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Ol' Blue Screen 

New software lets anyone sing like Sinatra or compose like Mahler. But do we really want computers that make country-and- western stars croon on key?

Wednesday, Oct 21 1998
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As Greg Tomassian, lead singer of Soul Candy, steps onto the slate-black auditorium stage, the din of the crowd sweeps over him like a warm tide. When he snaps his microphone off its stand and draws it to his parting lips, the cheers amplify into a throbbing, meaty roar. And as he rips into the first bars of "The Midnight Hour," Tomassian's brain, his flesh, and his vocal chords ripple with the energy of his thousands of cheering fans.

"You step out with all the eyes in the place upon you," explains Tomassian, 35. "The darkness is just a sea of heads, all bobbing up and down rhythmically to the sounds that you are creating. It's the whole energy-flow of humanity. It's an energy interexchange."

That's the general idea, at least. For now, though, Tomassian sticks with his day job as owner/manager of Cash for Cars in San Jose. He gets together with some pals once or twice a week to play R&B and rock 'n' roll cover tunes, calling the band Soul Candy. But superstardom has so far eluded Tomassian, in part because he can't sing on key. The high notes in the song "The Midnight Hour," for instance, sometimes crack into a flat, grating dissonance. His segues from one pitch to the next occasionally wade into unintended, and unfortunate, territory. The tones of Tomassian and his lead guitarist tend to part ways a bit too often.

"I started taking vocal lessons and working out with this band," Tomassian says. "But whenever I would get around people who knew how to sing really well, I was intimidated, because I would go sharp and go flat where they would stay on key."

Last month, though, Tomassian discovered a miracle that promises to end these woes and, he hopes, clear Soul Candy's path to the big time. It's called AutoTune, a digital sound board containing algorithmic pitch-correction software that forces even the worst singers to warble on key, without otherwise distorting the sound of their voices.

"When I saw this product I went crazy," Tomassian recalls. "I don't have the time to work out as much as it would take to get to that next level. But when I used it for the first time last Thursday night, I was absolutely astonished. I've never had such a good night. When my voice broke up in the higher registers, AutoTune smoothed it so beautifully and naturally that the guitar player was looking at me, giving me the thumbs up. I was motivated to try all sorts of things I never had before."

Tomassian's dream -- to create music talentlessly, yet well -- is about to become reality for the multitudes. A handful of Silicon Valley inventions may allow even the most unimaginative, tone-deaf, arrhythmic dabbler to compose, sing, or otherwise create music virtually indistinguishable from the work of masters.

There's Emmy, a Santa Cruz computer program that creates brand-new symphonic works in the style of the great classical composers. There's Xx, an algorithmic compositional tool that allows untrained slackers to write music by pointing and clicking through an easy-to-use Macintosh interface. There's Harmony, a soon-to-be-released program designed to allow singers to replace their own voices with others of their choosing. These innovations come on the back of a generation of audio engineering technology that makes buying a CD the same sort of what-you-see-is-not-necessarily-what-you-get enterprise as viewing an episode of Baywatch. Digital-audio looping devices turn the art of creating a groovy string of jazz riffs into a series of mouse clicks; rhythmic correction software forces a wayward voice, guitar, drum, or bass back on beat; and tone correction software turns a thin violin or oboe track fat.

And there's AutoTune, a black box about the width and thickness of five SF Weeklys that immediately, and seamlessly, corrects the pitch of miked singers to the next on-key tone.

Using these technologies, Tomassian and his ilk will conceivably be able to belt out a computer-composed song through computer-generated pipes, corrected to a computer-programmed tempo and pitch, and come out sounding not half-bad.

While this thought may delight moonlighting used-car dealers, it dismays our musical elite. When any slob can compose like Rachmaninoff, when every Joe Six-Pack possesses the musical soul of Ol' Blue Eyes, when laying down cool jazz becomes the intellectual equivalent of a video game -- whither our conservatories and back-porch blues jams? Will art and culture become functions of algorithmic complexity? Will the muse disappear from music?

Robert Greenberg, chair of the department of music history at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is among those who hope not.

"I don't believe that a true writer or a true composer or a true painter will want to abrogate their role of creator to a machine," Greenberg says. "It's an exercise. It's missing the essential thing that humans add, and that's consciousness. If someone says to me, 'Here's my symphony that was composed by a computer,' I'm simply not going to spend the half-hour it would take to listen to it."

As for performance enhancers such as AutoTune, Greenberg urges his colleagues to man the barricades.

"No real singer worth their salt would ever get near such a thing. This is an advanced karaoke box," Greenberg says. "The Milli Vanilli syndrome is the tip of the iceberg. You have Mick Jagger stuffing a roll of socks in their crotch. Everyone's getting silicone implants. It's part of the same continuum."

While Greenberg scoffs, others are taking the promise of true artificial musical intelligence very seriously.

Members of the Wemberley Winds, an ensemble in England, are right now preparing their pipes for a November recital at Oxford of a brand-new Gustav Mahler opera. Never mind that Mahler died 87 years ago. The score of the new version was composed entirely by a Santa Cruz computer.

And recording engineers -- even those who work with serious singers -- now use AutoTune almost as a matter of routine: "I'd say I've sold about 100 AutoTune boxes," says Ted Bahas, a salesman at Sam's Music in Nashville. "And I've sold another 130 of the AutoTune computer plug-in."

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Matt Smith

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