Saturday, October 2, 2010

Electronic Music Technology - Deep Dive 4

The latest and greatest in the world of EMT (circa 2010) is the technology of Virtual Studio Technology (VST). Steinberg played a big role in introducing this technology that created a virtual studio by way of software on a computer. Originally designed to integrate MIDI inputs and add sequencing touches, it has now become the mainstay of music composition throughout the world. Cubase, the software from Steinberg was the first one to showcase this technology and today, there are many such packages that arrive with fresher function feature set every year with a number of effects, loops, samples thrown in as a teaser. 

Steinberg's Virtual Studio Technology (VST) is an interface for integrating software audio synthesizer and effect plugins with audio editors and hard-disk recording systems. VST and similar technologies use Digital Signal Processing to simulate traditional recording studio hardware with software. Thousands of plugins exist, both commercial and freeware, and VST is supported by a large number of audio applications. The technology can be licensed from its creator,Steinberg.

VST plugins are generally run within a Digital Audio Workstation, providing the host application with additional functionality. Most VST plugins can be classified as either instruments (VSTi) or effects, although other categories exist. VST plugins generally provide a custom GUI, displaying controls similar to the physical switches and knobs on audio hardware. Some (often older) plugins rely on the host application for their UI.

VST instruments include software simulation/emulations of well-known hardware synthesizer devices and samplers, emulating the look of the original equipment and its sonic characteristics. This enables VSTi users to use virtual versions of devices that may be otherwise difficult to obtain.

VST instruments require notes to be sent via MIDI in order to output audio, while effect plugins process audio data (some effect plugins do require a MIDI input too though, for example they might use MIDI sync to modulate the effect in sync with the tempo). MIDI messages can often also be used to control parameters of both instrument and effect plugins. Most host applications allow the audio output from one VST to be routed to the audio input of another VST (known as chaining). For example, output of a VST synthesizer can be sent to a VST reverb effect for further processing.

VST instruments generate audio. They are generally either virtual synthesizers or samplers. One of the first VST instruments was the Neon VSTi which was included in Steinberg's Cubase. Some, such as Native Instruments' Pro-53, specifically recreate the look and sound of famous synthesizers from years past (in this case, the Prophet-5).

VST effects, such as reverb and phaser effects, process audio input. Other monitoring effects provide visual feedback of the input signal without processing the audio. Most hosts allow multiple effects to be chained.

VST MIDI effects process MIDI messages prior to routing the MIDI data to other VST instruments or hardware devices; for example, to transpose or create arpeggios.

A VST host is a software application or hardware device that allows VST plugins to be loaded and controlled. The host application is responsible for handling the routing of digital audio and MIDI to and from the VST plug-ins.

There are a wide range of VST-compatible hosts available; some of the more popular include Ableton Live, Ardour, Audacity, AV Music Morpher Gold, Cubase, FL Studio, Mixcraft, REAPER, Sonar, and Sony Acid Pro/ Music Studio. Other VST hosts include AudioMulch, Bidule, Max MSP, and Renoise.

There are also stand-alone "dedicated hosts" whose sole purpose is to serve as a host for the VST plug-ins rather than as an extension of their sequencing or audio capabilities. These are usually optimized for live performance use, with features like fast song configuration switching. Examples of popular dedicated VST host software include Cantabile, Brainspawn Forte, Tobybear MiniHost, Deckadance, Chainer, VSTHost, and SAVIHost.

VST plugins can be hosted in incompatible environments using a translation layer, or shim. For example, FL Studio fundamentally supports only its own internal plugin architecture, but a native "wrapper" plugin exists that can, in turn, load VST plugins, among others. As another example, FXpansion offers a VST to RTAS (Real Time AudioSuite) wrapper (allowing VST plugins to be hosted in the popular Pro Tools digital audio workstation), and a VST to Audio Units wrapper (allowing VST plugins to be hosted in Apple Logic Pro Digital Audio Workstation).

The VST plugin standard is the audio plugin standard created by Steinberg to allow any third party developers to create VST plugins for use within VST host applications. VST requires separate installations for Windows/Mac/Linux. The majority of VST plugins are available for Windows due to both Apple's proprietary Audio Unit software for OS X and the lack of information and patent encumbrances that make development difficult for Linux platforms.

SoundFont is a brand name that collectively refers to a file format and associated technology designed to bridge the gap between recorded and synthesized audio, especially for the purposes of computer music composition. SoundFont is also a registered trademark of E-mu Systems, Inc., and the exclusive license for re-formatting and managing historical SoundFont content has been acquired by Digital Sound Factory.

SoundFont technology is akin to software sampling. A SoundFont file, or SoundFont 'bank', contains one or more sampled audio waveforms (or 'samples'), which can be re-synthesized at different pitches and dynamic levels. Each sampled waveform may be associated with one or more ranges of pitches and dynamics. Generally speaking, the quality of a SoundFont bank is a function of the quality of the digital samples and the intelligent association of samples with their appropriate pitch ranges. Quality is also dependent on the number of samples taken for a given range of pitches.

SoundFont banks are tightly integrated with MIDI devices and can be seamlessly used in place of General MIDI (GM) patches in many computer music sequencers. The sound quality of SoundFont banks is generally regarded as superior to standard GM banks, and many SoundFont banks have been created specifically to replace GM banks with samples of each corresponding musical instrument.

That’s one hellua list of technology that musicians have access today. No wonder, you have a number of composers who come and go, experiment and fail with a number of these tools. Suddenly, music programmers are in great demand. The studio folks are spending a lot of time playing with software, digging through manuals and browsing discussion boards on the internet for new samples, loops, ideas!

Next, we will take a deeper look at some of the specific Techno world terminology and techniques.

Courtesy Wikipedia for some technical definitions.


Suresh S said...

Wow. That's lots and lots of technology. Must confess that I don't understand lot of it but it gives me an idea of the complexity involved. No wonder that many of the modern composers take so much time to compose. I think they need to read thick manuals and try out different samples etc !!! So if you force them to come out quickly with songs, the end results can be disastrous.

ravinat said...

Hi Suresh

While that is lots of technology a few comments are due:

1) Not all technology is deployed by a single composer
2) Composers are at different levels of maturity with EMT
3) Most composers have their sweet spot with a mix of hardware and software toolset
4) While most top western film composers (John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, Randy Newman) still insist on manual orchestra where appropriate, Indian film composers tend to be filled with pride about their EMT gear. This could be due to cost/budget considerations of these film centers
5) While most Western film composers leave it to their crew to take care of electronics and sound production, Indian composers do a hellua lot more than their Western counterparts. Western composers stick to their core competence - aural treatment to visuals by way of their musical notes. Indian composers do a lot more, especially South Indian composers such as IR,ARR,VS. They take care of arrangement, conducting, mixing, post production and a number of related tasks
6) From a work load perspective, Bollywood tends to have different persons doing song and background music work. However, the quality of the output does not reflect this efficiency.
7) It takes a while for a composer to get to their sweet spot given the wide array of choices. This applies a lot more to a composer who has already mastered the 'old' way of doing things. The evolution simply takes longer.
8) At the end of the day, every composer has to make some hard choices that come with its pros and cons. Like sophisticated enterprise software, the music production world also gets entrenched into camps which are not only difficult to replace, but also to upgrade.
9) Lastly, keeping musicality amidst all this electronic din is truly a challenge that most composers never signed up to start with. They are musicians, after all. Not trained software configuration gurus. They only hope that the underlying platform of choice (Logic, Ableton, Cubase) do not go out of favor/support. As I mentioned, whether you like it or not, you have to deal with EMT if you want to be in business.

Ravi Natarajan