The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'computer music'
Jazari is essentially an automated, electromechanical percussion ensemble, controlled using two Nintendo Wii controllers. It consists of a MacBook, a bunch of Arduino boards and a room full of drums fitted with solenoids and motors, and software written in MAX and Java which parses input from the Wii controls and plays the drums. The software is also capable of improvising with the human operator, by imitating, riffing off and mutating what he plays.
Jazari was developed by a guy named Patrick Flanagan, who had been playing around with algorithmic composition, only to discover that people don't want to hear about algorithms, but do want to see a good live show. Anyway, here there are two videos: one of a Jazari performance (think robot samba float, conducted by a guy waving Wiimotes around; the music has a distinctly Afro-Brazilian feel to it), and one of Flanagan explaining how it works.
An electronic composer in Vienna has developed a means of reproducing the human voice on a piano. Recordings of speech are analysed and converted to frequency data, which is turned into MIDI notes. When played on a grand piano (using a system consisting of 88 pencil tops pushed by electromagnets or motors), it sounds intelligible, though otherworldly.
And now, a chap in an orange puffer jacket and plastic electro shades who goes by the name "Jetdaisuke" will demonstrate how to make a talkbox using only a Nintendo DS, a copy of Korg DS-10 and an ordinary drinking straw. It's in Japanese (with a few recognisable words like "sturo", "talkbox talking modulator" and "daftapunk"), but easy enough to follow from the video alone.
Some news on the computer music front: version 2.0 of the veritable Windows audio patching environment AudioMulch is now out, and it's now available for OSX. It costs US$189, though, so it may not be everyone's cup of tea; however, the objects are higher level than those in other environments like Pd, and there's less fiddling around with oscillators involved before you actually start getting interesting noises.
Meanwhile, I somehow managed to miss the fact that the veritable MDA VST plugins are now open-source. And for some reason, there are precompiled VST binaries for Linux. It turns out that people are using Steinberg's VST plugin standard on Linux (presumably unofficially, though).
Frieze Magazine has a piece on the cultural dimension of the use of Autotune, the vocal-processing effect heard on many commercial pop songs these days:
Lil Wayne records with Auto-Tune on – no untreated vocal version exists. In an era of powerful computers that allow one to audition all manner of effects on vocals after the recording session, recording direct with Auto-Tune means full commitment. There is no longer an original ‘naked’ version. This is a cyborg embrace. In Cyborg Manifesto (1991), Donna Haraway notes that ‘the relation between organism and machine has been a border war.’ Auto-Tune’s creative deployment is fully compatible with her ‘argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.’
A few months ago I heard a song from the Côte d’Ivoire. Twelve minutes long, Champion DJ’s ‘Baako’ is built around a baby crying through Auto-Tune. The software bends the baby’s anguish into eerie musicality. The ear likes it. The mind isn’t so sure. ‘Baako’ is disturbing. The aestheticized cry no longer corresponds to any normal emotion. Before Auto-Tune, we had no melodious screams.
From the US to Mexico, Jamaica, Africa, and beyond – Auto-Tune usage has splintered, with different approaches from scene to scene and artist to artist. (It remains the most sonically extreme in Berber Morocco.) The plug-in creates a different relation of voice to machine than ever before. Rather than novelty or some warped mimetic response to computers, Auto-Tune is a contemporary strategy for intimacy with the digital. As such, it becomes quite humanizing. Auto-Tune operates as a duet between the electronics and the personal.The article points out that Antares, the makers of Autotune, are working on a mobile phone version of their software.
Also, I wonder how much of what they call "Autotune" is really Antares' plug-in (which, as far as I know, is a black box that works in real time), and how much is other tools like Celemony Melodyne (an application which lets one edit the timing and pitch of recorded notes, and can be used for getting similar results).
The next must-have gadget for the laptop musician could be the OP-1:
It's made of plastic, Nintendo-white, with rounded buttons and a colour OLED display, and works as a controller for music software and a standalone synthesiser/sequencer. It's still under development, by an outfit named Teenage Engineering (who appear to be a bunch of Stockholm hipsters, with a tendency to use conspicuous Japanese translations on their web site; they also make modular studio lights and downloadable papercraft models of Yamaha motorbikes). The product is said to be 10-12 months from release, with no price yet known.
Québecois music software maker Plogue have announced a software synthesiser designed for chiptunes. the Plogue Chipsounds plugin (Windows/Mac VST; price/release date unknown) will simulate not one but seven different 8-bit sound chips (from the SID chip to ones taken from the Atari 2600, Nintendo NES, VIC-20 and arcade machines), all to great authenticity, and even features "faithful DC signal leakage emulation" for added versimilitude. It'll also come with presets made by chip musicians 8-Bit Weapon and ComputeHer.
