Virtual orchestration: an art in its own right
Virtual orchestration has roots that date from before the arrival of MIDI in the early 1980’s. Pioneers of electronic symphonic music like Vangelis and Kitaro had used various analog synthesizers and electro-acoustic instruments to emulate the sounds of the symphonic orchestra. Despite the common belief, their true motive was never to replace nor substitute the traditional orchestral music; they’ve needed the way to express their music in an orchestral manner while retaining their prefered method of creating music: composition by performing and recording.
The invention of the synthesizer has not only brought the new, until then impossible sonic possibilities, it has also brought the democracy in the area of music composition. Before that, orchestral music was kind of reserved for those who had classical music training and were composing music by actually writing it on paper. But there are also plenty of musicians and composers, myself included, who are self-taught and who require other means to create music. For us, the line between the composition, production and performance is frequently a very thin one. While most of the classically trained composers feel comfortable writing music while expecting to hear how it will finally sound when performed by real musicians, we on the other hand often rely on “touch and feel” when working, so we need an immediate response. MIDI, synthesizers, samplers and other equipment gave us the power to do so.
Unfortunately, this method has always been somewhat frowned upon by those classically trained, as it had to some degree broke their monopoly in creating and performing orchestral music. I’ve remember I had once read an article in an old Yugoslavian IT magazine, on how Vangelis took a lot of heat from a community of classically trained composers and musicians when he won Oscar for his famous score for British film “Chariots of Fire”, released in 1981. Some of them commented that music performed on machines by a single person could never replace a group of real breathing musicians, while some zealots even stated that with the introduction of the synthesizer, the paycheck of “real” musician isn’t safe anymore. This is a load of BS if you ask me, even by today standards, when we have sample libraries available that can potentially sound equally good as the real orchestra.
The level of realism in virtual orchestration depends on many factors, including the application of traditional orchestration rules to some degree. This, along with the plethora of technical issues one has to know in this field, can easily make you forget the true benefits of the method and instead become obsessed with technicalities. And this is, in my opinion, one of the biggest pitfalls of virtual orchestration: many composers are too focused on achieving the “absolute realism” and their most important, and sometimes only goal is trying to fool even the most experienced ears that they’re listening the real thing and not “only a mockup”. But, as I’ve wrote before, the true power of virtual orchestration is not the possibility to replace or best the real thing: it is the possibility for us, composers and musicians who are not classically trained, to express ourselves through orchestral music.