Synthetic Orchestras Not As Good As The Real Thing, But May Be Close Enough

from the bot-on-bach dept

There have been numerous instances of machines replacing humans to perform some tasks, though traditionally this phenomenon is associated with repetitive, unskilled labor that can be easily automated. More recently computers and robots have started moving into more professional areas associated with higher skill, like surgery. Increasingly, computers and synthesizers are able to replace whole orchestras, producing sound that’s impressively close to the real thing. This has caused some concern for trained musicians, worried that their skills will no longer be in demand, and in one case, a few years ago, it resulted in a formal complaint from a New York musician’s union. The fact that a machine can do what they do with some degree of success raises the disturbing idea that a trained musician (one who reads sheet music, and then plays it back) is actually more like a technician than an artist. Many musicians will insist that a computerized system will never achieve the texture and beauty of a live orchestra performance. That may be true for some time, and top operas will continue to use live musicians. But more importantly, synthetic orchestras will enable many more productions that would have never been able to happen, because companies will have access to something that’s close enough to the real thing at a tiny fraction of the price. And such a scenario, that sees more musical productions, and greater access to them, should be a positive for those involved with the industry, as long as they’re prepared to adapt.

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Comments on “Synthetic Orchestras Not As Good As The Real Thing, But May Be Close Enough”

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Joshua says:


Why would it be disturbing to learn that playing music from the sheet is not an artistic endeavor? If doing paint-by-numbers doesn’t make you an artist, neither does translating sheet music into sound.

From what I can tell, synthetic music doesn’t sound as good because it’s too perfect. Without the slightly off tempo’s and stops it becomes clear that it is artificial. Maybe the best way to make realistic sounding synthetic music is to find a way to introduce faults in the playback?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Disturbing?

Equating musical performance to paint by number is nonsensical at best. My question to you is: Have you played music yourself? And I don’t mean in a high school or elementary band. If you do not spend many hours daily perfecting your art, yes I said art, you will not be able to reproduce anything from that page. Paint by number requires five minutes and a paintbrush. Music requires a highly trained mathematically oriented and creative mind. Musical performance does require technical precision, but it is not just about the notes, it is about the feeling. Computers will never reproduce human emotion, it is just not possible. The emotion, the feeling of music… that is its focus. I have been performing music for the last fifteen years of my life, I have also been a computer programmer for the last five. Programming is a technician’s job, musicianship is an artist’s job. So, before you go and say “well you’re not techie enough for this forum” go fuck yourself. I know both sides of this argument, and the only true answer is that music will never be fully replaced by computers. This electronic movement will reverse itself over time. Many fads have come and gone. This will too.

PhysicsGuy says:


musicians have nothing to worry about (at least, as a pianist, that’s my hope). how long have player pianos been around? yet there’s still a demand for actual concert pianists. while i will concede that computers can definitely achieve the same texture and depth a live orchestra can (and depending on the orchestra even better) people will always rather see a human musician playing the music. who would want to see a machine playing liszt? people go to see a liszt performance because it’s an amazing sight to behold a human performing such material (seriously, liszt was a virtuoso among virtuosos [mozart and beethoven are still better musically though ;)]). watching someone play a liszt paraphrase or a fast chopin impromptu or a fast movement from a beethoven sonata leaves your jaw on the floor.

PhysicsGuy says:


and about the playing music from a sheet… it’s artistic when you get towards the romantic era, as not being a part of the movement we’re left to give our interpretation as to exactly how it’s played. however, the real artistry, as it has always been, is from the composition… of course, computers can do that now extremely well as well… 😉

Joshua: There is already synthesized music which has that “being played” sound. aphex twin is rather good at it… and i’ve sequence out a few romantic era pieces which, after you take the time to put in tempo changes and whatnot, sound very natural.

Sanguine Dream says:

Now hold on Joe...

But more importantly, synthetic orchestras will enable many more productions that would have never been able to happen, because companies will have access to something that’s close enough to the real thing at a tiny fraction of the price.