Of course, not everybody's pleased. Some chip musicians are unhappy that this means that dilettantes unwilling or unable to put in the hard yards writing 6502 assembly language will be able to get the same authentically 8-bit sounds they can. Why, Plogue could port it to Pro Tools and it could end up on the next Madonna record; for shame!
Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on whether one regards 8-bit sound chip sounds as worthy in their own right, or merely as a shibboleth for separating the truly hip and hardcore from trendies and hangers-on. I lean towards the former camp; surely there are other ways of distinguishing interesting music from commercial pabulum than by whether the composer knows assembly language. Then again, I would say that, not having written any 6502 assembly in about two decades.
I recently bought myself a Korg NanoKey. That's a tiny USB MIDI keyboard, about the width of a low-end MacBook, with two octaves of plasticky-feeling keys.
The NanoKey has received mixed reviews, with some admiring the concept and others complaining at how cheap it feels. I've only been using it for a week or so, but I'm extremely pleased with it. For one, it's tiny, which makes all the difference. It fits comfortably in a laptop bag, and is small enough to get out and use anywhere; I can take it out in a café without looking like some kind of attention-seeking weirdo, or even use it on a train (these have both been tested; the last one, in economy class aboard the Eurostar). Or, I can place it unobstrusively on the desk. The convenience factor is a big win; in contrast, I also have a 25-key Evolution MK-425C, which is about the size of a backpack, and has been gathering dust for ages.
Of course, as you can probably guess, the NanoKey is thin and plasticky. If you're guessing it feels cheap, kind of like a child's toy piano, you'd be right. No-one will mistake it for a Steinway grand any time soon. Though, given the convenience, that doesn't matter; it works well enough for what it does, which is sending MIDI notes better than the QWERTY keyboard. And furthermore, it is touch-sensitive; I was quite surprised to find this out.
It also came with a download code for the cut-down edition of Korg's M1 softsynth. Which is great should I ever need an Italo-house piano or similar.
The upshot of this is that I've been playing with music more, and when I do, in a more hands-on way; actually playing notes, rather than clicking and dragging. In any case, it was probably the best £45 or so I've spent in a long time.
glitchDS is a suite of (somewhat unconventional) homebrewed Nintendo DS music programs. They include CellsDS, a grid-based sequencer apparently modelled on the Tenori-On, only extensible using Lua scripts, as well as a gesture-based sample player named repeaterDS and the eponymous glitchDS, a music toy based on Conway's Game Of Life. Of course, you will need a homebrew card to use these, which may be illegal or otherwise difficult to acquire in some territories.
One of the things I enjoy doing is creating electronic music, for which I use a Macintosh laptop, some music software and various plugins. For the past few years, the software which I used has been Apple's Logic Express, to which I switched from Cubase VST when moving from MacOS 9 to OSX. As Logic didn't come with a drum machine program back then, I found myself buying Linplug's RMIV drum machine, which I have over the years used extensively.
RMIV is an excellent and comprehensive drum machine, which contains both analogue-style drum synthesisers and sample playing capabilities, as well as filters and effects. However, it has one downside; when you import sounds into it, it has the annoying tendency of saving those in its own proprietary format (rather than using a standard format such as, say, AIFF or WAV, both of which are good enough for other software including Apple's own samplers).
Recently I have started using Ableton Live, and have found it very impressive. While Live will happily load all my AudioUnit plugins, it also contains its own drum sample player, Drum Rack, which integrates more tightly with it. Drum Rack allows you to drag your favourite samples to various pads and play them. The hitch is that the samples must be in a standard format; if most of your drum samples are in RMIV's .D4T format, then you have a problem. Guess where most of my samples were?
Anyway, not being one to give up easily, I took it upon myself to examine the D4T format, and come up with a way of converting my samples to an open format. Luckily, I had some samples sitting around in both formats; after examining them with hexdump(1) and a Python interpreter, I soon determined that D4T is a fairly simple format, consisting of a short header and the samples in 32-bit float format.
The header turned out to be a bit more work; there were what looked like magic numbers in it, as well as some values roughly proportional to the file size, though bizarrely unrelated to actual sizes. After creating a few oddly-sized AIFF files, importing them into RMIV and examining the imported versions, I determined that RMIV's format used a bizarre way of encoding integers: it would encode them in binary-coded centimal. Which is to say, as a series of bytes, each containing a value from 1 to 99, representing a pair of decimal digits. Why they settled on this peculiar and inefficient encoding, I can only guess; it seems too feeble to be an attempt to thwart reverse engineering.
Anyway, the point of this anecdote is that I have now written a Python script which converts from RMIV's .D4T sample files to AIFF files. (One could change it fairly trivially to make WAV files, though that's left as an exercise to the reader.) The script, named "dermiv", is here.
