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Topic: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

  1. #1

    Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    Our relationship with the virtual instruments we use is full of paradox. Thinking of MIDI composers/musicians as a group, at one end of the spectrum are people who are primarily concerned with the music itself, and don't want to get bogged down dealing with MIDI and audio technical matters. At the other end of that spectrum, there are composers who may be just as concerned about focusing on their compositions as people in the first group, but they're spending more time on technical matters so they can produce the best sounding recordings possible.

    For the most part, both groups use the same basic tools - virtual instruments which usually consist of cleverly programmed audio samples of real world instruments. Because those kinds of software instruments are the preferred type, rather than old school synthesized approximations of instruments, it means that verisimilitude is important to the composers. They want their music to be played by software that at least approximates the sound of live orchestras and bands.

    My attitude is paradoxical, and I think it's shared with a lot of MIDI musicians/composers. I have a love-hate relationship with software instruments. I simultaneously enjoy the degree of naturalism they have and yet often wish we were still back in the day when MIDI instruments were all synthesized and nobody had the expectation that they would be "realistic." There was a kind of purity to using MIDI back then. One could focus on the music, and then leave it to abstracted blips and bleeps to suggest instruments without slavishly imitating them.

    Now, in the sample era, I enjoy getting the sound as "organic" in a recording as I can, but at the same time feel that many MIDI users get hung up on trying to sound more and more "real," constantly chasing after and throwing money at more and more software instrument collections in the quest of being able to produce recordings that "fool" people. I feel they spend both too much money and too much time in that quest.

    All the above was a rambling prelude meant to bring up the point that it's not unusual for our relationship with software instruments to be conflicted. Here's my actual point:

    --I recently produced a recording of a soft rock pop tune from the 1960's. The recording is to be used a backing track in a live performance. I can't mention what the title is, but suffice to say, it's a song that was a big hit, something very simple and catchy. The original recording had just drums, bass, piano, and vocals. In my version, I stuck with the original tempo and arrangement, but added a "combo organ" typical of the period, and a sax trio.

    It was a really fun project, and I was as happy as I ever am with anything I've finished. As always, as I worked, I felt like I was working with a group of musicians who were just somehow magically invisible and living inside my computer. It took no effort of imagination to simply accept that I had real drums, a real bass, real everything. Referencing back to something I said above - I would have that same frame of mind back when I was still using hardware synthesizers. That square waveform with its simple ADSR envelope wasn't just an abstraction of a clarinet, it Was a clarinet to me. That sudden burst of white noise Was a timpani. It would always startle me a bit when I'd play those old recordings for people, and hearing the music anew through their ears (as always happens when we play something for an audience) - I would be reminded again, "OH yeah, this is definitely artificial, synthesized, but it doesn't matter - it sounds interesting."

    Getting back to this recent project - I sent an MP3 of my recording of this pop-tune to a music industry guy who needs to be happy with the results. Here was his response:

    --"Get some real drums."

    --"I'm not a fan of keyboard horns."

    --"You need to generally punch it up more."

    THAT pretty much bummed me out for the day. I'd worked on that project for a couple of weeks. Sounded great to me - I'd used my very "best" software instruments, and felt it sounded as good as anything else you could hear of this sort.

    That feedback was quite a sudden dunk into the cold waters of Reality. Despite my best efforts, using my best tools, it was received as just a mediocre MIDI thing which was a barely adequate substitute for "the real thing."

    Geez! I'd Worked those saxes to the point that to me they were totally convincing as a pop-rock backup section. The drums have excellent samples, and I'd assembled its track from unquantized MIDI clips recorded by real drummers, as I usually do. It had all been lovingly put together - But it was a fizzle for this guy I needed to impress.

    So that makes me think more kindly of those MIDI users I was talking about earlier - the ones endlessly chasing after The Latest and Greatest, on their never-ending quest to sound more and more REEEEEALL. They don't want to get the ho-hum reaction from listeners that we all dread, like - "meh, sounds fake." I can sympathize, and I can picture myself becoming equally obsessed - But I don't have the budget for that quest, so maybe I'm fortunate in that regard, because I Don't want to spend any more time than I do fretting over how "reeeeeal" my projects sound.

    It can be depressing.

    But it can still be rewarding - So we keep on doing what we do.


  2. #2

    Re: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    This a great monologue, Randy. You have nailed the types of sample users out here and made a clear feeling of sentiment about the music you hear (as the composer/engineer). I think we hear with our mind a lot more than a normal listener would. We hear that vibrato we added or that pitch bend that simulates a reed players act of sounding like a human voice.

