Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Will virtual sounds replace live music?

Last weekend I received an email from a student at Los Altos High School asking me for my thoughts on "digital music." He was trying to figure out if live music will be replaced by virtual sounds. What follows is a copy of the letter on the subject. By the way, this is certainly a great topic to utilize the comments feature on this blog. Hint, hint. :-)

(Written by Daniel Wood to a HS student in Los Altos, CA)
Glad you're taking this topic on. A great many people in the American Federation of Musicians have been talking about this for years. However, some of the recent advancements in technology have created an environment with disturbing trends. Synthesizers have reduced the numbers of musicians in Broadway pit orchestras. Musician unions, under pressure, reduced the minimum number of musicians required for services. Samples of live musicians utilized in notated programs such as Sibelius and Notion now offer the ability to tap a tempo with real-time playback thus allowing one person to literally tap an entire score.

For more information
1. Call the SF Musicians' Union (415)575-0777. Ask them for more resources on this topic.
2. Investigate the software NOTION online. There are higher end products out there that can do the same things with much more realistic results. However, this will give you a feel for it. Scroll down to hear Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker using this software.


Q) Do you believe that digital music can replace an orchestral sound?

A) I feel that, ultimately, digital music can get incredibly close to replicating an orchestral sound. If samples using live musicians are used, it can be very convincing. I heard a score at the beginning of April that sounded very realistic. It was a trailer for a movie. The composer was in Utah and was pitching the idea to a producer in Los Angeles. He did it in one night. It wasn't quite right, but very close. Enough to get the job.

The one thing that digital music will take a long time to do is interpret the same performance differently. Variety is a quality that some of us hold very dear. It will be a while yet until digital music not only replicates the sound accurately, but interprets the music in the myriad of ways that live musicians do.

That said, digital music is already replacing orchestral sounds on albums for rock, country, r&b, classical, jazz, soul, etc. If the audience isn't discerning or doesn't care, it is hard to justify the extra expense of hiring an entire orchestra for a studio session or tour.

Q) Do you think the increase in use of digital music has made it harder for you to find employment as a musician?

A) My focus is on solo performances and chamber music. I have never relied on studio work, musical theater, symphonic work, opera or ballet as a means of income. Also, I utilize digital music technology in my solo shows a great deal, so for me, I've actually seen more opportunities emerge as a live musician with the advancements.

That said, I have noticed trends in the employment for my peers and colleagues. The hardest hit has been studio work. When a visual component serves as the dominant medium of an art form, then all other aspects - such as audio - become secondary. This can also be said for modern-day musical theater.

While there has been a reduction in services and size of the ensemble from time to time for symphonic, opera and ballet work, I do not believe that digital music has been the primary cause for this trend. While opera and ballet do have a strong visual component, I think that since these arts forms are more traditional and fine art in nature the music gets equal footing.

Q) What kinds of new things has digital music enabled to you to do in the creation of music?

A) Live looping. Playing with an accompaniment. Ability to hear ones composition in a way that somewhat reflects how it will ultimately sound. Effects - reverb, delay, distortion, etc.


Pattyoboe said...

I went to see the musical Cats (please don't ask why! ;-) ... and they used 5 musicians with a lot of keyboards programmed to sound like instruments. And yes, I could say, "Ah, that was supposed to be the horn section." But it was laughable (or "cryable") and my son agreed.

Still, I heard no complaints from the audience, which was distressing.

Now there is a new machine (or program?) that has been put togehter by Chris Raphael, a former Bay Area oboist (sigh) ... that will follow a soloist, matching tempi and pitch. He says we are foolish to worry ... and I worry anyway.

I'm enjoying your site.

QUADRE - The Voice of Four Horns said...

It is all very troubling. I mean, the technology is coming whether one wants it or not. The troubling part for me is that, as you said, there don't seem to be any "complaints from the audience."

I guess as we die out (LOL), we will continue to share the joy of music played with beautiful imperfections.