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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Electric sidemen: a look at Microsoft Songsmith

Product: Songsmith
Retailer: Microsoft
Price: $29.95 (6 hour free trial)
Platform: Windows Vista (recommended) or Windows XP SP2
Requirements: 1GB or more disk space, 64 MB video memory (128 MB recommended), PC Microphone

Microsoft Songsmith lets users create music in a novel way, by attaching a microphone to a Windows PC and singing into the mic. The Songsmith software automatically builds an accompaniment that matches the rhythm and tonality of the voice input, so that instantly, the vocals are augmented and transformed into a music composition. Reviewers around the Web are calling it "reverse karaoke," but a much better phrase would be a "musical sketchbook." You start with a tune in your head and Microsoft Songsmith helps craft that tune into a defined product, complete with chord progressions.

Don't go into Songsmith expecting Bach-like counterpoint melodies or highly complex accompaniments, though. Songsmith creates backdrops to your tune, typically with the kind of chord strumming you might add on a piano or guitar, and a percussion track for good measure. Most importantly, it does this without human intervention, and without having to sit down and figure out the chord sequences by hand. After spending some time evaluating it, I found that the program works better than I expected.

Here is the backing track it built as I sang from a Google News article on Fiji. (Google News is a great source of lorem ipsum placeholder lyrics.) As you can hear, the software automatically spaced out the progressions and included a couple of measures at the end that finished out the accompaniment.

By building this music to match my melody, Songsmith was able to take a single musical idea and expand it into a fuller, richer audio experience. My tune transformed from a bare outline into a performance.

Backing track (take 2) from Ars Technica on Vimeo

Creating Songs

If you watch this Microsoft Songsmith ad, it's a little misleading. The ad suggests that you record while listening to pre-existing background tracks, the way you would with Apple's Garage Band. Yes, you sort of can do that, and I'll tell you how in a bit, but that's not the typical way in which you use the software. In Songsmith's default mode of operation, you record the song that's in your head while listening to a percussive beat. Only once you're finished recording does Songsmith come up with chords to match your melody.

Song Starter

Songsmith's default procedure for building songs starts by asking you to make several choices before you even start singing. You load what's called the "Song Starter," which is an interactive dialog. This dialog lets you choose the overall style and tempo for your new piece. You can choose from genres such as California Soft Rock, Dance Pop, or Funk.

By default, Songsmith plays a sample track to give you a flavor of how the style works. Listening to these clips may make you think that you're supposed to improvise around a set chord progression, but the clips are there just to give you an idea of how your song will be styled. Once you make a selection, you are prompted to set a tempo and then the interface goes completely quiet.

After selecting the style and tempo, you enter the recording session. Here, you can click the record button and start creating your song. Songsmith provides the beat and you basically sing to that. By default, you're given two measures as a lead in, although you can adjust this in the program options. The style you've already chosen determines the rhythm and time signature that you'll be using.

Once recording starts, you just perform your song, however you like, and then click the stop button when you're done. Songsmith then calculates your accompaniment and instantly plays it back. When I tested this, there were no perceptible time lags to speak of; the algorithm was fast enough to be unnoticeable. I pressed record, sang, pressed stop and boom, there were the results.