In case you were wondering, composition is not limited to acoustic instruments. In fact, such an attitude would be very old-fashioned. Keyboards, synthesizers, computers, and MIDI instruments are being used all the time to write music for television, film, video games, popular genres, and even “contemporary classical.”
Beginning in the 1960s, compositions for electronic media really boomed. This was due, in large part, to the development of the Moog synthesizer. Wendy (aka Walter) Carlos’ seminal album Switched-On Bach (1968) featured electronic interpretations of J.S. Bach's music as performed on a Moog modular synthesizer. This top selling album best captures the brief but exciting Moog revolution. Figure 14-12 is a synthesizer example inspired by baroque music and the pioneering spirit of Wendy Carlos, even though it is decidedly more “pop.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, digital technology and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) gradually replaced analog keyboards and synthesizers. This culminated in pieces written for the Fairlight CMI and Synclavier sampling synthesizers. One example of the latter is Frank Zappa's groundbreaking Civilization Phaze III, posthumously released in 1994 by the Zappa Family Trust.
Modern Uses of Keyboards
In the new millennium, the trend is to create electronic samples that authentically capture the rich timbres of acoustic instruments (e.g., sampled grand piano). Virtually every instrument in western music now has a keyboard equivalent. For example, most keyboards can simulate the human voice, harpsichords, organs, string orchestras, guitars, flutes, clarinets, harps, banjos, French horns, glockenspiels and much, much more. Other common sounds include bongo and conga drums, timpani, clapping, ocean waves, gunshots, car horns, animal noises, glass breaking, and other sound effects. Many companies even offer whole sound libraries, which contain hundreds of carefully engineered presets.
FIGURE 14-12: Wendy Carlos-inspired synthesizer example
A sample is a small portion of music (or sound clip) that has been taken from one sound source and applied to another. In the pre-digital era, these clips were captured through the use of magnetic tape. Tape loops were then created so that the sample could be applied to a new setting. Today, samples are made using computer technology.
Keyboard Sound Quality
How good are the sounds on contemporary keyboards? It depends on the company and the products themselves. Not all samples are created equal and there are many variables that contribute to a sound's quality. As of this writing, certain wind instruments such as trumpet and saxophone are generally poor. However, instruments such as the piano, flute, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and drum kit tend to be good enough to deceive the ear in certain contexts. These technological advancements have been fully exploited by composers who have scored music for “virtual orchestras” or other “virtual” ensembles. Digital sampling technology is sure to get frighteningly amazing in the coming decades. However, it's unlikely that acoustic instruments will ever become obsolete.