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  • Live vs. VSL Rendition of a String Trio

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    This is a timely posting, in light of the recent discussion about live vs. sampled performances. Last week, a string trio performed a piece of mine that was previously rendered with VSL samples. They had a copy of the score, the VSL recording below, and over a month to prepare for the performance. They are all members of a major U.S. city orchestra and active chamber performers. We are friends, but I should state that during their preparation, they did not contact me at all to solicit my input. The interpretation and performance was theirs alone. The piece's title (I'm not explicity posting it so it doesn't get picked up by search engines, but it indicates the overall nature of the piece) and all markings are precise and match the VSL rendition. I invite you to listen to both versions and offer your thoughts (trust me, I have mine, but would rather not colour other's opinions up front...if enough discussion ensues, I may feel comfortable adding my two cents).

    String Trio - VSL Version

    String Trio Live Version



  • Hi Dave

    I took one of my bi weekly peaks into VSL and as soon as I saw your post I rushed to hear the pieces since Ive always looked for such comparisions (i.e. of  compositions by composers on this forum)

    First take, both renditions are very good, which speaks to the amazing quality of VSL and your performance with it.

    However, I  have a bias towards the live. Granted that the intonation is off sometimes by the live players... but the tone of the live! its so beautiful. I wouldnt mind the intonation errors at all.

    The VSL is almost there, but with the live I hear the FULL spectrum of the violin and cello, with all the imperfect glory of human touch and intonation mistakes. Something very organic about it. Somehow the VSL seems to have a high frequency cut off.

    I need to hear more to make any comments about the piece but  just wanted to send my quick thoughts. Congrats on getting this performed!

    btw would it be possible to upload the same exact clips so its easier to compare? I notice they arent the same pieces although they may have an overlap.



  • Hi Dave,

    Nice piece and very interesting to hear the VSL version and the live version of the piece. I have a question. Did you do some equalizing with the VSL or did you use the sounds just  as they are?

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    @agitato said:

    btw would it be possible to upload the same exact clips so its easier to compare? I notice they arent the same pieces although they may have an overlap. Cheers Anand
    Hi Anand, Thanks for all of your comments above. I'll reserve my response for others to chime in first, so I don't direct the conversation, as I want authentic impressions. I only am confused by your last question. They are the exact same piece, note for note. MMKA, While some Eq'ing is now part of the workflow, back when this piece was completed, it was minimal tweaking of eq at best, along with some Mir adjustments. Mostly just daw editing of cc data, etc. Thanks for listening and commenting! Dave

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    @Acclarion said:

    I only am confused by your last question. They are the exact same piece, note for note.

    Is it possible that the confusion has been arised by the fact that a certain part of the live performance is much slower than the VSL one?

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    @Acclarion said:

    I only am confused by your last question. They are the exact same piece, note for note.
    Is it possible that the confusion has been arised by the fact that a certain part of the live performance is much slower than the VSL one? šŸ˜‰ I'm sure it is. But, in spite of that very obvious tempo difference, the notes remain the same. I'm sure Glenn Gould would have had a chuckle comparing the tempi of the two versions.

  • Oh I see that now...the tempi and expression/dynamics are also different. This is quite fascinating, Imperfect humans vs perfect machine....I am preferring the former although the the machine is doing an amazing job,

  • I find this to be a big eye-opener for me. The VSL version is excellently performed and the live version is rather sloppy. Of course, it is not an easy piece, but one would think that with professional level musicians and a month to prepare the actual results would have been a bit tighter (referring to both intonation and timing). And because the performance is rather sloppy, the artistic intent of the composer is negatively impacted. 

    The VSL performance makes a cohesive artistic statement. It has moments of excitement, playfulness, tension and release, and an interplay between the instruments that keep the listener interested. The live performance is slow and rather lifeless. 

    I would not have guessed that with pro-level musicians the VSL performance would be vastly superior, but to me it is so.

    OK, now I will go back and see what others have commented.

  • Hi Dave,

    First congratulations with the live performance. That being said, I mostly agree with everything said here so far. Paul stated the sloppiness of the live version, Anand calls it human... 

    The interpretation is definitely different but they both have some interesting points of view. The thing that strikes me most is the recording area. The VSL-version has a clear open acoustic, whereas the live version is rather dark, with a very short reverb tail (recorded in a rather small room or without distant microphones?) That makes the overall sound a bit dull, because it isn't supported by the natural hall effect. 

    The piece is a high quality composition with so many playing techniques organically inserted in the thrilling musical story. Hence it is obvious that musicians will likely build an own vision on the performance. As a composer you had your view conceived by the natural flow of composing with ideas and structures, techniques and expression. This experiment might show clearly that these processes aren't the same for all participants in the final creation.

