Cinematic Composition

How to create haunting and expansive scores by layering and processing virtual instruments
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The term cinematic music has been used to describe everything from the grand orchestral work of John Williams and the hybrid scores of Hans Zimmer to lonely, solo piano textures. Over the past few years, powerful plug-ins and sound libraries have been released that greatly expand the palette for composers who score music for film and television. In this article, I’ll demonstrate how to create haunting and expansive scores through the layering and processing of virtual instruments, using some of my favorite software as examples. The notated music for each example can be viewed online at


Ex. 1 is based around a soft piano sound. The chord progression is simple—G minor, Eb, Bb, D/F#—and the minimalist part creates a dreamy atmosphere that sits very well against dialog. The library I used is Spitfire Audio’s “Gwilym Simcock - Felt Piano,” part of their Producer Portfolio series. They sampled a hand-crafted, German instrument with the “celeste” pedal engaged (sometimes called the “practice pedal,” because it dampens the strings with felt and makes them quieter). The result is a subdued, haunting tone reminiscent of Thomas Newman’s soundtrack for American Beauty and Gary Jules/Michael Andrews’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” in the film Donnie Darko. Spitfire makes some of the best Kontakt libraries available: Their programmers come from the world of film scoring, and it shows.

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The depth of sampling in Spectrasonics Keyscape makes it ideal for cinematic work. From this collection, I layered “Celesta Orchestral” over the piano part to add texture. “Celesta Orchestral” has the just right amount of reverb, which places the instrument behind the piano and creates depth, widens the soundstage, and gives the cue a magical feel.

I also used Keyscape for a simple whole-note bass part, choosing from the selection of electromechanical keyboard basses. I particularly love the “Vintage Vibe Tine Bass,” which lets you dial in rawness and grit using the Tape control. Lately, I’ve been substituting these instruments in places where I used to use more generic, sine wave-based sounds. Sub-bass instruments can also be used to make a composition feel bigger.

U-he Zebra, one of the most powerful plug-in synthesizers available, was added next to create an un-pitched, atmospheric percussion part. I also layered a patch called “Seigen” from a third-party library—Zebra Gravastar by The Unfinished—with delay provided by Soundtoys EchoBoy.

The final texture features chords from the ProjectSAM Kontakt library, “Lumina.” The patch called “Orchestra and Choir Chords” is going through the Waves J37 Tape plug-in (modeled after a vintage tape machine from Abbey Road Studios) to make it dirtier and add delay.

To glue everything together in an acoustic space, I used a touch of Hall reverb from Audio Ease Altiverb (I love their “Phillip’s Hall”) and put Izotope Ozone 7 on the master, where the preset “Enhance stereo image” widened the mix perfectly.


Some amazing music has been coming from Iceland lately, and Ex. 2 is inspired by the stark tonalities that island nation has produced. For this track, I started with an organ sound—the “Arnold Layne” preset in Native Instruments “Vintage Organs,” a library based on samples of a Farfisa Compact. The lack of midrange frequencies in this part left room for me to use other instruments to fill out the top-end. The musical figure is based around simple two-note chords, and I processed the part through a Pro Tools spring reverb plug-in to make it sound even spacier.

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Strings are a big part of cinematic music, and I tend to favor smaller, more interesting string ensembles over huge “Hollywood string” sonorities, because the character—such as bow noise and other imperfections—really comes across when you use fewer orchestral elements. I love Spitfire Audio’s “Evo” series, which animates the strings in a very interesting way. Here, I used the Evo Grid 01 Strings file “b Evo Strings Warped” to add an icy layer on top of the organ. The musical figure is an ascending two-part melody.

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Orchestrationally, I like to make strings suspend or go over the bar lines. Don’t be too concerned about notes lingering that are not in the chord. Resolve them and all will sound great.

Spectrasonics Omnisphere has some of the most playable sound-textures available. I chose “Amber Grains of Tibet,” which provides an organic, almost insect-like quality to the track, then settled on u-he Zebra to create a rhythmic bell tone that builds tension.

Piano Sounds: Uprights Versus Grands

A large piano is not always the best choice in every application. There are major sonic differences between uprights and grand pianos, which often sound louder and have more pronounced bass. In my work, I tend to choose pianos that have lots of character.

In Ex. 3, I scored the same eight-bar phrase for a variety of sampled pianos to give you an idea of some good choices for cinematic sounding music. For upright pianos, I chose the patch “Upright with Overtones” from Native Instruments “The Giant” (Kontakt); Sampletekk “Rain Piano” (Kontakt), an instrument inspired by Tom Waits’ Mule Variations; and Sound Dust “Ships Piano” (Kontakt), a mini-upright designed for use on boats.

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For grand pianos I chose Cinesamples “Piano in Blue” (Kontakt), a faithful re-creation of the Steinway piano used on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue—and my personal favorite; the “Yamaha C7 Grand Cinematic” from Keyscape, a huge sounding modern grand; and the “Fazioli Concert Grand” from Imperfect Samples (Kontakt), based on a handmade Italian instrument by Fazioli Pianoforti.

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Final Thoughts

When creating cinematic scores, be bold with processing (e.g., long reverb trails) and think about contrasts. For example, if you have a very dark sound, put something bright next to it. And always avoid generic sound choices. Remember that cinematic music is about taking your time to build repetitive patterns, create atmosphere, and craft the emotional arc of a scene.


New York-based keyboardist, composer and producer David Baron has written jingles and TV theme songs, and his work appears on recent albums by Lenny Kravitz and Meghan Trainor. Baron is currently scoring the feature film Ashes and Snow for the acclaimed artist Gregory Colbert, and he teaches Audio Production and Film Scoring at Bennington College in Vermont. Visit him at