LeafGarritan Virtual Instruments

It's been a rather long and boring period in electroacoustic music for several years, as we regroup and polish ideas that were defined a decade or more ago. Most fields seem to move that way, in bursts with plateaus, it may be just a mark of the "human condition", as we reach out to new methodolody and tools, first adventurously, then moving back for more perspective.

LeafPreamble on musical tools

It's very unusual for me to feature any specific musical tools on the website. The main exception we've made for several years now is the encomium I posted about Mark of the Unicorn's "Digital Performer" (I usually call it "DP"), the musical tool I've used the longest, since 1984. Back then it was a basic MIDI sequencing program, which grew gradually, as everything else did, feeling its way ahead, responding to what many musicians and composers discovered they needed and requested. In the mid-90s full digital audio recording, editing and playback was added, and it's become a favored tool for many music professionals who regularly work in the media. It's fast, very powerful and easily customizable, the interface is logical and attractive, and I find myself enjoying using it, even during long, difficult projects. The MotU company also makes some really lovely hardware boxes (I regularly use several of them), interfaces for MIDI, HiDef digital audio in/outs, synchronization, and several other tasks.
Anyway, regularly I receive questions from some of you about what software and hardware tools I use, or would recommend to others. Okay, let's address that topic a bit here. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have no contractual arrangement with the companies who make these tools. They neither solicited these comments, nor even knew about them when I created the pages, and I don't get paid anything to post this information here -- it's intended for the musicians among you, and for those who are merely curious. But over the years, many letters, e-mails, f2f meetings and phone calls, I HAVE become good friends with many of the principles of the companies. It was inevitable, as we discovered we had many things in common, much more than the mere specific tools described here.
A final caveat: like many artists, composers and musicians, I'm a Mac user, have been since they first came out in March '84, so the programs described here represent Mac versions.

The second software tool I've grown to rely on is a similarly high-powered, versatile music notation program, Finale, which I began using way back in 1987. As with MotU, I was a beta tester for most of the initial years while Finale was being defined and refined, tracing down and describing in detail "handfuls" of the expected early bugs (um, yum!), and reporting on awkward or missing interface methodology. By now these tools have grown nicely mature and stable, with new features thoughtfully added, and new "hooks" to changing OS's and the latest breed of real world interfaces taken care of with each update and upgrade. I'd hate to try to work without any of them!
While DP can also create decent generic printed scores when you're in a hurry or need only the basics, much of the time a serious musician will also need (I sure do) the "whole kit and caboodle", an ultra flexible tool to create detailed publishing quality notation for everything: lead sheets, conductor's full scores, individual instrumental parts, complex contemorary compositions, and whatever lies in between. The tool of choice for many of us is most definitely MakeMusic's Finale. Again, it's fast, powerful, customizable and attractive, and has whatever you'll need to create simple through highly complex music manuscripts. Yes, it has a long learning curve, but the newest versions allow the beginner to simply rely on many excellent defaults, while picking up and tweaking what you need as you go along and continue to learn. Nice.

When you've created your final mixes and want to begin polishing them for the final mastering stage, or at any time you're working on detailed audio components, tracks, and samples, you're going to need an excellent stereo/mono audio mastering tool. I tried to locate a worthy successor to the long discontinued Sound Designer II, the surprisingly decent early audio program I began with in 1991. It required a patient search over several years, but I finally found something much better. It's called "Peak", and is made by a small west-coast firm called BIAS. Check out our new page about Bias's Peak HERE.

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LeafThings To Come

We're regularly discovering that we can look to the newest ultra fast computers to carry ever more of the simultaneous workload in creating new compositions, songs, demo tracks, and so on. While I always will prefer to distribute the tasks among several devices, not try to squeeze everything "into one box", there are attractive reasons now to expand on that reasonable idea. I'm thinking of software emulators of several synthesizer environments, including near-replicas of traditional instruments. Here I've discovered a real winner, in the Garritan Corporation's suite of virtual instruments, including: "GPO" (Garritan Personal Orchestra) -- all of the instruments of a full symphonic orchestra, and "J&BB" (Jazz & Big Band) -- a similar collection from the worlds of Jazz ensembles large and small, classic big bands, and other chamber jazz orchestras. I love the clean, authentic sounds of all the instruments in both collections, and am impressed by the "BFTB" (Bang For The Buck) factor, a refreshingly modest price for definitive quality. The time, care and effort that went into them ought shame companies which are in it only for the money, and not also a love of this field. (Since images of the actual interfaces seem to be hard to come by, let's include three of them here:)

Three interfaces (click each for an actual size view)

