Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Baby got "Playback"

(...with my apologies to Sir Mix-a-Lot...)

Here is a question to all composers who are reading this blog: How many times have you had worked out your piece using Finale or Sibelius playback so that it sounds "just right," only to be horribly disappointed when you actually heard the piece performed by live musicians?

Conversely, for all of you performers out there reading: How often have you received a newly composed piece of music that you dubbed - for a lack of musicality, phrase, or physical practicality - "Finale" music?

While there are many reasons why these two problems exist, I would wager that one possible culprit for both of these cases is in that often misused tool known as MIDI playback. As many of us probably already know, MIDI playback is, at its worst, a crutch for the inexperienced composer. It allows the composer to gain a false sense of what their piece sounds like, and often ignores the little details, such as musicality and human interpretation. In inexperienced hands, MIDI playback can create a litany of problems for both composers and performers alike. However, MIDI playback can also be used effectively as a tool for the skilled composer.

It cannot be denied that the sound of MIDI playback has improved considerably over the past few years, in particular with software samplers like the Garitan Personal Orchestra and Kontakt. The bottom line is that, despite the many advances in sound sampling technology, virtual instruments allocated in Sibelius and Finale simply do NOT sound like their live counterparts. Sure -they are likely real recorded sound samples of real instruments. They may have a feature known as key switching, to allow for a variety of articulations. They may even have a "human playback" feature, which allows for small amounts of give-and-take to be placed into the playback itself. However, despite all of these advances, virtual instruments are - and will remain - approximations of real instruments.

That isn't to say that these instruments don't sound good. Oddly enough - the problem might be that, today, these virtual instruments sound too good. Not all that long ago, it was pretty common knowledge that MIDI instruments sounded quite awful. No one would ever mistake a wavetable saxophone played over a General MIDI soundcard for a real saxophone. However, over the past five years this has changed considerably. Virtual orchestras, bands, and choirs - as well as "hybrid" ensembles (mostly virtual instruments with a few live musicians for color) - now make up the majority of film music and video game scores. This is the case for two reasons - one, because they have a "perfect" sound that live musicians are incapable of creating (nor do we want them to), and two, these artificial ensembles are considerably cheaper than hiring a live orchestra. Virtual ensembles are capable of playing anything that the composer throws at them, regardless of little things like balance, range, or even proper orchestration. On top of this, it has been documented that today's young adults -the coveted market of all movie producers - actual prefer the sound of the virtual orchestra over the live one, most likely because that is the sound that they are used to. Imagine the difficulty then, if those same young adults are now aiming to become composers - to compose for live musicians.

Another problem that needs to be addressed is that, by using MIDI playback, young composers are not audiating their own music. They are not hearing the music in their head as they write it, and instead are letting the computer do the job for them. A composer should be able to look at a score and, in thier head, be able to hear the piece - or at least a close approximation of what it should sound like. This is a learned skill - one that MIDI playback unfortunately holds back from developing properly.

So, the problem for the young composer boils down to one, unavoidable fact: using MIDI playback hinders the development of the composer's ear. The traditional way to overcome this problem for the young composer is to both train them in the ways of proper instrumentation and orchestration, and to encourage them to LISTEN to as much live music as possible, particularly music performed in the concert hall (moreso than recordings, as they are doctored as well to acheive a more-or-less perfect sound). Having composers work directly with other student performers while working on thier piece is another time-tested and practical way of training the ear of the student composer.

Beyond this, though, what does one do about Playback? After all - it cannot be denied that it is a very convienent tool, despite the many hang-ups that come with it. I myself use playback quite a bit - although I must also mention that my own ear is quite trained and well developed. I find it is a great tool for assessing the pace of my music, as it helps me determine whether or not I need more music in a section, or perhaps if a section needs to be cut down a bit. I also find that I unconsciously accept many flaws and inaccuracies in my playback, simply because I have a good working understanding of how the live performance of the piece will sound. My playbacks often sound completely wrong - something which I am not only ok with, but find necessary as a way of ensuring that I am keeping my ear grounded, so to speak. While not always the case, a good composition will often have a poor sounding playback.

So, what to do? My advice would be the following: if you are just starting as a composer, DO NOT USE MIDI PLAYBACK. It's that simple. I'm not saying that it should never be used, but when one is first learning to compose the negatives simply outweigh any positives that might come from the tool. The first priority for the student composer is to develop their ear. However, as the ear develops, playback can - and should - be introduced in small amounts. Once ready, here are a few things that a young composer can try when returning to MIDI playback:

• Try using playback with only one voice, while listening to the remaining voices in your head as you compose.

• Use only piano sounds in your playback, while keeping in your ear the actual sound of the instrument you are writing for.

• Insert extra silence into your playback. Remember that a single whole note, performed by the best musician, will still sound incredible - even if it sounds flat and stale as performed by the computer (an issue of resonance that will be discussed at a later time).