It's about time somebody did something like this: Japanese synth maker Korg have announced a series of laptop-sized USB music controllers. The nanoSeries, as they call it, includes a 25-key MIDI keyboard, a 12-pad drum controller with X/Y pad and a mixing controller with 9 faders, 9 knobs, 18 switches and transport controls; all of these will be about 13 inches in width and will come with download codes for light versions of music software; according to these UK retailers, this series is expected to arrive in October 2008, costing between £49 and £59 each.
Science News has an article about recent advances in computer music processing. There has been success in creating software which understands recorded music, to the point of being able to extract note information from a (polyphonic, multitimbral, acoustically imperfect) recording. This has been achieved not by programming in rules of musical theory but by using machine learning techniques, setting up a learning system and training it from examples to infer its own rules of music:
He started with a program that had no information about how music works. He then fed into his computer 92 recordings of piano music and their scores. Each recording and score had been broken into 100-millisecond bits so that the computer program could associate the sounds with the written notes. Within those selections, the computer would receive an A note, for example, in the varying contexts in which it occurred in the music. The software could then search out the statistical similarities among all the provided examples of A.
In the process, the system indirectly figured out rules of music. For example, it found that an A is often played simultaneously with an E but seldom with an A-sharp, even though the researchers themselves never programmed in that information. Ellis says that his program can take advantage of that subtle pattern and many others, including some that people may not be aware of.The software thus developed got impressively good results in music transcription tests (68% accuracy, with the runner-up, a traditional rule-based system, getting 47%). There are numerous applications of such a technology, from automated accompanyists to "musical spellcheckers" to ways of "decompiling" recordings to a score:
Score-alignment programs could be used after a musician records a piece of music to do the kind of fine-tuning that's now performed painstakingly by recording studios, fixing such problems as notes that are slightly off pitch or come in late. "It'll be kind of like a spell-check for music," says Roger Dannenberg, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who is developing the technology.
Christopher Raphael begins the third movement of a Mozart oboe quartet. As his oboe sounds its second note, his three fellow musicians come in right on cue. Later, he slows down and embellishes with a trill, and the other players stay right with him. His accompanists don't complain or tire when he practices a passage over and over. And when he's done, he switches them off.Not everybody's happy with this, though; musicians' unions, which have opposed "virtual orchestras", are about as keen on it as buggy-whip manufacturers were on the automobile.
(via Boing Boing) ¶ 0
Taking advantage of the formulaic nature of electronic dance music, an Australian developer has created a box which automatically composes plausible trance music. Known as Infinite Horizon, the box creates five channels (Chord, Lead 1, Lead 2, Bass 1 and Bass 2) of randomised patterns; the human operator controls the higher-level build-up/break-down structure by muting and activating channels.
The site has a MP3 of about 10 minutes of output; it sounds quite passable, like something out of Berlin around 1995.
(via MusicThing) ¶ 0
The C64Music! blog has a detailed and quite interesting academic article on Commodore 64 game music, looking at it from technical, cultural, musicological and aesthetic perspectives:
One of the attractions to Commodore's games over those of its competitors was their unique musical aesthetic. With screaming guitar-like square wave solos, full-length songs, attempts to re-create traditional "rock band" line-ups in its use of tone channels, and its increased use of percussion, Commodore music was like rock to Nintendo's heavily looped disco aesthetic.
Martin Galway was the first to use sampled sounds on the C64, in the Arkanoid (Taito, 1987) theme song, as he explains: "I figured out how samples were played by hacking into someone else's code ... It was a drum synthesizer package called Digidrums, ... I couldn't really figure out where they got the sample data, just that they were wiggling the volume register, so I tried to make up my own drum sample sounds in realtime—which is the flatulence stuff that shipped in Arkanoid."
(The hand-coded digi-flatulence technique pioneered by Galway became a standard part of SID composition, to the point where the reFX QuadraSID (a software synthesiser based on the SID chip) has a built-in "Galway Noise" setting, where those with the desire to do so can enter a list of hex values which will be fed into the SID chip's registers in the appropriate fashion. It comes with preset Galway Noise values, which are triggered by MIDI channel 10, though don't sound particularly like a useful drum kit.)
The article goes on to mention that many C64 games used melodies lifted from existing pieces of music, both classical and pop (with scant regard for credit, let alone copyright), the use of looping on various levels, the use of generative music techniques to avoid repetition, the (somewhat limited) influence of the Nintendo game-music aesthetic on C64 game music, and interactive aspects of game music, such as phrases triggered on entering/leaving rooms.
