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Synthesized music approaches virtual reality

The musical synthesizer has been either a boon or a bane to people in Hollywood; it depends on whom you talk to.

It’s benefited budget-minded filmmakers and musicians who, without the resources to hire a symphony orchestra, have managed to coax sounds out of machines that to many ears closely resemble real strings, woodwinds and keyboards.

But, alas, to the musicians who have been put out of work, the things are a menace. Where whole orchestras would have been hired in the past, a few synths are now doing the job of 50 musicians.

And naysayers who disdain their synthetic sound are about to get more bad news.

With the introduction of Yamaha’s VL1 keyboard, previewed at last weekend’s National Association of Music Merchants Show in L.A., the argument that synthesizers will never sound as good as the real thing is about to lose some steam.

The instrument was showcased at the NAMM show by keyboardist Alan Pasqua, accompanied by bassist John Patitucci and drummer Peter Erskine. To a discriminating listener, it was nearly impossible to discern that the brass and woodwind sounds came from the machine. Musicians now have the facility to express with the synthesizer the delicate nuances specific to acoustic instruments.

The technology that allowed Yamaha to pull this impressive feat off is called “physical modeling” and has been around since the early ’70s. With this technology, a complex computer algorithm is used to mimic the sonic and performance characteristics of an actual acoustic instrument.

In other words, to create a computer model of a musical instrument, you reduce its physical parts — a cello’s bow, body, bridge and strings, for example — into mathematical formulas. Once the equations are derived, the computer can construct a model of the real instrument.

While computer modeling has been used by filmmakers in such areas as special effects, the VL1 is the first real-time application of computer-based physical modeling for sound synthesis. And though Yamaha has been developing the Virtual Acoustic modeling since 1987, the emerging technology has only recently been made possible by radical advances in processing power and speed.

The advantages of this technology is that it allows re-creation of the full range of aural expressions of acoustic instruments.

For example, blowing harder into a flute will cause changes in the tonal spectrum, not merely an increase in volume. A traditional synthesizer could only increase volume, but the VL1 can adjust the tone as well.

While at the moment, digital “sampling” is the most popular and widely used form of mimicking instruments, especially in the world of film and TV scoring, look for the VL1, which has a $ 6,000 price tag, to become the standard against which all other synths will be compared.

MUSIC ON-LINE: While last week we talked about problems faced by composers and music publishers, who are seeing their work downloaded on electronic databases without receiving royalty payments, a new on-line system is about to launch that will operate within the guidelines of the copyright laws.

Synchronizity Inc., a Santa Clarita-based music service, in association with Positive Prods. Inc., has developed a database system that gives music users the ability to search for available songs and master recordings based on a wide variety of criteria.

Called InSync, the service will provide an electronic marketplace that will allow standard business practices in the music industry to be efficiently conducted. The roll-out of the system will occur in several phases.

Phase one will include information on songs such as composers, copyright information and U.S. chart positions. Phase two will include the availability of copyright ownership information and phase three will consist of 30-second audio samples of music.

CINEON TO EUROPE: Kodak executives and technicians will be dusting off their passports as the Moving Picture Company announced that it will install a Kodak Cineon digital film workstation at the company’s headquarters in London, marking the first installation of a Cineon at a European post-production facility.

The Moving Picture Company, which also maintains facilities at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, produces commercials and provides state-of-the-art digital post-production services for films and TV.

The Moving Picture Company’s Cineon workstation installation will be based on a Silicon Graphics Onyx computer with eight CPUs, 48 gigabyte disk storage, an Ampex DST data tape recorder and Cineon color-calibrated monitors.

According to Kodak officials, this is the third major post-production facility to install components of the Cineon system since it was introduced last August. The other two are in Los Angeles — at Pixel Magic and the Post Group.

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