To become a great musician, it takes more than having fantastic technique allowing you to play a gazillion notes per minute. Of course, some level of technique is required to have the freedom to express a variety of emotions on the instrument but the keywords are these: expressing emotions.
There’s a magical element in good music playing, something that’s difficult to pinpoint and explain in words but that we can all recognize when we hear it.
What does being musical mean?
In college, it seemed music students could be separated into two different categories: the ones who were technical, and the ones who were musical. Teachers sitting in to judge student’s performance exams would say things like “You are very musical but you should work on your technique” or “What a great technique you have but your musicality doesn’t really come through”.
It seems like musicality is the magical ingredient that makes the listener experience something from the way a musician plays, but what is musicality exactly? We could say musicality is the ability to express something beyond simply reproducing a series of notes, rhythms, and dynamics written down by a composer, or improvising complex solos.
We can go even further by saying that musicality is the element that makes someone’s playing unique, that gives a musician an authentic sound or style that we, as listeners, can recognize. Jazz musicians like Chick Corea or Victor Wooten have an incredible amount of technique, of course, but more than that, they have a particular sound that makes their playing recognizable anywhere.
In the professional world, musicality is an important part of becoming a successful musician, whether it’s in the studio or on stage. Producers and composers hiring session musicians don’t just want someone who can play something technically challenging on the fly, they also look for players who can make their ideas come alive, musicians that can infuse in their music precisely the thing computers can’t: emotions.
The Limitations of Hardware and Software Instruments
But in this day and age of technology, musicians are faced with an additional challenge. We don’t always play acoustic instruments anymore.
Keyboard players, drummers, or all other kinds of instrumentalists now play more and more on electric instruments or MIDI controllers with sounds selected on their computer. It can be frustrating in some cases to find ways to express the full range of our musicality while using digital sounds. It never quite feels the same as playing a real acoustic instrument.
So is there a solution or are musicians using technology bound to play music without the same level of musicality as acoustic music? Is it necessary to have the budget to hire a full orchestra if we want our orchestral piece to be truly expressive?
Expressive and realistic VST plug-ins and software instruments
Digital audio has come a long way in the last decade and the good news is that we are not limited to using traditional technologies anymore. With the development of physically modeled instruments, musicians, composers, and producers now have access to a variety of virtual instruments and VST plug-ins with a level of realism unequaled to sample libraries.
Physical modeling refers to sound synthesis methods in which the waveform of the sound we want to generate is computed using a mathematical model, a set of equations, and algorithms to simulate a physical source of sound like a musical instrument.
Unlike sampling, which uses recordings to replicate the sound of an instrument, physical modeling doesn’t generate a sound as such but creates the conditions for the system to create it according to an external input (like someone playing on a keyboard).
Realism is one thing, and definitely something important. But what about musicality?
The SWAM engine was created precisely to address the need for not only realistic software instruments and VST plug-ins but also expressive ones.
SWAM (or Synchronous Waves Acoustic Modeling), developed by Stefano Lucato and Emanuele Parravicini, is a proprietary technology based on physical modeling that adds elements allowing the system to not only model the mechanical system of an acoustic instrument in real-time, giving it that sought after realism but also models the unconscious behaviors of a real professional musician.
If we think about it, musicality is not something applied consciously. It’s a musician’s way of feeling the music that influences the way they touch the keys, breathe in their instrument, pluck the strings, or move the bow. The emotions felt are conscious but the way these emotions are communicated through the instrument is not.
In this sense, what the SWAM engine accomplishes is spectacular because it can perceive and model all these unconscious behaviors that professional musicians perform at their instrument when they are expressing the full range of their musicality.
Expressing Yourself From the Studio to the Stage
One of the main issues with traditional sample libraries is their size. Since the programs include a ton of files and recordings (samples), they are usually very heavy. This makes them complicated to use in a live setting because they normally take a long time to load and they are not very practical to use on a portable system with limited storage space.
But since physically modeled instruments like SWAM instruments don’t need to store any samples, they are extremely lightweight. They can not only run on regular laptops but some SWAM instruments (and soon all of them) also have versions available for iPad.
And these software instruments are made to be played in real-time. They come in different formats, including a standalone version, VST, VST3, AAX, or Audio Unit plug-ins. For live performances, they can be loaded inside a VST host such as Camelot Pro.
Playing these software instruments live means you can extend your musical expression to not only the one instrument you already master, but you can use your skills to play any acoustic instrument you like! You can use your technique on the keyboard to learn how to accurately express yourself using a clarinet or saxophone sound. You can use your breath controller to play an emotional violin solo. The sky is the limit.
Computers Are Not Replacing Musicians
When digital audio came around with the invention of MIDI, artists and musicians were afraid that computers would replace them. That soon, we wouldn’t need musicians to play the music anymore. We thought that the job of a musician would become obsolete. But decades later, we see how false this idea was.
No matter how great the technology, we still need musicians to play the music. The only difference is that the software and virtual instruments we now have to express ourselves are better.
Now, we can use the skills we have on one instrument and apply them to another. This can have a variety of applications besides recording and performing, it can be used to learn new instruments, orchestration, music theory, and to teach these things as well.
Nothing can replace the power of human emotions. Audio Modeling’s mission is simply to create the tools allowing the full range of these emotions to shine.