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Today's Fredlines

< Symphony for the Sons of 'Nam | Main | Bumblebee, 88x8 >


Posted at 6:17 PM on November 11, 2008 by Fred Child

"The electronic instrument's value is chiefly as a novelty. With greater attention on the part of the engineer to the needs of the musician, the day may not be too remote when the electronic instrument may take its place ... as a versatile, powerful, and expressive instrument."

A young engineering student wrote that in 1948.


Alan Pearlman went on to found the ARP synthesizer company a few years later. ARP keyboards created the most life-like string sounds imaginable in the mid-1970s. His synthesizers were used by Pink Floyd, The Who, David Bowie, Jean-Michel Jarre, Genesis...and any garage band that could scrounge together the money.

Electronic music has gone through a fundamental shift since then. Synthesizers did exactly what the name implies -- they imitated real instruments only by creating "synthetic" sounds, using complex (and often bulky) circuitboards.

Today's electronic musicians don't imitate real instruments, they COPY them. By recording, or "sampling" the actual sound of instruments, and digitally playing them back.


But it's one thing to play back the sound of a single guitar or saxophone. How do you imitate the rich, flexible sound of an orchestra?

Paul Henry Smith has taken another step in that direction with what he calls his Fauxharmonic. Like some others, he's using primo sound samples from the audio library of the Vienna Symphonic Library. Like some others, he's using state-of-the-art speaker systems. Smith's breakthrough is his controller. He's not just playing back a static pre-programmed track. Smith has modified a wii game controller into a kind of electronic conductor's baton. Depending on the room, depending on his mood at the moment, he can change his "orchestra's" volume, tempo, timbre, and tone color. Like a real orchestra, the Fauxharmonic can play the same piece differently every time.

Fascinating advance in electronic music, but Smith is a bright guy, fully aware of the constraints:

The results are promising, but I can easily see that this approach will have limitations as the music gets more complex. For example, when first violins need to be emphasized and then second violins immediately following them, how will the controller "know" which instrument group to modify? We'll probably have to pair multiple controllers (perhaps Wii-motes) with multiple musicians and computers.

Check out this nice audio/video of Smith trying to use the wii controller to conduct a section of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

For much more on the Fauxharmonic, including the story of a real orchestra going up against the Fauxharmonic this fall, Jason Serinus did a terrific write-up here for Stereophile magazine.

And to hear samples of the fauxharmonic, check out the "Music Player" on the right side of the Fauxharmonic site.

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