Pop goes the laptop

Rupert Goodwins: Computers and music have always been close companions, but with technology like Vocaloid the digital takeover seems near completion
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Is music the food of love? The inarticulate speech of the heart? The wine that fills the cup of silence? Nah. The truth is best expressed in Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy Jr's famous line: The best things in life are free, but you can keep 'em for the birds and the bees -- I want money.

There is nothing us humans hold dear that can't or won't be commercially exploited. Forget homo sapiens, we're homo pecuniarius. (If that's too miserable to believe, the counterpart is that there's nothing so sordid and money-grubbing that it can't be ripped out of the claws of the bankers and made beautiful by a bit of artistic genius.)

You may have already suspected this: the media tends to be full of the moneyed misbehaviours of the musical elite rather than much about the music itself. As for the antics of the record industry, no more need be said. But two recent technological developments lead me to suspect that love of moolah may finally lead to a fitting reward for false idolatry -- a wholesale clearing out of the Augean stables by a public finally tired of aural manipulation.

Yamaha's first on the block. This company doesn't make many contributions to musical history, but they more than make up for that by their significance -- and their ambiguous results. Even if you don't know much about audio technology you'll have heard FM synthesis, an American invention that was scorned in its place of birth. Yamaha took it up and produced, inter alia, the OPL chip family and the DX-7. The OPL chip plays the MIDI music on those Web pages you shouldn't be looking at, while the DX-7 is a full-blown synthesiser that practically defined the clean, shiny synthetic pop music of the 1980s. Not content with these contributions to world happiness, the company has just announced Vocaloid.

Vocaloid takes the last musical instrument to escape the computer's ravening maw -- the human voice -- and stuffs it in with the rest of the analogue menagerie behind the bars of the digital zoo. Let me quote: it "allows song writers to generate authentic-sounding singing on their PCs by simply inputting the words and notes of their compositions... the software synthesizes the sound from vocal libraries of recordings of actual singers, retaining the vocal qualities of the original singing voices to reproduce real-sounding vocals". And, worst of all: "The software also features simple commands enabling users to add expressive effects." Can you imagine what this is going to sound like? At least it'll be the end of boy bands: who needs to pay the drug bills of five surly adolescents when you can program your laptop to make the noises instead.

And just to make sure the last ounce of human expressiveness and creativity is expunged from the equation, here's HSS from Polyphonic HMI in Spain. HSS stands for Hit Song Science, and its an artificial intelligence application for writing pop songs. Polyphonic HMI (that stands for Human Media Interface, apparently) has analysed quarter of a million CDs for underlying mathematical patterns of melody, beat, harmony, pitch, octave, fullness of sound, brilliance and chord progression. It then takes an unreleased song and does the same, deciding how well it'll fit into "the current hit universe": in other words, whether the great record-buying public will clutch it to their bosoms -- or wallets.

But someone's got to write the song first, right? Wrong. Fans of the massively enbrained Brian Eno will know of his intermittent fondness for generative music, most notably that of a company called Sseyo. This is computer-generated sound that takes some basic rules and applies them pseudo-randomly to create a unique track. Like much computer art, it's intriguing at first but rapidly palls: the computer doesn't know what's in music that humans like. Nobody does. But Polyphonic HMI has a database of millions of songs to work with: you can take a piece of generative music and evolve it towards niceness by putting it through a neural network weighed according to HSS. It'll take a while, but that's OK. We're not short of processor speed these days. Then just throw any old lyric over the top -- plenty of poetry-writing computers these days -- and get Vocaloid to sing it. Voila: hit single, no human input.

It'll be dreadful, and in that is our salvation. For you and I know about "the current hit universe" just as well as HSS: it is now and has always been tasteless candyfloss. Forget about golden ages of pop music. Go back and look up the Top 40 for any week in the past 40 years, and it'll be at least 80 percent crud. And that's what the machinery will home in on and create: as Randy Newman said: "That's a hell of an ambition, to be mellow. It's like wanting to be senile."

Then a miracle will happen. The road to riches by being bland will be gone, and all the bright young airheads can get on with being soap stars. True creativity will be the only way to make a splash on the scene, and freed from the perverted commercial imperatives of lowest common denominator pap-pop the true musicians can get on with enriching all our lives. And if that seems a crazily optimistic view of the future, it's because the alternative is having my ears put out with red-hot knitting needles. Play on.

To find out more about the computers and hardware that these chips are being used in, see ZDNet UK's Hardware News Section.

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