    If I had to choose (as to 'quality'), I'd have a slight inclination to prefer the live version, despite the so called imperfectness. Not that I don't like your virtual version, quit at the contrary. It is absolutely the winner as to correctness, sound, ensemble balance and skillful handling of the samples and articulations, but I miss the human feel a bit. Probably becuase I was working for many years with my own chamber orchestra and because I was so used to discuss the interpretation with my musicians. In most cases the final version was a sort of mutual agreement between me and the players. They had their vision, I had mine and we managed somehow the find that delicate balance. That is an interesting point of vue for this experiment as well. Have you confronted (after the recording) the musicians with your version?

    Thanks for posting this interesting topic and for the beautiful music,


  • Thanks Paul and Jos for adding your thought-provoking ideas to the conversation.

    Paul, I am in complete agreement with everything you wrote.  

    I was present at the performance, in front of an intimate audience of 30-40 people (the space is a multidisciplinary performance/art studio converted from a commercial loft/garage facility (quite nice actually, in spite of how it sounds!)  The recording itself was simply done with a Zoom Q4 handy cam (video is not great, but it is a decent stereo mic offering uncompressed wav recordings)

    The musicians purchased the score and chose to perform the piece after hearing the VSL recording.  So, there is no question that they were aware of my intended "musical gestures" etc.  That's not to say that my vision for the piece is the only acceptable one; far from it!  I was looking forward to hearing their take on it.  However, when the piece is played 30% below the indicated tempo markings, and when the piece by it's very title implies a rapid, fast-paced piece, I feel that such an interpretation completely fails to meet the intended overall aesthetic.  

    As I sat there listening, I was literally shifting uncomfortably in my seat.  I had so looked forward to hearing the live performance, especially in light of the amount of time I spend working with samples.  What's worse, is that the audience kept looking toward me for any hint of reaction during the performance (as audiences are apt to do...they're taking their cues as to whether or not the music is being performed well from the composer rather than their own musical sensibilities, which admitedly, many don't possess due to limited exposure).  After the piece concluded, the cellist actually asked me in front of the audience if the performance met with my expectations, to which I politely smiled, focussed on some of the positives and then simply said, "it might be taken a smidge faster."  Everybody laughed and the concert proceeded. It's funny, because now that I think of it, the cellist expressly mentioned that they had chosen not to consult me during the learning process.  I think now, that they were not convinced they could play the piece at the appropriate tempo, and rather than ask me to attend a rehearsal and obligate them to playing it faster, they took the approach of "play it at our tempo and apologize after the fact."

    To those suggesting they prefer the live performance, all I can say is, I am not in agreement.  I'm a performer first, but viewing this with my composition hat on, I fail to sympathise with the performers choosing to so blatantly disregard the indicated tempo markings in the score, as well as the VSL recording.  I can forgive wrong notes (painful as they may be such as the chromatically descending figure in the violin at the very end of the piece that was "missed").  I welcome beautiful cadence points where the ensemble "breathes in unison".  I also welcome the natural rubato and espressivo playing at certain points that makes the music sing.  But, when the overall piece is performed so slow that the very essence of it's character is completely transformed, then I'd rather have my VSL version.  I will also admit that being that live performances are so few and far between, I might have put more expectations on the quality of the performance than I should have.  Maybe, to that end, we can appreciate our virtual instruments even more, knowing that they allow us to put the required time in to crafting a vision of our music that meets our expectations.

    To those that prefer the live version, I would simply ask you this:  If, as a composer, you were presenting ONE performance of the above piece (either the live or the VSL version) on your website to showcase your music, which would you choose?  

    Would love to hear additional thoughts from others!


  • I would definitely choose the vsl version if had to post in a website etc., Let me clarify my post. The musicians are not bad but obviously do not play at a professional level, so it's.not even a fair comparison. My liking the live version was purely for one reason...the rich tone of the instruments, especially the violin, which I miss in VSL, despite its amazing capability for performance mockup. But given Vsl is the best out there, I would have no choice but to use vsl version compared to an semi professional performance. This goes back to the point I learnt on this forum (being an amateur composer myself) ...that sampled instruments are way batter than most live musicians you can actually hire and get to play your work. But again that was not the point I was making, it was about tone quality. Anand

  • Hi Dave,

    My choice was purely based on the fact that I always prefer live performances. But that said, your virtual version is ways better (I thought I had stated that). My judgement is inspired by the fact that we, composers, are not ivory tower artists locked up being complacent and isolated from the real language that music is/should be. By its nature it appeals to people in an audience, preferably not sitting in front of a PC in an obscure room, but in any sort of auditorium to experience the power of music. This might sound silly, but it is my conviction. Not that I'm sitting here crying over the fact that our music is hardly being performed live, but the ultimate ambition is to hear a good performance and approval of that audience? Am I wrong?

