Robo-music gives musicians the jitters
Realtime has never played Broadway, but touring shows and 'Les Miz' in London use it.
The Venice (Fla.) Little Theater has a tiny orchestra pit, with room for only a handful of players, and a modest budget. So when it mounts a big musical like "Beauty and the Beast," it brings in an electronic ringer.Skip to next paragraph
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A laptop computer, loaded with a program called OrchEXTRA, serves as a "virtual orchestra," from strings to woodwinds, drums to horns, giving the music such a rich sound that audience members may wonder how a full Broadway orchestra fits into the tiny pit.
"As far as sound quality, these things are great," says Dorian Boyd, the sound designer/technician for Little Theater, referring to OrchEXTRA. Virtual orchestras are much better than the early systems of just a few years ago, he says, which could sound like "video game music." Plus, "They're so reliable, you don't really need much of a backup plan," says Mr. Boyd, who works for the nation's fifth-largest community (amateur) theater. It has a 432-seat main stage and 90-seat second stage. "My backup plan is a piano in front of the musical director."
Virtual orchestras – computer programs that can vary dynamics and tempo and follow the singers on stage and the music director's baton – are changing the music world. They are a sore point with Broadway musicians, who fear being replaced by machines and went on strike in 2003 to protest shrinking pit orchestras. But the systems are being used widely with traveling professional Broadway shows and in Cameron Mackintosh's revival of "Les Misérables" in London's West End. Several Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas in Las Vegas and elsewhere use the technology, as do thousands of performances by high school and other amateur groups.
Music students benefit, too. Rarely, if ever, do they have a chance to solo on their instrument accompanied by a full orchestra that will follow their lead. A virtual orchestra created by an Indiana University professor can do just that. It's a great learning experience, says inventor Christopher Raphael, and a great training tool. "You can prepare for performance much more effectively when you hear all of the other parts," Mr. Raphael says. He's an associate professor of informatics at Indiana and former professional oboe player.
His Music Plus One system, under development for 13 years, begins with a recording of an orchestra playing the piece, minus the solo. Computer programming allows the orchestral accompaniment to "listen" to the soloist and follow. The program also uses predictive programming, based on the player's previous playing style and past rehearsals, to anticipate what to do next. Time-warping technology permits the virtual orchestra to slow down or speed up without changing the pitch of the notes being played.
Virtual orchestras have yet to pass the musical version of the "Turing test" – Alan Turing's 70-year-old test for how to tell when a computer's artificial intelligence has become indistinguishable from that of human intelligence. Last August, Britain's Guardian newspaper asked Paul Hughes, general manager of the BBC Symphonic Orchestra, to compare a piece played by a virtual orchestra (stitched together from samples of the recorded sounds of instruments) with the same piece heard on a recording of a human orchestra. Mr. Hughes easily spotted the ersatz orchestra, created by the Vienna Symphonic Library in Austria. Although the playing was "beautiful," he said, it was also "bland." "The computer version was almost too perfect," he said.
Raphael and others working on virtual orchestras say their intent is not to replace human musicians and the joy of making music – or to equal a human ensemble.