Will All Musicians Become Robots?

Roland Trimmel
Oct 7, 2014 · 6 min read

Embracing the tech and staying human: 5 things we learned working on intelligent algorithms

Finally we see the rise of the machines, and with it develops a certain fear that artificial intelligence (AI) will render humans useless.

This question was posed at Boston’s A3E Conference last month by a team member at Landr. Their company had received death threats from people in the mastering industry after having released a DIY drag-and-drop instant online mastering service powered by AI algorithms.

It illustrates the resistance that the world of AI has incited amongst us. Some fear that robots will take over à la Terminator 2. Some fear that the virtual and artificial will replace the visceral. Some cite religious views, and others? Frankly, others just seem ignorant.

That sets the tone for our own journey into artificial intelligence, and the lessons we have learned from it.

Fast rewind to late 2011 when we launched our first product, Liquid Notes, a songwriting assistant driven by intelligent music algorithms.

We had spent more than three years developing algorithms to enable software to read and interpret a composition (song) like an expert does. Coming from a music and technology background, our team was hugely excited having accomplished this.

Make no mistake, it’s really difficult to make a computer understand music — for us, this was an important first step towards a new generation of intelligent music instruments that assist the user in the songwriting process for faster completion of complex tasks resulting in no interruption of the creative flow and more creative output.

When you spend so many years working on a technology/product, you run the risk of losing sight of the market. And this being our first product, we had absolutely no idea what to expect.

To find out, we had to bring the product to the attention of the target group and eagerly awaited their reaction:

That meant a lot of leg work for us in starting discussions on multiple forums, and collecting users’ feedback. It takes time to cut through the noise, but creates some great threads.

What was interesting for us to monitor is how the discussions about our product unfolded on those forums and how opinions were split between two camps: one that embraced what we do, and the other that was characterized by anger, fear, or a complete misunderstanding of what our software does.

At times we felt like being in the middle of the fight between machines and humans. We hadn't expected this, our aim was to make a cool product that shows what the technology is capable of doing.

Eventually, we spent lots of time clearing misunderstandings, explaining our product better, etc. to win over those forum members’ hearts for what we do. And, occasionally we also had to calm down a heated discussion between members insulting each other caused by a fear that our product eliminates the craft in music composition.


Enter a different reality: We have made a lot of progress with our software, much of it is down to communicating openly with our community to address any questions they may have early, and involve them deeply in product development.

Has the tone in discussions about our technology changed? Yes, certainly it has. But please don’t think it’s an easy journey. It’s still hard to convince music producers to rely on the help of a piece of software that, in some regard, replicates processes of the human brain.

The efforts that go into being a pioneer and driving this perceptional battle are driving one close to insanity. It’s an endless stream of work. And it requires endurance like during marathons or triathlons. Here are five things that we learned from our journey that we’d like to share with you so you can judge better before dismissing AI in music.

Let me start with a quick discussion of the first and second digital wave in music:

Understanding the perceptional battle in music

The first digital wave brought about digital music technology like synths and DAW’s. And with that, everything changed. Sound synthesis and sampling made entirely new forms of expressiveness possible. Sequencers in combination with large databases of looping clips laid the foundation for electronic dance music which led to a multifaceted artistic and cultural revolution.

The second digital wave has been rolling along for a few years now, and it is washing up intelligent algorithms for processing audio and MIDI. As an example, AI’s can already help control the finishing mastering process of music tracks, as assistant tools, or even fully automated. In the not too distant future—and we’re talking only years from now—we will be used to incredible music making automatons controlling most complex harmonic figures, flawlessly imitating the greatest artists.

The output quality by such algorithms is unbelievable. Computer intelligence can aimlessly merge styles of various artists and apply them to yet another piece, all that without breaking a sweat.

We regard the main application of AI’s for music composition and production as helper tools, not artists in their own regard. And this is not cheating. We have been utilizing digital production tools for decades. It was just a matter of time for more complicated and intelligent code to emerge.

But rest assured, computers will rather not generate music all by themselves. The art and craft of composing will prevail. There will always be human beings behind the actual output controlled by an AI. It will help though to create less complex, leaner user interfaces in the tools we use for creating music that are simpler to operate.

On to the learning we promised you now.

1. Will AI render human music makers useless?

Definitely not. The magic and final decision over creative output will always remain with the (human) artist. A computer is not a human with feelings and emotions. What makes us get to our knees in awe will keep machines clinically indifferent. Simple as that.

And technical approximations, as deceptive as they may get, are simply not the real thing.

2. Is AI in music tech becoming a reality?

It already is. There is no stopping it. But then that is the course of a natural evolutionary process which can only push forward.

3. What impact will AI technology have on the music industry?

A huge one. This is a game changer! Read our statement on main applications above.

4. Why does this topic cause such strong emotional reactions?

It is our egos we cling on to, having trotted down the same paths for decades. Many believe their laboriously acquired expertise is threatened by robot technology and a new ruthless generation. The truth is if we embrace AI’s as our helping friends and maybe even learn how to think a little more technical, who can fathom how ingeniously more colorful the world of music will become in the hands of talented musicians of all generations.

5. Will the industry embrace this change?

Yes, because it enables a completely new generation of products and startups like us push for innovation. The agreeable side effect: It will make people happy, musicians, consumers, and businessmen alike, full circle.

Most importantly though, it is not only AI changing the music industry. Social changes are equally responsible for it, if they don’t account for a larger part for it anyway. Here’s an excellent article by Fast Company on this topic, and more coverage on A3E in this article by TechRepublic.

It’s an interesting time for all of us in music and beyond, and there’s so much yet to come.

Don’t be afraid — humans also prevailed in Terminator:

“There are things machines will never do. They cannot possess faith, they cannot commune with God, they cannot appreciate beauty, they cannot create art. If they ever learn these things, they won’t have to destroy us. They’ll be us.”

-Sarah Connor.

Image credit: Daft Punk (top), Re-Compose (middle)

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