Switching to a bigger computer monitor

So, you are thinking of switching to a bigger monitor, because you want to see your orchestral score in full size. Great idea! Accustomed to using pen or pencil on huge A3 music sheets, this seems the best thing we orchestral composers can do.

With the huge number of 4K – also known as Ultra High Definition (UHD) – computer monitors on the market, you may go right with one of them. Only to find that maybe they make everything look too small. At 3840 x 2160 pixels, things go in the micro dimension.

The old standard video definition on the Mac was 110 points per inch (ppi), and 96 it was on Windows. Hi-Definition mode (HiDPI), or Retina in Apple's jargon, has upped it to 220 ppi. To do it, they simply use twice the pixels per side (that is, four pixels for a single older pixel), and make everything look smoother.

So, on a 27" monitor, if you keep the original maximum definition you end up with about 160 ppi. This makes everything look too small. If you go Retina, you get too big text and icons, and a video definition that might be equal – or even lower – than your older monitor. That is, a typical 1920 x 1080 pixels, or the old Full HD 1080p.

Both Mac and Windows have a way to scale what you see in their preferences. Typically, on a 27" monitor you will want 2560 x 1440, that is the equivalent of the aged Quadruple High Definition (QHD). The effect of the scaling is not as good as with Retina, but good enough.

If you have an old Mac or PC, however, you might not immediately get UHD. To get it, on a Mac you can install the cheap and excellent shareware SwitchResX, and choose the preferred resolution. Be sure to never use "lower resolution" modes, because they would force the display to switch to a real resolution that is not native, and look fuzzy. With SwitchResX you can also automatically switch resolution depending on the foreground app – for example, a lower resolution when jockeying with files in the Finder, QHD for working with orchestral scores, and full UHD for watching movies.

With older computers you might end up with a 4K resolution, but only at 30 instead of 60 Hz. This is a slow frequency, that might make mouse and windows movements, scrolling and video not totally smooth. Speech can appear a fraction of a second too late. If you can stand it, it works. If you can't, either you switch to a low resolution from the display, or get a better video card or Mac. (As for my experience: I can barely notice it with video, and only occasionally; not a major issue for me).

And yes, I got an HP Z27, and am using it with an old Mac a 30 Hz, with software scaling to QHD. The picture is a bit small, but there is a lot of room for my orchestral scores. And if I want things bigger, I can just magnify them with Ctrl-Up, or momentarily switch to the lower, gorgeous, Retina resolution.

Better yet, since I find the user interface elements (text, icons, menus) too small, I can lower the scaled resolution to 2304 x 1296, that is a close approximation to what a 24" display looks like at Full HD.

A tale of two sample players

Both Spitfire Audio (SA) and Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) have recently introduced their new players. The move from SA is easier to understand: they need to separate from Native Instruments and their sample player, Kontakt, on which all SA libraries where based.

With VSL things are a bit more complicate, because they already had their own player – Vienna Instruments (Pro) –, and this is a second player to maintain. The more apparent reason for this new software is that the new Synchron libraries, with their multiple mic sets, can't be managed very well with the old player.

Synchron Player is also easier to understand for a new user. Together with the easier-to-use new libraries, this might be a move towards becoming more commercial!

A quick comparison of the two VSL players is this, in my personal view:

- Synchron Player, based on a coherent metaphor of folder hierarchy, could be more immediate to grasp for the new user. How do you reach a particular sound? Just follow the path (as the Rabbit was telling Alice).

- Vienna Instruments' matrices are totally reconfigurable, and you can choose the number, size, position of the cells everywhere. Apart for you, nobody else will immediately be able to read a custom preset. And reading factory presets is not easier.

- Reaching a sound in VI can be a lot faster than in SP: point at that cell in the matrix. With SP, you have to go through the full path everytime.

- Crossfading between more that two layers is the real bonus of SP. Being able to fade between non vibrato, vibrato and molto vibrato, or between sul tasto, normale, and sul ponticello is something I've always wanted in VI. Will be there further development for VI? Please, add a third column of slots in a cell!

- Controller assignment is much quicker in SP. You don't use CC1, you use a meta-control that you can globally assign to CC1, but also to any other controller. With VI you have to reprogram all matrices. (This is another thing I would like to see in VI: meta-controllers!).

- The standalone version of VIP allows for nearly-quick replication of presets from existing presets. A true life-saver.

The language of music

Why do you still use Italian as a technical language in music? And why one has to mix Italian, French (laissez vibrer!), German (Ftzg!) and English terminology in a score?

Textual indications are more symbols of a technical vocabulary, more than actual linguistic elements. So, we use them in the language they were first used as technical devices and not for their literal meaning. Here, connotation is more relevant than denotation. Espressivo is a really expressive word, even if nobody would use it in their everyday life.

Most of the modern 'Italian' terminology appeared in the late 1500, and developed until mid-1700 while the various Italian schools dominated the European music. Some of the words/sentences we use today are obsolete Italian, no longer used in common talk. Take for example 'sordino': modern Italian would be 'sordina', with even a change of gender. 'Allegro assai' would sound funny, more than happy, in conversation.

During 1800, German and French musical technology replaced the Italian's as the dominant ones, so many French and German terms started to appear. Impressionism had a huge influence on music from the end of 1800, and Stravinsky used a lot of French terminology. Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg were other major influences at the beginning of the 20th Century, so there are words or abbreviations, like 'Ftzg' or 'Sprachestimme', we use as musical symbols, without even asking what they really mean from a linguistic point of view.

Then, English is the new Italian in music. During the next century, musicians will wonder what those obsolete English terms did actually mean.

The fast changing pace of articulation switching

What happens, when you play a piece with one of the modern, rich sound libraries? The computer takes your music symbols, and converts them into commands to select articulations. Here is how a solo violin looks in VSL's Vienna Instruments Pro, in a short video I assembled over an orchestral prototype I'm working on. Isn't it a bit like the Nineteenth Century Iron Age's mad utopia of musical automata?

Sound libraries and extended techniques

Grown in the European academia, I always feel a strong need for extended techniques. That is, those strange sounds going over the usual round technique used for crafting beautiful melodic lines, or the smart spiccato with which you push your most frantic rhythm ahead. Scratchy digging, feeble harmonics, colliding multiphonics.

These aren't very commonly included in sound libraries. I’m grateful to the handful of houses making sample collections including at least some of them.

While testing my new VSL-based orchestral machine, I moved in territories very dangerous for a humble sampler. And tried to replicate the mad violin of Sciarrino’s Capricci. Nearly impossible to play with a real instrument, virtually impossible to make with virtual instruments.

Yet, there are some interesting findings in exploring the extremes. And trying to recreate a, so to say, naturally produced sound can teach a lot on the nature of instrument virtualization.