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> The whole experience made me suspect that there's an alternative approach to building modular synths, based on physical facts about sound

Yamaha experimented with this in the 90s with their VL series physical modeling synths, but it never caught on, mostly I think because if you want to have convincing results, you really need alternative midi controllers like a breath controller[1] for woodwind and brass intruments.

An alternative take on why physical modeling synths never really caught on is GigaSampler[2]. It was the first sampler (as far as I can remember) that could playback samples from hard disk, by only keeping the first second or so of the samples in memory. This made it possible to have sampled instruments where for example each key of a piano was sampled at various velocity/loudness values. Resulting in a sampled piano that could span multiple gigabytes. At a time where 128MB of RAM was still quite a lot, this was quite revolutionary. While physical modeling can produce convincing sounds with a potential expressiveness that no sample based instrument will ever match, it's base sound still doesn't sound as 'real' as a properly sampled instrument, recorded in a nice room with good microphones.

[0] simple overview, including some soft synth alternatives: https://www.musicradar.com/news/tech/blast-from-the-past-yam...

[1] example breath controller: https://www.akaipro.com/ewi5000

[2] Review of Gigasampler's successor: https://www.soundonsound.com/reviews/tascam-gigastudio-4




On the flipside to that, there's Pianoteq 6 who do physically modelled pianos. After going through several sampled piano libraries I settled on Pianoteq as my "forever" piano VSTi. It's less resource intensive than the gigasamplers and "feels" more playable and expressive in a way I can't rationally explain.

(It helps that some of my favorite producers and composers have used Pianoteq - for me that's Guy Sigsworth and Thomas G:Son, but the Ludovico Einaudi endorsement really clinches it for me.)

https://www.pianoteq.com/


I feel if you're going to such lengths to approximate physical instruments..maybe just record physical instruments? Synths can do things that are unable to be done physically, so why not use them to that end? Although, I understand sometimes it's an aesthetic choice, having a poorly-approximated physical sound.


Because playing the violin is hard and emulating the thing is a different challenge. Of course, sequencing a violin track with just note on/off and velocity (i.e. with a keyboard) is a poor-approximation. Better controls and using automation can be transfered back to other sounds for example. It's serious fun at least. We say to play music, after all.


We're well beyond the era of "poorly approximated" virtual instrumentals. Most orchestration you hear nowadays is virtual and developers like Sample Modelling make stuff indistinguishable from the real thing

I'd much rather be able to just plug MIDI into a plug-in to get say a saxophone line for a song than having to buy a top tier saxophone, learn to play it in a perfectly soundproofed room with great microphone, DAC, ect.


> I'd much rather be able to just plug MIDI into a plug-in to get say a saxophone line for a song than having to buy a top tier saxophone, learn to play it in a perfectly soundproofed room with great microphone, DAC, ect.

You could also ask someone who already knows how to play the sax to do it for you, and use a midi based sax sound until you have the score perfected as a stopgap.


The digital waveguide patents have now expired and a new group has just released a wind instrument software synthesizer based on this approach: https://www.imoxplus.com/site/

They are also developing a completely new type of multidimensional embouchure sensing mouthpiece with which to play the instruments. It should be easy to learn but offer deep potential for expressiveness.

Also note that the goal of these instruments is not to faithfully emulate the timbre of any existing instrument (for that use a sampler) but to emulate dynamic behavior with is where the true expressiveness of wind instruments comes from.

Disclosure: I am developing the mouthpiece.




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