Tetris (Mirrorsoft, 1987), for instance, was very different than the versions released on the NES, showing this very different aesthetic particular to the C64. Not having any selectable music (which was an option on the NES), Wally Beben composed all original music—one very long (about 26 minutes—13Kb) track of many segments. In order to save space (likely), certain micro and mesoloops of the track repeat: for instance the bass/percussion line that begins the song repeats just one bar for about half the track, with different melodies coming over top and being layered with various accompaniments. This accumulative form—the gradual building up of a groove by adding sequential units cumulatively (Spicer, 2004)—was closer to the electronic trance music beginning to emerge in the late 1980s than any game music aesthetic of the time.
This looks pretty cool; the latest thing from the MIT Media Lab, Hyperscore, a new music-composition program which works in an interestingly high-level paradigm. Rather than working with notes or loops, it uses "motives", which can be applied by drawing lines; harmonies can be created by shaping a "harmony line". There is a free version here; it's apparently limited to only 30 to 60 seconds per song, and is promoted as a ringtone creation tool. It's currently Windows-only, though the WIRED article says that Mac and Linux versions are "in the works". (A Mac version I can believe; as far as Linux goes, I'll believe when I see it. Then again, the fact that MIT's $100 laptop for the developing world will run Linux could be reason enough for them to make one.)
My most recent softsynth discovery is QuadraSID; this is a VST/AU softsynth which emulates, as the name suggests, 4 SID chips (and emulates them quite thoroughly, down to letting you choose the chip model and whether you want bugs to be emulated accurately or fixed), along with enhancements such as external envelopes, arpeggios and a mini-sequencer. It comes with a batch of presets designed by Commodore 64 game composer Chris Hülsbeck (perhaps best known for the Giana Sisters score), and now there is an additional sound bank by Rob Hubbard, which is full of fuzzy, warbly SID goodness. Of course, it's not limited to C64 game-music homages; a stack of SIDs can have its uses, from Broadcast-style lo-fi to fat pads.
The company which makes quadraSID also has some other interesting products, such as Slayer2, a guitar synthesiser based on physical modelling, along with amp and pedal models; it sounds almost like the real thing; not quite as authentic as sample-based systems, though a lot more flexible. The fact that it can turn randomly pressing keys into an over-the-top finger-shredding cock-rock guitar solo of the gods is impressive enough in its own right. (If I ever end up revamping a certain track from my last year's NaSoAlMo album, I may have to invest in a copy of this).
There's also this one, which seems to be optimised for goa-trance and euro-cheese, and makes making such music ridiculously easy, as well as this somewhat Casio CZ-101-ish unit.
A streaming radio outfit named Flat Four has a series of 3 programmes about 1980s home computer music. I just listened to the Commodore 64 one, and it's pretty interesting. It has interviews with various game-music composers (including Rob Hubbard and Benn Daglish, who now participates in the chiptune-party scene), fragments of the original music and various reworkings thereof (from club/dance remixes to heavy metal and acappella vocal covers), and some examples of new music made using Commodore 64s.
ReBirth, the 303/808/909 emulator/music production tool/toy of the late 1990s, is now free (as in beer). Propellerheads have put ISO images of it, as well as demo songs and mods (i.e., skin/sample packs), up for downloading. The software itself is unmodified; it apparently doesn't work with OSX, it still checks for the CD every time it starts (a useless exercise in "copy protection" when the CD is a burnable image), and even shows the old EULA which prohibits use on multiple machines (though the web site tells you that the new download license overrides that).
What would be cool would be if Propellerheads released the source code. They wouldn't lose any competitive advantage by doing so, and would stand to gain good will, while hackers with more time on their hands than Propellerheads would be able to update it (from getting it to run on OSX to porting it to new platforms, from Linux to hacked PSPs). And, of course, getting rid of the pointless CD check on startup.
Incidentally, the ISO image for the PC version isn't a pure ISO9660 image but has a large quantity of 0s at the start. If burning it with cdrecord (i.e., under Linux), you will need to first strip the nulls off with something like:
dd if=rebirth_pc_installation.iso of=rebirth.iso bs=4096 skip=75
There have since been more 303 emulators; there's a commercial VST/AU plugin here which is said to be good. And then there's Muon's Tau, a free-as-in-beer 303-esque softsynth. In the open-source world, there is a rather rudimentary open-source attempt at 303 emulation, written by Your Humble Narrator a few years ago, here (it runs on Linux and uses Curses).
(via MusicThing) ¶ 0
This is pretty nifty: an artist has devised a device which fits into a CD jewel case and makes minimalist glitch electronica; the device is meant to fit into the standard album-based music distribution infrastructure, and to be purchased in shops; it will be released by a label named Cantaloupe.
The device looks somewhat minimal, and leaves a fair amount of space in the case; I imagine it could be expanded to less-minimal implementations. I imagine it wouldn't be too hard, in theory, to implement a sample-based music player (of the tracker/chip-tune variety) in that form factor, and provide it with enough algorithmic-composition logic to semi-randomly reconstitute/transpose/harmonise beats, basslines, chords and melodies into something resembling music.
