Intro - Speakers - Soundcard hiss - What is Midi - General Midi - Sound card -The Roland, and Quicktime soft synths - Midi File Associations - Using FTS with Quicktime -
Other Midi Soft synths - Wave Table synths and looping - Non GM synths - Limitations of some soft synths - Some particular synths - CSound - Garritan Personal Orchestra - Giga Studio - Using FTS with GigaStudio - the FM7 - Wave table synths and Samplers, and Virtual Orchestras
This page is mainly for the less techy users or newbies to computer music, who just want to get started, and to hear General Midi type midi clips on their computer and to hear the sounds that FTS plays properly tuned. Perhaps also you want to hear them played using the same instruments that you hear in the midi clips on this site.
The sections about the FM7, Giga and the Garritan personal orchestra are also suitable for more techy users - with tips and tricks for using them with FTS. Also the section on using FTS with Quicktime is relevant if you use QT.
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This is most relevant if the sound is lack lustre generally, or has a pronounced hiss or a hum, or the high or low notes are missing or very quiet - or you obviously have low quality speakers.
If the sound quality of most audio recordings is fine, e.g. when you play mp3s etc - but the iinstruments for the midi clips on this site don't sound very good , or the instruments played in FTS itself sound poor - then the chances are that you may need a better midi synth.
If your speakers are okay - skip to next
Most speakers that come with modern pc's are not particularly high spec. If you get seriously into computer music, you may want to get better computer speakers.
You can also get high quality headphones as a low cost alternative for similar sound quality, if you just want to listen to the music yourself.
The Grado labs SR 60s (see also Wikipedia entry) are recognised as a good bargain for an audiophile who wants a low cost way of listening to the audio from your computer, and who cares more about the sound you hear than about looks. Or if on a very low budget, the IGrado headphone. However, though the sound quality is high, some people find the Grado headphones a bit uncomfortable when worn for long periods.
There are many alternatives available for high quality headphones to listen to the sound.
Another option is to get a lead to connect the output of your soundcard to the input of your sound system. Tip: if you already have the type of microphone with a detachable lead you may be able to use that for this purpose.
When you connect to a sound system, use the Line level output in preference to the speaker output (if your computer has one).
Before you connect your computer to a sound system, it's best to switch off the computer first and disconnect it from the mains, connect the leads, then switch it on again. See the on-line e-Panorama page Sound card tips and facts - scroll down that page to Can I connect my soundcard to my home stereo system? and Connecting sound card to your HIFI system.
Sound card hiss
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Many low end soundcards have a slight hiss detectable with high quality speakers or headphones. You may notice it as a result of upgrading to better speakers or headphones.
This is likely to be most noticeable if you play a quiet midi note in FTS and then set the onboard soundcard mixer to maximum to compensate (from
You may be able to reduce or eliminate the hiss by changing the volumes in FTS, for your computer as a whole, and for the speaker. The hiss may go away or be less obvious if you have the volume set to its maximum in FTS, and on your speaker, and set it low for your soundcard in the volume setting for your computer as a whole - this places less demand on your soundcard.
Apart from that, the only solution to this is to get a better Sound card with less of a hiss.
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This section introduces midi, and the sort of synths that are associated with it, and the distinction between midi and waveform audio. If familiar with all this then you can skip to next section.
FTS plays the music using Midi. This means that FTS plays the notes on your sound card's synth in much the same way that a keyboard player plays tunes on a synthesizer. It just switches a
note on at a particular pitch and volume, much as one might press a key on the synth, and then at the end of the
note it switches it off. Your computer has a synthesizer often implemented in hardware on your soundcard, which plays the actual sounds you hear.
It is quite a bit like using a player piano. In fact, midi can be connected to acoustic instruments such as special player pianos - in which case the actual physical keys would be pressed when FTS plays the notes via midi out. Most often it is used to control electronic instruments. There is some detailed control of the sound too by applying various effects. If the midi instrument is programmed to respond to them,then you may be able to apply vibrato and other effects via midi. But the actual sound you hear is the responsibility of the synth.
