The Amazing Potential of Computer Music in the 21st Century
The musical opportunities that modern musical software tools are is truly tremendous. Things that were basically impossible to accomplish without a live orchestra 20-30 years ago can be accomplished by a kid in on the computer in his bedroom, and that's crazy. In fact, many of these modern virtual instruments are often used in the *place* of real instruments in professional Hollywood films and TV production. To get a taste of what is possible with these modern tools, listen to some pieces I (Benjamin Botkin) have composed below. These tracks were created with 100% virtual instruments on my computer in my small home studio.
But how is this done? Well, allow me to quickly explain some of the basic terms and concepts behind the creation of orchestral music on the computer, since these can be a little confusing.
What is MIDI?
Many people think that MIDI is the old, synth-y, musical beep and bleeps that they heard in old video games. This is not technically correct, because MIDI itself is not *SOUND*-- it is musical data. See all the little dots and dashes in the picture above that look suspiciously like an old piano roll or a music box spindle? Those are MIDI notes.
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. In the early 1980s a number of music technology companies collaborated to develop a universal language for the communication of musical information between computers and instruments or other music related hardware.
This digital music language (MIDI) can detect, record, or transfer many kinds of musical activity, including:
- What note you play
- How hard you hit it (velocity)
- When the note starts (attack), how long you hold it down for (sustain), and when it ends (release)
- Curve-based information like Mod and Pitch Wheel (Continuous Controller Data)
- And many other functions
What is a DAW?
DAW stands for "Digital Audio Workstation". The name is a little confusing because it does not refer to hardware or your physical studio, but to your master software program for recording, editing, and manipulating audio, and it can handle dozens or even hundreds of tracks at a time. Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer, and Pro Tools are popular options.
In addition to handling advanced audio recording and edit features, most DAWs today ALSO have robust tools for receiving, manipulating, and editing MIDI information. .
Your DAW is also a host software for PLUGINS--which are other, smaller pieces of software that, well… plug IN to your DAW. Plugin software includes things like Virtual Instruments and Effects like Reverb, delay, or EQ. In the below picture, I am using an EQ plugin to experiment with changing the sound of my strings (I don't usually EQ this dramatically with strings, just FYI).
Now here is where things get cool.
You can use a piano keyboard (actually any kind of midi-compatible instrument) to input MIDI information and send it via a MIDI cable or USB cable into your computer, where it is recognized by your DAW. There you can apply virtual instrument sounds to those incoming midi notes in real time (there is actually a slight delay, but this can be minimized to be unnoticeable). The result being: when you play on your digital keyboard you hear back the virtual instrument sound that you have loaded in your DAW.
Like I mentioned, MIDI can transfer not only information about the NOTES, but you can use a wheel or joystick (like me!) to send CURVES of information to control the pitch, volume, or expression of an instrument WHILE you play the notes with your other hand.
Take advantage of ALL these different controls, and the potential of creating compelling performances with virtual instruments increases dramatically.
Futhermore, you can record performances into your DAW and then edit every aspect of the recorded MIDI performance using advanced editing tools that are pretty much universal for all of the main DAWs there days. And if you want, you can also copy and paste this performance to other tracks or apply a different instrument to the MIDI you recorded.
What are Virtual Instruments?
The broad term "Virtual Instruments" refers to any instruments that are run or performed virtually… on computers. Sub-sets of Virtual Instruments would include sampled instruments, software synthesizers (as opposed to hardware synths), and modeled instruments.
How do Sampled Instruments work?
The sampling approach consists of recording (with microphones) isolated musical moments or elements that can be accessed later as a component of your composition.
Usually what happens is that an accomplished musician (let’s say, a violinist) is brought into a room for recording and is mic'd as if this was going to be a regular recorded performance (usually - sometimes special mic setups are used for various reasons). But instead of recording an entire performance, the individual notes will be recorded as fragments. "G" will be recorded individually. Then "G#". Then "A", and so on until the entire range of the instrument has been captured on a note-by note basis. After recording, these individual note recordings are collected, trimmed, cleaned up (if needed), and mapped to their respective pitches on the keyboard so that when you play C-D-E on the keyboard what you hear back in real-time (basically) is those REAL violin notes recorded in a real room with real microphones.
The advantage to this approach is that you can use the sound of REAL INSTRUMENTS without having to record them live! The challenge with this approach is that while the sound is real, the virtual performance can sound very artificial and stale because they way you create the performance cannot or does not always mimic how the real instrument does.
But gratefully, my explanation of the sampling process is very primitive and a little bit simplistic. Over the last 20 years, sampling techniques have become very thorough and advanced so as to capture many levels of nuance in the articulations, dynamics, and behavior of the instruments, in order to offer the composer the ability to perform these instruments as expressively and possible. In the image above, you can see world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell working with Alex Davis and Jonathan Churchill from Embertone to create a very sophisticated and deep virtual violin instrument called (appropriately) the Joshua Bell Violin. I actually created one of the demos for this library and did a breakdown of how to control the instrument, which you can watch below.
So if you know what you are doing as a virtual instrument performer, you CAN create some very expressive and realistic-sounding music with virtual instruments. In fact, using Sampled-Based instruments within a MIDI-based approach is currently the BEST way to create realistic sounding orchestral music without recording a live orchestra performance.
Software synthesizers (such as Omnisphere, Zebra, and Massive) generate synthetic, artificial sounds using oscillators and a number of controllable parameters for customizing the sounds. While there are synthesizers (like Omnisphere) that will use an audio sample as a sound source, the strength of synths is not in accurately replicating acoustic instruments, but in creating NEW sounds, textures, and soundscapes.
There are SOME orchestral virtual instruments that use a technique called sample modelling. This is really a type of synthesis, because the audio waveforms are not recorded but carefully modeled to artificially generate sound the same way that real instrument does. To get a taste of the potential here, check out this live performance video of Audio Modeling's SWAM Bass Clarinet.
I don't use any of these instruments but they can sound very compelling and some people swear by them for certain uses. I think that Modeling technology has a bright future, but the instruments created with this approach are still used by a minority of orchestral composers who create on the computer. If you want to have some fun and take some modeled instruments for a free spin, check out the free WIVI Band app for iphone, which lets you play around with some simplified instruments from the developer Wallander Instruments.
Musical Notation Software
There are pieces of software that feature a notation-based approach like Finale, Sibelius, and Dorico. These options are better if you comfortable working with notation and are creating music to print out and give to live musicians, but if you plan to create finished, expressive orchestral music yourself, you will find that a MIDI-based approach in a DAW offers you more controls for shaping the performance, thus allowing for greater realism in the final product. It is also more accessible and intuitive for those who are less comfortable reading notes.
However, if you are working inside a notation-based option, I would recommend that you check out Note Performer, an artificial intelligence-based playback engine for musical notation also created by Wallander Instruments. It comes with a full orchestral library of sounds, and automatically phrases and performs the music in a remarkably realistic fashion. It currently retails for $129.
As you can see, composing on a DAW with MIDI and Virtual Instruments offers a huge amount of potential for creating expressive music, as it allows for the controlling of many fine details of the performance with relative ease. If you are interested in finding out more about how to set up, control, and use MIDI and virtual instruments to create compelling music, check out my online course on the subject!