(via bOING bOING) ¶ 0
This looks interesting: BlackDog appears to be a device the size of a USB flash drive containing an entire Linux-based computer. Plug it into a PC's USB port and it appears as a network-connected Debian box, and auto-runs an X server to connect to the machine in question (this is presumably on Windows). It also includes a "biometric reader" to control access to it.
And then there's the Neuronium. An eye-catchingly blue box hand-built by a German vintage synth designer, it looks like some kind of dance-techno sample-synth module or virtual analogue synth, but is basically an analogue neural network for generating vaguely Tangerine Dream-esque electronic burbling noises. If you have €2499 to spare, it could be yours.
A Dutch chip musician has designed a GameBoy-synced tape scratching unit comprised of a Walkman and a box with a bunch of knobs, which plugs into the GameBoy. There are rather impressive sound samples on the site, as well as a link to his page on it, which has pictures but is somewhat harder to read.
Sonic Finger sell some interesting audio plug-ins, including the Dead Quietenator, which provides 56 types of digitally-modelled silence, including previously unattainable vintage sileces, and Virtual Studio Visitor, which, when applied to a track, simulates the effect of a specific visitor watching the performer (presets include "Guy From Label", "Resentful Girlfriend/Wife", as well as generics like "Clown" and "Ninja"):
(via MusicThing) ¶ 1
Bhajis Loops, the whimsical and unbelievably nifty PalmOS-based music/audio software, now has
a posse an online community site, with forums, tutorials (only a few so far) and a user song archive. Also, there are 3 new effects plug-ins to download, including a granular-sounding pitch-shifter, which should be perfect for the drill'n'bass heads in the audience. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Frogworth.) Also, Bhajis Loops 1.6 is coming out soon, and a complete rewrite is on the way.
Also, looking for the interest "bhajis loops" on LiveJournal brings up this journal, which may belong to the author, or someone else who is a French researcher/student interested in Bhajis Loops, all things Indian, DSP algorithms and PalmOS programming (not to mention Stereolab and, umm, Architecture In Helsinki). The journal says some interesting things there, from discussions of audio algorithms to observations on why signal-based classification of music is doomed to failure:
Music similarity is to me a cultural feature. For example, the distinction between two genres can be very artificial, and is sometimes based on features like "the way the singer is dressed" or "the amount of sexual contents in the lyrics". An example I like mentioning is the East-coast and West-coast rap. How a computer could tell the difference ? Covers are another example of cultural music similarities. You can totally change the tempo, instrumentation, even the style of a song. But it will still be similar to the original, and will be recognized as a cover of the original song, not as a cover of the original work. A final example is when an artist is inspired by another. For example, a lot of Stereolab fans are comparing their music to some of Steve Reich works. I agree with that. But without any musical education, nobody could see a similarity between the two.
Fortunately, some smart people have figured out (and proved) that the best features to compute similarity between songs could be found on the internet (and is cultural, indeed). You can obtain precise features to describe a song or an artist by summarizing the words used in amazon reviews, or usenet posts. You can see how similar two songs are by counting their co-occurences in webradio playlists. A Google search will tell you that "Paul Mc Cartney" and "The Beatles" have something in common, because there are approx. 715000 web pages mentioning both names.
Those reading this in Sydney can hear an ambient electronica track put together by Your Humble Narrator whilst commuting on the London Underground, using only a personal organiser*. I am told that The Random Numbers' "Fluffy Space Rocket" will be making its Australian radio debut tonight (Sunday night) on Utility Fog, on FBi (94.5 MHz), sometime between 10pm and 1am.
* actually, a Palm Tungsten running Bhajis Loops.
The Beaterator; an online Flash-based audio sequencer, which comes with loops and sounds from several popular house/trance/breakbeat/electronica artists, or you can upload your own.
The killer application for PalmOS handhelds could well be Bhajis Loops. It's a multi-track sample-based audio sequencer, somewhere between module trackers and Ableton Live, which runs entirely on ARM-based PalmOS handhelds (i.e., Zire and Tungsten units). You get multiple channels of audio, effects plug-ins, filters and envelopes, as well as a library of sounds (including Roland TR-x0x drum samples, SID waveforms, and a General MIDI library that sounds considerably less crap than the Steinberg Universal Sound Module VSTi; not that that's hard to do, mind you, but it does fit in an order of magnitude less space as well). Not only that, but if your handheld has an internal microphone, you can sample sounds around you and incorporate them into your compositions. The fact that you can do this sort of thing on a pocket-sized personal organiser is, in itself, somewhat mind-blowing.
I bought and registered a copy a few weeks ago, and have been spending my commutes working on music. Here is my first attempt at a track made using Bhajis Loops. Most of this track was composed on the Tube, and some of the sounds (including vocal fragments and the snare sound towards the end) were sampled whilst travelling.
