What does "virtual musician" mean? It's just being a musician with no limit...

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     Is computer an instrument exactly like a violin or a piano? YES, OF COURSE! There is no reason why people have to consider computer music as "cold", "mechanical" or "impossible to listen to". There is no reason why people have to consider musicians who use this instrument, like "mature children who enjoy playing with the PC sound card". I'll try to demonstrate, through some considerations, that, as it has always been, the overall good quality of a performance doesn't come at all from the instrument you use, be it real or virtual; instead, all depends on the player, who, at the moment, cannot be virtual at all...



     Who plays an instrument, at the end, "makes something" to a black box (suppose we don't know what's inside an oboe or a French horn), that causes it to utter a sound. A skilled player will make it sound as close as possible to what he wants. A good player, in addiction of being skilled, can produce sounds that, put together, have the same expression and "life" of, for instance, a singer. Therefore, the result is not given by the instrument, but by the player him/herself, who's able to give the performance that something special (give Rachmaninov a upright piano and you'll see)... Telling the contrary would mean admitting that anyone can be a good photographer, as long as he/she uses a good camera.



     I accept supernatural considerations like: "a computer will never have the same sound of a violin!" Ok, I understand man isn't made only of flesh, fortunately. But, at the end, what we perceive is a sound. And a sound is an acoustic wave... As well as you reproduce exactly the same acoustic field in a space, if you close your eyes (the better way to listen to music, try it), you CANNOT perceive any difference, unless you are a medium. The pivotal point is therefore playing that bloody same... wave!



     There are instruments of quality, like a Stradivarius violin, or bad instruments, like those one you can by for a few hundred Euros: the bad quality of an instrument only makes a good performance sound worse, but no good one can improve a bad performance. A PC can play a MIDI file –from the sound point of view– very very well or very very badly, depending on many factors, such as the skill of who sequenced it, the quality of the sound card you installed on it, the speakers you use, and so on.

     Let's take the more snareful of the instruments: the violin. This normally sounds horribly on a PC, for many reasons; I only indicate the main ones: A) Many sound cards don't have good champions of its sound, because the implementers used bad violins and/or bad players to champion it in the second movement –or simply they used sounds electronically generated: scaring! You'll get the same effect, even more... scratching, by squeezing your cat's tail!– B) A violin has 4 strings: the same note on a different string sounds in a totally different way, the "speed" and pressure of the bow changes the sound, etc. C) Many sound cards don't recognise staccato, so they play legato and staccato the same way (a thing that happens also with the flute: you always can hear the air from the player's mouth before each note) and this radically affects the performance.

     The issue is that a good sound card, in addition to having a good and well programmed Digital Signal Processor, needs a lot of memory to store many champions of the same instrument, at different octaves, levels, strings and so on... But memory isn't certainly becoming a problem: in the future there will be many champions for the same note, depending on whether it is played piano, forte, slowly, quickly, staccato, legato and whatever else you can imagine. Each instrument can have his own "added sound", like the click of the keyboard, the resonance of other strings in a violin, the breath of a flute player, other environmental noise and so on. An evolution of the MIDI standard and its interfaces is also due.

     The violin is probably the most technically complicate instrument and to play it well, involves a lot of variables. But once we have considered all of them, it's just a question of "programming" a sound card to do what we want, in other words, to reproduce the same effects of a violin. It is only a question of time. Do you remember the first computers (VIC-20, C-64, for instance), how did they sound like? Now the worst and cheapest sound card on the market can do far better than then. Do you remember the old 78-turns records and even the most recent 33 LP? Do you think a CD (plenty of "horrible" mechanical bits) renders a symphony of Schumann better or worse? In words, it's only a question of technology, that is to say: time. There are instruments playing very well on some actual mid-price sound cards (like piano, clarinet, harp and church organ): give the evolution the right time and you probably won't feel the difference between Arthur Rubinstein and an incredibly good "virtual" player!

    You probably noticed that I never make mention of the possibility of creating any kind of strange timbre with a computer; none is forced to use the standard instruments, but I'm really not interested in that, at the moment. Then, why imitating an instrument if you can play a real one? Well, for instance just to play all the instrumental work of Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, exactly as you want. But more then all, for the most human and simple reason: I have done it!



     If one had lived in the time when the first keyboard instrument appeared, one would have probably said of it the same thing "big experts of music" say about MIDI. Imagine: "It is totally different from a violin or a flute: it cannot be considered as an instrument! And then it sounds cold, mechanical and it is hard to modulate its sound, a thing very easy on a violin". Then came Bach, probably a person without many stereotypes in his mind, who gave the keyboard the same dignity of a violin: it was only a matter of music to be played... The technique is different, so different must be the parts the two instruments have to play, but this doesn't mean one is better or "more instrument" than the other (one, instead, can like one or the other: I adore the harpsichord timbre and hate the violin!); then came the fortepiano and the actual piano. Things have changed, but man is always the same: isn't it?



     One of the arguments that often arise, when talking about this topic with players is: "A player have to study an entire life to get the best and you only have to put notes into a computer!" FALSE! In order to get the best from a MIDI, you have to dedicate a lot of time because:

1) You must be given that fairy gift impossible to explain, called musical sensitivity; that deep feeling that makes your listener think you're singing, while playing, and not just typing on the keyboard...

2) You must be grounded in music, obviously, the same level as a "real" player;

3) You have to know what you are going to "virtually" play, otherwise the result would be the same of a player who doesn't know anything about the author or his music;

4) You have to know your instrument (sequencer MIDI, sound card, amplifier and speakers) perfectly and as there are Stradivarii and bad violins, there are good and bad software and hardware; there are violins that you must play for a long time before realising which "tricks" can make it give the best, so are sequencers and sound cards; a violin is composed of strings, bow and so on, a MIDI instrument is composed of hardware and software, but at the end there is no difference between their goals: both are built to produce sounds, the way their players want to be;

5) There is a lot of work in that sentence "put notes into a PC". Firstly you must know how to put them, when and where; this doesn't happen automatically: each author has his way to be played and you must consider it. Then you have, for each note, to decide which level and tempo must have and this can take days for a single movement of a single-instrument Bach's sonata: virtual musicians have to study the phrasing, trying again and again, exactly like real ones... Moreover, in the future there will probably be other instructions to give the computer, as seen before. Otherwise the result will be wrong, cold or mechanical, as if you were playing a harpsichord like typing; thus you'd give the MIDI smearers a weapon to destroy all your and other people's work!



     Finally, one of the main reasons why computers aren't considered instruments is therefore the bad level of their "players". Effectively, on the Internet, you find a huge quantity of MIDI files, but only a tiny percentage are acceptable from the point of view of the musical quality. That is because PCs are instruments anyone can easily access (music courses, unfortunately, aren't) and most people have no idea about what is and how to play a fugue, a symphony of just a sonata: they heard something in their life, probably they play an instrument, as bad as they sequence MIDIs (they just definitely put notes into the computer). If you take 1,000 persons on the street, and give them a violin, then how many of them -do you think- could be able to play a single note decently? Probably, they could be much more, in a more spiritually (and art)-oriented society, but this doesn't have anything to do with music, as it concerns distinct and always low-level interests...

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