• Take your tempos down a notch or two, until they feel "just a touch too slow." This is the correct tempo (this is also an issue of resonance).

Think of playback as an advanced power tool, like a circle saw. In the hands of an accomplished craftsman, he or she can use the tool to assist them in creating a great work, but in the hands of a novice, her or she could cut their own hand off. Develop the ear first, and then you will find that playback functions not so much as a crutch, but as a tool.


  1. As with all technologies, MIDI playback can be a crutch or a tool. I have gone a step further - I actually export MIDI files out of Sibelius and import them into Logic 8. I then use samples from the Vienna Symphonic Library to "prototype" my pieces. I do this for myself and my players. So many players (non virtuoso division) need a realistic sounding document to compare to the score, especially modern music with modern rhythmic, harmonic and melodic languages.

    I am a "young" composer - in my mid-30's - and am always working to better train my ear - but I find the technology helps me and more importantly my performers - who are often not as versed in modern music and sound as they could/should be.

  2. You have a great point here Jim - one thing that I would like to distinguish here is the difference between using playback as a *composition* tool, and its effect on our ears, rather than creating a finalized MIDI for performers to work from. I too often will create MIDI mock-ups of my works for performers to work with, but this is after the piece has been composed. This is a valuable use of MIDI, and one that I completely endorse! :)

  3. I agree with much of what you’ve written in this posting. I will definitely take your advice into consideration with respect to taking my tempos down a notch, for example. Both Sibelius and Sonar, my two weapons of choice, default to 100bpm. After years of listening to this tempo, I find that it unconsciously informs my starting decisions at times.
    However, I need to bring up one situation which, I admit, is probably unique to persons in my situation. Specifically, I refer to the need to use MIDI playback as a means of orienting myself to the entire score at once. Since I have a severely restricted visual field, it isn’t really possible to keep track of one’s situation by reading. Fortunately, I have decades of experience both as a classically trained pianist and as a long time listener of classical music. In addition, I am blessed with having the opportunity to hear far more classical music performed live these days than I ever used to ear.
    Finally, the adaptation of Sibelius for the blind by Dan Rugman with his Sibelius Access plug-in has enabled me to literally prepare the scores which have been trapped in my head waiting to be heard.
    When I was a student at New England Conservatory in the 1970s and early 80s, I attended every orchestral, wind ensemble and choral rehearsal I could in order to hear the works of the great masters disassembled and reassembled section by section. Unfortunately, my inability to then run home, write something down and have some people try it, drastically diminished the educational experience I had back then.
    However, the combination of modern notational possibilities and the wealth of live music I’m hearing now, combined with the passage of years and serious aural development should help me to avoid many of the pitfalls that you mention in your post.
    All that said, just as a neutral proofreader helps the author to correct spelling and grammatical errors, hearing comments like yours, no matter how obvious they may seem, will definitely help me “catch myself” as I work my way through various pieces I’m working on.
    Thank you for this blog.

  4. Hi Kenneth, good start of your blog! Some of your MIDI tips were new thoughts to me, esp. the idea to mute all but one voices and imagine the rest.

    What I do frequently is to switch MIDI sounds in playback to give rise to a imagination of what I've written independently from its MIDI sound. I use grand piano sounds for vocals, brass etc. Also, I strongly second your idea to take the tempo down a bit by default, and, even more so, to be aware that long notes, unaccompanied passages and even breaks can sound so much better if played by a real musician than with unedited MIDI.

    I've posted twice on my blog about how ReWire integration in Sibelius 6 changed my workflow drastically:

    + http://fritzfeger.blogspot.com/2009/06/update-on-sibelius-6.html
    + http://fritzfeger.blogspot.com/2009/06/sibelius-6-update-2.html


  5. I can see the sense in the idea, but if you have no live musicians to play your music and are still learning how to write the music so you get something like the sound you hear in your head, what else would you suggest other than listening to midi playback, no matter how flawed that is?

  6. Hi Amanda,

    I can understand how difficult it can be to hear your music properly when you are just starting to learn how to compose. The best thing that you can do in your situation is to work on training your ear so that you can "hear" your music in your head, without using either playback or even a live player. Practice by studying scores that you are unfamiliar with first without a recording, and then verifying what you heard with the recording later. It is vital that your ear is strong enough to give yourself at least an approximation of the piece. This takes time and patience, but is probably the most important thing that you can do for yourself.

    To get a better idea of how the instruments themselves sound, you can look at several online resources that demonstrate all of the major (and several auxiliary) instrument groups. Here is one such resource:


    This site will allow you to hear these instruments properly, rather than what you might think they sound like through MIDI playback.

    I hope this helps you out - please feel free to send me a message if you need further guidance.

    - Ken Froelich