Anyway, if you have a recent Palm, check it out. It's well doovy.
A US company is building a Mac Mini-based modular synthesizer. No, not a softsynth with rendered clickable cables; an actual hardware modular synth with real patch leads, which happens to have a Mac Mini and touch-screen monitor embedded in it. It is not clear if they have actually built one of these yet, though I imagine that with something like Max/MSP or SuperCollider, it could be interesting.
The company appears to be a cottage industry run by someone named Cynthia Webster, who designs and builds modular synths for a living. The site also has a list of women in synthesis, which is probably longer than you'd expect it to be:
It seems most of the women in synthesis today are hailing from Europe... Why is that ? What does this say about our society lately? Any theories out there?
The Commodore 64 music software industry is alive and well; at least as much so as the GameBoy and Nintendo Famicom music software industries, anyway. Some intrepid hackers have created new music software for the Commodore 64; Prophet 64 is available in 3 flavours: standard, TB (which behaves like a Roland TB-303, or as much as one as the SID chip will do), and TR (which behaves like a TR-909, only with Rob Hubbard-style drum samples, as heard in much video-game music). Prophet 64 is free software, and will run happily on a 64 emulator, though with a real 64 it can be controlled with game paddles and synced to MIDI devices (with a simple add-on interface). To facilitate getting it onto a 64, it's available as a disk image, or as a WAV file to record to cassette for loading. (via MusicThing)
Nokia have made available VST plugins simulating their mobile phones; the Nokia Audio Suite contains a softsynth which can simulate a number of phone sound chips, and an effect which can simulate the tinny little piezo speakers of those phones. They're ostensibly for ringtone composers, but there's nothing stopping musicians from using them. Unless, of course, the musicians in question don't use Windows.
Last night, I went to Dorkbot). It was a bit of a mixed bag; the presentation on London Free Map (a sort of geospatial Wikipedia, consisting of people with GPS units walking the lengths of streets to build up a GFDL/CC-licensed map of London and break the Ordnance Survey monopoly; connected with OpenStreetMap) was interesting, as were some of the "minidorks", including one by a chap who put a Wacom tablet on a guitar-like mount and used it to make noise with Max/MSP, and one by an American who built a 3D voxel display for Burning Man, using 729 microcontrollers, RGB LEDs and ping-pong balls, and an Ethernet printer server to control them). Others left a bit to be desired; the architecture student who started his with footage of the World Trade Center attack and went on to talk about the acoustics of spaces, sticking microphones into his mouth and filling latex balls with white noise, seemed a bit on the random side, while the presentation about the possibility of a bicycle that folds into an umbrella-sized package had little more than hastily-made Microsoft Paint drawings to it. There was also an intriguing-looking installation on the table, consisting of a brain-shaped set of neon tubes, a red vintage telephone and a Radio Shack speaker box, though the person operating it couldn't make it, and attempts to demonstrate it over the phone proved inconclusive (all it did was flicker, and the mobile phone interference drowned out what the guy at the other end was saying).
SampleSwap is a new(ish) sample-sharing site by San Franciscan electronica d00d Canton Becker. It's the latest incarnation of his Ontology site, only rather than using a proprietary, Mac-only file-transfer system, everything's web based. Users can upload samples and unfinished songs, download others' contributions, and talk on the phpBB-based message boards. The categories under which the samples appear are interesting as well; for example, under "vocals and spoken word", you have entire subgenres like "male rastafarian", "robotic", "evangelists and preaching", and "female dirty german words" (and who doesn't need some of those for at least one musical project?).
Since Apple released Garageband, amateur musicians of various levels of talent have been taking to it like the proverbial waterfowl to its element. Whether this is a good or bad thing, though, depends on whom you ask:
"The amount of creative energy that GarageBand is creating is staggering," said musician and producer Chris Bell. "Apple has created a monster.... As a pro musician/producer, I love this app. It puts the fun back into creating. I'm amazed."
"GarageBand is snoozeware for the iPod generation who think that music comes in a small white-and-chrome can and only need be served lukewarm for public consumption,"
Meanwhile, sites like MacJams and iCompositions, allowing Garageband users to share their masterpieces with each other and/or the general public, have been popping up, whilst others give away free loops in exchange for marketing info.
I think it's, for the most part, a good thing, like any creativity explosion (think the zine explosion that followed the availability of cheap photocopying, for example). True, most Garageband output will be derivative, uninspiring or simply crap (much as, say, most MP3.com tracks were), but there will be inspired works coming out of it. And for every piece of above-average pop/dance/booty-bass to emerge from the Garageband explosion, there'll probably be one piece of irredemably weird outsider art, or something that takes the pre-packaged cliché elements of popular genres and repurposes them in unusual ways.
