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Music Technology

Broadway Musicians Replaced With Synthesizers 319

Posted by timothy
from the making-love-to-a-corpse dept.
wooferhound writes "Sophisticated synthesizers and computer-manipulated recordings are increasingly taking over orchestras. Sounding almost like real players, while costing much less, they're especially popular with provincial or touring companies. But until mid-July — when 'West Side Story's' producers announced that a synthesizer was replacing three live violinists and two cellists, or half the orchestra's string section — staff violinist Paul Woodiel thought that at least the classics would be immune to the trend. There are computer programs able to read and play back music scores — a boon to composers who can now hear their work as they write — and software allowing conductors to control the tempo of the machine, in the same way that they direct live players."
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Broadway Musicians Replaced With Synthesizers

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  • What is the issue? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by h4rr4r (612664)

    What is the issue here?
    We automate lots of other work, why not this?

    Oh noes, someone is no longer going to be doing a repetitive job better done by a machine, truly the end of the world.
    Why where they not already using recordings was my first question when I saw this article.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I can't wait until they automate programing and all related computer tasks. Removing the 'person' from those duties will save money and reduce errors

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        I agree, the humans can spend their lives with far less drudgery.

      • by pete6677 (681676) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @04:58PM (#33097806)

        Programmers can be eliminated just as soon as business users are capable of grasping the FULL logic of all of their various processes so they can create an automation system with no technical or process-oriented expertise required. In other words, when hell freezes over.

    • by ImNotAtWork (1375933) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @02:51PM (#33097122)
      There are some people who enjoy going to the same live show multiple times. They relish in what is the same as well as what is different in each performance. A synth is not even close to a live performer. A recording gets mundane to those who go to multiple showings. It is similar to the difference of using a code generator and point and click interface for a novice compared to getting in there yourself and seeing what the real code is and writing it yourself.
      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        I would think those people would go to the orchestra.

      • by Naturalis Philosopho (1160697) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @03:14PM (#33097258)
        Good point. I'm not a big Broadway fan, but isn't the point of a live show, after all, the fact that it's being performed, uh, live. If I want to heare edited recordings, or speakers, I'll go to a movie or wait for the Netflix viewing of the same story rather than pay for an expensive ticket to sit in a tiny theater in the middle of a dirty city to hear the same recorded sounds.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          I'm sure the lights of many live shows are just as if not more controlled than this. You may say that lights aren't as important as music, but I'd say that's a matter of opinion and people in the respective fields would probably disagree.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by mysidia (191772)

            Controlling lights is just the sort of thing a computer can and is expected to do.

            Music is expected to be produced by musicians. There is something inauthentic about it, when a computer mechanically "produces" music.

            It's as if it removes value from its production... it's no longer a performance of the musician, but mechanical mimikery by a machine which cannot appreciate the music it "plays".

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              If you are going to play the authenticity card, then I ask you to stick to only singing and body percussion, as everything else is inauthentic. The "real music" card has been played for ages, and the thing that really matters is whether or not there is vision and art in what is being done, not the means by which a work is produced. Human players can and do lack vision in art in their interpretations all the time. Also, if you read, it says the conductor still conducts, leaving a real-time human element i
        • by timeOday (582209) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @04:10PM (#33097556)
          Are you inherently against automation, or is the limitations of currently technology you don't like? I see those as two separate issues.

          Ayways, I would support a truth-in-advertising requirement, but otherwise let people vote with their pocketbooks. If I'm watching a movie, I'd rather watch it with a highly produced soundtrack playing over loudspeakers (i.e. what is actually done now) rather than piano accompaniment (like the old days), yet nobody would buy orchestra tickets just to watch a "conductor" push the Play button.

        • by wooferhound (546132) <tim@@@wooferhound...com> on Saturday July 31, 2010 @04:23PM (#33097616) Homepage
          Live performances are never the same, that is why the orchestra is there. The song can be faster one night, or the onstage actor may change things up to keep it interesting, the orchestra can make changes on the fly that go along with what is happening onstage. A repeat customer appreciates the differences that they experience. It may be the same show but it is different every performance.

