Machine vs. Musicians: The Virtual Pit Orchestra Scam

Volume CIII, No. 1January, 2003

Bill Dennison

Broadway producers are arming themselves for an upcoming showdown with Local 802. Producers believe their weapon, a device dubbed the “Virtual Orchestra” (VO), will finally give them the upper hand in cutting and potentially eliminating live musicians in the theatre.

The VO is essentially a sophisticated synthesizer capable of digitally reproducing an entire score. Synths are not new to theatre. Their unfettered use was allowed in Broadway pits beginning with the Local 802 contract negotiated in 1987. Over the ensuing years there was a rapid expansion of their use. In a typical 24, 25 or 26-piece Broadway orchestra in a large theatre, synths became a cheap and easy way to beef up the sound. In smaller theatres, the synths became a way to add instrumental sounds without hiring additional musicians. Orchestrators became adept at utilizing the new technology on Broadway and elsewhere. The patches of sound or musical phrases produced by the synths could be woven into the live orchestra sounds and help make a limited size orchestra sound larger. Synths were in large measure an admission that Broadway orchestras were too small for the sounds needed.

The VO is an effort to leap way beyond the synths currently used on Broadway. The goal is not just to supplement certain phrases, or expand instrumental parts, but to perform the entire score. The manufacturers of VO claim that the device can be responsive to changes in tempo, dynamics and modulation typical to the subtle and changing needs of a live performance. Needless to say, we disagree.

Currently there are two New York area companies engaged in this dubious effort. They are Bianchi & Smith/Realtime Music and Music Arts Technology. The president of Musical Arts is a former member of Local 802, Brett Sommer. His resignation from 802 in 1993 came just as the union was attempting to establish a set of scale wages and benefits to be paid by Broadway producers to those providing synthesizer programming services. That effort was undermined when he left the union and cut his own deals with producers. Soon his synths were showing up in a number of Broadway shows.

Sommer’s “virtual orchestra” product consists of a laptop computer and a keyboard that hooks into the house sound system. The show’s score is programmed into the computer. Playing a minimal part on the keyboard triggers the synthesizer’s programmed sounds. As the score scrolls across the computer screen, the operator/conductor can presumably speed up or slow down the machine to accompany the on stage performers.

Experiences so far show the machine have been fraught with problems, not the least of which is the computer crashing and having to be re-booted. The bigger issue, however, is the quality of its sound and its very limited ability to react to the subtleties of a live performance. At Radio City Music Hall, Sommer brought in one of his VO setups to play along with two numbers in this year’s Christmas show. It proved to be such a problem that the musical team and management asked that it be removed (see sidebar).

The other company, Bianchi & Smith/Realtime Music, was established by Frederick Bianchi and David Smith in 1988. They have offices in Woods Hole, Mass., and in New York City and have worked for more than a decade on what they describe as a “Virtual Orchestra for the Performing Arts.” It is essentially a network of computers and multi-channel speaker playback designed to simulate the actual instruments in an orchestra pit. It seems to have garnered the most interest from technophiles, curious about the technical and programming feats. One mutation of the device was demonstrated to the Chicago branch of the Audio Engineering Society. The description of the demonstration in the society’s notes makes no mention of the musicality of the event but does go into detail about “accelerometers (motion detectors) in a conductor’s tuxedo” which was able to produce deviations “from the programmed tempi and dynamics.”

Bianchi and Smith have few if any ties to Broadway. Unlike Sommer, they have not been involved in supplying the synthesizers and programming needs of New York theatre. From the beginning their focus has been on a product that completely replaces an orchestra. They have arranged demonstrations of their version of a virtual orchestra in several settings in New York and elsewhere, always with very mixed results.

According to a Nov. 12 story in the New York Times, both Realtime Music and Musical Arts Technology have submitted proposals to the League of American Theatres and Producers to supply strike-breakers, both human and mechanical, if musicians stage a job action on Broadway.

Producers seem enthralled by the technology, less by what it can actually do or the sounds it can allegedly produce and far more by the powerful weapon it promises to be in the event of a breakdown in upcoming negotiations. We know that at least one major Broadway producer has engaged Sommer to create his product for two – or possibly three – of its shows. The New York Times revealed that Sommer had offered his services to the League for fees in the range of $36,000 to $70,000. Other sources, however, have indicated to Local 802 that the producer mentioned above has already paid Sommer over $100,000.

While no longer a member of 802, Sommer has maintained his AFM affiliation as a member of Local 248 (Patterson, N.J). Based on his activities, Local 802 has asked the AFM to find Sommer in violation of AFM bylaws and to take appropriate action against him, including fines of up to $50,000 for each violation.

Providing the employers with their synth programming needs is one thing. Suggesting to employers that their product can replace the orchestras in musical theatre is something else entirely. Are producers being sold a bill of goods? According to nearly all the critics who have heard it – yes! The descriptions of the VO range from “metallic”, “flat,” “ersatz orchestral sounds,” “mechanical,” “weak sounding,” to “depressingly synthesized.” Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips said that the “outcome of the incredible shrinking pit band isn’t preordained” and suggested that theatre audiences “encourage or discourage musical theatre producers and their cost-cutting schemes as you see fit, one ticket at a time.” Other reviews have ended with the suggestion to theatre fans, “save your money and see a movie.”

These kinds of reviews are every producer’s worst nightmare. But it’s not just the producers who have cause for concern. When cost-cutting devices turn the hard work of composers, lyricists, arrangers, orchestrators, book writers, directors and choreographers into cheap third-rate flops, all are threatened – musicians, actors, stagehands, wardrobe workers – everyone who makes live theatre happen.

At its root, the virtual orchestra is little different than performing with a tape – and producers have had that technology for decades at a tiny fraction of the cost of the VO. Still, the VO seems to have emboldened some and simply bamboozled others.

In the upcoming negotiations, Broadway’s orchestras are determined to preserve live musical theatre, make sure that a new generation of composers and lyricists have the opportunity to write for live theatre and preserve Broadway as the pinnacle of live musical theatre. Understandably, Broadway producers are driven by what they have always been driven by – the need to make a buck at the end of the week. The efforts of Bianchi, Smith, Sommer and their cohorts to cash in on this conflict is beneath contempt.