Why Virtual Instruments will never replace Humans

I’ve noticed an opinion among a number of musicians and composers I have talked to who feel that virtual instruments and the whole area of “digital performance” is a danger to the realm of “physical performance”, and that the ability of a composer to generate a fairly realistic sounding “orchestra” (or any other ensemble) using a virtual instrument plugin, a DAW, and their computer is a threat to the livelihood of millions of performers around the world. This post is my personal reasoning on why that belief is false. With the release of the instrument library “Minimal” the other day, the first truly effective “play the whole orchestra at once” VI I have heard of, I feel that this is a very important topic.

Music always seems to be something musicians and composers perceive as “under attack”. I like to think of this feeling consciously as a kink of the psychological concept of Loss Aversion– when the feeling of losing one thing outweighs the feeling of gaining another (that’s why it is sometimes very challenging for some people to be open minded). Some composers might perceive that the availability of virtual instruments, DAWs, and notation software is threatening the way they were taught to write- paper, pencil, and piano. While new technology isn’t a big deal, the idea of their years if not decades of training and honing in on their technique with paper and a piano is being undermined by this new technology is extremely threatening. Orchestral musicians might similarly perceive that the rising quality and power of sampled orchestras could put them out of a job.

In a way, even the fact that you can instead pop a CD in your computer (or even just switch something on your mp3 player) and hear your favorite symphony in reasonably high fidelity should theoretically mean orchestras shouldn’t exist since you can just buy Beethoven’s Ninth on iTunes, but it doesn’t. This is because the orchestra is both a visual and human experience- when you go see one live, you really feel something on a higher level. Additionally, many orchestras also function on a sentimental level- playing holiday and pops concerts, drawing in crowds with familiar tunes and a family-friendly vibe you just don’t get from those cheesy old christmas CDs  your parents used to play in the car once December rolled around. Lastly, a good number of orchestras have a broad range of alternative initiatives including workshops with area schools, side-venues, performances of original works, and recording for CDs and original soundtracks of games/films.

A great divide between the audience and the musician has always been a key part of making the magic of music. When we go to hear an orchestra or perhaps the theater to see a movie with an orchestral score, we don’t sit around and go “wasn’t that slowly-resolving perfect authentic cadence just the thing near the end and that pianissimo horn solo simply tear-inducing?” (well, maybe some of us do, but for most people…). To us, that bassoon line at the end might feel like an inside joke the composer is having with us, the “educated” (what does that word even mean anyway?) musicians, but to most people, it’s just this dottling little thing they hear and nothing more. It’s not a double-reed, expensive, and highly expressive woodwind instrument- it’s just another color in the wash that is the orchestra. When there comes to be a time when even an uneducated “audience member” can buy a virtual instrument and PLAY and orchestra, how terrified we as musicians and composers should be! But they don’t know music theory! But they don’t know the names of the instruments, and yet they play string patches and brass tuttis!

But think for a bit first. There’s that thing coming up on us again, putting on alarms in our heads- loss aversion. We hate it when our “property” of education, or the instrument we play, or our compositional style seems to be trampled upon by technology. The logic put in our heads by this principle says “If everyone can be a “composer” or a “musician”, then supply/demand means there will be too little demand and too great of a supply,” but that’s simply not true. If there is a town with one expert blacksmith and then suddenly a dozen amateur blacksmiths move in, the expert is still going to 1. get all the good jobs and 2. now he can have apprentices he can charge to train under him. The expert blacksmith is probably more likely to see the other smiths as competitors instead of possible future apprentices or partners due to loss aversion, just as the veteran composer fears the young composers instead of seeing them as apprentices and partners.

So that’s the first thing. Composers still exist because there always needs to be the expert blacksmith to train the apprentices, and orchestras still exist because there’s nothing like sitting in front of a living orchestra. Even if we all forget how to play our instruments in a thousand years, I can promise you they will be “acting orchestras” where they pretend to play orchestral music from our time period over a recording or virtual performance (or, just like the sackbut, be revived in modern times by tasteful people like me).

On the note of live performance, there is so much humanity in the physical performance that it is simply mathematically impossible to capture every little bit of a “live impulse” of a player and make it useable for digital playback. Technology such as crossfading, extreme deep sampling with real legato intervals, and all sorts of wacky keyswitch-controller mayhem allow the patient and expert digital composer to approximate something close to realism. But guess what. It’s hard to do, even for the greatest of the greats. That means that the time when you can fake a real human just by being an average Joe pressing keys is extremely distant. Even with that, there’s still a lot more that has to be accounted for- slight variance with intonation, velocity, and timing. Theoretically you’d need to sample a smooth gradient of velocities from nothing to full tilt, and no one has yet dared to spend the ridiculous amount of time and money required to do that. There is a point at which it simply becomes too impractical to continue (somewhere around 24x Random Robin multisampling and 32 velocity layers I think).

When you reach the point at which it would simply be cheaper to buy an oboist a beer and convince them to give you a good rate for playing in your piece than to buy that $500 25 GB extension that offers 196kHz, 32-bit realistic oboe sqwaks and off-color notes to add character to the 100 GB oboe-only library (watch out EastWest, this one is gunna be mine!), you know that we’ve pretty much gone as far as we can.

In the world of Jazz and even in Classical, there’s the other matter of improvisation. This can be in the form of rubato or rather in the form of taking a whole solo or candenza. Modern playback systems don’t have a way to deal with this yet, and that kind of personal touch is extremely hard to copy.

Next, there’s the “selling” your soundtrack or OST through the idea that it is played by a real orchestra.

I have heard lots of game soundtracks that are obviously EWQL SO (it’s fun to try to guess which patches they use and then go see if you’re right), but when someone sticks “Played by the World-Famous London Symphony Orchestra” on their soundtrack it definitely sounds more legitimate to a customer, doesn’t it? In the Classical CD biz’ people might decide which CD to buy depending on the orchestra or conductor and even down to what season it was! Although the average consumer is much less picky, it’s still cool to brag to your friends and say “but this game soundtrack was played by a real orchestra, not General MIDI, whoever that is!”

I remember reading an interview when Age of Mythology first came out (it has been a lot longer than I thought) where Steven Rippy or whoever the individual in the interview was mentioned how extremely fortunate they were to have a real orchestra play many of the cues in the game. The other interesting thing about that game was that they built a massive (and I mean MASSIVE) library of their own bespoke sampled instruments that they used for many of the other cues. Here’s something where the orchestra does a double feature- first as the live performers, and second as the sampled virtual orchestra!

One last point to take into account in all of this is that beginning and low-budget composers CAN’T hire an orchestra, but they can afford basic orchestral virtual instruments. If you see a flood of inexperienced composers buying virtual instruments, there’s no reason to be alarmed- they won’t be buying out your LSO sessions any time soon. The rush to more powerful virtual instruments isn’t about REPLACING the orchestra, but about making it accessible to larger masses. Think about what the ideas of the printing press and movable type did for literature and the spread of information- all those monks must have been pissed off they were getting outdone, but wait a second; what is calligraphy? Typography? As one method of working with a subject becomes too costly or extensive to continue, it evolves into new forms to continue on. That is what I believe orchestras and composers around the world are going through right now- evolution to something even greater. We are going through a metamorphosis right now; I just hope I will still be around in time to see music emerge as a butterfly.

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