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?

"It's a lot easier to do business here," explains Wenger, who, with his pale, scraggly bearded face, flaccid slouch, and up-to-the-moment leather-pants-and-guayabera leisure ensemble, looks exactly like what would result if a Paris hipster were crossed with a Silicon Valley geek.

A painter, a musician, and an electronic engineer, Wenger has combined his talents into a program that allows even the most musically disabled among us to create soul-stirring pieces. His first musical program, called Metasynth, created a new musical composing language in which composers use the tools of an illustrator -- brush strokes, colors, lines -- to write scores. Xx pulls further away from Wenger's illustrator roots, using an interface that looks like the inside of a grand piano.

Need a sonata? A concerto? A rag? The pianolike mouse interface allows a pretender to sprinkle notes over a musical grid like pepper, and watch them fall into arrangements that provoke an emotional response not unlike the one a concertgoer feels.

If a composer likes, he can turn on a random note generator, whose output is filtered through a series of instructions that force the random notes to comply with a particular musical style. The aspiring composer can also purposely choose notes -- which are automatically kept on key -- then adorn them with classical flourish, using a series of pointer-icons, and come out with something that sounds like a sophisticated piano concerto.

"You give a random note generator a rhythmic pattern, give it a tonality, give it a range of notes -- pitch range as well as a scale -- and give it a dynamic range," says Len Sasso, a Carmel composer. "It takes all those parameters, and it takes another parameter that decides whether to look back and decide whether to use a note it had used before. The notes that were chosen within those limits are chosen at random, but it doesn't really spit out a random sequence of notes."

Using the program to compose at his Castro home office, Wenger's body shivers after he creates a particularly satisfying bar of computer-composed music.

"This is a little bit too random to use, so I'm clipping this piece here, repeating it, and I just click here to remove all the dissonance," says Wenger, using his program to repair a series of notes chosen by a visiting rube. "I like those chords you've created. They're not uninteresting at all. Another interesting thing is to compose using the capture feature, which plays a loop arpeggio, then adding notes on as they sound good."

The completed work, with additional notes airbrushed in, key passages looped on, and with a repeating canon effect added, sounds perhaps a bit dirge-ish, but certainly the work of a journey-man. Elapsed composing time: around 10 minutes.

"You can really create a lot of music very fast," Wenger notes.
Wenger first wrote the program as he began dabbling in computer music several years ago.

"I started doing music at 16 in a pop group. I composed a lot of pop music. My basic formation is in graphic design and illustration, and that's how I got into computer graphics. I did painting software. I went into computer music when I was 29 or 30, and I was using a four-track pre-recorder. It seemed like you had to do a lot of work to do something that wasn't necessarily that good. After I got involved in computers, I realized that there were things you could do in musical composition as well. At this time, my tastes were moving toward classical.

"I have always had a habit of creating my own tools."

While he doesn't quite match Wenger's Euro-geek flair, Andy Hildebrand, a long-tall ex-oilman from Texas, has cooked up an algorithm perhaps as revolutionary as Wenger's. Through a series of ingenious mathematical instructions he's tucked into an audio engineer's black box, Hildebrand has managed to quiet the dissonance of a thousand cracking vocal chords. Hildebrand is the creator of AutoTune, a one-time retirement hobby that he is now turning into a growing business.

After a career of designing seismic oil-exploration equipment, Hildebrand retired a couple of years ago to pursue his dream of becoming a classical composer. During the previous two decades, Hildebrand had used his skills as an electronic engineer to create Landmark Graphics Corp., a $40 million company that makes devices used in the seismic mapping of oil reserves. The technique is used to squeeze the last drop from known oil deposits by creating digital maps using sound waves.

Landmark had gotten too big to be any fun, Hildebrand says, so he quit. He enrolled at the Shepard School of Music at Rice University in Houston.

"I was thinking I was retiring. But it was like a bad inoculation: It didn't take," Hildebrand explains. "I was going to write film scores, but I never made it."

As part of his music-school dabbling, though, Hildebrand developed some algorithms designed to improve the sound of synthesizers. "A friend of mine told me I could make money off that, so I made a program called Infinity, which allowed digital samples to be looped. Repeating complex sounds is very problematic, so I developed algorithms that would do that. The program is now used a lot in synthesizers that create movie sound effects."

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