    There is no real substitute for replacing a live musician's subtlety in the way the attack their instrument. It is unfortunate that more and more music is recorded without live musicians and used as replacements for full orchestras. Obviously it is cheaper to not use live musicians but we lose humanity in the process.

    I am in the camp of wanting to spend equal amounts of my time on composing to be creative and engineering to approximate the human quality. And as you said we can only be as good as the samples and sample playing engines will allow us to be. If we get too focused on making it real, we lose sight of the creativity in composing. I love to hear original music on all the music forums even if the engineering isn't the best. I really have a difficult time listening to an approximation of a Beethoven this or a Dvorak that which someone is trying to make sound like a live performance. In the end, those pieces will fail to be the same or better than an actual live performance.

    Pieces that I have written that were than performed live had to outcomes to my expectations of the compositions. One, the live performance really brought out the musical ideas I had written and some that were interpreted by the musicians which I hadn't even considered when I wrote the piece. Two, the musicians couldn't play the music I had written as well technically as a sample player was able to do with ease. For example, consider a piano part that sounds great in samples but probably would take 2 or 3 pianists to cover the notes correctly. (I have done that and been admonished by my wife who is an excellent pianist.)

    So, where do I stand on this subject? I will continue to try and be a creative composer and as decent an engineer as possible to make the music sound as realistic as possible without fretting about what others hear or say about how real or unreal the result might be. If the music is good than the performance whether live or canned will show that.

    In your case, if the music industry guy wants a live sound, let him hire a live group to perform the piece. Take his comments with a grain of sand. Your music is always fresh sounding with a lot of effort towards an accurate representation of reality.
    [Music is the Rhythm, Harmony and Breath of Life]
    "Music is music, and a note's a note" - Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong


  3. #3

    Smile Re: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    It is funny that your topic should come up just now. Having minimal success at spec writing, I leave it most unfulfilled. I have spent so much time trying to achieve the "make it sound like" requests that I have lost my writing skills. And, like Randy, one of the last pieces I did was thrown back at me with the comment that it didn't sound "real" enough.

    Well, I don't have the money to go out and buy every update or new software to keep up with the industry and frankly, I'm glad (not about the money part, though). I am not a virtuoso player of any instrument and I really found out that fact while playing everything real time into my DAW (and I refuse to use loop packages). And then spending so much time tweaking the instruments to match what someone else has already mastered is futile, and frankly, not fun any more. And the pay was never anything I could quit my day job for.

    Now I am back perusing the forums to get my Finale chops back and start writing real music again. Yes, I want my music to sound wonderful too so I will always tweak things but this time around, it is important that it sounds real to me. I have always used Garritan because it always sounds real to me without a lot of fuss. It is my base that I buy other sounds to enhance.

    I think what is really missing from the equation is the audience and sound of applause. Composers need it. It is the highest accolade we can achieve. The industry might pay us a pittance but without the roar of the crowd, it falls short. (Unless it's a rather large pittance, then I might cede a little in my judgment.) That's why the forums are so important to us virtual composers. We need the kudos here and there to keep us going.

    So, I don't know if I added anything to this conversation other than my concurrence and I probably just could have posted this first and left the other ramblings in my head.


    Remember to Play www.thepunkduck.com

  4. #4
    Senior Member Tom_Davis's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    Ellendale, ND

    Re: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    There are live and virtual composers. Both have unique needs and expectations. We are in a position to address those specific needs in this forum

    It being understood that we are participating within a forum spawned by wonderful software that makes it possible to share (in reasonable fashion) our creative composition efforts, we must make every effort to maintain the essential truth about what this is all about.

    I believe Paula has an excellent point with her comment; "...it is important that it sounds real to me." Only a few times have I had injurious comments made here. One was that my music was not up to par (actually a reference to the electronic aspect not the music itself), and one was that a submission I made to a Christmas album was too dry and staid to be considered for inclusion. (Okay, I'll take that one) To some, if the electronic result is not up to par, the music itself seems to have no worth.

    Those two comments have been more than compensated for by many, many appreciative and constructive replies over the years.

    The reason I mention this at all is that so often individuals (I am especially concerned about new and aspiring composers that come here for inspiration and help) are sometimes hit hard because their work doesn't sound "real" or has too much reverb (or not enough) or perhaps needs more layering or needs more punch or - well - a lot of things that have nothing at all to do with the music itself.

    I really do understand and appreciate the interests of those who feel the final product should be virtually inseparable from a live recording. I have been helped greatly by some of the best technicians in that realm. But unless I am planning a CD for the open market or being paid to provide backup tracks for a live performance, it's just not that critical.

