By Olwyn SupeeneSeptember 19, 2011 Welcome to Tart Notes, where we talk about how music can make everything else awesome. “Fake” has a few different meanings when it comes to music. The first one that comes to mind for me evokes jazz and has no negative connotations; it just means improvising. For instance, the jazz “fake book” is a compilation of lead sheets (the skeleton of a song, usually including melody, lyrics and chords), providing the chords and structure of a collection of standard jazz compositions. All the musicians have a framework, but the players decide what to do with that. The most popular edition of fake book, in fact, is called the Real Book. (It took me longer than I’d like to admit for that little play on words to dawn on me.) The second means the same in music as it does in anything else: to fake it means to pretend. Pretend you know the music, pretend you’re engaged, pretend you’re good enough. Not always a bad thing; “fake it ’til you make it” is as common an encouragement among music students as it is anywhere else. you can fake it and still commit to a performance; it’s when you’re faking the commitment itself that your audience is going to start to feel really hard done by. The third meaning is pejorative and biased and I’m going to flat-out tell you that it’s my own, and even I only use it sometimes: fake means sequenced. Okay, let me back this up a second. I’ve talked about virtual orchestras and the like before; by no means do I think the people involved in the sampling and sequencing of music are categorically untalented hacks, or frauds, or lesser musicians than those artists who produce their music in real time with a physical instrument. It’s just that maybe I’m some kind of Luddite at heart, because part of me feels like it’s cheating. When I’m feeling fair, it’s the artificial process that I’m calling fake. When I’m feeling unreasonable, I call the result of that process, the music itself, fake, if only through the implications of calling a live orchestral performance “real music.” Rationally, I have all kinds of respect for the people who work in virtual production; heck, my big brother’s a hobby music engineer, and his skills and ear are enviable. despite this, my hindbrain sometimes intrudes to protest the growing inclusion of virtual orchestras in sitcoms, cartoons, even some lower-budget feature films. but here’s the thing: I can tell the difference. and that’s what saves it. I’m not actually afraid that it’s going to completely take over and cost the jobs of all live musicians everywhere, because I can tell the difference. and if I can tell, there’s got to be a sizeable chunk of the rest of the music-consuming world that can also tell. “Faking it” to a high enough degree of artistry that no one can tell is never going to be more efficient than simply hiring professional musicians. while the fine arts are in decline, there will never be a time, God willing and the creek don’t rise, that they are completely unvalued by society; there will never be a time when all soundtracks are sequenced, everyone knows it, and no one cares. in the here and now, however, there are some contexts in which no one seems to care that the music is fake. Cartoons, for one. Cartoon studios used to hire professional musicians who would essentially come in, read down a score with no rehearsal, and go home, then come in the next time and do it all again — cold, new music, little or no practice. Session musicians nowadays are seldom, if ever, contracted for such work. It’s a lot more expensive than it used to be to hire a musician with that kind of skill set; you can get a good sound engineer for a fraction of the cost of a studio band. The same argument goes for live-action TV shows. It happens more often than you might think. Shows like Leverage, Supernatural, CSI — part of their soundtracks rely on existing music by pop or other artists, but part is inevitably original to the show. That original music is often a mix of various forms of electronica and more traditional orchestration, and since there’s already electronic music generation happening, it’s most expedient that the “orchestra” be virtual as well. sometimes particular instruments will be performed by solo artists, but I can’t actually think of any North American TV show that exclusively (or even extensively) uses live, recorded musicians for its original score. Note that I specified North American TV shows. There’s actually a fairly interesting phenomenon observable in Japanese anime. It can be less expensive to produce an animated series than to produce a live-action one, but in Japan, the audiences and mandates of anime are considerably broader than those of North American cartoons. Anime generally has far more complex storylines, higher production values, and more intelligent, mature themes; they have series like Trigun and Evangelion to fill a niche that we fill with live-action shows, because pretty much all we have for popular adult-oriented animation are South Park and Family Guy. One benefit of having high-profile, high-viewership shows with lower production costs is that you can splurge a little. in the case of anime, this seems to show up in the musical score. in addition to including popular music, which costs artist royalties just like when our shows do it, many popular anime series have fully orchestrated scores recorded by actual orchestras. The Fullmetal Alchemist Original Soundtrack (OST) is performed by the Moscow International Symphonic Orchestra; the OST for Gundam Seed lists a sizeable roster of musicians, largely brass players; the score for Cowboy Bebop is performed by various collections of international artists who collectively embody a fictional band known as the Seat Belts. The composer of that score, Yoko Kanno, is a topic for another column, but for now let me just say that the Seat Belts perform some of the most eclectic and creative jazz out there. Anime appears to be in a unique position that our TV shows can never aspire to; as such, the higher-budget shows continue to have the latitude for relatively lavish music expenses. as much as I wish that kind of musical luxury were more widespread, a luxury is what it has become. Now that the option exists to cut costs by faking the music, that’s usually the first option taken. It’s a trade-off: if you’re not spending as much on music, you can put more into visual effects, or scripting, or your voice actors. is it worth it? That’s not something I’m sure I’m willing to speak to; my bias, as I’m sure the discerning (or any) reader has noticed, is strong on this one. but is it inevitable? Yes. I think it is. We’re going to see it more and more. It’s not going away. Virtual music production is here to stay, and it’s getting better all the time. like digital painting, it has a valid and useful place among fine arts technologies. but even while I acknowledge this, I can’t shake the feeling that in moving toward digital music and away from live, the world has lost something, right alongside the elevation of keyboarding over cursive and the decline of the snailmail letter. we don’t need these things to the same extent we used to. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept the changes.