Apple release Garageband, a cheap, beginner-oriented music/audio sequencer, to become part of its iLife package. The page is somewhat light on specs, though if it uses AudioUnits for effects and instruments (as opposed to some locked-in proprietary format designed t subtract value), it may be usable as an OSX substitute for Cubase VST (which is mostly a platform for plugging softsynths into); it'd certainly be an order of magnitude or two cheaper than Cubase SX.
The NYTimes has a piece on Vocaloid, the new singing voice-synthesis program that could automate the last part of music performance still done by humans. Vocaloid is interesting because voices are stored as interchangeable "fonts" of vast numbers of samples and articulation data. The first fonts coming out (from British samplemongers Zero-G) are a pair of soul-singer voices, Leon and Lola:
In the case of Leon and Lola, session singers were hired to record what Mr. Stratton calls "generic soul-singing voices." The decision to start with soul was purely a marketing calculation: Mr. Stratton figured that the most common use of Vocaloid, at least in its early stages, would be to serve as background singers. With a soulful sound, the company could target a commercial market that ranges from Justin Timberlake to Jay-Z.
(Bugger soul singers, I say, just give me Liz Fraser. Or Ian Curtis. A generic French-accented female voice could also be useful for all the post-Stereolab acts.)
The process, of course, could be exploited for mischief, as described below. Though doing so would require a vast amount of raw data, work and expertise to prepare the voice font, something beyond the reach of casual pranksters.
What's to stop dilettantes from creating their own fonts? Could it be long before falsified but entirely convincing clips of Britney Spears begging for Justin's forgiveness circulate on the Web to say nothing of George Bush conspiring with Tony Blair about weapons of mass destruction?
The major market will be celebrity voices, undoubtedly priced beyond the reach of mere mortals, and giving Fortune 500 corporations that touch of class that comes with having Frank Sinatra sing the company song:
Licensing Elvis for Vocaloid would be a different matter, though, says Gary Hovey, vice-president of entertainment for Elvis Presley Enterprises. "If someone came to us and said, `We want Elvis to sing this new song,' we'd have a lot to contemplate," he said. "We tried to retain the integrity of his original song with the remixes. Now you're talking about a whole new vocal performance of a song he never sang or knew? How do we know he'd want to sing it?" "Believe me, that would go all the way to Lisa," he added, referring to Elvis's daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, who owns Elvis's estate.
Once a full palette of vocal fonts is available (or once Yamaha allows users to create their own), the possibilities become mind-boggling: a chorus of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra; Marilyn Manson singing show tunes and Barbra Streisand covering Iron Maiden. And how long before a band takes the stage with no human at the mike, but boasting an amazing voice, regardless?
The article then points out that, with this in place, the entire process of song production could be automated. Lyrics could be pieced together from a database of stock phrases or using a narrative engine (though, then again, given how songs can succeed without the lyrics making sense (look at any 90s Eurodance hit), that may not be necessary); instruments can be synthesised (this includes guitars; I have in my collection a program named Virtual Guitarist which does just that, passably if inflexibly in places, though certainly well enough for pop songs), and the mixing can be automated. Finally, the hit quality of the finished product can be mathematically assessed using the Hit Song Science algorithm, and a genetic algorithm used to evolve the catchiest song. All stages of the process (from instrumentation/lyrical content to final scoring) could be tweaked using market research ("Electroclash is out, booty bass is coming back ironically, chip tunes are the dog's bollocks, and 90s grunge retro is due any day now"). And then we may all end up living in a Greg Egan story.
Yamaha have developed a program for synthesizing sung vocals. Named Vocaloid, the program uses libraries of vocal fragments and articulation algorithms to synthesise realistic singing. It currently comes with a "Soul Vocalist" data set, for all your throaty dance vocal needs. Windows-only, I'm afraid, and no word of VST compatibility; there's a screenshot here. (via Found)
VST instrument plugins of the day: Hammer, a physically modelled chromatic percussion (i.e., xylophones, vibes, &c.), synth, and Flute, a plugin based on a physical model of a flute.
It's good to see some physical modelling softsynths emerge, rather than the usual (and relatively boring) idealised analogue synths and sample players.
Update: I've compiled vstserver and the k_vst~ Pd object and (after some hacking) have managed to get VST plugins working under Linux. Things are still a bit flaky (for some reason, vstserver refuses to recognise plugins anywhere but the current directory it's run from), but I've now got the familiar mda Combo plugin crunching up an Amen Brother break, all in a Pd patch under Linux. Life is good.
