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.
TAKE THE ADAPTISTRATION CLASSICAL MUSIC CHALLENGE
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).
After you’re done, feel free to submit a comment to expand on what you thought and why.