computers · marching band · Sibelius

The map is not the territory.

First, I’ve been away a lot. I may be here a bit more now, since things have settled down a little in my personal life. This post, however, just sort of popped into my head today.

The quote in the title is from semanticist Alfred Korzybski, but it’s been used in a variety of ways. He was talking about human perception and reality, and in a way, so am I. I got to thinking about simulations.

We do a lot with simulations nowadays. Most every large piece of technology – cars, airplanes, space vehicles, whatever – started life as a simulation inside a computer. Some were crude, just to get the layout correct and such. Some are so detailed that without it the technology could not be built. It saves time and money, and eliminates many false starts.

There are folks who believe we over-simulate, particularly in certain situations. The 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, off the coast of Brazil, has been widely discussed as at least somewhat caused by the flight crew becoming disassociated with the attitude of the plane – some faulty data, but also perhaps a reliance on instruments and not on reality. (At least that was some of what I gleaned from letters and articles in Aviation Week over the past few years.)

What does this have to do with music? I wrote a couple of marching band contest shows this past spring, and sent many audio renderings of the Sibelius files to the bands’ staffs as we worked toward what we were all looking for. It couldn’t have been done like this twenty years ago, really; in fact, when I listened recently to some renderings from even five years ago I cringed at the sound. The arrangements were fine, but the renderings were crude by today’s standards.

However, I’ve only heard one of these shows live, played by the band, and that only twice this season. The other not yet at all. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but a week ago when I heard one of the shows played on the field I was struck by how much some of it really did resemble the rendering, and how some of it did not.

When writing in Sibelius or Finale or any notation program for a marching band, you cannot factor in the movement of the members of the band. Balances change. Strong players move away, weaker ones more forward. The actual instrumentation is a factor, since Sibelius generally presents only samples of single wind instruments. (The marching brass samples are of sections, and they sound more like the “real thing” you would hear on the field as a result.)

As a judge I tell bands all the time that the dynamic markings on the page are what the audience should hear, not what the performer should hear. Sometimes that means a player must play mf when the overall dynamic is mp, and so forth. I often try to be “another set of ears” for the bands I judge, from the vantage point of the press box area. Some directors spend time rehearsing in stadiums and balance their bands accordingly. Some, for one reason or another, do  – and sometimes inexperienced directors think what it sounds like from the conductor’s tower is what it will sound like at the press box. Usually, this is not so!

I’ve been arranging for marching bands since 1974, and I still learn from hearing my work played on a real field by real performers. Some things you simply cannot account for, but you try to get as close as possible to the “real thing.”

But I caution directors to depend too much on those renderings. Yes, they are very close to the sounds of actual wind and percussion instruments nowadays, but they aren’t your wind and percussion players. Once the music is in the hands of the musicians, it takes on a life of its own, as it should. I don’t want a director to take my renderings and insist that the musicians sound like it. I want them to sound like instruments, played by musicians actively pouring heart and soul into the music. Thanks something impossible to get from any rendering.

A lot of TV shows are scored with sampled music, not live musicians. We are so used to hearing those sounds that we often don’t notice any more. Then there are shows that use live musicians, like Bear McCreary’s scores for “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” But I was surprised to find out that that show uses a live orchestra for all its episodes. The music is mixed into the show somehow so that the “liveness” seems to be taken out. At least, it sounds like that to me. I have a pretty decent home theater system and watched the HD version, so it’s about as good as it gets. Maybe the music editors are getting to the point where they don’t know how to make that work. (Only one music editor is listed for the show on IMDB.com, and only for the first episode.) I like the score – it’s big and movie-like, larger than a typical tv show sound would be, less heavy on the percussion and more on the strings and winds. But I’ll have to continue to listen to see if my initial perceptions were correct or not.

Anyway, while I love the ability to create renderings that help me and others get an idea of what the music should sound like, it’s more of a map than the territory – and I hope it always stays that way no matter how good it gets.

UPDATE, October 15, 2013: I’m watching this week’s episode as I write this. The music as written seems pretty much OK, except for it being mixed quite far forward in the overall mix. I don’t know another way to say that.  It’s just really too loud. It doesn’t sound unrealistic, except for maybe too much reverb on the strings.

There is quite a difference in distance between the speakers and the listener in a movie theater and in a home theater. The soundtrack doesn’t have time to interact much with the room. I don’t know how (or if) that is taken into account in mixing films for the theater; after all, theaters are all different sizes and shapes. I guess I should study mixing for television and the theater before I get all crazy about this.

I have “Person of Interest” on right now. Mostly done with sampled and/or synthesized sounds, but it’s not that…it’s just mixed differently. It’s not nearly as intrusive.

This is a topic for another day, I think. It’s pretty far afield from the original topic of this post.

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