Tag Archives: music

The future of music creation

When I was a student, I saw people around me that could play musical instruments and since I couldn’t, I felt a bit inadequate, so I went out and bought a £13 guitar and taught myself to play. Later, I bought a keyboard and learned to play that too. I’ve never been much good at either, and can’t read music, but  if I know a tune, I can usually play it by ear and sometimes I compose, though I never record any of my compositions. Music is highly rewarding, whether listening or creating. I play well enough for my enjoyment and there are plenty of others who can play far better to entertain audiences.

Like almost everyone, most of the music I listen to is created by others and today, you can access music by a wide range of means. It does seem to me though that the music industry is stuck in the 20th century. Even concerts seem primitive compared to what is possible. So have streaming and download services. For some reason, new technology seems mostly to have escaped its attention, apart from a few geeks. There are a few innovative musicians and bands out there but they represent a tiny fraction of the music industry. Mainstream music is decades out of date.

Starting with the instruments themselves, even electronic instruments produce sound that appears to come from a single location. An electronic violin or guitar is just an electronic version of a violin or guitar, the sound all appears to come from a single point all the way through. It doesn’t  throw sound all over the place or use a wide range of dynamic effects to embrace the audience in surround sound effects. Why not? Why can’t a musician or a technician make the music meander around the listener, creating additional emotional content by getting up close, whispering right into an ear, like a violinist picking out an individual woman in a bar and serenading her? High quality surround sound systems have been in home cinemas for yonks. They are certainly easy to arrange in a high budget concert. Audio shouldn’t stop with stereo. It is surprising just how little use current music makes of existing surround sound capability. It is as if they think everyone only ever listens on headphones.

Of course, there is no rule that electronic instruments have to be just electronic derivatives of traditional ones, and to be fair, many sounds and effects on keyboards and electric guitars do go a lot further than just emulating traditional variants. But there still seems to be very little innovation in new kinds of instrument to explore dynamic audio effects, especially any that make full use of the space around the musician and audience. With the gesture recognition already available even on an Xbox or PS3, surely we should have a much more imaginative range of potential instruments, where you can make precise gestures, wave or throw your arms, squeeze your hands, make an emotional facial expression or delicately pinch, bend or slide fingers to create effects. Even multi-touch on phones or pads should have made a far bigger impact by now.

(As an aside, ever since I was a child, I have thought that there must be a visual equivalent to music. I don’t know what it is, and probably never will, but surely, there must be visual patterns or effects that can generate an equivalent emotional response to music. I feel sure that one day someone will discover how to generate them and the field will develop.)

The human body is a good instrument itself. Most people can sing to a point or at least hum or whistle a tune even if they can’t play an instrument. A musical instrument is really just an unnecessary interface between your brain, which knows what sound you want to make, and an audio production mechanism. Up until the late 20th century, the instrument made the sound, today, outside of a live concert at least,  it is very usually a computer with a digital to analog converter and a speaker attached. Links between computers and people are far better now though, so we can bypass the hard-to-learn instrument bit. With thought recognition, nerve monitoring, humming, whistling, gesture and expression recognition and so on, there is a very rich output from the body that can potentially be used far more intuitively and directly to generate the sound. You shouldn’t have to learn how to play an instrument in the 21st century. The sound creation process should interface almost directly to your brain as intuitively as your body does. If you can hum it, you can play it. Or should be able to, if the industry was keeping up.

Going a bit further, most of us have some idea what sort of music or effect we want to create, but don’t know quite enough about music to have the experience or skill to know quite what. A skilled composer may be able to write something down right away to achieve a musical effect that the rest of us would struggle to imagine. So, add some AI. Most music is based on fairly straightforward mathematical principles, even symphonies are mostly combinations of effects and sequences that fit well within AI-friendly guidelines. We use calculators to do calculations, so use AI to help compose music. Any of us should be able to compose great music with tools we should be able to build now. It shouldn’t be the future, it should be the present.

Let’s look at music distribution. When we buy a music track or stream it, why do we still only get the audio? Why isn’t the music video included by default? Sure, you can watch on YouTube but then you generally get low quality audio and video. Why isn’t purchased music delivered at the highest quality with full HD 3D video included, or videos if the band has made a few, with all the latest ones included as they emerge? If a video is available for music video channels, it surely should be available to those who have bought the music. That it isn’t reflects the contempt that the music industry generally shows to its customers. It treats us as a bunch of thieves who must only ever be given the least possible access for the greatest possible outlay, to make up for all the times we must of course be stealing off them. That attitude has to change if the industry is to achieve its potential. 