This means that what you hear will be very dependent on your soundcard's onboard synth. If you want to find out more, here is a fine Midi Overview at midisite.com .
As a result, you can't guarantee that a midi clip will sound the same way on someone else's computer. To help deal with this problem the GM standard was introduced. This makes it possible to make midi clips that can be played on any computer. This means that if the clip is played on a violin, you can be pretty sure that the midi synth will play some kind of violin like sound, but the exact sound it makes, type of violin, timbre etc will vary a lot. The standard just specifies that a particular midi instrument number has to be assigned to a violin sound of some description.
If your sound card can't retune the notes (see the Test your Midi File Player and sound card ) or you aren't satisfied with the sounds it has, there are various things you can do about it.
You can get a new internal or USB soundcard - this works because most soundcards have their own onboard midi synth which you can use.
Or you can install a softsynth, and do everything in software - computers are fast enough for that nowadays, though you may get a bit of latency still.
If you have a hardware synth or sound module, you can send the notes via midi out and so play them that way, again you may need a soundcard if e.g. your computer only has onboard sound.
This only affects notes played via midi, and music saved as midi clips.
FTS can also play waveform audio with its new Wave Shape Player, and that will sound the same more or less on any soundcard. Also if you want to share your recordings with others and want them to hear your recordings exactly as you hear them yourself - then record your playing to a waveform audio format such as mp3. Those formats record the waveform itself - so the actual sound heard, and so also sound pretty much the same on any sound card.
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This introduces General Midi. If familiar with all this then you can skip to next section.
Synths that comply to the GM standard play standard midi clips with percussion as intended, and will play all the midi voices on appropriate instruments - e.g. patch 0 will always be some form of grand piano. Non GM ones have no separate percussion channel, and the voices you hear depend on the instruments you have loaded for the various patch numbers.
If you want to play standard midi clips such as the ones that you find on the web pages, and use the intended instruments, you probably are best off with a GM synth. It immediately has all the correct instruments, e.g. the violin part will be played on some type of violin sound, so you don't need to configure it to play the clips correctly as intended by the author.
Here is the Wikipedia page on General Midi.
You have much more choice by way of types of sounds with a non GM synth. For instance a high quality sampler such as Giga will let you use a huge variety of piano or violin sounds etc. sampled by third party suppliers. But the instruments will no longer be chosen automatically when you play a normal midi clip (usually).
You also get hardware synths on your sound card, and another way to get more sounds is to add another soundcard or an external USB soundcard - or an extra sound module - and of course musicians with hardware synths usually have sounds on their synth that they can use for playing music.
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This is one of the ways you can upgrade your system to get better midi sounds or to add midi in or out. skip to next.
You may well be able to change the sound card, or to add a second one (it's okay to have more than one).
An alternative is to add an external sound card connected via a USB port. This may be the only option available if you have a laptop so can't add an internal soundcard.
There are so many USB soundcards around now. The Creative Extigy was one of the earliest of this type of device to appear, but seems to be no longer available.
Some professional sound cards for musicians don't have any onboard midi sounds - so if you are getting the soundcard for its GM midi synth, be sure to check that it has one - or use it with a soft synth or sampler.
The other thing to check is whether it has Midi out / In if you are likely to want to use it to connect a midi keyboard to your computer.
The audio quality of your soundcard isn't of any great significance for most of the soft synths and samplers - except possibly Giga which has special requirements. Even a low quality soundcard is going to be pretty good at playing waveform audio.
There is far less variation in that than there is for midi - at least, unless you are a recording engineer or the like.
With low quality soundcards there may be a noticeable background hiss or hum. This is something to watch out for.
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This describes two commonly used ways you can upgrade your sounds by adding a soft synth for General Midi use. However, nowadays, the sound quality may not be that much better than the sounds on the souncard or chip already on your laptop or PC. If already familiar with these two possibilities, skip to next.
You can install a soft synth, such as the Roland Virtual Sound Canvas. It may be useful to know
that you can buy it at PG Music (have to purchase another program as well).