          I am a spotlight operator at our local theater and I can assure you that a Broadway show is different every night. This is what keeps the crew awake during something that could be incredibly repetitive.
        • by Xtravar (725372)

          Next, the singers will lip-sync, and then we'll replace them with robots. Oh but at least it's still a 'live' show.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by bill_mcgonigle (4333) *

          Your comment wins the discussion.

      • It said that these machines can be 'conducted.' I'm not sure how sophisticated this is going to be, but it seems to leave a human element still present. Furthermore, it can give composers a larger sonic palette, meaning that they can easily switch between a traditional orchestra, a latin ensemble, an array of synths, and various new combinations without having to deal with the logistics being insane.
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Wain13001 (1119071)

          Composers already do this quite easily as it's not uncommon to have synth instruments in a pit along with the traditional ones. Replacing your instrumentalists with automation really doesn't give you as a composer any more sonic freedom...you actually have more freedom when your music has to be interpreted by a performer.

          BTW I am a composer...it's what I do for a living...and I do it in theater.

      • by wrf3 (314267)

        There are some people who enjoy going to the same live show multiple times. They relish in what is the same as well as what is different in each performance. A synth is not even close to a live performer. A recording gets mundane to those who go to multiple showings.

        There's no reason that a synthesizer has to generate the same performance each time. I'm sure someone will come up with heuristics to give a synthesized performance a "live" feel.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You could replace the actors by robots, or by a fancy projector. But you don't, because it's a live show on Broadway, not a movie or a video game. People expect live performances by the actors, why not by the musicians too?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jonbryce (703250)

      The issue is that if they do that, I may as well buy a recording and play it on my iPod.

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        99% of the time I agree you might as well do that. If this is not popular or does not lower cost no one is going to do it. Nothing to get worked up over.

    • by ushering05401 (1086795) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @02:58PM (#33097166) Journal

      What is the issue here?

      And industry founded on the creation, performance, and appreciation of human creativity is about to suffer devaluation of the human talent upon which it is based.

      We automate lots of other work, why not this?

      Because this is not 'work,' it is multi-sensory immersion into a subjective framework of context and meaning. Otherwise they could just have the beeb 'casters get up and read the scores/scripts and no one would notice a difference.

      Oh noes, someone is no longer going to be doing a repetitive job better done by a machine, truly the end of the world. Why where they not already using recordings was my first question when I saw this article.

      Let me guess: Your world view is that it is turtles all the way down?

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by GNUALMAFUERTE (697061)

        Well, if there were any actual theater in Broadway, I'd say you are right, but 99.999% of Broadway is not art, is Musicals.

        Broadway is the cheap gringo alternative to actual theater. You go and see a lot of assholes run around and sing shit, that's your cheap replacement for actual theater.

        Here, we call that "Teatro de Revista" and only the illiterate masses go see that shit.

        The day Broadway figures out how to replace actors with holograms, they will, and nothing of value will be lost.

        Did you knew that the

        • by jfengel (409917)

          Broadway is the cheap gringo alternative to actual theater.

          Gringo alternative, perhaps, but not cheap. If audiences are up in arms about this, it's because Broadway ticket prices are very high, at least in part because a whole orchestra of musicians is expensive. They're replacing it with something cheaper, but is the price going to go down?

          It probably won't go down by much. Broadway has become increasingly about spectacle and special effects. The live musicians are only a part of that, but they are a part, and the shows are ever so slightly less spectacular fo

    • by JWSmythe (446288) <jwsmythe.jwsmythe@com> on Saturday July 31, 2010 @03:06PM (#33097224) Homepage Journal

          Machines make perfect replications. They can play the composure exactly as written. Unfortunately, that's a beginners mistake. When you play from the sheet music, you can tell the people who are beginners. They can play the written music technically perfect, but they can't put any feeling into it. An excellent musician will play a song where you'll feel it. It's that little something extra that we put in, so you know there's something special to it.

