Take The Adaptistration Classical Music Challenge

The Guardian Unlimited published an article on 8/20/06 about how the Vienna Symphonic Library, a new software package designed to reproduce the sound of acoustic instruments, is capable of mimicking “human musicians in the performance of greats such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart so convincingly that a casual listener to Classic FM would be unable to tell the difference”. At first, I was intrigued but after hearing a file of the music myself I think it’s just hyped-up hogwash, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun with all of it…

I took the time to listen to some of the audio samples they have on file at the Vienna Symphonic Library website and in my opinion, all of the orchestral sounds immediately struck me as sounding computer generated. As such, I’m sincerely beginning to wonder if the entire digital reproduction of acoustical instruments and the human voice is beginning to plateau.

I remember a course I took back in my conservatory days – 15 years ago – that was all about acoustical engineering and how people perceive sound. At that time, the professor played a recording of an aria produced by a computer generated voice. Keep in mind, this technology was in its infancy back then but I remember being amazed to hear something that sounded like a human voice knowing full well that it wasn’t. At the same time, I would never think anyone you would mistake it for the real thing.

These new recordings based on the Vienna Symphonic Library have certainly improved on that older technology by adding more basic musicality to the performance but it still maintains a telltale sterile quality that is just as instantaneously recognizable to me now as the aria was 15 years ago.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I think the technology isn’t without potential. For composers, I think it has promise by allowing them to hear their music on something besides the sound of a piano. However, I can also see it easily becoming an unintentional crutch, or even worse, an impediment capable of preventing them from reaching their true potential.

Computers are still “garbage in, garbage out” oriented machines. As such, even the most talented programmer/composer simply doesn’t know each instrument of the orchestra well enough to fully take advantage of its inherent properties regardless of the quality of sound sample. Even now, I know some top notch composers at the top of their game that are still unfamiliar with the intimacies of several major instruments and, as a result, they are only going to improve their skill as they grow and learn about those instruments by spending time with master musicians that specialize on them.

As a result, composers that rely heavily on digitally reproduced sounds to realize their works will run into some tough times when they (hopefully) begin working with an orchestra comprised of live musicians. In fact, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if in the next five years, the majority of conservatory trained composers left their undergraduate study (or worse, graduate level study) never having heard their work performed by an ensemble of live musicians (I’m assuming that isn’t the case already). As such, composers that rely too heavily on this sort of technology will only end up placing artificial barriers on their own potential.

Worse yet, from an administrator’s point of view, it becomes more and more tempting to substitute real musicians with these virtual doppelgangers. When I attended conservatory, we had an ensemble called “composer’s orchestra” that served as a training tool where composition majors could learn their craft by having a full 80+ piece orchestra at their disposal. This wasn’t a class that instrumentalists took for credit; instead, they had to audition their way in and were paid for their time (not great, but any money from playing as a conservatory student is good money).

I can see many such ensembles evaporating as bean counting administrators decide that a virtual substitute will do just as well as the real thing. Of course, there’s a larger issue that impacts professional musicians when this technology is combined with an interface that allows an individual to playback sampled orchestra music in real time (I published an in-depth article about that topic here). Unscrupulous managers and concert promoters will undoubtedly abuse this technology and I don’t look forward to the future battles that will certainly erupt in that ongoing war.

In the end, the more I think about the concept of virtual orchestras, the more I feel it has a small, narrowly defined place within the larger context of all classical music. Even though the current salvo of sound from the Vienna Symphonic Library might sound impressive now, it will undoubtedly sound as artificial to me 15 years down the road as does the computer generated aria I heard 15 years ago. And in another 15 years, I’ll be surprised if the latest, greatest virtual orchestra will be any different.

What do you think? Listen to the two samples below and then follow this link to vote for which one you think was created using the Vienna Symphonic Library and which one you think was created using a human orchestra (no trick questions here, there’s one of each).

Sample #1 – Edvard Greig, Holberg Suite, Mvt. #1, 4.8MB MP3 file
Sample #2 – Edvard Greig, Holberg Suite, Mvt. #1, 1.2MB MP3 file

After you’re done, feel free to submit a comment to expand on what you thought and why.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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6 thoughts on “Take The Adaptistration Classical Music Challenge”

  1. It was obvious from the first bar of music that this was the “android” band. You can sample live music all you want but in the end it is still “dead”, i.e recorded. So the techno geniuses recorded a recording. I call it hydrogenated music, it has been rendered, like its nutritional counterpart, inert, of no value. Like the processed food, it has no value or ability to sustain. Yes, sampled orchestra fits the American Corporate model of profits over the health and well-being of the consumer (read the Omnivores dilemma) but it will always be a lowcost, low quality substitute for a real artistic experience. On the plus side, unlike olestra,the virtual orchestra will probably not cause rectal leakage.

  2. After many years of listening to various harpsichords and learning to differentiate their tones, I am pleased that my ears have really learned to distinguish what is humanly possible. Sustained production of the same note without variation, without emotion, is what the good old moog synthesizer used to do.

  3. There are obvious ups and downs to this, but those issues are revisited every time something new like this pops up. In general, it must be viewed as a positive thing, as it gets the composer without access to the real thing a step closer to a “realistic” sound. It is important when composers make recorded submissions for a wide variety of purposes. Yes, the perceptive ear can hear the difference, but in many cases it is almost beside the point – the composer needs people to hear their music rendered as realistically as possible. I would hesitate to describe it as “adding basic musicality” – I would say that it simply sounds more realistic than what I’ve heard before. The downs remain as stated in your post: the “crutch” issue, the notion of composers who still struggle with writing knowledgeably for all instruments in the orchestra, etc. But I don’t think this latest toy will help in any way, I don’t think it will exacerbate those issues.

    Big problems do arise when we start replacing musicians with the latest technology. There simply is no easy remedy for that – we just have to keep bashing the latest assaults as they come to us, as with the Virtual Orchestra Machine. All of us in the business owe a debt of gratitude for all of the hard work Local 802 President David Lennon did in his victorious 2-year battle to overcome this insidious menace. Last week at the ICSOM Conference in Nashville he gave an inspired talk on the VOM situation that I wish everyone in the classical music business could have witnessed.

  4. Well, my ears are still good: the first is the “fake.”

    Today, I had another kind of listening experience, vinyl recordings from the 1960’s, still sounding wonderfully clear and warm and real. So nice, not to have that high pitched hissing of the cd’s. And people ask me why I hang on to them!

    Synthesizers are great for high school musicals, where there is no music department instrumental instruction. But, of course, the real thing would be better educationally. Real is always better!

  5. I agree to a certain extent….as a young freshman composition major, I brought in a “string quartet” I wrote entirely with a notation program. My teacher said I did a great job writing for synthesizer. I now own several Vienna Libraries, and I write for them just as that–a set of samples, not real instruments. When Vienna puts renditions of classical works up on their site, it is seriously laughable, because those composers did not composer works for samples.

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