Lara Takes On HBO and Game of Thrones in an Open Letter

(NOTE to all the hardcore gamers out there: please read this before commenting: http://wp.me/pBqA1-4q)

Dear HBO:

I am a violinist and the owner of the Ancalagon record label. I excitedly looked forward to your Game of Thrones series in 2011 as I was awaiting the fifth book. I could hardly wait for either. As the season went on, I found it increasingly difficult to watch the opening, which features a pale, pallid, pathetic computer-generated imitation of a solo cello.

I did some research on this rather unbelievable oversight. Your choice of composer, Ramin Djawadi, certainly has many interesting scores to his credit. Though I am aware that Mr. Djawadi had a relatively short time to create the score and theme, I find it well nigh impossible to imagine that he could have simply forgotten to add the cellist to the theme song.

The only explanation I can muster is that he must have been constrained by budgetary concerns. Well, let’s look at the facts.

To hire a solo cellist in L.A. for a three-hour recording session would cost you 1.5 to 2 times scale (scale being approximately $236). So, let’s say the session would have cost, at the highest rate, $472. That would break down to, over the ten episodes of Season One, about $48 per episode. There would also be residuals payable to the cellist for the DVD release of that season – about the same amount.

I can only conclude, that, although you spent a reported $6 million to $10 million per episode, you were too tight to add fifty bucks to achieve musical integrity. Instead of an exciting, genuine, red-blooded cello solo, you went with an insipid simpering milquetoast midi version. I am surprised that Mr. G.R.R. Martin has not spoken out regarding this, since his considerable imagination deserves far more than a theme played by a fake anemic ghoul, which every true musician has to disgustedly wince at. Frankly, it’s enough to make Tyrion retch.

Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to help you! Herein is not only your original opening theme, but also your opening theme as it sounds with a real musician (Rubin Kodheli, the fabulous Albanian cellist), so you can compare. Not only have I already paid Rubin for his work (1.5 times scale), but we are providing the real cello stem, at no cost to you! to replace the flaccid forgery currently infecting the opening of your title sequence.

Please do me (and everyone) this favour. I have had to suspend my viewing of Game of Thrones from halfway through the first season out of principle. This makes me very sad, since I also live with a little dragon, and we want to find out what happens to Daenerys and her boys.

Very sincerely yours,

Lara St. John

Your original version (complete with helpful video!) can be found here: 

A vasty improved, true musician version (complete with video) can be viewed here: 

The Cello Stem, which I am donating to you, is here: 

58 thoughts on “Lara Takes On HBO and Game of Thrones in an Open Letter

  1. THANK YOU LARA and RUBIN! I’m a GOT fan and the midi cello opening has driven me crazy from the start. Hope HBO jumps on this! –Amy B

  2. Yup. What she said. And this, folks, is why we adore Lara. As if the awesome playing, lil dragon, general all around coolness factor weren’t enough…

  3. Fantastic! Total kudos to you for doing this. Please tell me you got some sort of positive response from them…
    Your dragon is beautiful by the way 🙂

  4. I agree with everything you say here except your math. In order to add the live cello, you need to add studio, recording, and mastering costs — probably a few thousand bucks. Still important, likely still doable within their budget, but doing this for $472 is not really practical. No offense intended, but your recording makes my point. As fabulous as the performance is (and I really do love it!), the recording is not broadcast quality. A professional engineer, a good studio, and professional mastering is every bit as important as the performance.

    BTW — your dragon is beautiful!

    • Dear Mr Weinman.

      You have a point. I did pay my professional engineer, Lawson White, for his time and his marvelous studio (http://goodchildmusic.com/studio), which I neglected to mention in my letter. He gave me a friend discount, but I should have added another $400 to my total.

      The recording (with real cello), is in fact recorded over the existing HBO track which we purchased as an MP3, and, as Lawson remarked: “It sure sounds like horses hit” (blog won’t let me write the precise way he pronounced that). Basically, there is no way to properly master something which is done on top of an existing multitrack.

      We’d really like to retrack the score itself, but seeing as I have already spent quite a lot of money on this project, I’d prefer it be the rather more flush HBO which ponies up the shekels for that somewhat larger undertaking. Whatever they may have spent on their recording, Lawson says: “give us 10 percent of that and I’ll make something with you guys that sounds 10 times better.”

      Hope to have the chance! And thank you, I relayed the compliment to my baby dragon, and he seemed quite pleased.

