Fooled by Fauxharmonic?

Jason Victor Serinus


November 3, 2008

Can audiences tell the difference between a computer-generated orchestra and the real thing? Just how far have digital sampling and loudspeaker technologies advanced?

Those questions and more were posed at New York's Bargemusic on November 2, when the Fauxharmonic Orchestra, a digital orchestra of sampled sounds programmed and conducted by Paul Henry Smith, shared the stage with the 21 strings of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Markand Thakar. The experiment was also staged in Baltimore on November 1, and will be repeated at Goucher College on November 5.

First the Fauxharmonic, then the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, performed Matthew Quayle's Gridley Paige Road before a live audience. To ensure that attendees had a full musical experience, the all-human chamber orchestra also performed the world premiere of BCO Composer-in-Residence Jonathan Leshnoff's Trombone Concerto, Mozart's Adagio and Fugue, K. 546, the Adagio from Bruckner's String Quintet in F, and Beethoven's Grosse Fuge (the latter two arranged for string orchestra).

Projecting virtual reality

The Fauxharmonic virtual orchestra beamed forth from a pair of self-powered Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 5 loudspeakers, each driver of which is powered by its own built-in class-D amplifier. With 250W for each of its two high-frequency drivers, and 1000W apiece for the midbass and woofer, each BeoLab 5 boasts an impressive 2500W of power. The speaker also offers, on a DSP chip, an adaptive Bass Control system to compensate for room interactions and to perform the duties of an electronic crossover. The DSP also monitors the temperature of the voice-coils, compensating for power compression caused by heat and ensuring that the speaker maintains its {full?} dynamic capabilities at high SPLs.

The BeoLab 5's most novel features are the two Acoustic Lenses for its upper-frequency drivers. According to its inventor, Manny LaCarrubba, the Acoustic Lens is a type of waveguide that greatly expands a loudspeaker's horizontal dispersion. The result is both extremely wide directivity and an extremely flat power response that does not roll off high frequencies nearly as much as conventional designs. (Sometime next summer, LaCarrubba's Sausalito Audio expects to announce high-end, in-ceiling loudspeakers that incorporate Acoustic Lens technology.)

Paul Henry Smith set up the B&Os after consulting Dave Moulton, who originated the concept that LaCarrubba refined into the Acoustic Lens. Smith calls the BeoLab 5s "the missing element to this live performance . . . the instruments of the digital orchestra."

Thanks to Smith's wireless controller, which he dubs the Wii-mote, his contribution involves far more than programming his computer, connecting the BeoLab 5s, and pushing a button. A modification of the controller used with Nintendo's Wii gaming console, the Wii-mote can be used as a baton with which Smith can control the Fauxharmonic's tempo, volume, timbre, brightness, and darkness. Thus, as with a human orchestra, spontaneity reigns. While there's never a possibility that one of its violins will break a string or play out of tune, no two Fauxharmonic renditions are identical.

The conductors and their orchestras

Paul Henry Smith is no mere musical wannabe. The amateur cellist began his conducting studies with Gustav Meier and Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, and continued with Sergiu Celibidache at the Curtis Institute and in Munich. He also studied orchestration and composition with Richard Hoffmann, Lukas Foss, and Steven Scott Smalley.

Once a conservatory professor, Smith began work on early digital orchestra systems in the 1980s, when he was a visiting researcher at MIT's Media Lab. He has since founded the Digital Orchestra League, which brings together researchers, composers, and theorists to advance what he considers an art. He also oversees the Fauxharmonic's annual Adagio Composition Contest, which in 2007 granted both its Grand Prize and its People's Choice Award to Matthew Quayle for Gridley Paige Road.

Smith also uses the Fauxharmonic to produce recordings for composers and producers. His soundtrack scores recorded with the Fauxharmonic have been used in television and independent films, and in national commercials for Nike and Adidas. After one of Smith's clients, male soprano Dante Paganucci, protested that he could not perform to canned, strict-time digital accompaniment, Smith developed the Wii-mote to enable him to respond to the singer's changes in tempo and dynamics. It was at that point that Smith first realized that he had developed a pliable musical instrument.

Markand Thakar's Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, whose players include members of the Baltimore Symphony and Baltimore Opera, has world-premiere recordings of concertos for violin and viola by Ignaz Pleyel and works by Leshnoff due out on Naxos in February and April of 2009, respectively. Thakar, who is also Music Director of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, has been praised by The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross for his "brilliant" programming. No stranger to the audiences of New York and the Aspen Music Festival, he recently opened the New York Philharmonic's outdoor season in Central Park. He also provides frequent commentary for American Public Media's Performance Today. Thakar and Smith are longtime friends, having taught in the same music school and made music together.

The experiment

In a joint phone interview with Thakar, Smith explained that the Fauxharmonic obtains its samples from the Vienna Symphonic Library. "When I first looked into digital sampling 15 years ago," he said, "I was not confident that we could do this. Then, when I re-entered the field five years ago, I realized there had been huge technological advances. That is not to say that the digital orchestra is as good as an acoustic orchestra. It's not at that point. However, it's getting very close. That's why I wanted to get involved now as a musician—to push the envelope and see just how expressive it can be."

It may surprise some engineers to hear Smith, a scientific researcher whose rÈsumÈ includes work at MIT, declare, "I have a piece of equipment that is by far the best piece of equipment in the world for calibrating digital sounds according to the acoustic space you're in: my brain. It's kind of a joke, but there's a kernel of seriousness to it."

Smith noted that for the experiment, the BeoLab 5 has such a wide field of dispersion that he expects the natural reverb of the performance spaces to obviate the need for a surround-sound speaker array. Besides, he notes, "more people now listen to music through speakers than in live performance. It's a huge change in how society listens to music. On the positive side, there are far more opportunities to hear music. But on the other hand, there's a cost: the crucial element of music's production and decay in live acoustic space has been reduced by listening through conventional speakers.
"Never before has there been an instrument like a BeoLab 5 loudspeaker. By putting this new instrument in the hands of musicians such as myself, and manipulating sounds from a sample library, we can, for the first time, play music through loudspeakers."

Smith emphasizes the difference between the Fauxharmonic and recorded music. "I'm going to take the same system into three different acoustic environments, but it will not be like playing the same recording," he says. "I will adjust for different acoustics and sizes of venues. Just as a good violinist can get a good performance out of a lesser instrument, I should be able to play very well in any environment."

Markand calls the Fauxharmonic's sound "remarkably similar to acoustic instruments." He cites a May 2007 blind test conducted by the Wall Street Journal, in which online participants were asked to play back 30-second clips of the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony 7, and try to distinguish between the Fauxharmonic and orchestras conducted by Bernstein, Norrington, Reiner, and Zinman. Reportedly, even professors from the Eastman and Berklee Schools of Music couldn't tell the difference.

Although I hastened to point out that the results may say far more about the poor quality of people's computer speakers and the faulty methodology of short-sample blind testing than about the Fauxharmonic's achievement, Markand insisted that if the test had included a low-quality MIDI sample, everyone would have been able to tell the difference. One would hope.

"Neither of us knows how this is going to turn out," said Markand. "I don't know how the Fauxharmonic will affect me emotionally, because I've never before heard Paul conduct Quayle's piece."
"I'm amazed at the quality of the sounds at this point," said Smith in summation. "I wouldn't be stepping out on the stage with my reputation hanging in the balance if I didn't believe I could create a highly musical performance."

© 2004-2009 Markand Thakar

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