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Plug-In Musicians

November 19, 2010

My dreams often come true. Not the little passing fancies, but those I dream with passion and duration. But there’s no guarantee as to when. Dreams can come true, but they’re often late. I imagine that’s because the dream fulfillment department is swamped with back orders. The angels working there – big, burly sweating angels –curse as they roll out another dream, “Villa in the South of France – didn’t we do one of those freakin’ things just last week?”

In the long ago years that I scrabbled my way up in the music business, living in crummy apartments in dangerous neighborhoods of New York and Boston, I was haunted by a persistent dream: a place of my own, in the country.  The house was vague. What always shone clear as a picture post card was the little stream running through my property, sparkling in the sun, murmuring- This is Home.

Twenty years later that dream came true.  I bought a house with not one, but two streams on the property. Yet in the intervening 20 years my dreams had moved on.  I’d been living in my dream house for a while before I even remembered that old dream. It made me a little sad – that I’d yearned so for those brooks, but now cared so little that I only went out to look at them once a year to see that they hadn’t run dry.


My band graduated from Wesleyan in 1972.  Along with 10 thousand other bands we set out to become the next Beatles. We’d majored in music at a college whose music department was the first in the country to introduce world music. Our ears were filled with the pounding of drums from Ghana, the exotic tinklings of the Javanese Gamelon and the drone of tambouras. We’d heard Ornette Coleman, and Keith Jarrett, even Miles Davis perform.  Before college the Beatles had opened our ears to everything from sitars to orchestras.

All of this spoiled us for three-chord rock. And we chaffed at being restricted to the sonic palette of bass, drums, Fender Rhodes piano and guitar. One night in the van on the long drive home from a gig, semi-delirious with the hour and post-job libations, I flashed on a fantastic solution to our problem.

“I’ve got it – plug-in musicians.”


“Robots who play sax, or fiddle, or whatever.  Sitar.”

“Tuba. Clarinet.”

“No, I’m serious.”

“How would they work?”

“We plug them in at the gig, just like the amps and PA. At the end of the night we fold them up and throw them in back with the rest of the gear.” I saw them clearly -thin, almost two-dimensional robots. Easily foldable.  “Back home we’ll stand them up in the closet, out of the way.”

“They don’t have to be fed.”

“Or paid.”

Then my dream was a joke. That’s because its means of fulfillment hadn’t been invented yet.

By 1983 I was starting to make money composing. That was lucky, because I heard that Yamaha had just introduced the DX-7, the first affordable synth – around $2000. I raced downtown to buy one of the first. It created a remarkable simulation of real instruments; sax, fiddle, harpsichord, even tympani. I was having way too much fun to give a thought to my dream in the van. But I sensed something breathing down my neck. Those angels. They’d finally delivered my plug-in musicians.

Granted, it was little different than what I’d had in mind. I actually had to play the parts for my virtual band members. But using multi-track recording I got the result I’d desired – pieces of music arranged using an unlimited palette of sounds.

The confluence of my keen desire for sounds and Yamaha’s hype cast a spell on my hearing, dressing up those sounds to make them prettier than they actually were. After some months the spell wore off.  Those violins suddenly sounded so cold and glassy that they made me shiver.  I wasn’t alone. Other musicians muttered about the DX-7. One said, “The Oberheim Xpander’s warmer.”  I bought one. The strings warmed me right up, put a smile on my face again.  It didn’t take long for that spell to wear off – pleasant as those strings were, no one would mistake them for the real thing.

I bought another synth, then another, looking for the sound. I was becoming an addict. Fortunately my royalties were up, so I didn’t have to steal to satisfy my habit.  Every few months I’d get a new fix – a new synthizer. By now the manufacturers were promising the very universe with these things. Like a sucker I kept believing them. But their spells kept wearing off.

I got  a digital sampler.  Press a key and it played back a recording of a real instrument. I could sound the tambouras and African drums from long ago at Wesleyan, sparkling glockenspiels, and fiddles so real I could almost smell the resin and feel the bite of the bow. Now I  remembered that long ago night in the van.  I had my plug-in musicians – a whole orchestra of them in a little box.

The sampler’s spell lasted a long time. It too wore off when I realized that while I had the sounds of great musicians, I could never hope to reproduce all of the subtle articulations, crescendos, bowings, breathes they’d spent a lifetime perfecting. Still blessed with royalty income, I did what I’d done before the synth craze – hired real musicians, the best players down in New York. The old dream of plug-in musicians had finally lost its allure.

Around this time my computer became so powerful that my once grand studio was shrinking as its components became replicated in virtual form in the computer.  My mixing console and effect processors now lived in software.  And so did those synths, in the form of “virtual instruments,” or “Soft Synths.”  Most commonly though, they’re called….“plug-ins.”

I avoid that computer, only occasionally throwing it a guilty glance, much as I do those streams out back.  I know my virtual orchestra is standing there in its virtual closet, silent, uncomplaining, patiently waiting for me to raise my baton again.

It was great fun while it lasted, my dream of plug-in musicians. But even the sweetest dreams can’t last forever.



  1. It’s interesting to see how music has come full circle. That synthesized style that was so ubiquitous in pop and rock music in the eighties has given way to a return to using live musicians and made much of the music of that era sound dated today.

    I touched on this briefly in a review I recently wrote (it won’t be posted until Thanksgiving morning) of an album initially released in the eighties, met with little fanfare domestically at the time due to its lack of synths, but today that album holds up much better than many of the albums that were far more popular at the time due to its respectable restraint in the use of synths at the time of its release.

    • Yeah, the ’80s do sound pretty synthy these days. Almost quaint – I don’t mind that sound as much as I did say 10 years ago. I like live players, but also something more than guitar bass and drums.

  2. Funny, plugins/VI’s, Softsynths, in the wrong hands, the kids that only know desktop music making, sound like cheap “robot” ripoffs of the real things.

    In the right hands though, these are absolutely blessed tools now! Things i heard in my head for years, i can now realize with a bit of microscopic programming, and some serious ear bending.

    Plus, the session “players” now, have no substance problems, and they show up when I tell them too, everytime i boot up Protools! LOL

  3. Still have my Roland D-5 Multi-tymbral keyboard. I used it for pianos, organs, clavs, and the occasional Peruvian pipes back in the 80/90’s,while also standing and playing guitar. That became a chore. Now, I’m trying to get my pianist (think Prof. Longhair) to pick up some inexpensive ‘thing’ that will sound like a real B-3 but truth be told-there IS NO SUBSTITUTE,for those anyway. If you know of one please let me know.
    So glad the love affair with samplers and synths is basically over and real music making is back, for us ‘oldies’ anyway. The real serious problem with all this ‘band in a box’ is our kid’s aren’t forming bands like we did, at least my son hasn’t been able to get that perfect group together. I guess he’s missing his Paul, George and Ringo, or maybe he’s he Paul-not sure. What he is doing-is solo composing some great multi-part melodies using his…. computer. Sad,eh?

    • There are some good plug-ins for the B-3 but they aren’t the real thing. Then again they don’t weigh as much!

      I don’t think kids will ever learn the feel of real rock music without playing in bands, dives, the whole thing.

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