Augmented reality is emerging now. It already offers some potential to add overlays at concerts but in a few years, when video visors are commonplace, we should expect to see band members playing up in the air, flying around the audience, virtual band members, cartoon and fantasy creations all over the place doping all sorts of things, visual special effects overlaying the sound effects. Concerts will be a spectacular opportunity to blend the best of visual, audio, dance, storytelling, games and musical arts together. Concerts could be much more exciting, if they use the technology potential. Will they? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Much of this could be done already, but only a little is.

Now lets consider the emotional connection between a musician and the listener. We are all very aware of the intense (though unilateral) relationship teens can often build with their pop idols. They may follow them on Twitter and other social nets as well as listening to their music and buying their posters. Augmented reality will let them go much further still. They could have their idol with them pretty much all the time, virtually present in their field of view, maybe even walking hand in hand, maybe even kissing them. The potential spectrum extends from distant listening to intimate cuddles. Bearing in mind especially the ages of many fans, how far should we allow this to go and how could it be policed?

Clothing adds potential to the emotional content during listening too. Headphones are fine for the information part of audio, but the lack of stomach-throbbing sound limits the depth of the experience. Music is more than information. Some music is only half there if it isn’t at the right volume. I know from personal experience that not everyone seems to understand this, but turning the volume down (or indeed up) sometimes destroys the emotional content. Sometimes you have to feel the music, sometimes let it fully conquer your senses. Already, people are experimenting with clothes that can house electronics, some that flash on and off in synch with the music, and some that will be able to contract and expand their fibres under electronic control. You will be able to buy clothes that give you the same vibration you would otherwise get from the sub-woofer or the rock concert.

Further down the line, we will be able to connect IT directly into the nervous system. Active skin is not far away. Inducing voltages and current in nerves via tiny implants or onplants on patches of skin will allow computers to generate sensations directly.

This augmented reality and a link to the nervous system gives another whole dimension to telepresence. Band members at a concert will be able to play right in front of audience members, shake them, cuddle them. The emotional connection could be a lot better.

Picking up electrical clues from the skin allows automated music selection according to the wearers emotional state. Even properties like skin conductivity can give clues about emotional state. Depending on your stress level for example, music could be played that soothes you, or if you feel calm, maybe more stimulating tracks could be played. Playlists would thus adapt to how you feel.

Finally, music is a social thing too. It brings people together in shared experiences. This is especially true for the musicians, but audience members often feel some shared experience too. Atmosphere. Social networking already sees some people sharing what music they are listening too (I don’t want to share my tastes but I recognise that some people do, and that’s fine). Where shared musical taste is important to a social group, it could be enhanced by providing tools to enable shared composition. AI can already write music in particular styles – you can feed Mozart of Beethoven into some music generators and they will produce music that sounds like it had been composed by that person, they can compose that as fast as it comes out of the speakers. It could take style preferences from a small group of people and produce music that fits across those styles. The result is a sort of tribal music, representative of the tribe that generated it. In this way, music could become even more of a social tool in the future than it already is.

The future of music and video media

With the death of HMV and Blockbuster this week, I’ve done some radio interviews on the future of the high street and one on the future of media. I wrote about retailing yesterday so today I’ll pick up on media. I wrote a while back that Spotify isn’t the future of music, not in its current form anyway, though I will admit that streaming is part of the future. Spotify will probably up its game and survive. If it doesn’t, it won’t. (I didn’t properly answer the question then of what the future would actually be. I will now.)

CDs aren’t the future of music either. DVDs or Blu-rays aren’t the future of video. Think about it. If you were starting from scratch today, would you base media distribution on plastic discs that have to be spun quickly in a mechanical device, and need to be read by lasers, are easily damaged, and take up lots of storage space? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d almost certainly go for either solid state or web storage. I’d go for solid state. Here’s why.

Web storage is fine as long as you have a good connection all the time and don’t have to pay for data downloads. I think we will still have streaming services in the far future and they might even remain a large market, but streaming isn’t a perfect solution. Transmitting data requires energy, and transmitting lots of data streams to lots of customers requires big server farms. It also clogs up bandwidth and that is limited too.

Downloading to local storage is also fine to a point. It is a large market now, and will remain so for some time. But there are also big problems with it. Licenses are not the same for downloaded music. You have a much more restricted ownership of music you buy online. The companies’ desire to protect their revenue is a higher priority for them that giving their customers full rights, just as it is with streaming (another reason streaming is not what it could be). With physical media, even though you may have ripped (and hence stolen) the content of the disc before you transferred it, the disc itself stops being yours if you pass it on to someone else. The concept of ownership and theft is very clear with physical media. With an MP3, less so. It is clear that the extra actual cost to the music provider is zero if you give a copy of an MP3 away, and you won’t buy a replacement anyway, and they probably wouldn’t either, so there is no clear revenue loss, so you can easily reason away any guilt in keeping a copy. So the music companies put in stuff like copy protection and non-transferable licenses that make it harder to keep your music organised, use it on multiple devices, recover it after disk crashes or sell it on when you’re bored with it. And with an MP3, you don’t have a nice box to look at and know that you own it. The music companies are more conspicuously stingy with MP3s too. If you are downloading the music, why don’t you get the music videos thrown in too? It’s obvious with the CD, there isn’t space on the disc, so you don’t mind, and the tradition has never been there anyway. A DVD could contain the video, but would cost more. With online music, you can usually watch it on YouTube so why don’t you get a proper decent resolution copy when you actually pay for it?