    A simple rule for me is to write the music, give it adequate performance instruction and wait to hear what the conductor and performers come up with. If the software is incapable of providing a satisfactory result, complain to the programmer, not the composer.

    Now, all that having been said, I will certainly continue to purchase and gratefully use new and more effective music software, and, YES, I absolutely appreciate the input of those more readily in the know than I about what can be done to improve the sound of my finished electronic project. But as a group, we need to be mindful that music is from the soul of the composer and should be initially evaluated on those terms. Make our comments clear to the composer whether we are commenting about the music or the software.

    To that end, perhaps it would be good to have various rooms to submit compositions; by score or by audio, or both. It would be very interesting to compare what the composer intended on the score against what resulted from the sampled audio. That way comments could be more directly applied to either presentation which could help the composers and the software developers see where problems occur.

  5. #5

    Re: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    If he doesn't mind me quoting him here...Bill Rayer posted this on the MakeMusic forum:

    (Begin quote)

    Re: Conversations

    by wrayer » Mon Apr 07, 2014 7:11 am

    GPO, is definitely useful for it gives an insight into what a piece may sound like, like a rehearsal group. But, the live musician breathes life into the music. I am glad you (Mark - WIgold) stopped by for a listen. Hearing what you conceived being performed by, as you say, 'talented musicians', reminds us all why we compose.

    (End quote)

    It is my thinking that both worlds compliment each other and the end result is the same. Great music!


    Remember to Play www.thepunkduck.com

  6. #6
    Senior Member fastlane's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2004
    Shelton, Washington State

    Re: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    We'll someone is making money with this race to total realism. I'm waiting for the first android pop act that receives a Grammy.

  7. #7

    Re: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by Drumroll View Post
    If he doesn't mind me quoting him here...Bill Rayer posted this on the MakeMusic forum:

    (Begin quote)

    Re: Conversations

    by wrayer » Mon Apr 07, 2014 7:11 am

    GPO, is definitely useful for it gives an insight into what a piece may sound like, like a rehearsal group. But, the live musician breathes life into the music. I am glad you (Mark - WIgold) stopped by for a listen. Hearing what you conceived being performed by, as you say, 'talented musicians', reminds us all why we compose.

    (End quote)

    It is my thinking that both worlds compliment each other and the end result is the same. Great music!

    Don't mind at all. Sums up my thoughts and aspirations.

    Besides, composers real or virtual, will never be wealthy unless they play a sport well...
    We dream to write and we write to dream.

    Challenge #10 Winner

  8. #8

    Re: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by RichR View Post
    This a great monologue, Randy...if the music industry guy wants a live sound, let him hire a live group to perform the piece. Take his comments with a grain of sand. Your music is always fresh sounding with a lot of effort towards an accurate representation of reality.
    Thank you, Rich, and everyone else on this thread who made the monologue a dialogue. I knew our Forum would be a good place to rant a bit on this topic which is pretty much a basic one for everyone who uses a computer to work on music. There are no answers to the things I brought up, but once in awhile, we all deal with the issues I brought up.

    This industry guy offered his feedback nicely enough, he wasn't disparaging really. He said my production sounded OK, "good enough for a demo," but then did say what his preference would be - real drums, real sax. He didn't comment on the piano and bass, I guess he found those acceptable. I replied, thanking him for his feedback, but explaining that hiring a drummer and sax players, and renting the studio where they'd need to be recorded was all completely out of the question. The cost would be prohibitively beyond the budget for this track which will simply be a background track that most people won't even pay attention to.

    The thing with me about using software instruments, is that they aren't a substitute for the "real thing" - not for me. I've never heard musicians play my music, and it's very possible I never will. The music I write and produce using my computer is It, the final product. I'd like people to enjoy what I do without being distracted by technical considerations, but for most people, the elements that will distract them are those that strike them as artificial. So, like everyone using MIDI, I hope to make my recordings adequately enough to avoid the "meh - it's just computer music" reaction. That goal isn't always reached. But, as I said in my rant, I don't plan on spending yet more time with mixing and attempting to make the sound any more real. There's always room for improvement, but all I can do is the best I can, and naturally, it's the most rewarding when people Don't voice feedback like from this industry guy I've referred to.

    We all just carry on!


