A Sour Note in the Music Industry?
LISTEN closely to the music coming from your radio or your records or your television set. Are those real stringed instruments you are hearing? Is that a real brass section you are listening to?
As musical technology takes giant steps forward, those sounds you hear may not at all be coming from the instruments you imagine. You may be listening to a synthesizer. Indeed, to many musicians, the synthesizer represents a sour note in the music industry. Many such musicians feel that the synthesizer is taking away their jobs!
What Is a Synthesizer?
A synthesizer is an instrument through which sound is produced electronically. The characteristics of sound can be altered and controlled by the user. The sound is often generated from a keyboard, and when this is so, the layout of the keys is the same as that of a piano.
A synthesizer is called such because it synthesizes, or combines, various programmed characteristics to produce its sound. Some synthesizers and electronic keyboards offer a digital sampling feature in which sounds can actually be recorded into the keyboard and reproduced in pitch according to the keys pressed. While such sounds may not be synthesized by strict definition, this article will include such keyboards as synthesizers.
Synthesizers have been around for many years. But their prominence skyrocketed particularly during the 1970’s, when the instrument was used in popular music to bring a new sound that gave the electric guitar competition. While at first seeming to be only a novel instrument that could produce some interesting sound effects, synthesizers can actually be programmed by digital technology to imitate and reproduce the timbral sounds of traditional instruments.
How Does the Synthesizer Threaten Jobs?
Imagine that you are a musician, and you make your living by playing the violin in recording sessions for television music, commercials, and the like. Let us suppose that for an upcoming recording session, a 20-piece string section will be needed.
The music director wants to cut down the expense of hiring a large violin section, and he can get the same full string sound by hiring only six violinists and one synthesizer player. Therefore, the synthesizer has put 14 violinists out of work for that recording session, and you may be among those not hired. Now, if this happens just once, it may not bother you. But if it becomes a general pattern—and some musicians feel that it already has—do you see how the synthesizer could threaten your very livelihood?
Can the synthesizer duplicate a traditional instrument’s tone and timbre accurately? Mike Comins, session violinist and Recording Musicians Association official, says: “We’ve often joked about the idea of Georg Solti walking out on the stage in Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and there would be just him and a synthesizer player. He would raise his arms, and this guy would completely recreate the sound of the Chicago Symphony . . . It’s a grim joke, because even though the synthesizer hasn’t replaced a symphony orchestra in public or on record, it will have the capability of doing so, and that’s frightening.”
Orchestra in a Box?
In 1984 one musician recorded an album with a big orchestral sound and called the “orchestra” the “LSI Philharmonic.”a The “orchestra” was actually a synthesizer. The composer spent an estimated 2,000 hours over a period of a year and a half in programming a digital synthesizer to capture the sound of the orchestra. The results were amazing. Keyboard magazine called it “one of the more remarkable feats of synthesis” and commented that “the idea that a lone keyboard can fool us into thinking they’re the Chicago Symphony isn’t a completely impossible notion.”
Does such replication of orchestral sounds imply that traditional instruments will soon become obsolete? Not according to the above-mentioned composer, who says, “I love the orchestra . . . I still prefer the original!”
Many musicians would agree. Some feel that no synthesizer can reproduce the tones and timbres of other instruments so accurately that it will actually replace them. Musician Walter Sear says: “The [synthesized] trumpet does not sound like a trumpet to an experienced musician. . . . And the phrasing and articulation of a wind instrument is not natural to a keyboard.” But he fears that people are not that discriminating in their listening and that they have learned to accept electronically generated sound in spite of its “lack of those minor flaws that make acoustic instruments so interesting.”
Truly, the synthesizer is causing quite a controversy in the professional music industry. But the popularity of the synthesizer does not affect just professional musicians. It also affects a well-known instrument that you may have in your home.
The Last Days of the Piano?
Because of the synthesizer revolution, the piano itself is facing hard times. Piano companies report that sales are going down, and several well-known piano manufacturers have actually gone out of business. Yet, during the same period of time, synthesizer sales have skyrocketed.
However, it is not the sound of the piano that has become unpopular. As one studio owner explains: “There is a definite demand for piano sounds, but 99 times out of 100 the clients aren’t purists about how they get it.” Many prefer to use the synthesizer because of its stable tuning, portability and in many cases, affordability. In fact, many synthesizers sell for less than half the cost of a piano.
Does this mean that the synthesizer will soon replace the piano altogether? Some doubt that it will go that far. Manufacturing executive John Steinway says: “Nothing will ever supplant a regulated natural piano action. Although they’re doing extraordinary work in this area, I don’t think they’ll ever give the player the kind of control he or she can get from a piano.”
Yet, from the piano manufacturer’s viewpoint, the evidence is clear: Piano sales are down, and people are favoring the synthesizer. It could be a temporary trend. Or it could be, as Keyboard magazine notes, “that we are witnessing the first of the last days of the piano.”
Is History Repeating Itself?
The problem is not new. Throughout history, technological advancement has caused many skilled workers to find themselves suddenly unemployed. And now, because of the synthesizer, even some professional musicians are beginning to see the unemployment line on the grim horizon of their career.
For those who are involved in the manufacturing and playing of synthesizers, technology has opened doors with seemingly limitless opportunities. For those who make their living playing traditional instruments, the synthesizer represents a sour note that could cost them their jobs.
So the next time you hear music on your TV, radio, or record player, listen closely, and do not let your ears fool you. You may be listening to a synthesizer.
a “LSI” is the composer’s abbreviation for “Large-Scale Integration” circuitry, or computer chips.
[Blurb on page 14]
“The [synthesized] trumpet does not sound like a trumpet to an experienced musician. . . . And the phrasing and articulation of a wind instrument is not natural to a keyboard.”