Music technology lets you create a symphony - for a song

At the annual music expo, traditional woodwinds and brass were joinedby the hot new instrument for the next century: computers.

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Stop the music.

I have just seen the future of symphony, pop, and jazz.

Picture it: The strains of violins rise from your living room, as a computer performs your original concerto - complete with oboe and timpani. It's much simpler than trying to cram a full orchestra into your house. Other technology lets you hold a live jam session with guitarists in Denmark or drummers in Taiwan. You can even direct a music video from the privacy of your own home.

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And all of it can be recorded on new digital-quality, miniature compact discs - suitable for mailing to Grandma, or a record exec.

Much of this technology has been available for years, but plummeting prices are putting such possibilities increasingly within the budgets of ordinary consumers, schools, and garage bands with dreams of superstardom. All it takes is a tune - and $50 to $2,000.

And, music executives say, while computers may never put Steinway out of business, more and more musicians are turning to technology.

"It used to be that computers and musical software were the smallest part of this show. Now they're pushing traditional instrumentation aside," said James Byfield, marketing manager for ThinkWare, a distributor that represents about 150 companies specializing in "next generation music technology."

Judging by the buzz of buyers here at NAMM - the yearly exposition of the International Music Products Association - Mr. Byfield can't be far off. The world's top association of retailers and manufacturers of music related products, NAMM is a one-stop, carnival of an exposition for the worldwide music industry. Four days' worth of conferences, workshops, and exhibitions attracted about 60,000 insiders from the music industry.

A large majority of those folks fall into two groups: those who wear three-piece suits, designer eyeglasses, and pony tails, and those who look like Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards at 6 a.m. There is also the crush of crowds trying to hear sales pitches above the din generated by people sampling 12 football fields' worth of cellos, drums and Aboriginal didgeridoos.

"It's really hard work, and it's a zoo, but if you want to know the cutting edge in music, you can't miss NAMM," said Rebecca Morrison, a buyer from Cookes Bank Instruments in England.

Although computer applications are at the cutting edge, the entire field of musical instruments has been growing steadily since 1990. The companies represented here did $3.7 billion in business that year compared with $6 billion last year.

But now, led by such companies as Roland, Sibelius, Midisoft, and Finale, consumers who can't carry a tune in a bucket can teach themselves without an instructor. At Yamaha, I sat at the first marketable piano that can depress the correct keys for users trying to learn how to play various melodies.

A company called Steinberg was demonstrating software known as Cubase, which allows users to jam with musicians worldwide using the Internet. Another company had a violinist playing live while his notes appeared in written form on a computer score, complete with clefs and time signatures.

But old-style instruments are far from being on the way out. Companies from Korea to Spain were here desperately trying to get into the American market.

Korean seller Mi Sung Kim says his country is concentrating on selling more high-end guitars, because China is muscling into world markets with less-expensive models. And the Spanish government has subsidized sellers here who hope to tap the educational and church markets for percussion instruments. All these markets are growing.

And there still is a major caveat to the computer invasion: complexity.

"The computer processing now available on normal computer chips is changing the basic ground rules of the entire musical game," says David Wessel, director of the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at the University of California, Berkeley. But in addition to learning your scales, you might need to tackle a couple of computer courses. "It is not yet simple to master for a person who is not well-versed in technology."

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