          I guess in an orchestral setting, you want that technical perfection. Every element of a section must play just like the rest of the elements, or something will sound wrong.

          What they're headed towards is technical perfection of the piece. It doesn't take a bunch of machines playing the part. They could do a lot better with a good recording of the orchestra. By recreating parts of the orchestra with machines, all they're doing is making themselves feel all warm and fuzzy because they spent a lot of money doing it. Wheee, you've reinvented MIDI.

          People usually show up to live shows to see the live show. If they want a recording, they can rent the video.

          I go out to see live bands. If I wanted to hear the jukebox, I'd just go where there is no live band. There's a difference, no matter how well it was recorded.

      • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Saturday July 31, 2010 @03:44PM (#33097428) Homepage

        Machines make perfect replications. They can play the composure exactly as written. Unfortunately, that's a beginners mistake. When you play from the sheet music, you can tell the people who are beginners. They can play the written music technically perfect, but they can't put any feeling into it.

        Depends on the composer. It is true that scores of earlier epochs left much of the detail out, and the only reason we know that the musician's deviation from the score isn't incompetence but "feeling" is because of a continuous performance tradition. Of course, with ancient music there's much controversy, because the scores have very little detail at all, but we're not sure exactly how these pieces were performed.

        But there are plenty of composers who want their music to be performed exactly as notated, with the musician putting what he thinks is "feeling" into it. They have gone on to add so much detail to their scores that the musician couldn't possibly introduce something extraneous. Ferneyhough's scores are hyper-notated like this, as are a few of Ligeti's pieces (the Cello Concerto, for instance). Stockhausen and Xenakis have written scores where instead of a general metronome marking for the movement, each segment is specified as a certain number of seconds so that the conductor or musicians don't add any rubato.

      • by KiloByte (825081) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @03:46PM (#33097440)

        You are _mostly_ right. The sheet music doesn't contain full information. A good part is missing and has to be re-added by a musician every time the composition is being played.

        But... what if you record _that_? Or, create good enough algorithms that can guess that missing information?

        You get the same effect as live musicians -- and if you want little errors here and there, they can be introduced as well, just like deBeers' claims that mined diamonds are "better" can be derailed by adding some junk to diamonds being grown.

        • by blind biker (1066130) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @05:10PM (#33097880) Journal

          You get the same effect as live musicians -- and if you want little errors here and there, they can be introduced as well, just like deBeers' claims that mined diamonds are "better" can be derailed by adding some junk to diamonds being grown.

          Live music and music produced by a computer really is not the same thing. I should know, I compose electronic music (have several software MIDI sequencers, a dozen hardware synths and a few softsynths). But I am also a lover of classical music, and I guarantee you, a computer will never be able to produce the emotions that some of the great artists' recordings can. The reason why you wouldn't know that this difference exists is, 90% of classical music recordings are crap. A 5-minute long movement can be pieced together from two dozen outtakes. It just sounds bland, as if it was played by a computer. But if you search carefully, especially among live recordings, you will find true gems, which reinvigorites you while you listen to it.

          Put simply, computer-generated (I am not talking about music reproduced from recorded files like .flac, .wav or .mp3) music is boring and will make the listener sleepy. Live music, or a recording of live music can (not necessarily will) infuse you with strong emotions and actually awaken you and refresh you.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by strikethree (811449)

            I am not a big fan of Jimi Hendrix but the recording of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is an absolute masterpiece of what you are describing. Every note is hit perfectly, and yet he somehow makes it seem like he is playing with the timing. The overall effect is 11 on the dial. :)

            Rock on.

      • An excellent musician will play a song where you'll feel it. It's that little something extra that we put in, so you know there's something special to it.