See the Other Midi Soft synths for more soft synths.
You can also get Quicktime . Quicktime is free. It actually uses the same sound set basically as the Roland Virtual Sound Canvas.
The Roland Sound Canvas needs a modern PC - but any PC from 2000 or so onwards should be fast enough, so this only needs to be checked if you have a really old PC.
The Roland will let you save midi files directly to audio format, which is neat.
A soft synth mightn't have quite the same fast response time as the on-board synth of your soundcard - though this isn't nearly so much an issue with a modern PC For the fractal tunes all that happens is that it fractionally delays the start of playback. However, it is possible that you might notice a slow response time when playing a soft synth from the PC keyboard, or midi keyboard, on older machines especially.
Quicktime selected in the Out menu in FTS is best used to preview fractal tunes as the timing can be a bit irregular. You can use Record to File options | Play as Html to hear your finished piece. See Using FTS with Quicktime
A nice thing about Quicktime is that it lets you have more than 15 melodic channels, which gives a way to get more "pitch polyphony". FTS exploits that by adding up to two "Quicktime" devices to the Out menu. You can play some of your parts on one of them and some on another by using the Out | Multiple Out Devices - Selected parts window.
You don't normally see Quicktime on the out menu of programs. The Roland however does add itself. If you want to use it on programs like Media Player that don't have an Out menu you can change what you want to use as the standard midi output device via Start | Settings | Control Panel | Multimedia | Midi .
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Often a soft synth installer will ask if you want to associate the soft synth with .mid files. You don't need this generally in FTS. Normally it is fine to answer No here.
The only place you are likely to need the file association is if you want to play your saved recordings via file association from FTS to hear what they sound like.
If you want to know more about that, read on, otherwise you can: skip to next
The file association is used for playing clips for web page links, or if you double click to hear a midi file in your folder listing in your file Explorer.
It is used in only one place in FTS - in Record to File (Ctrl + 11) | Play by file association - if you press that button, FTS uses your file association for midi clips in order to play back your midi recordings in your Midi File Player. If you have a Midi File Player that works only when embedded in web pages, you can alternatively use Record to File (Ctrl + 11) | Play as Html . There is also an option to just play the sound directly within FTS itself.
Normally, FTS uses the soft synth via its Out menu. So, it's fine to answer No if you prefer to keep your present settings. You can change the file association by right clicking on any file of that type, then choose Open With, and browse to find the program you want to use, and select the option to always use that program for files of that type. You can also make midi file associations yourself from Explorer | Tools | Folder Options | FileTypes .
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You can play in Quicktime from the Out menu in Fractal Tune Smithy (new feature). Quicktime is not normally accessible in this way in Windows. I added it in as a way to let you preview what the tunes would sound like, and to give an alternative (free) way of playing the Quicktime instruments for those who wish to use them in real time.
However, on Windows anyway, it seems that Quicktime works best when playing the tunes as midi clips - the timing can sometimes be a little erratic when it is used to play notes in real time "as they come". It has to be done in real time in FTS even for the fractal tunes, because the user can change the notes and the speed while the tune is playing. How well it plays in real time may depend on your setup.
To help Quicktime users, there's an option to save your current tune and show it in a web page and so you can play it that way, after previewing it in FTS. You do it via Files | Midi File Options | Save and Show as Html . This option can also be useful as a way to preview midi clilps in QT if you have it only in use on your system as a web page plug in (and haven't associated it with midi files).
When you play the notes from the music or PC keyboard QT seems to work reasonably well - with a small amount of latency of course.
Quicktime also makes pitch bend glides when you use it in real; time. It happens if you apply an "instant" pitch bend immediately before a note.
This is quite common with soft synths, but can be dealt with. See pitch glides (below) in the section on Limitations of some soft synths The first time you use FTS with QuickTimeyou will get a message about this. It offers to set a delay of 250 ms. You can change this from Out | Options | Out (menu) | Midi Out Timing - but need to set a delay there to avoid the message - you can set it to 0 ms if you don't need one.