= A Whole New Paradigm =

Finally, suddenly, there's something even more exciting, Garritan's new "Stradivarius Solo Violin." For me it stands at the forefront of a major new paradigm shift forward, in the use of sample based synthesis. Traditionally one would carefully record a reasonable number of notes produced by a desired instrument (thus the accurate name, "samples"), perhaps over several dynamics, and articulation methods, if applicable. The more the better, up to a point, as the size of the files and access speed would begin to suffer. For the first few years I deplored the inane repetitiveness of samplers, each instance of a note sounded identical. What was worse was the lack of very much performance value, expressivity, even when an obsessively determined musician (like me) worked for hours on a single passage -- aw, nutz! The early digital synths were MUCH better in those ways, so I tended to stick with them, trading some "reality" for better human musicality and ensemble cohesion. That's part of the background from whence many of my albums came: "Digital Moonscapes", "Beauty in the Beast", and several after that.
Eventually advanced samplers closed some of the gap between them and the expressive (if not "phonographically real") synths. When the sample-based instruments had evolved several years, I began to use them more and more, although usually combined with a digital synthesizer to retain better expression. Recent software emulations (like those in the Garritan Libraries), have many more samples of longer duration and higher quality, and can tap much greater flexible sound modulating power. So a lot of us are adopting these mature timbre resources to create our new music. In a modern MIDI sequencer (like DP, where MIDI editing is particularly fast) we're learning how to finesse it, to switch often between related samples and programs, choosing each to better evoke the constant variations a fine live musician brings instinctively to a performance. With care and patience this is a fruitful way to come up with master quality realizations. Whenever you want to capture the subtle, rich qualities of an acoustic ensemble, tools like GPO and J&BB are an excellent way to go.
But the wave of the future probably lies more with what's behind the new Stradivarius violin (take a listen to some of the examples on the Strad webpage, especially "Stefano's Song" for an exuberant demonstration). High quality original sample libraries have to be analyzed and resynthesized or transformed into a tight collection of interlocking parts, so that individual notes can be cross-faded on the fly to the most appropriate choice. Natural expressive properties, like vibrato and phrasing, can also be cross-faded this way, as you approach the characteristics of a well played acoustic instrument. This requires a LOT of MIDI controllers, pedals, switches, and so on, to input all the things any fine performance requires, and to do so instinctively, not just thoughtfully, especially after you practice and become adept at it -- as all good instrumentalists must do!

= Micro History =

The first of these daunting reassemblies is currently being implemented by a team guided by Gary Garritan (the force behind the Garritan company, and a good friend), with the Italian team of Giorgio Tommasini and Stefano Lucato. That all three are good musicians almost goes without saying. Gary worked with a NYC concertmaster violinist, Pauline Kim, to come up with all the beautiful originating samples (I was privileged to be there during some of the sessions), and he guided the project. Tommasini invented the innovative methods to deconvolve, align and then reconvolve the audio files for each note and dynamic into a phase and amplitude coherent collection, the heart of their new methodology. Lucato contributed his engineering and performance skills to create the interconnections and defaults between the sound engine and real world MIDI input functions, made sure it worked from a performer's point of view. Wish I could have been there, when the new concept took what astronomers call "first light."
Since this Summer I've been getting a kick out of experimenting with the Strad (as I write this it's up to version 2+), helping out mostly dilettantishly here and there, including some bug reporting. I'm really enjoying the experience of working with something that up to now was only wishful thinking. I believe the team intends to continue adding instruments of this new kind to the library. Which means that we're finally going to have a way to create music in our studios which captures what is best about fine instrumental performances, their musicality and vividness, while not giving up the flexibility and convenience of working in the electroacoustic domain. If we can have our first desk instruments be of this new paradigm, combined with a fine regular library of instruments (like GPO) to add ensemble richness and thickness, it may not be that long before we reach the touchstone of "an orchestra in a box!" I can taste it already.

= Quo Vadis? =

But it won't stop there. Other instruments, jazz, pop, classical, ethnic, can gain from this treatment (a Herculean task some automation ideas eventually may be developed to assist in). Then hybrids and extrapolations (yeay!) of and between traditional instruments and novel synthesized expressive instruments can be created, to extend the traditional timbres into magical new directions, based on the best of the old AND the new, with little or no musical compromise. For me it's a bit of "deja vu all over again", as this is where I tried to head with my GDS and Synergy synthesizers some 25 years ago! That never fully happened, the budget and support were not there, and everything seemed to move mostly backwards for a long time after that (with some welcome exceptions). Anyhow, I really am "jazzed" by this turn of events, which is why I'm posting this somewhat "gushy" page of applause and encouragement -- for something I feared I'd not live long enough to see/hear/care about!
All three of these new tools and their documents and support also are a pleasure to work with. Function, esthetics and responsibility are equally important to Gary; it shows. It's fun to know him, and work with the team, including his longtime indefatigable musicware collaborator, Tom Hopkins (another first rate musician, those are his dandy trumpets in the J&BB set). The relationship is one I've been lucky to experience before, several other good music people and their companies. They create the tools I've used for years and care deeply about: MotU, MakeMusic, BIAS, and now Garritan. I've found that when you connect more than superficially with people like this, you often find that you share many of the same interests, ideals and points of view. It follows that soon you begin to become more than industry acquaintances, but friends. I suspect this is the way it always has been with creative work, apprenticeships, journeymen and women, creative collaborators. Talented, passionate people with overlapping backgrounds begin working together, learning what needs to be done and how to do it -- by just doing it. Not so bad at all, is it? 

The above concluding thoughts bring to mind a van Gogh quote that also appears on the back of my "Beauty in the Beast": "I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it." Exactly.

--Wendy Carlos

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