When Instruments Are Replaced by Computer Software

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At Oxford American, writer and musician Ginger Dellenbaugh looks at how the steel guitar established itself as an American instrument, and why there may be so few people mastering it today:

Recently, I met a friend at his studio in East Nashville to listen to some of his new demos. The second track featured a beautiful pedal steel solo.

“Who played that?” I asked.

“No one,” he answered, pulling up a window on his computer. “It’s Wavelore.”

Wavelore is an online company that offers software for the replication of what, until now, were instruments that were difficult to convincingly reproduce digitally: dobro, pedal steel, theremin, zither. The Wavelore Pedal Steel Guitar is a software library that uses single note samples, instead of pre-recorded licks or patterns, to let you design custom pedal steel guitar sounds without ever getting near an actual instrument. If you play around with the pitch bender and add some reverb, it is difficult to distinguish the software from a real player when it’s set into a track. There is even a function that distinguishes between blocking (muting) a string with a pick or with the side of your palm. The sounds I had thought were played by a session player were, in fact, oblong black boxes on my friend’s monitor where the pedal steel line was represented by constantly morphing, nebulous green wisps. Technology has finally caught up with the complexities that had protected the pedal steel from digital replacement: one can now get an authentic pedal steel sound without using a real player.

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Photo: Graham Hellewell