The part in bold is what scares musicians. Yes it will enable more productions but musicians fear that the cheaper synthetic orchestra would lead to the owners of production companies to depend on synthetic players for nearly ALL their productions, which would put a lot of them (accept the absolute best of the best) out of work.

Look at like outsourcing tech jobs. Yes cheaper foreign labor allows corporations to hold keep more money in house but that also puts a lot of Americans out of work. Yes outsourcing will level off (and possibly drop) and hiring will pick up on the States again as companies realize that outsourcing isn’t as cheap as orginally though. But the people that lost those jobs before have to survive and they can’t afford to wait out the ebb and flow of their job market.

In conclusion (I’m usually not so long winded) I think some of the, “A machine can’t copy the emotion of a human player” argument is fear of job security and I think their fears may be legit in the years to come if the synthetic orchestra becomes commonplace.

Anonymous Coward says:

true, a computer cannot replicate complete human movement and abilities. yes, synthetic isn’t as “flawed” as human production, but how many people would go to see a bunch of robots?

sure, most would like to see the oh wow factor, but i’m sure that the boston pops have some serious clout, and people will go to see them

the lower end musicians..might have a problem, but look at what happened with most production facilites. car companies have bots that weld and assemble. razors, paper towles, food. they are all made by machines. before youd have tons of peopel doing those jobs, but guess what? people moved to the “qa” and other areas…

so yeah, musicians will have to adapt. i mean, you don’t see birds staying northin for the winter, do you?

Anonymous Coward says:

no, the PBN works. it’s just you take an easy PBN, like a house, and compare it to fleur elise (or whatever)

your music equivalent would be like happy birthday or twinkl twinkle little star.

what you can do is take “stary night” or “the scream” or “American gothic” and taking every pixle and giving it a number and then trying to paint it. and then compare it with a great symphonic compesition. more detail, more time, and it will come out a reproduction.

that’s all music is. it’s just a reproduction of ceertain harmonic frequencies. “synthetic” music is “pure” it’s true. it’s “correct” you hold a note for .5 seconds, not .49993 or .50023.

Kevin says:

technician vs artist

I usually say “right on” to your logic. I don’t quite follow you on this one.

Certainly some people out there that play by reading music are more technicians that artists. However, as with everything, there is a certain something about the human spirit that can transcend the technical aspects of the process. Machines can’t do this.

To shift gears a bit, watching (or being) a basketball player who is “in the zone” is truly something magical. Certainly knowing the correct “technical” procedure for shooting a basketball is necessary, but the act of somehow producing shot after shot under extremely stressful situations is something to behold because it involves much more than technique. It involves something a bit more mystical.

This applies to musicians as well. Watching a player piano is fascinating for about 5 minutes. Watching a person play the same thing can keep you seated for much longer. Why? Because good ones put enough of their soul into it that the mystique transcends any “automated” process.

malhombre says:

As far as perfect vs imperfect

For years, most digital music creation programs have had functions to slightly randomize and offset the playback in order to “humanize” the sound by making it seem like it is being played by people, not perfect machines.
The bigger picture is that this is akin to digital art programs like photoshop and such – just another tool in the kit for creative minds. Some applications will call for human orchestras, some will use digital ones. But the music lives on either way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ya’ll hear that? It’s Beethoven rolling over in his grave.

Musicians have always had a hard time in the world. Unless of course you are simply the absolute best. I’m sure Maynard Ferguson never had to worry about feeding his family after he released his first album, but not every trumpet player has that sort of skill.

My point is, if musicians get ‘outsourced’ then we have nowhere else to go. The people who used to put together cars before machines did simply learned a new skill, because that’s all it was, a skill. Mass production made it that way. But there’s no mass production to music. Every person has to be in their own concert and then the director has to hold them all together and make the fullest sound possible.

Here’s to the lament of musicians of the future!

