On Synthestration: Part One

V.C. Modern Day Kama Sutra Techniques (1998)

When I started writing music, there was no notation software –  thus making it essential that you either had to clearly hear the music in your head or at least, with some level of confidence, make sure that you could bang it out on a piano.  This is how I composed throughout high school and my first year at Oberlin.

My friend Wally gave a copy of Finale during my first year of Oberlin (on two 3 1/2 inch disks), and suddenly it opened a new world to me.  I was now able to execute musical gestures that I heretofore could not.  I could suddenly write music that had a great deal of speed and hear it as it was meant to sound without being held back by my piano skills. Having MIDI playback at my disposal, with (at that time) a reasonably sounding general MIDI orchestra, was fucking amazing. Until then, I don't think my music was ever fast, or if it was, it was cumbersome, not long lasting, and impeded by the fact that I had to write all of those damned notes on paper with a pencil over and over and over again.  My piece, To Boston For Sex is the first piece I wrote in this manner.  It shows:  it had a lot of notes and was fast.

This is how I composed for the next fourteen years. All of my fast music was written in Finale, anything that I needed to pay close attention to harmony or was slow was written on the piano.

Finale Example: V.C., To Boston For Sex (1998)

I never payed much attention to sequencers.  It's easier to see the notes you are working with, see the intervals as notes, and see the rhythms as lines, beams and dots.  In sequencing its different: no more noteheads, beams, dots, lines, etc. — it's now all rectangles and grids.  No more dynamics, no more crescendi; all MIDI numbers.  It was annoying for me to play with this quantized tablature-like notation.  Plus, you were still stuck with shitty general MIDI sounds, or if you had the money, expensive FM generated keyboards to have better sounds.

Then there came the sample libraries.

Provided you had a top-of-the-line Mac with a shit-ton of memory, a rather sizable wallet, you too could have the Vienna Philharmonic play your music.  Though, where technology sat a decade ago, it still sounded a little fake. (Some instruments are difficult - and still are - to make believable.  Strings are a good example).

I found myself a few years ago having to write a score to a short film with no budget and no musicians.  I turned to the one thing I could think of to help me through the process of making a believable score, with reasonable sound 'replicas' of real instruments.  I turned to Logic and the built-in sounds that came with it. Things got better, apparently – and a far cry from general MIDI.  And it was much easier on the wallet.

Choosing the instruments available that sounded believable: keyboards, harps, mallets, staccato winds and string pads, I think I made something that worked.  With the right amount of attention to detail, I was able to make a reasonable sounding score that if played "live," would not sound much different than my synthesized version.

Logic Example: V.C., When I Dream Some Letters Fall Out Of My Mouth To Make A Word (2013)

I was hooked.  Like Finale a decade-plus ago, I have been using sequencers (Logic) to execute the musical ideas in my head. Using the Logic-based sounds available I wrote actual pieces and pieces never meant to see the light of day.  It seemed fresh, ideal and comfortable.  Now I could combine the old-school technique of banging on the keyboard, and the new-school technique of writing music in utero Finale together.

Recently I purchased real sample libraries. Good ones for an affordable price. They sound fucking amazing. Suddenly at my fingertips, I can hear any combination of instruments play anything I want in anyway imaginable.  I can double contrabassoon with ondes martenot with a theorbo.  I can write for orchestra without ever having to pay for a single live musician.  Most importantly, it provides the composer with an enormous and panoramic sandbox to play in while simultaneously leading to the execution of musical gestures impossible only a few years ago.

The switchover has been smooth, uncomplicated and makes me feel naïve again – finding new possibilities without the fear of consequence just yet.

Of course, it goes without saying that there are consequences for composers who compose solely for synthesized ensembles. Like the switch from the internal ear or piano – as the sole mechanism for determining the musical trajectory and timbral relationships of the composition – to general MIDI / notation software, it is stymied by the fact that what you hear is not what you get as well as the proficiency at the execution mechanism.

Yes, I compose in both sequencers, notation software and by hand, but I compose for live musical groupings that, based on experience, I am aware of the translation from, let's say, inner-ear to sample library to live performance.  Synthestration is not the same as Orchestration and knowing this is obviously paramount.

This, along with a few other points of interest such as: why are composers of concert music comfortable writing with the shitty sounds that come with notation software when they can hear an excellent rendition using top notch sample libraries? – are coming in part two!

See you then...