        But, that "little something extra" is undoubtedly quantifiable. Physically, it amounts to the minute details of the timing of notes (e.g. intentional mis-timing), how long notes are held for, and so on. Obviously, all these things could be recorded and analyzed. Currently, music scores just list the notes, but one could easily markup a score with thousands of details appended to each note, telling a synthesizer how to play that note. The computer reproduction would then convey every bit of the emotion and "

    • What is the issue here? We automate lots of other work, why not this?

      I'm looking forwards to when computers automate news readers and chat show hosts. A machine would probably make a more convincing human than most of todays plastic TV talent anyway. Bring on Max Headroom!

  • by Chordonblue (585047) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @02:48PM (#33097090) Journal

    What would be the difference between having a synth play this live, or simply a recording of a synth playing during a live performance? The one question I would ask is: Did replacing actual musicians make the ticket prices go down?

    A: Probably not. Profits will be up though!

    • What would be the difference between having a synth play this live, or simply a recording of a synth playing during a live performance?

      If you play a recording you have to pay to the recording copyright's owner.

      If you play from the original score you have to pay to the score copyright's owner.

      Perhaps the second means a lower cost than the first.

      • by tepples (727027)

        If you play a recording you have to pay to the recording copyright's owner.

        If you play from the original score you have to pay to the score copyright's owner.

        As I understand it, if you play a recording, you have to pay both.

      • I suspect that synchronization is more important than licensing costs(particularly since a good software synth costs $$$$ while a FLAC decoder costs $0).

        If you play a recording, the action on stage has to happen exactly as fast as it would have during the recorded session. If you have a synth being fed input from a camera tracking the conductor and/or scene changes from the guys in the lighting booth, your music will stay in time with your actors.
    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      Or less profitable productions will continue on as they have lower costs.

      I bet that more than anything.

    • by tepples (727027)

      What would be the difference between having a synth play this live, or simply a recording of a synth playing during a live performance?

      Read the summary. The synth handles tempo changes far better.

  • by fyoder (857358) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @02:49PM (#33097100) Homepage Journal

    software allowing conductors to control the tempo of the machine, in the same way that they direct live players.

    I did something like this with an Apple IIe in the early days of MIDI in a scene where an actor had to fake playing the piano faster and faster as the scene progressed. Up in the booth I tapped up the tempo following the actor, rather than have the actor have to follow a recording.

    What's amazing about Broadway is that it has held out so long. In large part that's due to unions, but I think also audience expectations. One isn't surprised a low budget production in the boonies would cut corners, but if you shell out for a Broadway ticket, you want the full meal.

  • by mangu (126918) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @02:50PM (#33097112)

    The media industry makes so much noise about what they call "piracy" supposedly causing artists to starve, how can they allow this automation to happen?

    After all, a live performance is much harder to "steal". The only way I can imagine of doing it would be drilling holes in the theater wall to let people watch from the outside without paying.

    Automating musicians' jobs takes away one sure way they have to earn a living.

    • by j-b0y (449975)

      Indeed. I'm not sure what the industry could do in this case. It would be up to the theatre owner to contact the musicians - which they can choose not to do. I imagine the composed would get a cut if electronic score has to be licensed for public performance (it would be slightly strange for this not to be the case).

      It might be hard to find musicians later though; I'm not sure many musicians make a full time career out of this sort of work, but it might be just be the last straw - god knows I've seen enough

      • by h4rr4r (612664) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @03:15PM (#33097262)

        Or maybe making things that sound like they could have been made 500 years ago is not something people will pay much money for.

        It is not like they have a right to make money producing something no one likes. I do a lot of DIY stuff, much of it no one would buy but I still do it. I have a day job, and I suggest these folks investigate idea.

  • Neat Technology (Score:2, Interesting)

    As someone who has played an instrument, I find it pretty cool that they are able to get a machine to read music... It was only a matter of time though. What is music? Fractions and frequencies. Something a computer should be able to handle.

    What I haven't heard is a really good synthesizer. My God, Have you heard CATS? That shit sounds like it was done on the Casio the kids have in their bedroom.