  9. #9
    Senior Member tedvanya's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2009
    Canada,winter Mexico

    Re: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    I am so surprised Randy of your reaction and thoughts after the feedback you received.
    Not making an excuse for the expert in the "industry", but of course he can not help what his reaction is, "keyboard horns" included.
    It is somewhat our own fault what his reaction is: "It is not real, I can hear it is no real, get some real musicians and instruments", because we don't advertise that we have a new instrument, never in existence before. That we can produce "similar" sounds to an orchestra, all by ourselves, but to expect that we can reproduce what 50 or so trained musicians and a conductor are doing to produce sound is foolish. We will never do it, and we should never attempt to do it. Our sound is unique, maybe resembling a real orchestra because we all have in our background listening to a "real" orchestra and therefore our compositions have this in our brain, we can't help it, we think on this basis.
    Not one of us can deny that we actually HEAR in our composition a real orchestra, because we are used to the sound of our strings, woods and brass. However, when someone else is presented with our sound, and he expects to hear a real one, he is disappointed on hearing something quite different. Since he knows that we try to imitate reality, he will be convinced that we failed, and either be politely approving or will bluntly reject the piece.
    I confess that several times as I complete a piece, I think it is "good", I fell it is good. Two days later replaying the same piece I am ashamed of it, and quickly delete it. Why? Because, I think, we get in a trance so to speak as the Muse is talking to us, and two days later the same Muse is not there...
    Somebody recently talked about the lack of applause. I agree. With a very few exception we all suffer from it, not because some foolish feeling of grandeur, but because all art is an effort to convey one's innermost feelings to other human beings. Hearing only negatives or politeness is not enough to encourage our creativity.
    So, how can be "happy" composers? We should explain ourselves better to outsiders, stating before they listen that we are using new instruments, that our sound is different from an orchestra or a band, that we do not wish to replace musicians, that they should try to open their ears to this new sound, and try to understand what the composer is trying to convey using this NEW sound.
    I do enjoy and appreciate the efforts and the delightful results of some of the Forum members renditions of well known classical works. Some of them are using GPO4, some of them paid the price for sounds closer to "reality", and I can delight in many of them. Interestingly, some of these I listen twice at least, most of them many times. The more times I listen, the more I like the piece, because my ears (the remaining brain I have) get used to the sound of the samples used, the piece sound better and better. I am sure I am getting closer and closer to what the creator of the rendition was hearing. I think we all should listen to each other's efforts more than once, so we don't end up like Randy's contact.
    I think we can paint a decent musical picture with what we have, quite understandable for anyone who does not think that we are trying to imitate Michelangelo.
    Sorry for the rambling...


  10. #10

    Re: Reality check - A conundrum re: using software instruments

    In spite of all Artificial Intelligence a computer never can imitate a human being with all personal flaws, illogical reasoning, jumping from one thought onto the other and yet making more sense than some "programming" can achieve. As Einstein once said "When our brains were simple enough so that we could understand them, we will be so simple that we weren't being able to understand them." As an example: "Want a drink?" "Yes, please." "Coffee or tea?" "Yes." Figure it out yourself.

    Drawing the line from our daily reasoning to making music with a computer are two different worlds. The first is always colored by our personality and the second, making music, is colored by what the developers of the tools want us to do. And here the problem emerges, as Randy told us. Some of us are happy with a faint idea of the sound and others want diving into the programmed world, moulding the sound to our needs. Why are we doing this? Why spending more than an hour getting that violin sound as close to the real thing as possible, and only for 12 notes? Sorry, I can't explain this feeling, the need for "perfection."

    For me, it really is some sort of conservatory. I've learned listening to instruments as never before. Together with real life concerts, workshops of our Residential Orchestra, more or less masterclasses on conducting, playing the contra-bassoon and a lot more, a new world opened before my eyes and mostly ears. Not being able to play any instrument anymore, this is the second best experience. This world of MIDI, modest composing on my side, recording and copying pieces of other composers, trying to get the best sound, dragged me into this new phase in life and I am enjoying it every day (apart from the fact that some days I don't even switch my computer on, because I am fed up with all sorts of keyswitches and unexpected results.)

    Using MIDI, reading about MIDI orchestration, using DAWS and other tools, articles and in particular those masterclasses and workshops made me aware of the human factor as never before. The stupid "humanizing" tools, some more sophisticated than others, stirred up my brains and now I can hear that even the best orchestras in the world make a mess of it computerwise. Strangly enough, we love these professional recordings and we are willing to copy this feeling and hearing to our own mechanical compositions. It will never be perfect. Another question, what is perfect?

    This will remain an unanswered question. What drives us doing what we are doing? There will never be an answer. Thus, I go on exploring the sound of the programmed violin against the Youtube recording, trying to get this or that articulaton programmed the best way I can achieve with the given tools, studying music (what for in heavens sake at my age?), and a lot more. At the cost of blood, sweat and sometime tears (not speaking about money). Is it ever perfect? No, but I love it.


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