Anyway, solid state storage. I don’t want to be stuck with CDs or DVDs, and would much prefer to get a USB memory stick with the media on. I could plug it straight into my home cinema systems and watch a full Dolby Digital 7.1 Hi-def music video, preferably in 3D. I could easily play or transfer the files to any device I want. But that’s just today. Already, flexible displays and flexible batteries are appearing in electronics shows. It won’t be long at all before they are extremely common.

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This is a demo flexible battery/display from Samsung. This is far more suited to carrying around and everyday abuse than glass. This could be a general purpose display but is also perfectly suited to be an all-round CD/DVD replacement, eventually. It will cost too much initially to directly replace CDs or DVDs or downloads, but the price of such devices is governed by Moore’s Law and will tumble. It could show you the music video or movie, it could hold the music or video, it could communicate with any of your display and audio devices as well as being one itself. It is collectable, and could hold a permanent album cover image or slideshow of video clips or stills. It could be of any shape and size and still do the job. It ticks all the boxes for ownership, portability, robustness, media future-proofing. The battery could be built in or it could be powered inductively, or using solar.

It could support a range of business models too. You could buy albums, one per device, just like CDs, proudly keeping them on a nice rack or display shelf. Resell them at car boot sales or give them to friends. Or you could subscribe to a band or a music producer, and it could hold all of their stuff, and be immediately updated with any of their new releases. It could be locked to just their stuff and just you if that’s what you bought.  The device could support lots of different kinds of license. Or you could buy stuff online and it would download to one you have as a replacement for today’s MP3 player. So it could hold one track, an album, a group, an entire collection, or be the front end device of a streaming service. Devices like this could support many business models. It meets the requirements of the music industry and the customer, doesn’t need lots of energy for cloud based storage, improves the potential quality of offering for everyone. This is the future of music media and probably video.

Of course you can do some of this with an app on a pad too. But having a dedicated device solves a lot of the problems we are used to that are associated with doing that.

Spotify definitely isn’t the future for music. So what is?

Rant ahead, move along if you aren’t interested.

My final update on Spotify. I gave up. I cancelled and there will be no more chances now. They have lost me permanently. Content-wise, it was far better, with a lot of stuff I wanted now available, albeit they have the same probs scanning in albums as me, with some tracks mixed up. I don’t mind paying £5 per month to ditch the ads and stream, which is what I thought I’d bought. It implied very strongly when I subscribed that I could stream it, but it turned out that wasn’t true. My squeezebox insisted I couldn’t use it because I need a premium subscription. Apparently the £5 per month one isn’t sufficient. I wasted a little cash but I will survive. I played 10 songs during the trial period, and had it 3  months, and that is the same price as buying them, which is easier to do and I can play them anywhere. If I can’t play stuff via my squeezebox, I don’t want it.

There is one other fault that is worthy of mention. When I wanted to cancel, I couldn’t find Spotify on my PC any more. It had totally vanished. That has happened a few times before. I didn’t remove it, it just left. Why they should remove an application I am actively paying for is totally beyond me. That really is the final straw. I’m done with them. I recommend you find an alternative if you’re shopping around too.

I know many of you have a good experience with it. I didn’t, and I’ve now given them several chances. It isn’t user error. I’m not thick. Spotify works for some people on some devices. It doesn’t work for me on mine. Bye bye Spotify. I’ll try an alternative.

The following is my original piece, what I wrote above is just an  update. Just bear in mind that some is now out of date.

 

Old blog follows:

So, I just cancelled my Spotify premium account. I gave it a good try – just over a year, so that’s over a hundred quid, and I reckon because of the problems using it I have listened to about 100 tracks over that time. Pretty poor value for me. It can be used, but is so difficult to use with my setup, I hardly ever did. And when I tried, usually the licenses had expired so it would spend ages downloading them again before it would let letting me listen. And usually several of the tracks on each playlist were no longer available. And worse still, on three occasions over that time, the whole application has gone missing off my PC spontaneously and I have had to download it afresh.