    In the long run though, this should make the "ARTS" more accessible to the public. I find that to be
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by FooAtWFU (699187)
      Something I read recently comes to mind, about rendering J S Bach with 8-bit chip tunes [linusakesson.net]:

      The goal is not to play the right notes in the right order; that's the starting point. Then you have to adjust the timing of every single note, listening and re-listening, making sure that it doesn't sound mechanical. You have to add movement, energy, and emphasis ... You need fermatas and ornaments ... The amount of work that goes into programming the computer will never be less than the work that a traditional performe

    • by tepples (727027)

      Have you heard CATS? That shit sounds like it was done on the Casio the kids have in their bedroom.

      Actually the voice of CATS was done on SoftVoice TTS, as were the rest of the voices in All Your Base [albinoblacksheep.com]. The background music was done on an emulation of the same sound chip used in a 1980s Yamaha FM synthesizer.

  • Much of the move away from live instruments to computers (especially in things like TV soundtracks) is the result of modern computing, storage, and sampling. Rather than trying to simulate the sound of a piano, you can painstakingly sample each note at multiple velocities. Depending on the desired complexity, the samples easily reach into the gigabytes for a single instrument. Yet the end result is a digital piano that's incredibly realistic; recording a real piano live better than a good sample is becom

  • by Palestrina (715471) * on Saturday July 31, 2010 @03:17PM (#33097290) Homepage

    Critics see synthesizers as little better than some barbarian force trampling the classical music landscape.

    Example: J.S. Bach didn't hide from the newly invented piano and cry "Ach, mein Gott, give me mein harpsichord and save me from the barbarian pianoforte". No, Bach took the piano and made it his bitch. Ditto for Telemann and the keyed flute.

    And remember, electronic instruments have been part of classical music since the 1930's and Edgard Varèse.

    If you want to hold back the evolution of musical instruments, then you might as well throw away your violin and go back to banging sticks and stones together.

    • by Yvan256 (722131)

      As a more modern example, Jean Michel Jarre based his whole career on synthesizers. I don't really like his latest works, but his 1970-1980 albums really are classics.

    • This isn't a musical instrument they are attempting to create, it's a musical brain capable of playing instruments (digitally).

      One thing is, if you start getting rid of all those musical jobs, the career starts looking worse, and little Billy who's a talented musician might decide to become the next Justin Beiber instead of the next Beethoven.

    • by rolfwind (528248)

      Example: J.S. Bach didn't hide from the newly invented piano and cry "Ach, mein Gott, give me mein harpsichord and save me from the barbarian pianoforte". No, Bach took the piano and made it his bitch.

      You sir, should drop whatever you're doing and start writing History Textbooks (and maybe History Channel documentaries) as of now. I want my kids to be reading quotes like this and others like it in school, then I'll know they'll be paying attention in school and learning.

    • The point of many early synthesizers was to recreate real instruments. The Rhodes Electric Piano had the goal of sounding like a piano, but not weighing north of a thousand pounds. Well it did not sound real, there was no mistaking it for a real grand, though it did have a piano like sound in some ways.

      However now we have the capability to get real piano sound. a high quality sample set on a modern computer can come so close as to make no real odds to an actual piano. As such a laptop plus a good MIDI keybo

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jejones (115979)

      Heck,. JSB even took up the very first additive synthesizer, i.e. the pipe organ.

  • by StandardCell (589682) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @03:23PM (#33097324)
    The Vienna Symphony Library is available today and can essentially replace an orchestra to all but the most discerning of ears. Here is an example of the E.T. theme [youtube.com]. There are a couple of parts where I can tell it's a bit artificial sounding if I really listen, but it's approaching the flawless threshold.

    That said, there is a particular order of ease of simulation: percussion (including piano), strings, brass and woodwinds. The latter two are notoriously difficult to emulate because they are so closely tied to non-discrete complex forms of movement of the mouth (articulation). For example, see this demo [youtube.com] of one of the betters saxophone emulators - still something missing even to uneducated ears, but not too bad in a mix. Strings can also be difficult to emulate, but if apps from companies like Prominy are coming out, guitars [youtube.com] and violins [youtube.com], this is getting scary.