Marilyn Manson says:

Re: Re:

Mann, chill. I know how you feel. I’m a musician as well. I’ve been playing guitar since i was 7 yrs old. And hasn’t music as a career always been being outdone by someone else? THINK!!! the top musicians made it to the top with TWO things: Talent, and luck. Not every musician is sucessful. And i’d say that about 9/10 musicians, don’t make it very far. But the ones who actually push their very hardest usually make it. So think. Is it really that much different?

Brad says:

"Musicians" need to wake up

Musicians – if you’re worried, I guess that should tell you something about your career: when what you do for a living can be done equally well (or better) by a fairly unintelligent machine, it’s a sign that what you do isn’t terribly impressive. This is just like the Actors Guild complaining about 3d animation “taking their jobs” or the guy that used to wash your car being replaced by an automatic carwash. Technology always replaces the low-end jobs, and while it sucks, being a concert musician is a relatively unskilled job. Plus, the overhead is phenomenal.

Being a professional musician is typically the realm of the children of privelage and wealth – kind of like any artist. Once you don’t have to worry about money, you can devote your life to trivial things, like playing instruments or painting.

Oh yea? More so than air? food? water? shelter? Security? Medicine? Family?

Where does it fall? Why is art so important that it should stand in the way of technology?

What of artists that embrace technology? Should their “art” be less valuable?

Sorry artists, you’re like the fry-cooks of a time before robots made all the fast food.

Anonymous Coward says:

People who go to symphonies don’t go to see robots. That is not the place where synthetic orchestras will be valued. Synthetic orchestras have many great uses in theatre other than just bringing down the cost. One of my university professors was one of the first people to use synthesized music in professional productions. He uses it to provide music for shows that are done in a small black box theatre that has no room for an orchestra. It’s a lot simpler than trying to do a recording. It is also good for productions where the music is playing only a support role. There’s no point in having an orchestra sit through a show just to do some music during scene changes or underscoring. It’s also prohibitively expensive in a non-academic setting. While some music performance jobs will be lost, there will be an increasing number of jobs for composers, since the opportunity is there to pay one person for original music without having to pay 5-20 musicians to be on site for every performance or to pay for recording time.

Anonymous Coward says:

As a jazz musician, I am not worried about losing my skill to a synthesizer. Sure you could program a computer easily enough to play by the ‘rules’ of playing a good improv piece, but that will NEVER compare to a live performance where the musician interacts with the audience, feeding off of them, and being truly passionate about what they are playing. A computer might be able to be programed to play a very convincing ‘improv’ solo, but I’m not worried about jazz musicians not finding work.

However some of the same logic applies to orchestras as well. In a theatrical setting, a computer would have a very difficult time responding to variation in the performance. If there is some kind of mistake on stage, a miscue or a forgotten line, or god forbid unplanned interaction with the audience, a life orchestra would be greatly superior.

Synthetic orchestras will come into play and very seriously in the comming years. Some musicians will be put out of work if they cannot adapt. However big name orchestras will always be around, broadway will never switch to 100% synthetic, and pure music performances will always be with real live performers.

My only real concern is that due to a decrease in jobs for all but the top musicians, there will be less interest in learning how to perform, and the talent level of professional musicians will decrease. But so long as primary through high schools activly promote musicianship, and universities still give scholarships for playing in the band we shouldn’t have too many worries about that.

Marilyn Manson says:

Get a life.

Listen. I totaly agree with brad. For you people who are being outdone by machines, that is just a sign that you aren’t anything special. you may have been before synthetic orchestras hit, but now, people realize that you were never anything special. And also, it’s not like they have all day to program it. Some modern musicians use LIVE synthetic orchestras, and that’s not cake. i dont care if you like my music, but dont even begin to tell me that they sound awful. But Deadstar Assembly uses live synth., and look at them. They’ve made it to the top of their genre. And even if you dont like industrial music, give them credit for being the top.

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