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The Roland is a GM synth. GM synths are rather few and far between. Another one that many composers like is Timidity , and another ont to try is Wingroove .
There are many other synths available. Though not so many are GM synths, see the Wikipedia page on soft synths. As a wiki page I expect that long list will get updated as new soft synths get published. I don't know of a list of GM synths at present.
You can play GM clips on a non GM synth too, but you will need to load appropriate instruments yourself for each midi clip that you play.
GM percussion parts may be a problem with a non GM synth. All the non melodic instruments in a GM clip get played on channel 10, with the note number used to select which instrument to play.
A non GM synth may be able to play all the sounds of a GM synth, and maybe higher quality too, but it is up to you to make sure that each part is played on the correct instrument.
Wave table synths and looping
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The GM synths described so far anyway, are wave table type synths.
On these synths, there is often a looping artefact. If you listen very carefully, you may find that the sound of a single note varies in timbre a bit in a cycle (sounds a bit like beats but on just a single note), sometimes disguised with a little bit of vibrato.
It will depend on how the looping is done, and if well done may not be very noticeable at all. Even if it is noticeable for audiophiles, it is generally fairly imperceptible to most, and okay for general use. It can confuse you if you are listening out for beats, but if that is what you want to do then you are probably best using a more uniform type sound such as FM synthesis (or indeed the new FTS Wave Shape Player).
If you want a similar type of sound to a wavetable synth, i.e one that sounds as close as possible to the real orchestral instrument - but with no looping at all you need to investigate the likes of Garritan Personal Orchestra or Giga Studio. You could use a wavetable synth to preview ,as they are so easy to use, because of the way they automatically load the right instrument for each midi patch. Then do final renderings in the likes of
If you want a very steady note, for instance for listening to beats, or because you want a steady pure sound, then you probably want to try one of the FM type synths, such as the FM7. Or indeed, for another alternative approach, you can try the new FTS Wave Shape Player.
FM and wave table synths
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If you are familiar with the distinction between FM and wave table synths, skip to next.
FM synths use interactions of several oscillators with feedback type loops to generate sounds. They are widely used in music, you have probably heard them often in the music you like, anything which isn't based on an acoustic instrument is quite likely to be an FM synth. They are a favourite amongst composers. It is hard to design your own sounds with these, but they come with a huge library of presets. They can have really good sounds - atmospheric, out of this world and somewhat way out or wild sounds are their particular speciality I suppose. They can be very accurate indeed pitch wise.
Wave table synths are geared towards emulating acoustic instruments as much as possible and usually use wave samples from an actual recording of an acoustic instrument. Sometimes they use just a single wave, and sometimes a longer section looped.
Giga Studio was the first in this field - it uses the entire recording of a note on an acoustic instrument all the way to the fade out, or for a certain number of seconds (for continuous notes) - and runs from the disk. More such samplers are available now.
This is a very rough first idea. If you want to learn more, here is a Wikipedia page on types of synthesis: Synthesizer.
Limitations of some soft synths
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Monotimbral - Latency - Pitch glides
It's worth knowing that many soft synths are monotimbral - which means that they can only play one instrument at a time. Usually they can play that one instrument polyphonically, but even then often with only one pitch bend in play at a time. This limits how you can use them if you want pitch bend polyphony.
To play several instruments at once on such an synth, you need to start several copies of the soft synth, set each one up with its own instrument, and then use a virtual midi cable such as Midi Yoke and your settings in FTS to route each part in FTS to one of the copies of the soft synth you have running. This is feasible but takes some time to set everything up when you make the recording.
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Another point about soft synths is that since they are software, they won't normally have quite such as fast response time as the on-board synth of your soundcard. The only effect of this for the fractal tunes is that it adds a short extra pause at the start of playback. When playing from the PC keyboard, or midi keyboard however, you may notice a slow response time delay between pressing the key and hearing the note. This will happen for every note you play.
This is often more noticeable the older the computer.
If your soft synth has a noticably slower response time than your sound card, you can switch over to your sound cards on-board synth when you need a fast response. Switching back and forth is easy, using the Out menu in FTS.
