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.