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  • The elephant in the room with orchestral MIDI mockups

    In a recent post here, Agitato mentioned the "pain" he experiences in listening to sampled orchestral instrument MIDI mockups such as those often posted in this forum. From what he says about his long-term listening habits (which seem similar to my own), I don't doubt that his ears are naturally well attuned to orchestral intonation. But MIDI mockups all apply a very different intonation schema - equal temperament - and that can be very problematical.

    No matter how meticulously and beautifully the sampling and editing of orchestral instruments has been, even our very best sample libraries introduce the mostly fictional manifestation of orchestral musicians playing in equal temperament. I suspect this is at least one strong source of the "pain" reported by Agitato. I also tend to be somewhat averse to listening to MIDI mockups that use orchestral instrument samples, though I'd label the untoward aspects of my listening experiences as bothersome, irksome or even repulsive, rather than painful.

    And there's another possibly significant factor. Of the great composers whose finest works populate the vast majority of long-term repertoires of western orchestras, only a small proportion of them have written great and widely-loved works for piano. Why might this be? Is it not because the 12 notes of equal temperament offer the composer far less scope for musical expression and far too much scope for unwelcome ambiguity and misperception in conveying sophisticated and subtle affective nuances to the listener? At the very least it seems reasonable to conclude that writing a fine and successful classical piece for piano is more difficult and demanding than writing for orchestral instruments. And here we're talking about the great composers. So now follows the uncomfortable point:-

    How many music-makers today, equipped with expensive and well made sample libraries of orchestral instruments, can reasonably expect to write great orchestral music in the form of a MIDI mockup which, from the standpoint of intonation, might as well be a piano (or organ, or synthesiser)?

    So it could be said that - paradoxically - equal temperament sets the bar too high for all but a few geniuses of piano composition. The result? All to often it's a "painful" or "irksome" experience for listeners such as Agitato, me, and others whose ears are attuned to orchestral intonation. I for one never listen to MIDI mockups written for small ensembles of orchestral instruments, such as string quartets, etc. I know from experience the likelihood that the highly sophisticated "real" intonation - including the many precise and deliberate unwritten modifications made in real life by musicians to the pitch of written notes whilst playing in ensemble - will be mangled into the travesties of music we call MIDI mockups.

    But no doubt we'll carry on regardless, making MIDI mockups that few if any will fully enjoy - let alone love and cherish for years. Currently we have little if any choice but to ignore the elephant in the room.

  • Excellent, thought-provoking post as always Macker, and I completely agree.  The orchestra's tuning has never been addressed by either VSL or any other of the countless sample libraries now copying VSL and putting out their usually inferior samples.  There is no relationship between the ET of a piano and what orchestral musicians regularly do when performing - unless it is a piano concerto which completely alters the response.      

  • Good post Macker. I am glad you are raising this issue. Finding out the causes will only help us improve sample libraries.

    I am surprised though, that you would attribute the ear pain to tuning. It would be remarkable if indeed this is the reason why with MIDI mockups, I feel a pain in my ear (and Ive heard the same from others) while  I can listen to hours of recorded live music in various mediums ranging from hifi speakers, headphones to car speakers, with no issues.

    About temperament being the issue, one point I would make one point that would suggest otherwise. The amount of pain  depends on who does the rendering. Somehow recordings from people like Guy Bacos, Mike Hewer are much more tolerable. Andy Blaney also produces remarkable mockups. I think Mike does very little post processing, if I am not wrong. 

    I feel that a lot depends on inner hearing (full inner hearing of how acoustic instruments actually sound) and use of proper orchestration techniques with careful control of dynamics, so that the more one is attuned to the inner ear, the more realistic the recorded sample is.

    But it would indeed be amazing if fundamentally there is a limit because the samples are equal tempered.


  • William - thank you for your kind support.

    I do apologise for neglecting to mention marked exceptions in original works published as MIDI mockups. I have enjoyed listening to not only all of your original works but also your renditions of other composers' works. And I've enjoyed the mockups of a handful of other composers too, including, notably, Guy Bacos.

    Keep up the great work, William - and don't let the toxic minority grind you down! And here's hoping that one day in the not too distant future we'll all have access to libraries (or perhaps at least notation apps) that enable proper use of orchestral intonation.

  • Agitato, thanks for your kind and supportive comments.

    I'm not at all sure I've identified even one possible cause of your painful affliction by some - perhaps most - MIDI mockups. But it's helpful to know that the affliction isn't uniform and universal for all MIDI mockups. I agree with your list of names who exemplify the best of composers who publish MIDI mockups. And yes indeed, rendition depends so much on who has done it.

    I also hear what you say about proper orchestration techniques and careful control of dynamics - these factors can be 'weapons of coarse and brutish aural assault' in the the hands of less-than-adept music-makers.

    Out of curiosity, I made an exception and dipped into a MIDI mockup of an original piece for a small ensemble. Oh dear me! It's an atrocity! If my auditory apparatus were as sensitive as yours I'm pretty sure I'd experience actual pain too in this case. Insofar as 'musical sensibilities' could be identified, they seemed to be from some hideous, ugly, godforsaken place; and emotional empathy and any other sign of a normal human soul behind the work were practically absent. The use - or rather, abuse - of equal temperament was so egregiously ghastly that I reckon even Schoenberg would have exclaimed "WTF is that supposed to be?" Eww! I'm now resolved to stick more strictly to my policy of avoiding such mockups!

  • BenB Ben moved this topic from Orchestration & Composition on