    There are a couple of serious implications of this. First and foremost is what the value of a live performance is with and without musicians, which the linked article addresses. The second is decreasing numbers of people willing to learn these instruments. For a lot of folks who compose for small-budget TV and movies and can't afford musicians, it's a great way to go. Nevertheless, it's the same cautionary tale as the decline in handwriting that coincided with the rise of computers with keyboards. You can't replace handwriting in a lot of circumstances.
    • by EvanED (569694)

      The Vienna Symphony Library is available today and can essentially replace an orchestra to all but the most discerning of ears. Here is an example of the E.T. theme. There are a couple of parts where I can tell it's a bit artificial sounding if I really listen, but it's approaching the flawless threshold.

      To my ears it's not even close to what I get if I pop in the ET CD. That said, I suppose it could be YouTube compression and not source material.

  • What's the point of replacing live musicians with a synthesizer? WHy not just use a backing tape which sounds exactly the same? Maybe because it points out that the stage performance could also get great savings, by being played from film...

  • There is only one thing about this that seems wrong, apparently customers who buy tickets are not aware that the music they are listening to is played by computers. The rest is usual RUR like nonsense.

    Sarah Franklin, a talented 24-year-old violinist, joined a five-month North America tour for a revival of the musical "Camelot" with an orchestra of just four people.

    "There was me on the violin, one cello, one French horn and a conductor with a computer," she said. The computer, using a software called Notion, played the rest of the semi-virtual orchestra.

    Frequently the program crashed, abruptly leaving the three live musicians to play by themselves. But despite the glitches, most audience members were none the wiser, Franklin said.

    "When people saw us down in the pit afterwards, they'd say, 'It sounded like there were so many more of you!'"

    The musicians would wriggle out of the embarrassing situation by pretending that the rest of their colleagues had quickly left the theater.

    "We got fed up with explaining and we didn't want to ruin it for them. They didn't need to know," Franklin said.

    - This looks to me like false advertising. If people came to listen to live music they paid for the tickets accordingly. Maybe the musicians need to take a pay cut (I honestly don't know how much a violin player makes) but the bosses here seem to run a fake business. Maybe ticket prices also need to come

    • by AK Marc (707885)
      This looks to me like false advertising.

      The people on stage are all real. The orchestra isn't. The show is still live. Or would you argue that going to computerized lighting boards over the rheostat-type mechanical boards where every switch and slider was run by a human would require disclaimers as well? That's been done and no one complained. So why is the musical accompaniment different when the lighting wasn't?

      "We got fed up with explaining and we didn't want to ruin it for them. They didn't need
  • This is nothing new. This has been happening since the late 90s when I started playing shows. It can work if done right. I think the best way to do it is to have at least ONE real instrument and then have a synth doing the parts underneath.

    In fact, the show I'm starting next week we have one violin viola and cello and someone playing a synth to fill up the section. Sounds ok.

  • by rrohbeck (944847) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @04:05PM (#33097530)

    Sounds old fashioned to me. Shouldn't that be a PC with a high quality D/A converter aka sound card (or a few) these days?

  • If there is no performer, that is it is all synthesized, then there is, in fact, no real purpose for the performance at all.

    I think that the trend being reported here is nothing more than a passing fad. In the long term, I cannot see this technology being practical anywhere outside of a closed recording studio, where only the music itself matters and the skill behind the performance is not actually meant to be directly appreciated.

  • these instruments if they cannot be heard in live settings or by film or audio recordings?

  • by fluor2 (242824) on Saturday July 31, 2010 @04:46PM (#33097724)

    I do declare this comment to be very authentic. I write now while drinking coffee. I insert reference http:/// [http] and get modded up.

    (Automatic comment-system robot v0.4 r2)

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