When the fiery clash between Broadway producers and musicians was resolved
after a short strike in March, David B. Smith, chair of the program
in Entertainment Technology at New York City College of Technology,
was delighted. All this rancor was not good for Broadway, and
I think the agreement ended up in a fair place.
|David Smith working with
City Techs resident sound wizard had a keen professional interest
in the Broadway cliffhanger, however. When Smith is not focusing on
his campus duties, his thoughts are apt to float through the looking-glass
into the astonishing sound world of the virtual orchestra
a terrain populated by MIDI files, DMLs, patches,
and TAP edits. In especially dreamy moments, Smithwho earned a
Doctor of Musical Arts in composition and electronic music from the
University of Cincinnatis College Conservatory of Musicwill
sometimes peer into the future and see million-point Fast Fourier Transform
convolution and performance spaces boasting a thousand speakers.
Welcome to the leading edge of virtual orchestral sound design, to which
Smith has devoted his professional attention for 15 yearsvirtually,
as it were, from the birth of the field in the late 1980s. His interest
in computer-generated music began in the heyday of Switched on Bach
and the Moog synthesizer (that is, Professor Moog of Queens College),
when he was well along in a 15-year stretch of violin studies.
|The Sinfonia box
In 1999, Smith and Fred Bianchi, a digital music colleague from his
Conservatory years, decided to put their expertise to the commercial
test and formed the Midtown Manhattan firm Realtime Music Solutions.
(Bianchi is director of Music Technology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.)
Their company was involved in the producers Plan B, in case a
lengthy musicians strike threatened to silence Broadway. We
rehearsed our virtual orchestra with two shows, Les Misérables
and Thoroughly Modern Millie, with full casts, Smith says.
Rehearsals went well, and the producers were happy.
But Smith was well aware of the dangers of making a debut with his new
technologytrademarked Sinfoniain such a volatile situation.
Neither the Broadway producers nor I want to replace a whole live
orchestra with a virtual one. Broad-way is Broadway, the top of the
art form, and it will always require human musicians in the pit,
Smith says. He did not want to become a screaming focal point
of anti-sound enhancement demonizers.
Many with sharp ears have considered Broadway sound a disaster for years.
Indeed, Smith considers his new and always-being-refined Sinfonia as
a form of disaster relief from various old-fashioned sound enhancers
that are commonly used in Broadway pits. Our main focus is not
to replace live musicians but to replace enhancement solutions that
straitjacket a musical performance.
The unmusicianly villainsunmusicianly because unresponsive to
a conductors controlthat Smith has in mind are synthesizers,
sequencers (computers that control synthesizersthink player piano),
click tracks (prerecorded parts that unfold at a given metronomic pacethink
canned music), not to mention behind-the-curve sound retrieval and amplification
Unbeknownst to New Yorkers, Realtimes hardware-filled boxes,
about the size of a microwave oven, have been traveling around the nation
for several years now with considerable successand not a single
serious mid-performance crash. Sinfonia units are currently
augmenting small orchestras of between eight and twelve live players
with virtual musicians in national tours of Seussical, The
Music Man, Miss Saigon, and Cinderella. The Realtime library of
shows is currently about 30, among them Annie, Ragtime, Guys
and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, and Into the Woods.
How does it all work? Once a score is captured, the individual instrumental
parts are edited with a variety of patches that indicate
how any given note or passage of notes will sound, based upon recordings
made in Realtimes studio by live musicians who have recorded every
note in their instruments range in every possible manner of articulation.
As Smith, a violinist with 20 years of orchestral experience, explains,
the refinement of nuance is considerable. We have programmed more
than 50 different ways to articulate a note on a violinlegato,
pizzicato, short staccato, détaché, sforzando, to name
a few. Our software, trademarked Sinfonia, allows us to make an initial
choice from these for every violin note in a score. If the conductor
asks for a change during rehearsals, we can create and/or edit a patch
on the spot.
The Sinfonia playercalled, naturally, a SinfonistSmith likens
to an associate conductor. He also has much editorial flexibility. For
any given production or performance, it is easy to transpose songs,
cut or rearrange their order, alter the sound volume, and, of course,
mute the instrumental lines which are being played by live musicians.
The essence of Realtimes technology, however, lies in a key labeled
TAP. With each hit of the TAP key, the music moves at the assigned value
(quarter, eighth, half, etc.), following the tempo of the performance.
Sinfonia is able to follow the expressive nuances of the conductor and
the stage action just like any other element of a live performance.
Other keys at the disposal of the Sinfonistwho must of course
be a trained musician with experience following a conductorare
CRUISE TAP (same as cruise control on the highway), A TEMPO, PAUSE (good
for long fermatas when a final note is being belted), and VAMP (handy
when a prop or set gets hung up and the performance is delayed).
Louis Crocco, a Sinfonist who has been on the road with Miss Saigon,
considers himself as live a musician as any of his colleagues:
It is a musical instrument
Its about timekeeping,
listening to the other players, and watching the conductor. Its
not just plugging it in and turning it on.
In 1997, Smith arrived at City Tech, whose Entertainment Technology
program is the only one of its kind in the Northeast (its current 100
majors specializing in such specialties as sound, lighting, and scene
construction, projection, andrecently addedshow control).
In spring 2000 his student sound engineers and designers were mounting
the Colleges first application of virtual orchestration in a major
musical production, Evita, by the Colleges TheatreWorks company.
Realtimes goal is not a modest one. Smith says it is to
develop a perfect musical instrument for the 21st century, and
he is not shy about making the most of a quickly advancing state of
the acoustic art. Music history, he points out, is on his side: The
16th century was a ground-breaking era in Italian cabinetry, and violin
makers like Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari made brilliant use of the
new technology. Likewise, 19th century advances in machine tooling made
possible the rapid improvement of old-style, valveless brass instruments.
In Smiths view, the ideal is not an entirely ghostly orchestra.
An accomplished live musician himself, he enjoys live performancesat
Avery Fisher and Carnegie Halltoo much to want that. He wants
to fill seats that would otherwise be empty. Finally, Smith hopes his
perfect instrument of the 21st century will become popular among composers
of the avantgarde. Forget simulation! Use it to expand the musical
palette. Smith is showing the way, with more than 50 compositions
for the theater to his credit. Just possibly because his wife is an
operatic lyric soprano, he has also ventured into opera. One current
project is a chamber opera titled Brecht at HUAC, about the German playwrights
virtuoso testimony before Congress amid the communist witch- hunting
After mentioning that he has also been at work on a sequel to The
Magic Flute, Smith laughs and ventures a very plausible hypothesis:
If Mozart were around today and heard about this new technology,
Id like to think hed say, Sounds greatlets