      Lara

      • Hi Lara, My name is Jonathan Wilson and I build alternative bowed string instruments called GuitarViols which Ramin Djawadi owns (an acoustic and and electrocoustic). (My instruments are used widely by a lot of known composers in their workflow and have been over the last 12 +years) As you can imagine, I get asked a lot about the GOT theme. From what I understand, the GOT theme was a “done deal” (previous composer of pilot) before Ramin had the gig and he sort of inherited the rest of the scores. Apparently, they never screwed with the original mock-up/draft after that. What you hear in the episodes would be Ramin’s work (some may include GuitarViol, some not). I can’t say for sure because I don’t watch HBO – GOT (or True Blood – Nathan Barr – a cellist/guitarist/composer who also uses GuitarViol). Also, should point out iZLER with ABC’s “Revenge”….It’s so hard to keep up! (alway a joy to hear it when I do though 😉 Anyway, all the best and wish you luck with your proposal/endeavors! Cheers!

    • Nonsense. Any composer working in the business has good microphones and preamps and is perfectly capable of producing a recording of more-than-adequate quality for $472. Furthermore, ‘broadcast quality’ is a mythical standard. Lara’s point is that ‘broadcast quality’ in the current case is a cello sample, over which her recording, whose quality you deride, is already an improvement.

    • Anton. Even I, a tone-deaf, non-musical, football loving and self-indulgent waist of space, can tell 2 things strait away. [1] The original sucks in comparison to the updated version in energy alone, and [2] you need a LOT more practice at being a comment troll – big fail dude.

      • Nice grammar, faggot. It’s written “waste” & “straight” , you’re welcome. How about learning how to write before attempting to tell me how to comment properly?

        You are a pathetic human being.

  5. Not a musician, and I was like, “Oh, how much difference could it really make?” But then I listened to the different versions, and yeah, wow. You’re right!

  6. Lara St John, thank you for the bearing the standard for live music! The first version is a pale, limpid affair next to the second which portrays the seething, passionate and often gory substance
    of the series!

  7. and now allow me to play devils advocate:

    maybe programmed cello was used as a stylistic choice? that is, in order to go along with the intro visuals depicting the sterile mechanics of politics, war and industry as CGI cogs and gears

    the entire show has this same artificial veneer over every facet of the production. did the CGI dire-wolves not bother you?

    my favourite scene in this entire series is where tyrion butchers an apparently real deer-carcass in his tent. this scene has so much gravity because its the first time something ‘real’ is happening.

    in conclusion:
    CGI, and digital music production has an unintentional side-effect of creating dramatic contrast with the ‘real’ parts, and adding 40 seconds of real cello would ruin the entire show and make it a massive financial failure

    • Since you seem to putting yourself out there as an expert, it behooves me to point out that in “your favourite scene in the entire series”, it is Tywin Lannister, as played by Charles Dance, that butchers the deer. And it is a real deer carcass Mr. Dance is butchering in that scene.

      Your analysis of the costs of a TV production and the artistic decisions made is juvenile at best. You revealed yourself to be the kind of fool that Tyrion Lannister would take down with one clever quip.
      Lesson: get your facts straight before playing devil’s advocate, lest you inadvertently reveal yourself to be a buffoon.

  8. Pingback: V.com weekend vote: Game of Thrones: Real cello, or midi? | Music Teaching Center

  9. I’m sure all of the “purists” on this board routinely write impassioned blogs every time they hear a giant media conglomerate/corporation use a MIDI drums….

    I wonder where all the outrage has been for the decades drummers have been dealing with THE EXACT SAME THING.

  10. Excellent post–And Excellent performance of that opening! I want to add, as a professional orchestral, session player…it also bothers me MORE about the fake orchestra in the back because it’s not 1 musician replaced, it’s many. The new version is obviously better, but still “Karaoke” in nature. A session, with players (not synth) would be about 15-20 players– It wouldn’t be $400 –maybe more like $6-8k–but with their budget it wouldn’t be much and negotiating a reasonable scale with any Local Union would be easy. With orchestras dying and live music going away-in movies, ads, shows–it’s sad that movie/game composers are not utilizing the Full sound they can get–in the name of money. Cut on the sets or costuming. A little less detail in 4 gowns worn would pay for the LIVE musicians. My friends at Dancing With The Stars orchestra can tell a story–Disney replacing them all. Sell one more Ad on Prime Time to pay for them. My friend’s son is studying film scoring in Valencia Spain as a Graduate student from the Berkley School,of Music. ALL their assignments are done first with midi and then MUST USE live musicians in a studio session within that same week. They are training those kids to know film scoring is only great with REAL musicians skilled on their instruments. The States? I don’t know a school where they use live musicians as a normal part of their curriculum. Lara, This is a great start for the cause-Thank you-AND we need more soldiers like you to make those stands. All the best–your Vegas buddy-DeAnn. 😉

    • Well, in the States, off the top of my head, I can think of the decades old standard bearing Berklee College of Music, which was never “Berkley” and hasn’t been the “Berklee School of Music” for 40 years. It is also the original institution of which the small Valencia satellite is an offshoot. Of course they use live musicians as part of their curriculum. Where do you think their Valencia program’s curriculum comes from?