    So, rest assure, your VSL performance is by far the better one, and that is entirely your merit and the lesser execution is not representative for the rich musical content of the piece either.


  • Thanks, Jos and Anand for your additonal comments.

    I think we'd all be in agreement that generally speaking, a live performance is preferred to a midi rendition.  As to the sharing of music and the communal experience of such, again, sitting in our studios listening to a "perfect" midi rendition doesn't fulfil our desire to actually share/interact/experience a performance with others.  In this case, though, what was shocking was the willingness to still prefer the live version vs. the midi one, in spite of all the stated technical and interpretive considerations.  Now, I realize that you are both simply focussing on a preference for certain conditions which exist only in a live performance (the instrument's tone, the sharing of music with others, the collaboration among musicians, etc.)  

    Anyway, I for one, have mixed feelings about the whole experience.  I was thrilled at their interest in performing the piece.  That said, sitting in the audience that evening made me wish the piece wasn't performed.  That audience did not get to hear what I would have liked to present to them, and regardless of whether or not they would have enjoyed it, I felt almost like it did more damage to the perception of me as a composer than it would have to the image they had of the musicians on stage.  

    Oh, and Anand, while I can agree that the particular performance did not adequately serve as "professional", the musicians are in fact, quite accomplished.  First chair violin and principal cellist of a major U.S. city orchestra.  Unfortunately, we all know the real factors that limit optimal performances, such as lack of adequate rehearsal time, among numerous other things.  I still am grateful for their willingness to program my music (they also have another piece they'd like to do next year) but I'm also grateful to be able to share my concerns here amongst supporters of virtual instruments; often those engaged in only live music making aren't sympathetic to our work.

    All the best,


  • Thanks for sharing this whole experience Dave. It's very interesting for me to know what is really involved in the real world of classical performance and how hard it is to get a good performance of your work. Anand

  • Dave

    I have followed your story and thoughts on this thread with great interest. A similar experience two years ago is pushing me into the world of virtual composing/orchestrating, and the realization that this kind of stuff can even happen to skilled professionals makes that decision all the easier.

    After years of thinking about it, I had sat down with Finale and composed a whimsical tune for concert band. The Musical Director/Conductor of a good-quality adult band that I am a part of listened to the primitive mock up I had made with Finale's Halion orchestra samples. He loved the tune and promptly scheduled it for the upcoming season. I was elated! I knew the band could cut the chart, we play in a nice venue, and usually draw a crowd of 200 or so. I printed up a set of parts and eagerly awaited the first rehearsal. That's when reality set in...

    One of the charms and, at the same time, limitations of this band is the fact that we have a limited number of rehearsals before the show. There are usually several signicant concert band pieces on the program, so my little bit o' fluff probably didn't warrant too much of the performers' precious practice time. Suffice it to say that the initial read-through was pretty disconcerting. I realized that my years performing with the US Air Force Academy Band had left me rather severely spoiled, as far as expectations go. In particular, I had included an exposed 4-bar trumpet section that would not have frightened my Air Force colleagues back in "the day," but possitively hung my current guys out to dry. It got better in the remaining two rehearsals but by gig time, it was still pretty shaky. Also, we didn't get our hands on the right equipment to make an absolutely critical bass part heard. Despite this, the tune was warmly received and many of the musicians told me they had enjoyed it. It will probably never be published so that could well be the only time I will ever hear it performed live. The weaknesses of the performance are somehow even more striking to me when listening to the recording, so I usually send a copy of my cheesey mock-up when I'm showing it to my musician friends.

    Which brings me to my dream of getting a good VSL set up. WIth patience and work, I'm pretty sure I could make this (and any other thing I have running around in my head) sound the way I imagined it. The ultimate joy would be to hear something I had written performed by a top band or orchestra, but that is very unlikely to happen. For a musician like me, virtual compostion may well be the only way to even approximate that experience.

  • I have had the same experience with concert band music.  The problem is actually very similar to orchestra - a huge number of people are involved so that makes it vastly more difficult to get a good performance than with chamber music or solo.  As soon as all those people are involved, money is, and practicality. 


    Though I did have a good college band play two difficult pieces of mine pretty well - a concert march and a symphonic suite -  with a fair amount of rehearsal.  I was also playing in that band though.  There was a recording made of both, but the VSL recordings I did decades later is much better..  I would never want to  release the live recording as a serious presentation of the music.   But I do have the VSL version of the concert march right now and am going to put it out in some form.    


