The Virtual World: Part 1
Home < Pro Audio < B&H Email Newsletter <

The Virtual World: Part 1

by Kendall Scott

Like many parallel advancements in the art world, modern musical instruments have proven to be products of available technologies, prevalent (or not so prevalent) trends, and social environments. Back in the day, if all you had at your disposal for musical expression were a few rocks and some bits of wood (along with the human voice), then the bright idea of stretching an animal skin across a solid frame might seem glorious. Ancient composers and instrumentalists could add a new color of crayon to their box and begin exploring the boundaries of this new piece of gear. They were inspired to produce any number of new and unheard of sounds practically flowing out of a new invention, not unlike the feeling we have when we purchase a new instrument today. New tools can spur creativity and, all along our cultural historical timeline, new instruments have both shaped and have been shaped by the circumstances surrounding their use.

It is true, I don't know how much composing was done for the early wood and stone ensembles of bygone days but you get the idea. Technology has played a great role in the worldwide development of the classical, traditional, and popular forms of music that we enjoy today. Some aspects of this influence are very evident while others are more subdued. With its fingers on the pulse of all that is new and hip, popular music touches almost all of us in some way or another, unless one takes unusual evasive measures to avoid it. We are constantly being fed a healthy dose in department stores, supermarkets, elevators, movie theaters, and other places in our daily lives, making it very familiar and in a sense easily digestible.

Whether presented from the minstrel's gallery or the lighted stage, popular music has drawn on the technology of the day. For us, one of the most interesting current tools for the creation of new musical development has undoubtedly been the personal computer. It is not uncommon to find hard-working laptops in the DJ booth of a dance club or onstage within a performance ensemble. As large technological advancements are the expected norm and smaller leaps go almost unnoticed, musicians and electronic artists have been greedily soaking them up like a sponge. Applications that would have been merely a pipe dream twenty years ago are now commonplace.

This sustained rate of improvement has lead to the current high standard of virtual instruments. A virtual instrument is a mathematical representation of a sound-generating device that exists within a hardware host. The hardware is usually a desktop or laptop computer, although there are many virtual analog synthesizers on the market that offer dedicated hardware to support themselves. Due to the fact that software is malleable in ways that hardware isn't, we have reached an interesting crossroads for software developers. If the computer is capable of offering a way of generating as yet unimagined methods of sound creation, then why have some of the most popular virtual instruments to date been recreations of older or already existing acoustic, electric, and electronic instruments?

One key reason for this, though by far not the only deciding factor, is that these instruments have become embedded in our cultural expectations of popular music. The acoustic piano can be heard in many types of music from around the globe and it has been captured and brought to your desktop (or laptop) with plugins like Ivory, Akoustik Piano, and Bosendoerfer. Orchestral virtual instruments like the Vienna Symphonic Library and EastWest's Symphonic Orchestra are much more vivid and controllable than their software predecessors. With these nicely packaged tools we soon forget that not long ago this type of power was available only to those with very deep pockets. So the next time the seemingly high price of a professional orchestral library brings a tear to both your eye and mine, just remember that owning pioneering instruments like the Fairlight CMI, and the NED Synclavier meant coughing up a lot more than the price of most peoples homes at the time.

The Hammond tonewheel organ, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos, Clavinet and Mellotron all have their virtual equivalents because they have grown to become icons that have defined certain modern popular styles for a lot of us. As musicians we are familiar with their sound and phrasing repertoire, and so are eager to try our hand at playing some of these proven greats to see what place they may hold in our sonic toolbox. From the appearance of the portable analog Minimoog to the introduction of the digital FM based DX7, these instruments that shaped the character of modern popular music live on today in streams of 0's and 1's.

1983-1986 Yamaha DX7


2007 Native Instruments FM8



1970-1982 Moog Minimoog Model D

2007 GForce Minimonsta Virtual Instrument



It seems ironic that technology is moving forward at breakneck speed and at the same time we are using it to recapture the bits of our past we find desirable. Yet, there are artist out there who are using these tools to discover fresh sonic possibilities and push the envelope for all of us. Stronger computing power has lead to more elaborate, better sounding VI's, and over the space of the next few articles we will have a look at the modeling process, some of the instruments that it strives to recreate, its origins, and the some of the various types of virtual instruments out there on the market— from the familiar to the innovative

If you have any questions about virtual instruments, we encourage you to contact us on the phone, online, or in person at our SuperStore in New York City. 1-800-947-9923.

Top Pro Audio categories:

Recording | Desktop Audio | Keyboards & Synths | ENG, EFP & Broadcast | Live Sound & PA Accessories

Please email feedback on this article, or suggestions for future topics, to emailfeedback@bhphotovideo.com.