  11. I’ve never been bothered by the synth cello sound. While your arguments are valid, I always interpreted it as a stylistic choice. While your version is certainly a more updated and musical interpretation, I feel that the original has more of a period, almost medieval feel to it, which in my opinion, is appropriate for the show. That said, I love trolling the interwebs and hearing all the variousr emakes of this theme, yours included. Well done!

  12. Dear Lara,
    While I wholeheartedly agree with your opinion regarding the superiority of human performance over mechanical, the sad truth is that the vast majority of the people in charge of television and movie production cannot tell the difference and DO NOT CARE.

    I speak from nearly 30 years of experience as a professional music editor (25 of those working on THE SIMPSONS).

    The bottom line dictates ALL creative choices in our business which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it means saving a buck is much more important than spending a few extra; on the other hand, if the show is popular and enough bucks can be saved, then the show will have a longer run, employing more people (maybe just not a cellist).

    Perhaps Mr. Martin cares about the sound of a live cello, perhaps he cannot tell the difference. You’ll have to ask him.

    To further illustrate my point, let me share an incident that occurred between an Executive Producer and a Composer on a TV movie I worked on about 10 years ago. The composer had presented the entire score to the producer in synthesizer form (known in our biz as a “mockup”) for approval before the recording session with the live orchestra. At the recording session, all went well until the recording of the FINAL CUE. The producer pulled the composer aside and asked what he had changed from the mockup to the orchestral version. The composer said, “Nothing. It is note-for-note the same as the mockup.” The producer didn’t believe the composer and the discussion became rather heated and testy. I stood nearby and listened to the producer’s argument and it became clear to me that he detected the difference in sound between the synth and the orchestra and came to believe that the composer had “changed” what had been approved. The producer could not be persuaded that day, but we had to go ahead and finish. Afterward, the composer sent the producer a CD with the synth version and the orchestral version of the cue in order to prove that they were “the same”. The producer was finally convinced, but not ultimately happy – he preffered the synth version.

    This story is an example, ironically, of a producer who COULD tell the difference between synth and organic music, but the point is that the person in charge is the one who makes the decisions. Maybe they PREFER the synth track (ugh), maybe they’re saving money, maybe they’re saving some time. Whatever the reason, composers just have to smile, nod, and comply and fans will just have to stew.

    • Hey Chris…great point. Years ago I was puzzled by the intentional use of synths on scores of big network shows by composers who I thought should know better (what bass player didn’t cringe on first hearing the fake bass that has become iconic for “Seinfeld”? Or what clarinet player didn’t scratch their head every time they heard Mike Posts’s theme for Law and Order?). Only after years of working in tv and film and experiencing stories like the one you shared have I learned that producers, for whatever reason, sometimes prefer a synth sound to the real thing. They hear something in that sound we don’t (and we hear something that they don’t!). But, strange as it may seem, those sounds do become iconic. If you replaced the synth bass on seinfeld, there would be an uproar. I can’t say that will be the case with GOT, cause the midi is terrible and the show has a classic epic traditional score that should use real instruments. But the way different people hear and respond to music is one of those deep mysteries in life. And further to that, some people have no taste.

  13. Wow, what a great article! As a cellist, I really appreciate and like the message you’re spreading!

    Just a few points:
    1.) The composer scored the music not just for cello, but also violin and viola. Your video above actually exemplifies my next point, which is that mixing an real acoustic stringed instrument with its synthetic equivalents often has less than desirable consequences. It’s not because the acoustic instrument doesn’t sound good. Actually, it’s because the acoustic instrument sounds so real and dynamic that it gives away any synthetic instruments which may accompany it as, well… fake. This is one reason I was never a big fan of Vanessa Mae, Bond, or Trans Siberian Orchestra. The combination of real and synthetic instruments leaves much to be desired. The only way to overcome this is to use all synthetic instruments, or all acoustic instruments. The latter option is obviously much more expensive and time consuming. It does work quite well when dissimilar instruments are used (Lindsey Stirling for example) and synthesizers are allowed to be synthesizers rather than stepping on the toes of the stringed instrument they are meant to be accompanying.

