted on February 20, 2014 at 6:09 PM
Deary me..! As I've already said, it's a live cellist on the original recording. The performance is restrained and suited to the style of music, but it's a real cello. Now confirmed by HBO as well as Hans Zimmer:

"*Updated: Following publication of this story, HBO officials reached out to The World with the following statement. "There has been live cello on all recordings and on the series opening itself. Apparently, Lara found a version online which was not ours and made her argument based on that incorrect version." "

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