music, technology & life in pasadena, california

The Pause Button

For a long time, recorded music wasn’t allowed in theatres except for possibly the inclusion of source music, that is, music the characters in a story can actually hear on the radio, television, etc. The worry was that eventually producers would start using recorded music to replace live musicians, even though live music has always been a huge part of the Broadway tradition, but in recent years that fear has indeed come to be realized in various guises.

The virtual orchestra, a sequencer controlling a bank of sound modules and controlled by a player (ha!) tapping a touchpad in time to a live conductor, has been trying to claw its way into theatres since its invention. Marketed for use in school and community productions, where budgets are nonexistent and a dearth of good players sometimes exists, they promise to enhance these amateur offerings. I can see the intentions of the marketers, but students don’t really learn anything about playing together by playing along with a machine.*

Utilizing sampling technology, whereby a natural instrument is duplicated electronically from samples of actual sounds and brought together with sequencing software, which puts all the instruments together in time, the missing element is the actual performance of the individual player, hence the heart and soul of the sound itself. Fortunately, I’ve never had to play along with one of these gadgets, but I have several friends who’ve been forced into this predicament. The shrill sounds and stiff metric performances may be able to fool some audiences but no musician will ever be conned into thinking that this is as natural as playing along with a fellow human, however good enough is good enough for many producers who are mainly interested in the bottom line, tradition be damned. In the meantime, they still charge $100 a ticket to an unsuspecting public, not realizing they’re seeing the cut-rate version of a show that originally had 20 or more players in the pit.

Recently, some shows have received permission from the international musicians union (exclusion of initial caps intended) to use prerecorded material in conjunction with live playing from a local orchestra. The bottom line is usually what’s being looked after, as they can hire half as many players and still get a fuller sound after it’s been beefed up by the tracks, however, these tracks aren’t always of the highest quality in terms of sound, performance and rhythmic time. That’s because, in an effort to save even more money, tracks are recorded by musicians who are plainly sub par, where the only clicks they’re likely to know about are related to their computer mice.

Orchestras, like all other organizations that thrive on teamwork, are only as good as their weakest members and when that weakest member is a poorly recorded, poorly played or poorly edited track, it brings an otherwise potentially inspiring performance down to a lower common denominator.

Musicians and audiences deserve better.

* Some schools hire a few professional musicians to sit among the student players, which has several benefits. The sound of the orchestra is stronger and more focused plus the students gain the huge advantage of working alongside a positive musical role model. The use of a machine to “enhance” student musicals also laments the loss of the charm of an amateur production; must everything be a slick and glossy techno-show, to say nothing of the falsifying effect on student egos which are already inflated due to the push for “self esteem” which has already had a detrimental effect on the student musician’s mindset (see video).

June 2, 2009 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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