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Many synths play pitch bend glides when you use them in real time with a program like FTS that uses pitch bends to achieve pitch polyphony. It happens if you apply an "instant" pitch bend immediately before a note.
This is quite common with soft synths, but can be dealt with. The solution that works best is to apply pitch bends to all the channels well in advance as soon as the scale changes. This works excellently for single instruments with up to 15 note octave repeating scales as you never need more than 15 pitch bends.
In large scales and non octave scales, or if several instruments are played simultaneously with varied pan position (left / right) or other effects, then the pitch bends need to be varied - for instance if there are more than 15 pitch bends required for a scale, then as the music goes on, from time to time one of the existing channels will need to be retuned.
When this happens, delays may sometimes be needed before the new pitch bends from time to time. There's an opton to add these delays - see Out | Options | Out (menu) | Midi Out / Save Timing (Ctrl + 58) in FTS. If you need this for just Quicktime there is an opton to just switch on the option for QT in FTS.
With this option in place, then you will hear occasional pauses as you play in the more demanding tunings - also when you play some of the more demanding fractal tunes. But that may be preferrable to the pitch glides.
Some particular synths
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The synths I mainly use are Gigasampler and the FM7. So perhaps I can say a bit about them. A lot of composers use the Garritan personal orchestra, and as a result, I have done some special programming in FTS to make it work well with GPO, so I'll mention that as well.
Then the FM7 is great for new, special and unusual sounds, and is a wonderful modern follow up from the early classic analog synths - can play the old sound libraries too.
I'll also mention CSound, especially as FTS now has automated CSound score and orchestra building.
There are many others and I can't speak for those - composers all have their favourites that they champion. Anyway, I've only tried a few of the ones available. Go and check out the others and see which ones you like.
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CSound is a sound synthesis programming language, with many instruments developed for it. See the wikipedia entry on CSound.
It has generally been regarded as rather techy. But FTS has incorporated automated orchestra and score building. This makes using CSound instruments in your recordings as easy as selecting them from a drop list. You can use them to render your midi recordings or fractal tunes directly to audio.
CSound instruments can also be designed to respond to midi in real time. So using this, you can also play the Csound instruments in real time with the help of CSoundAV.
FTS comes with a number of pre-defined CSound instruments, and techy users can easily add more to the list.
See the CSound page of this site for more information.
Garritan Personal Orchestra
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A lot of composers also use the Garritan personal orchestra. The GPO instruments use key switches - so you have to tell FTS about those, to let them through unchanged, otherwise it will try to retune them. There's a special page in the help for FTS with help on using it with GPO written by the composer Rick McGowan.
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Giga is best if you want it to sound as much as possible like an acoustic instrument. It is better than any soundcard, and was the first in the field though now there are others available such as Kontakt etc.
It is able to achieve this because it uses multi megabyte and giga size samples - (at the time anyway) impossible when it all has to be held in the memory of a soundcard, but easily feasible when streamed from a modern disk.
You can't download Giga - just have to buy it. However, you can get a preview of what it sounds like played microtonally from some tunes I've got up here:
One can also get Giga Studio which costs more and has more features (or one can upgrade to it later)
Also may be worth knowing that you may be able to get gigasampler for free with some soundcards if you shop around.
You need to buy extra sounds for giga only a few ones come with it. These can be quite costly, generally $100s right up to $1000s. I use Dan Dean's solo strings and I highly recommend that one for string instruments.
Using FTS with GigaStudio
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For the web site for them: Gigasampler / GigaStudio
This is a musician's sampler, and one uses custom instruments, depending on the piece one wants to play. So for instance, instead of having a single 'cello, one might have a choice between pizzicato 'cello and 'cello with vibrato, and various bowing styles. Giga doesn't come with a general midi type patch set, so you can't expect the fractal tunes in the drop lists to sound the same as they do with a GM soundcard. Instead, you need to choose appropriate voices for each part. Also though Giga does come with a few instruments for free, if you get into this you will probably want to buy a cd or two of Giga instruments, which can cost a fair amount - from the $100s all the way up to $1000s for some of the collections that Giga enthusiasts use
Many of the instruments you can get for Giga have the pitch bend range locked to 0 cents. So in order to play in any of the tunings, you want to change this to the GM default of 2 semitones.
