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Shulgold: New, virtual orchestra sounds ominous note

Marc Shulgold
Rocky Mountain News, 9/2/06

This digital music revolution is starting to get a little creepy.

It was weird enough when the vinyl LP and the record player were replaced by a shiny compact disc that disappeared into a box that made the music come alive via a beam of light.

Then came the download thing, allowing you to play music without ever touching a CD or CD player.

Of course, all along, we knew that the music was created by humans.

Well, we’re not so sure anymore – now that the world has entered the virtual-orchestra age. Today, it’s possible to create and perform music without calling on a musician to blow or bow a single note.

Brings to mind the old TV-ad tag line that became part of our cultural lexicon: Is it live or is it Memorex?

An Austrian company, Vienna Symphonic Library, has developed software that permits the computer user to craft symphonic compositions in vitro, if you will.

An article in England’s Guardian reports that the VSL software (which can cost as much as $11,000) contains 1.5 million individually recorded notes, each captured from the playing of live musicians.

The brains behind this mind-boggling project is a former Vienna Philharmonic cellist named Herb Tucmandl, who reportedly became frustrated at the paucity of digital samples required for his use in composing film scores.

So, he hired more than 100 musicians, who were stationed in soundproof booths and played notes in a variety of prescribed ways. It took each player about a year to complete the task.

Not content to merely reproduce prerecorded notes of live instruments, VSL developed something called a Multi Impulse Response engine that can bring to a computer-generated score a natural concert-hall reverberation.

The impact of this breakthrough is far-reaching. A skilled computer operator can now create a commercial soundtrack that the casual listener would accept as real – without the cost of hiring an orchestra, renting a studio and paying union scale for sessions.

Good news for budget-conscious filmmakers. Bad news for musicians who rely on income from TV and film recording sessions.

The digital revolution has been “taking a bite out of (the paychecks of) orchestral musicians for 20 or 30 years now,” observed Pete Vriesenga, head of the local musicians union. Not that there’s anything that can be done.

“We’d be laughed at if we picketed movie theaters. Most people don’t know the difference, or don’t care. All we can do is educate the public and make them aware.”

Also harmful to session players is the recent trend of outsourcing commercial recordings overseas, Vriesenga added. “But at least there was still live music being recorded.”

Musicians may not be thrilled about the loss of employment, but products such as the VSL allow composers to create amazingly lifelike realizations of their works.

Previous software relied on a MIDI to make the music audible – but the results were crude, even laughable, by comparison.

Surprisingly, the new VSL software holds no interest for Boulder composer Daniel Kellogg. Employing an “old-fashioned” MIDI with his computer, he recently completed a new work, Refracted Skies, to be premiered by the Colorado Symphony at season-opening concerts later this month in Boettcher Hall.

The VSL software, he said, “is useless to me, because my final goal is to have an orchestra play the piece. For me, the MIDI is just a tool.” Kellogg added that realizing an orchestral work via VSL “requires more work than it’s worth.”

Nonetheless, he added that a composer creating a score for a low-budget project, such as a documentary, might embrace this product.

“Technology is bringing us to a point where the creative possibilities are limitless and affordable – and that’s thrilling,” he noted.

“But when such technology replaces people actually doing the playing, then it’s not such a good thing.”

None of these new digital toys can or will supplant the sound of a live orchestra. Even Tucmandl admits that. He told the Guardian’s David Smith, “We have 1.5 million samples, but real musicians have more. I don’t think we’ll ever get them all.”

Even more to the point, no computer can replace the spontaneity and excitement of the concert experience, where live musicians lay it on the line for paying audiences. As Tucmandl observed, “Nobody goes to a concert to listen to a computer.”

At least, not yet – although it’ s now possible to become a virtual audience member at a virtual concert.

Recently, singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega performed through a computer-created alter ego known as an avatar (from the Hindu word meaning a temporary manifestation of a continuing entity).

Visitors to the Second Life Web site could hear her live performance and watch a rather clumsy digitally created representation of the event – and they could visit this virtual world by transforming themselves into avatars.

Vega’s digital concert had its share of glitches: Hilariously, she had to wrestle with a computer-generated guitar that refused to fit into her avatar’s grasp.

Still, this may signal the start of something new and groundbreaking. For example, the 100 fans who joined the show were able to manipulate Vega’s onstage gestures – although the singer’s lips were unable to move as she performed.

OK, so all this is pretty goofy. But it’s likely the birth pains of a new age of music performance. As with the early days of recording, the technology will, no doubt, improve.

Truth be told, the virtual orchestra created by VSL already is close to the sounds of the real thing.

We’ve created an A-B comparison on our Web site. Can you tell the difference between artificial and real?

Don’t get too smug if you can. One day, it may not be so easy.

Is it live, or is it digital?

• Test your ability to distinguish an artificial performance from a real one. Visit RockyMountain News.com/entertain- ment and compare computer-generated music with live performances.

• For more information about the Vienna Symphonic Library, visit www.vsl.co.at. Additional audio samples can be accessed at www.vsl.co.at/en-us/6 7/458 7/4851.vsl.

Marc Shulgold is the music and dance writer. Shulgoldm@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5296

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