I'm not making this up: Some Dutch students have written a VST plug-in which synthesizes Tibetan throat singing. I'm not making this up. Named Delay Lama, it uses formant synthesis, is MIDI controllable (with the pitchbender controlling vowel sound) and sounds uncannily lifelike. And if that wasn't enough, it draws an animated Tibetan monk, lip-synched with the audio, in the GUI. Best of all, Delay Lama is free (though donations to a Tibetan charity are encouraged).
Big Tick Audio have some pretty doovy-looking VST instruments, including a funky-sounding (and free) Clavinet emulator and the pretty impressive-sounding Angelina, a "formant synthesizer" which makes vocal-sounding pad sounds. Unfortunately, there's no Mac version of the latter yet.
"Girl" is a very odd name for an audio synthesis program, but the description sounds pretty doovy. Basically it's a modular sample-based synthesizer/mixer of sorts, which can apparently work standalone or as a VST plug-in, and can be controlled in realtime using the keyboard or 2D 'plane controllers'; which brings to mind all sorts of glitchy loop-based laptop mayhem. The demo MP3s on the site also sound quite promising, in a What Is Music? sort of way. Though whether it's worth the A$200 or so it'd cost to register it remains to be determined.
High-tech musical toys from the MIT Media Lab allow children to compose music without learning musical theory. The Toy Symphony site is here. How long, I wonder, until a future generation of ravers/indie kids pick up on these and start using them on records?
The latest issue of Computer Music magazine comes with a VST drum-sampler plug-in (SR-202, by the Muon people). Unfortunately, the Mac version of this plug-in can crash the entire machine, which renders it rather useless. Hopefully they'll fix this in a future issue (as it looks like quite a doovy plug-in; potentially better than LM-4).
(Yes, MacOS's nonexistent memory protection is to blame; I'll be glad when they start making native audio software for MacOS X, and compiling VST plug-ins for said platform too. Mind you, I'll also need a new Mac then, as my beige toaster doesn't want to boot MacOS X (probably because of the CPU upgrade).)
In other plug-in news, Roland have a VST version of their Sound Canvas module out; I'm thinking of spending the A$135 (with 3RRR subscriber discount) and buying it (I do have an ancient SC-55 module, but this is internal and VST-based, and thus more convenient; and you never know when you'll need some GM sounds).
I must say I'm very impressed with Maxim's J10 VST soft synth. It's one of the more capable free synth plug-ins I've seen, on a par with real synths. I'll probably be using it in places I'd otherwise record an external synth.
Another possibly useful piece of software: JSynthLib, a GPLed synth patch librarian written in Java; believed to run under Windows, MacOS and Linux. It has support for a number of synths, though the Roland JP-8000 isn't one of them (yet). It also has an interesting-looking "cross-breeding" function.
Cesare Ferrari has a new shareware VST FM synth plug-in, FMHeaven, which can import DX7 patches. (No idea how much it sounds like a real DX7.)
More VST instruments you can shake a stick at. Though their images and some of their links seem to be broken.
Interesting software: Some hackers at the Queensland University of Technology have created jMusic, an open-source Java class library for music composition. Judging by the documentation, it looks very interesting if one is into algorithmic composition (though part of me wishes it was written in Python instead). The online documentation, including tutorials in various techniques, is in itself worth checking out.
Cubase geek stuff: There is now a Mellotron plug-in for VST. The demo sounds pretty doovy, though the fact that it takes up "hundreds of megabytes" is a bit daunting. Time to get a new disk for my Mac, I think...
VST plug-in update: I've just played around with Ces's synth plug-ins, and they're great. Well, the ones that work (which would be the analogue synth, the wavetable synth and the first drawbar organ). The wavetable synth makes some interesting sounds, the analogue is top-notch, and the drawbar organ sounds pretty useful too. (The analogue drum synth didn't seem to want to play anything other than the kick drum when I tried it though.) Anyway, nice one, mate! I'll be buying some registered versions in the near future. (Though I still reckon they should do something about the names...)
Speaking of VST plug-ins, this site seems to have a number of VST soft synth plug-ins of various sorts (standard analogue, drawbar organ, wavetable). Looks interesting, though one can't help but think that the names leave a bit to be desired...
Interesting VST plug-in of the day: VSamp, a virtual sampler for VST 2.0. May be useful for using all those vintage synth separates off Future Music cover CDs...
Free VST toy of the day: VB-1, a virtual bass guitar simulator, using physical modelling techniques, and capable of sounding like a bass guitar, a clavinet, a DX-7 and a bunch of other things.
I just found a page with a lot of LM-4 drum kits for the downloading. (The main page didn't show up well on my browser; maybe that has something to do with it being "Internet Explorer 4 only".)
I've been playing with a demo version of Pluggo, an amazingly doovy collection of audio effects plug-ins for Cubase VST, and getting some interesting sounds out of it. I'll probably end up buying it sometime soon, especially since it's only US$74 (though that's about twice that number in Australian play money).