It is easy to tell if this is so - just try playing, say, an ascending scale in FTS in some low ET, such as 31-tet - click the Play Scale button in FTS. If you hear repeated notes, then the pitch bend range is locked to 0 in Giga .
To unlock this, load your instrument in Giga , and go to Edit Instument . Then in the Instrument Editor , go to the Instrument Bank , right click on each instrument in turn, look for the Pitch bend (semitones) field, and set this to 2 .
Here are a few mp3s of tunes made using FTS and Giga:
For other tips, see FTS | Help | Using FTS with Giga .
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The FM7 is great for new sounds, and extremely accurate pitch wise. The demo version, which will only play in twelve equal as it will only accept one pitch bend at a time. Try out the demo to see if you like the sounds, then when you buy it you will be able to play it in any of the tunings from FTS by selecting Out | Use MTS Tuning programs . This doesn't work with the demo because FTS retunes it using MTS sysexes, which are disabled in the demo version of the FM7.
It has some really wild sounds - try out http://mp3.com.au/ScienceFriction/ and http://mp3.com.au/NavigatingThePacific/
The FM7 is monotimbral - only plays one voice at a time (I know it sounds as if it is multi-timbral from the Navigating the Pacific - but that is just a single really wild patch - all the notes are played on the same instrument).
To play several instruments at once, you can start up several copies of it and then set FTS to relay to each of those separately - easiest done using a virtual midi cable.
Modern high quality soundcards use recorded samples of musical notes played by a musician on the real instrument. The samples start with the attack of the note, then are looped after that, with decay added in. This gives realistic sounding notes to most ears, though in truth, a professional player of the instrument would never confuse them with the real thing.
Very old soundcards, if you happen to have an old computer with one of those, weren't even particularly realistic sounding to the general listener either. They approximated the sound of instruments, as best they can, probably using FM synthesis, and with not many oscillators either. The results may well be interesting sounds in their own right, in the genre of FM sounds - but not very much like the original instrument they imitate.
However, you don't have to use the soundcard's own on-board synth. A modern PC is easily fast enough to generate the waveform itself in real time as you play, whether of the sound sample or FM synthesis variety.
So - nowadays with the amount of memory and disk space available on a modern computer, and faster computeres - it is possible to use recordings of a complete note all the way to the decay - then the note actually is a complete recording, say, of that note played on a Stradivarius violin. So far this is all done by streaming from hard-disk as the amount of memory needed if one did it in Ram is just too large (gigabytes). The pioneer in this field is Giga Studio. See Using FTS with Gigasampler / Giga Studio . Nowadays many composers also use Garritan personal orchestra, and there are other contendors too.
Musicians phrase notes and vary the way they play a note depending on the context - bowing techniques of a string player, and variation in vibrato or articulation of wind instruments. Variation of "touch" for keyboard instruments is another related matter. The sheer volume of data involved is just too great to implement this using separate recordings for each possibility - you could never do live recordings of all the possible nuances of bow angle / bow position / attack / release / vibrato (to take a string instrument by way of example). Indeed even if you had the disk space, it would take a performer years to record all possible variations for a single note!
As another issue here, players vary the way they play depending on the acoustics of the performance venue, so the note can only be recorded as it would be played in a particular room acoustic.
I expect complete duplication of the sound of a musical instrument by playing it from midi file / keyboard may be a never quite achievable goal.
Nevertheless, and somewhat controversially, virtual orchestras are used a fair amount these days. Sometimes they are used in place of performances by the real musicians. It is a great boon to composers, who can hear their orchestra played using a virtual orchestra when maybe they would have little chance to get a real orchestra to play it - or to preview it before performance. But perhaps we are also losing something by having less by way of recordings using real orchestral performances, e.g. for music for films, TV etc.
Wikipedia article: Virtual orchestra