David Pogue just posted a blog entry about the alleged disappearance of live musicians in pit orchestras. His fear is that these systems are getting/will get advanced enough to seamlessly sound like real players, and we’ll just can the musicians altogether. I’m a little reluctant to agree. Here’s my response:

I was recently the conductor of a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, a show that requires a fairly large orchestra. We’re a student group at a small college, so we’re limited in our performance spaces. I was in just that situation–having a pretty full orchestra, but missing a string player here and there, and a third trumpet player. My initial inclination was to contact the licensing company about their virtual orchestra setup.

I’m now confident that this thing will very rarely replace the volunteer orchestra entirely. The cost of the rental is high enough to prevent volunteer organizations from using it at all. In fact, for a lot of shows, it would almost be cheaper to hire live musicians to fill in the parts. Add this to the fact that most amateur productions have very limited runs, and the setup and fees begin to look extremely inefficient.

In the professional world, producers are throwing so much money at shows that the cost of the musicians is comparatively low. The unions in place would also pretty much prevent the complete replacement of the live players.

In the eighties there was a great fear that synths would wind up replacing musicians altogether. More recently, though, there’s been an emphasis, particularly in recording, on finding just the right blend between synth, samples, and real players. We’re learning now that emulation may be a good tool, but one that should augment real players in order to sound convincing. I think the same will hold true for musical theater.

What do you think?