Orchestral Music for Film, Television, and Radio

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Digital Applications for Composers

A "How-To" in Outline
by Daniel de Quincy

Step Two

Level One

As noted at the end of the previous section, instrumental and orchestral simulations of your music may be produced at varying levels of realism and aesthetic beauty, each level requiring a commensurate expenditure of time and effort. At the most elementary level, the "audible score" is simply the product of the work you’ve already done when you composed your music on the computer, placing notes on the staff as it appeared on your display screen. (The audible score is defined in the previous section.)

If you are not using a keyboard synthesizer in conjunction with your computer, you will be pleased to know that even so you can still hear your "audible score" simply by sending it to your computer’s sound card. (All of today’s general-purpose computers include a sound card as part of the standard configuration.) The sound you hear from your computer’s sound card will be familiar to you in a not entirely welcome way. You have undoubtedly heard it already at some time or other in the course of surfing the Internet. Whenever music plays automatically after opening a particular page on the Web, it is produced by the little synthesizer on your computer’s sound card. Internet greeting card services generally deliver music in this way, and of course the sound is nothing to write home about. But very little digital "space" and hardly any time at all is required to transmit music over the Internet in this way, and if this does not justify its use, at least it accounts for it.

This fact also highlights one of the advantages that accrues to the composer from the technology used at this level. For this also means that your own audible score may be sent easily and quickly, even as an attachment to email, to a friend, or to a conductor who is interested in seeing your work. (Composers who also teach will surely be interested in receiving audible scores from their students. No more pondering of curious chicken-scratches on smudgy pages of curiously stained manuscript paper.)

Level Two

At the next level of musical sophistication, an enhanced audible score may still be played on a computer sound card or on any other synthesizer without regard to make, and yet it will also produce a more musical performance with regard to tempo, dynamics, and nuances of various kinds.

As noted in the previous section, your computer communicates with a keyboard synthesizer (if you have one, or with your computer sound card if you do not), by means of a computer specification called MIDI. The pitch of every note, its exact length, the loudness of the tone, and the timbre are defined according to the so-called MIDI specification, which is the product of international cooperation in the field. Every musical note may be represented in terms of MIDI by specifying a wide range of specific performance parameters. Moreover, the rhythmic beat is divided into minutely fine increments so that a specific tempo may be assigned to any number of these increments, as desired, and in this way the musical phrasing may be subjected to a very subtle degree of control. All of this is accomplished with relative ease using software designed to permit an intuitive grasp and use.

Even the simplest music software programs make it possible for you to determine individually the specific values of the various performance parameters referred to above (pitch, loudness, length, tempo, etc.) Take advantage of those features of your software program, assigning values for these various parameters according to musical considerations, and your enhanced audible score will sound a great deal more like music. Yet, it may still be played on your computer sound card, or on the computer of any person to whom you send it. Your audible score has been written in the language of MIDI just so that it would be playable on any synthesizer, irrespective of make or model.

[It should be noted here that composers of keyboard music, per se - i.e. music for piano, harpsichord, organ, etc. - need not go beyond this level of the audible score. The parameters defined above are all that there is to keyboard music. Of course, audible scores of keyboard music will still disappoint if played on your computer sound card. If you play your audible scores on a fine keyboard synthesizer, however, a much higher quality of sounds will be available to you. You will also be very pleased to know that your audible scores may be played on an acoustic piano, and in fact some of the finest pianos of the day are being equipped with MIDI mechanisms. Although not described as such in the preceding discussion, MIDI is obviously a method for recording music. Accordingly, MIDI recordings may be made of live performances, and this is especially useful if you sometimes compose by improvising at the keyboard. In fact, MIDI recording of the conventional keyboard instruments surpasses in fidelity ALL other methods, including of course, the very finest digital audio recordings for CD. The audio CD cannot be played on an acoustic piano. You need electronic amplifiers and speakers to hear it.]

Level Three

Played on a fine keyboard synthesizer, the sound of the enhanced audible score will be greatly improved. Whatever you write for orchestral instruments can thereby be played and recorded with much improved realism. This is obviously a simple function of the quality of the synthesizer and of the sounds it produces. But in order to achieve the second level of excellence in your instrumental simulations, you will need to tailor your audible score for a specific synthesizer, and a very good one at that. At this level, you will also begin to select specific instrumental sounds that correspond to your musical intentions. On an instrument like the Kurzweil, for example, you will select either a solo flute, or ensemble flutes, depending on your needs. You may in fact choose between a number of different kinds of solo flute in order to be even more specific with regard to the particular timbre that you require at any given moment.

I am posting here a recording of an audible score that Kurzweil distributes with their synthesizers and which they use as a demonstration of the capabilities of the instrument. (Kurzweil does not use the term "audible score.") This is an audio recording of my K2000 playing a selection from Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker Suite." It should be understood that this recording reflects a shaping ONLY of the basic performance parameters described above. This recording does NOT demonstrate the kind of control over the production of individual tones that may be achieved at a higher level of instrumental simulation to be described below. The reason for this is that its original audible score is meant to be playable on ANY Kurzweil synthesizer. This will become more clear to you as you read further.


You should take note of the fact that I have provided an audio recording of this example. I cannot expect you to have a Kurzweil synthesizer, and thus at this level of simulation we lose some of the advantages derived from the universality of the audible score as described in the previous section. Indeed, as we progress from this level onward, we must welcome audio technology into the discussion. MIDI alone is not capable of creating recordings of your instrumental simulations at the level of excellence that is required for fine music (keyboard music excepted, as explained above). The sounds that make up the raw material of high quality musical simulations can only be found in individual studios, and so they must be recorded in audio format in order to be heard outside the studio. (Professional music software like the aforementioned Cubase VST Score incorporate MIDI and audio into one integrated package.)

As noted above, a fine synthesizer makes additional performance parameters available to you. With your computer music software, and the software internal to your synthesizer, you can shape notes as they unfold, just as you would with your breath through a flute, or with a bow on a string. You can apply dynamic accents and nuances of any kind to the performance. The result at this level will really begin to resemble music. Many people will enjoy it for what it is. If you send a tape of the performance to a conductor, you will convey so much more than just the score alone, giving the conductor a sense of what the music is "about." For, at this level, you will have achieved a substantial degree of beauty in your simulation.

In order to shape the individual notes in your performance, you need to program your own synthesizer. And, the result will sound as you want it to ONLY if it is played on YOUR synthesizer, or on another synthesizer of the same make that is programmed exactly like your own. But this represents the next level of development that will be discussed in "Step Three."

If you want to proceed to the highest level of performance, you will have to obtain some additional equipment, and the amount of additional work involved is considerable. The rewards are correspondingly great.


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