The President of the USA and I have something in common: we play the saxophone. And having briefly heard Clinton play, I would say we are at roughly the same acceptable, though unmistakably amateur, standard. Nevertheless, we are no doubt both so attuned to the sound of the saxophone that it would not be easy to fool either of us into believing that a real instrument is being played if in reality the sound of the instrument had been electronically synthesized. Certain instruments are easier to synthesize than others. For instance, it is hard even for sensitive ears to distinguish between a genuine church organ and a church-organ sound coming out of a good synthesizer. This is partly because the sound quality of the organ is not dependent on the organist: a two-year-old child who presses an organ key achieves no better or worse sound quality with that key than the most gifted organist. On the other hand, a synthesized solo saxophone (like most synthesized instruments) tends to have a certain unnatural, mechanical quality which is difficult to pin-point but which to the saxophonist immediately rings false. It was therefore with astonishment that I recently listened to two solo saxophone pieces, one played on a real tenor saxophone by a top-flight jazz saxophonist, the other the result of some keyboard input and clever programming by computer scientists who may well have had only a rudimentary knowledge of music and perhaps no playing skills whatsoever. I was quite unable to say which of the two was synthesized even after repeated listenings. The fact is that the perceived perfection achieved by a professional saxophonist is not perfection at all but an amalgam of skill, flexible reactions and numerous little human errors, and provided that this skill, these reactions and these errors can be identified and quantified - clearly, they can - they can all be coded so that the result is perceived perfection. In short, perceived perfection in instrumental synthesis seems to be merely a matter of how long a programmer is willing to spend on fine-tuning the program code.
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