    2.) Your recording also exemplifies another point. When using synthetic orchestral instruments you are often using sampled sounds. The samples are of real instruments, though the computer controls things like bowings and dynamics. Because the samples were recorded with set microphones and in set conditions which are unknown to any recording engineer who wasn’t there;it becomes extremely difficult to match an acoustic instrument recorded in entirely different conditions (different space, different mics, a different cello) to the sample library used to render the violins and violas who accompany that cello.

    3.) If you listen to the entire piece of music which the intro theme is taken from, you’ll hear that they did in fact use a real cello starting at 1:40 in the soundtrack linked to here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-TOHc7I1pc

    Notice however that there is minimal ‘orchestral’ backing. The contrast between the real cello and the fake violins and violas isn’t so apparent when you use only a minimal arrangement of those synthetic violins and violas. The real cello continues all the way until the recapitulation of the main theme where the synthetic cello is reintroduced.

  14. As an orchestral musician who has worked with hbo in the past on full scores, I agree with this but surprised to see no mention of the underlying orchestra being also fake.

  15. Lara, you stirred up lots of great thought! You hit #HBO right in the alto clef. How many jobs are there in pit orchestras now? Now watered down to synthesizers and one lone live violinist. Keep it up & love your pal too. XOXO from CANADA

  16. I SO agree. This is an interesting theme song which has been stripped of the vitality and raw energy of the rest of the show.
    HBO: Please don’t be corporate assholes and fail to engage with smart people like Ms. St. John because of some wrongheaded conception that good PR means NOT admitting when you could be better.

  17. Brilliant!

    Music for many seems to be little more than a space filler, not a work of passion, heart & soul.

    We drummers & percussionists have endured midi for longer than most. It seems laughable that people spend longer on creating a midi track than it would ultimately have taken to use a real musician that they are trying to imitate anyway.

    Tools are tools; but when tools become a means to an end it’s time to ask whether the plot has been lost.

    Also love your iguana 🙂

    Take care & keep up the good work.

  18. Wow thank you so much for this insight! It really saddens me (as a cellist) that industries still do these types of things when there are 1,000’s of musicians who would do such a big job as this one for cheap! I’d love to see this get huge so the producer/composer/creator could have some kind of response! Who know’s maybe they’ll use your version!

  19. I would really recommend doing a change.org or one of those websites. Just to get their attention. It would work, there are plenty of musicians out there who notice the midi use and would love a real version.

    Just a thought.

  20. Thank you for scratching a rather pernicious itch I’ve had since I watched the first episode. It’s ironic that all that beautiful CGI imagery on the screen during the title segment would have been terribly difficult (probably impossible) to do using traditional means while the soundtrack was weakened terribly with the unrestrained use of synth instruments.

  21. Lara St. John rocks. Right on! Using gag-me-with-a-spoon MIDI in so many of these cases is just that: nauseating. It’s true that 99% of the series producer tribe can’t hear the difference and don’t care. BUT if they were to understand that a lot of their audience DOES hear the difference –partly thanks to their own ears, partly thanks to your educational efforts– then it would become more possible to put our collective foot down and simply say THIS ISN’T DONE. It’s like polluting the ears of their entire audience! Not to mention the economic slap in the face to all musicians. I suspect, however, that the money question here is a red herring. The real interest in is having a dumbed-down, passive audience. Nothing like mediocre pseudo-music –or in this case, instruments– to help that particular process along.

  22. I too prefer real instruments, but I think that at this moment it is simply cool to make a soundtrack with poor quality samples or synth instruments. It is like in any scene: trends come and go, and live music will return in the future, as never computers will be able to do what a real musician can do. At least, not in our lifetime imo…

  23. Pingback: No expense spared but one | Miranda Wilson

  24. I don’t usually comment on things but since it annoyed me, I just wanted to point out to everyone that the ‘original’ theme video Lara has linked is NOT the version used in the opening credits of the show, it sounds like a somewhat convincing cover using MIDI cello (that she’s uploaded herself, unlisted). The music actually used in the opening credits of the show uses real cello. Search on Youtube, you’ll hear the difference.

    • If you would like to read more – you can. However, the actual opening credits are fake string instruments, and in no way is it a real cello. If you disagree, please take it up with 8 (of 8) engineers at Warner in LA who all agree that it’s a fake cello.

      All my best, Lara

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