When I just want to listen to a music track, I don’t want to have to find the Spotify page, download the app again, wait ages while it installs, resyncs a few hundred tracks across all my playlists, clogging up my internet access for ages, log in again, figure out why it won’t talk my Squeezebox any more, fix the complaints by the software that my Squeezebox is logged in so I cant log in via my PC, put up with the inexplicably bad interface to the Squeezebox, wondering why the hell I can’t just use my PC version and then click a button to stream it, then take a trip to the lounge to change channel on my media system, then come back, switch off the one on playing on my PC speakers at the same time, and then figure out which of the two playlists I now have up is the right one, and then work out that the reason it isn’t playing the one I want to listen to is no longer available from Spotify, then figure out how to go back to the Squeezebox interface and find it on my hard drive from my CD collection, then play that, then wonder how I get back onto Spotify without losing the track playing, then try to find which playlist I had going…. etc etc.

Spotify does not work for me. It is better than Napster, but only on a 3/10 score is better than a 1/10 score basis. Both are total rubbish when used with a Squeezebox in another room. Part of that is the Squeezebox’s (Logitech’s) fault, part Spotify’s but if they have an agreement to work together, and claim to do so in their sales pitches, then it is both their faults. My Squeezebox is wonderful when it works. When!

So that’s why I cancelled. I clicked the ‘don’t use enough’ button on their form, but couldn’t click all the others that applied because they only permit one option. I didn’t use it enough because it is total crap. The only reason I didn’t cancel earlier is because I kept forgetting to.

Spotify is fine on just my PC, but then I don’t need the streaming, so the free one is fine, I just turn down my speakers when the adds come on.

OK, let’s move on from Spotify and my darned Squeezebox. I like listening to music, when it’s easy. When I used CDs I listened frequently. Then I got my first MP3 player, and much later various iphones. I have never used any of them more than a few minutes at a time. Having all your music on an easy button click means that with my hamster-like attention span, I hit a new track every few seconds and my enthusiasm quickly burns out. A kid in a sweet shop soon gets sick. And anyway, my iPhone battery seems to be empty every time I pick it up. Another piece of crap but that’s Apple for you.

I use my PC to store all my CD music, and rarely use them now. One problem I have and I am sure must share with others is that on iTunes some tracks get misnamed or worse still, just come over as unknown. I made the huge mistake once of letting iTunes reorganise my library and everything got so screwed up I had to scan in all my CDs again. I own about 20 tracks I bought from Amazon or Napster. They are on my PC, but are always hard to find when I use the media server or Squeezebox because the interfaces are bad. So even there, with music I own, on my own PC, listening is OK to a point, but still has loads of problems. I am listening to a playlist right now and picked ‘play all’, but I still have to go into the Logitech screen every track to make it play the next one instead of  letting it repeat the same track endlessly. It doesn’t work! It isn’t my fault. I am reasonably smart and have 30 years IT experience. If I can’t use it, it is designed badly. Simple as that.

I have a new Freesat system with a hard drive, and am told I can use that to store and play my music. I’ll reserve judgement on that till I try it. I haven’t plugged it in yet.

The future

So how do I get music? I don’t want to use a personal MP3 player all the time. What I really want is to be able to just see a big swathe of album covers, preferably virtual ones hanging in space in front of me, and touch one, then pick the track, or do all that with a playlist. Or speak a voice command, or use a simple search tool by .

When I play it, I want to watch the music video, and I want music made for full 7.1 surround, not bloody stereo. I want to feel I am there in the studio or concert. I want full sensory, full immersion music, with every sense stimulated in synch.

I don’t mind paying. I have never listened to a track I don’t have the legal right to listen to. That never has been an issue. I have bought a lot of what turned out to be rubbish and I’d like a refund please. Same with all the many dupes I own. Can I sell them please? Also, can I give in all my vinyl LPs and get lifetime licenses to digital version please? But I won’t hold my breath on that.

I want to pay a subscription to something a bit like Spotify, but a more professional one that sort of works. I want access to all the other music. And when I spend time making  a playlist, I don’t want to find 20% of the tracks won’t play next time I access it. I want it to integrate seamlessly with my owned tracks, in the correct sense of the word, not exaggerated sales hype. And I want to be able to point at any set of speakers in my house, or anywhere else for that matter and stream it from there, now. I don’t want to fight battles with software or have to log in to anything, or to update software, or re-establish internet connections, or be told I cant use it in the lounge because I am logged on in the office.

The music industry insists on being paid. But by doing so in such clumsy and badly implemented ways, they have destroyed any pleasure from listening to music and alienated countless customers. I tried to buy CDs, but Apple can’t copy them properly onto my PC. My PC can’t stream them reliably through my Squeezebox because of Microsoft and Logitech. No music subscription service I can access on the Squeezebox is any good at all. So I’ll keep the money in my bank account. I listen to music so much less now because it’s such a pain, so the novelty doesn’t wear off any more, so I have enough. A small loss to the global music industry perhaps, but many others aren’t willing to pay at all so I am part of the group they needed to keep on board. For 20 years they have been trying to get a working business model. This isn’t it.

Spotify aimed at the future, and missed.