    I love the symphonic band and it is an interesting problem to present that huge complex ensemble with VSL.  You want to have at least 12 clarinets. I ended up with ten Bflat by doubling the ensemble clarinets and the solo 1 and 2. Also using the eflat soprano, bass clarinet and alto clarinet.  It doesn't yet have the incredible richness that a live symphonic band has but a lot of that is subtle (often not so subtle!) detuning and timing.  I am experimenting more with that and think a lot can be done to increase of the size of the ensemble.  


    By the way I just got the score and full set of parts of The Sinfonians by Clifton Williams, my all-time favorite piece for band -  to study the printing of condensed score and parts. It is close to a nightmare to do the "proper" notation and printing of a piece for full band!  

  • Hi tchampe,

    Thank you for sharing your story.  I think most composers have been plagued by underwhelming performances of their works.  As a performer myself, I know that I've been underprepared to present works in concert and have done my share of "faking it" when up against time constraints.

    As William pointed out, especially as the size of the ensemble increases, economic factors greatly influence the ability to devote the time necessary to polishing a work, especially by lesser known composers whose name recognition does nothing to "draw a house".  

    For me, while I'm thrilled with my ability to create convincing recordings of my music through VSL, I'm also eager to experience live performances of my works, mainly because they do no good sitting on my hard drive in obscurity.  For instance, just a month ago, the university wind ensemble played a concert overture that had been written in 2009.  I finally got to hear it played live AND convincgly.  Speaking with the musical director and members of the ensemble, I learned just how much pleasure they had spending the past 4 months with the piece. Then, after the performance, hearing from parents of some of the students also tell me how that piece motivated them to practice more at home than they have all year (and one parent saying that after finally hearing the piece with the whole ensemble, they could forgive their son for the endless annoying passages he played on his saxophone by himself at home) :)

    Composers spend so much time working in isolation, that for me, moments like the above example, give us reason to feel like our work has meaning.  Music is, after all, communicating ideas in a fluid, beautiful, emotive language.  If noone receives it, what's the point of its existence?

    Anyway, in spite of the less than ideal performance, I'm glad the string ensemble played my piece.  I'm looking forward also to another piece being performed by members of the Calgary Phil. this summer, and will continue to strive for live performances, even though I'm thoroughly satisfied working with my VSL libraries.


  • Hi Dave,

    It seems we fully agree on this. The ears of the audience are the ultimate goal.


  • Dave and William,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Finding a way to create concert music has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, but I could never talk myself into pulling a full-on Charles Ives by cranking out elaborate scores and stashing them in the attic, never expecting to hear them performed...just didn't have the energy for that! That's why I have followed the development of these sampled orchestral libraries so closely. Each new development has made me think, "My God, how could they get this any closer to real!"...and somehow, they manage to. The current level is absolutely good enough for me to want to jump in, if I had the time and the money. One advantage I would have as an amateur enthusiast is that I would have no constraints on the content or the time required to sculpt it into shape. I could actually find out if I like the stuff that has been rattling around in my head all these years.

    That being said, the shot I had to hear a tune of mine prepared, played, and enjoyed by actual living musicians and an audience kind of overwhelmed me. I sent my tune to a band music publisher who liked it and put it through to his advisory commitee...who rejected it for valid reasons, primarily the tessitura of my dreaded 4-bar trumpet figure. His customers are school bands, many of which (even quite good ones) have hard and fast limits on brass ranges. The director of an amateur group in Ohio heard the rough recording on YouTube and inquired about it. I sent him the score and a set of parts but I see the group has a new conductor so that went nowhere. The bottom line is that I really want another shot at it. There are other publishers, some of whom have concert-band-built-around-a-jazz-band stuff in their catalogs. I still have some connections with college, military, and serious adult band folks, although those are becoming more distant. I think I need to put on my big-boy pants and keep trying.

    Best wishes to you guys in all of your musical endeavors. I really enjoy your stuff, both from the technical mastery you're achieving with the virtual orchestration and just the quality of the music itself. I'd especially like to hear what you have written for wind band, virtual or live. Peace.

    Tom Champe

    PS: Dave, sorry about your Leafs. They have really come a long way and gave the Bruins absolutely all they could handle. William, I think our band is playing the Sinfonians this year. Great chart. My personal faves (for two very different reasons), Lincolnshire Posey and Russian Christmas Music. TC

  • Tom I also have several pieces for concert band I want to publish but have decided that today, with both orchestral and symphonic band music, it is almost pointless to get an established [ublisher unless they come begging to you.  There is almost no promotion and then the publisher if anything sells takes about 90%.  Plus it is now practical to notate and print.  So I decided rather than desperately try to win the approval of a company that doesn't really care that much, I would self-publish including not only the SMP press type downloadable, but also  high quality paper printed saddle-stitched scores and parts.  

    I wonder what your ideas are on that.   I did notice several successful self-publishing composers recently online and they were saying much the same thing...