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Coronavirus: What is the sound of music during a pandemic?

BBC Technology 24 Apr 2020 11:15
By Jane Wakefield Technology reporter
Grid showing different musicians performingImage copyright Rotterdam Philharmonic orchestra

Lockdown has seen opera singers belt out arias from their balconies and families recreate entire musicals in their living rooms.

Pop stars like Chris Martin and Gary Barlow have set up intimate jamming sessions while Radiohead is streaming one of its concerts for free every week until lockdown ends.

The music has not stopped but it is a little bit harder to make it.

The rest of the population may be turning to video conferencing apps, such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts, but these do not quite work for music.

"They overly compress music and the resulting sound is quite horrible," says Paul Reynolds, whose firm MassiveMusic makes soundtracks for adverts.

But music software combined with decent internet means the home studio can be as good as a professional one, he says.

"So much can be done with a very basic and relatively cheap set-up.

While the brands he works for are more used to flying to exotic locations to make their ads, now they have to rely on the music to tell the story.

He acknowledges there needs to be an element of "make do and mend" about the way the musicians work.

Rotterdam's Philharmonic Orchestra has responded to lockdown with a series of virtual concerts.

The musicians recorded their part of the piece with their own phones or webcams and then the recordings were merged using advanced video software.

"For me, this is really what we need to focus on together now," he said.

"Imagine being at home learning grade one cello, and suddenly you can watch a cellist perform in front of you, like being in the orchestra in a way you have never been able to before."

Machine music

Dutch public broadcaster VPRO had already come up with the idea of using artificial intelligence to help create the next hit for the Netherlands and now the competition has been thrown open to others.

Image copyright Uncanny Valley

It used a machine learning process called DDSP (differentiable digital signal processing) to blend audio samples of animals including koalas, kookaburras and Tasmanian devils.

Created in association with Google's lab in Sydney, the song is a collaboration between music producers, data scientists and academics and is inspired by the bushfires that swept through the country.

Meanwhile, the French team Algomus is confident the casual listener "won't notice that the song was created with AI".

"Creativity requires a careful balance between all the elements in order to evoke an emotion," the team wrote.

It opted for the lyrics to be sung by a real person blended with AI.

Image copyright MassiveMusic

Although not everyone has been finding the current circumstances fertile ground for creativity, with Noel Gallagher recently telling the RadioX podcast that he was bored of writing songs while stuck at home.

At a virtual meeting with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, MPs on the DCMS committee urged him to look again at the money available to musicians from streaming - the only income for many on lockdown.

Charity singles created in lockdown are topping the charts, with both NHS fundraiser Captain Tom Moore and BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge single for Children in Need and Comic Relief, riding high.

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Mr ReynoldsMassiveMusicSouth AmericasPhilharmonic OrchestraArjen Leendertz
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