Digital musical instruments have been around for a while. I remember back in the 80's when a friend of mine who was a studio musician purchased the first sampling synthesizer in Philly - a ridiculously expensive Fairlight
- and the first serious computerized drum machine - the Linndrum. Watching Herbie Hancock play a Fairlight on Sesame Street and listening to Peter Gabriel's ground breaking work with one was inspiring. The hardware allowed a musician to make and manipulate sounds in ways that couldn't even be imagined prior and those performers did just that, creating new sounds and textures. Still, the equipment couldn't begin to capture the subtleties of an actual acoustic instrument. A real pianist was never happy with a digital piano... and digital strings were not up to snuff when compared with real bows and resin scraped across real strings in the hands of someone who knew how to make a violin sing.
The technology has improved exponentially and the samples sound more and more realistic as shear computing power allows the machine to reproduce the incredible complexity of an acoustic instrument's sound. Add to that the ease of using a model and their popularity is understandable. Any keyboard player who used to carry a Hammond B3 and a Leslie to gigs deeply appreciates the possibility of using a sample controlled by a midi keyboard that weighs 20 pounds. A musician in her home studio can have an orchestra playing in the background for a minimal price for software and a controller. It doesn't sound exactly like the London Philharmonic, but it is a lot cheaper and less complicated. Some electric guitar players are thrilled to be able to use a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx to produce the sound of hundreds of different amplifiers and effects units while others say they still can hear and feel the difference between the "real thing" and a digital model. Digital models have even made it into the acoustic music world where acoustic guitar players use digital modeling to improve their live sound. Again, others say the models just sound like... imitations.
Theoretically, the models will get better and better and it will be possible to use one controller of a type that the player likes, whether it is a keyboard, a fretboard, or a wind controller, to reproduce the sound of any instrument ever played and numberless ones that have never existed before. And the price will get lower and lower if Moore's Law continues to hold true. Who knows... this may actually be the future of music. It is pretty cool... but I hope not.