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Microsoft Songsmith: Reverse Karaoke

January 25th, 2009 · 8 Comments · Uncategorized

Some readers have noticed that I often take shots at Google on this blog, but seem to give Microsoft a pass. I assure you that I am not a Microsoft fan boy–in fact, Microsoft’s enterprise search subsidiary, FAST, competes with Endeca more than Google does. But today I’ll prove that I’m an equal-opportunity critic by talking about Microsoft Songsmith.

The idea is brilliant, at least in theory:

Just open up Songsmith, choose from one of thirty different musical styles, and press record. Sing whatever you like – a birthday song for Mom, a love song for that special someone (they’ll be impressed that you wrote a song for them!), or maybe just try playing with your favorite pop songs. As soon as you press “stop”, Songsmith will generate musical accompaniment to match your voice, and play back your song for you. It’s that simple.

What do the critics say? Here’s what Randall Stross writes in the New York Times

How satisfying are the musical results? Microsoft lets you hear for yourself in a promotional video titled “Everyone Has a Song Inside.” The video is getting more attention than the software because it’s awful, in unintentional ways. “Notes on ‘Camp’, ” the 1964 essay by Susan Sontag, identifies a category of art that isn’t campy, just “bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable.” The Songsmith video is exactly that.

But I have to wonder if the researchers and product developers at Microsoft imagined what would happen when they released Songsmith into the wild. People have been taking actual vocal tracks from pop songs and feeding them into Songsmith. The results are–well, I’ll let you judge for yourself from this rendition of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Josh Young // Jan 25, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Much, much better than the original! Songsmith FTW!

  • 2 Manu Kumar // Jan 25, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    First, int he interest of full disclosure, I know one of the folks behind SongSmith, but I haven’t spoken to him about it.

    IMHO, this is the most brilliant piece of marketing done by Microsoft ever. In fact, it’s brilliant because it’s not done by Microsoft, but by what I think are a couple of folks trying to push a product out of MSR, which typically doesn’t do products at all.

    The brilliance of it is that what everyone refers to as the worst promo video ever has gotten millions of views! There has been no major marketing budget behind this (guessing), but it’s gotten more publicity that could well rival Windows 7 if I were to judge the number of articles and blog posts I’ve seen on this!

    SongSmith is brilliant in concept too — the objective here is not to replace musicians and art, but to provide yet another form of creativity for people with minimal technical or for that matter musical skills. I’m all in favor of a product that does that.

    It’s a unique set of circumstances that has put SongSmith in this position. First, since it happens to be coming from such a big name company. Second that it’s a product created by some really creative people in MSR. Third that they used such brilliant (at least in hind-sight) guerilla marketing to get the product out there.

    All in all, this is a brilliant experiment to me and I have even more regard for the folks behind it than I did before! SongSmith FTW, indeed!

  • 3 Ken Reisman // Jan 25, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Daniel, thanks for posting — this video is brilliant and surreal, for the wrong reasons. The chord progression and timing are not bad actually, but the style and instrumentation is awful. Like a bad stereotype of computer music, it lacks any natural feel or creativity. In fact, I think computers are capable of doing much better (this would be a great application for evolutionary computation). There are some very smart people at Microsoft Research, so let’s hope that this is just an early version of the software.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Jan 25, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    First, to concur with Manu, I offer the following wisdom from Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, delivered in the movie by Cheech and Chong:

    Pepe: Art sure is ugly.

    Neil: Shows how much you know about art. The uglier the art, the more it’s worth.

    Pepe: This must be worth a fortune, man.

    But, as brilliant as their marketing is, I’m not sure they’ve done as well as Clippy. Sure, they achieved their fame more quickly, but Clippy did it without the benefits of web 2.0. Clippy FTW.

    On a more serious note (sorry, couldn’t resist), I’m certainly it is possible to do better. I remember hearing computer-generated music two decades ago that at least sounded like it had been composed by a first-year music student.

    But perhaps they did optimize for marketing. They managed to be provocative, if not quite as memorable as Stravinsky in inspiring the Riot of Spring.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rite_of_Spring

  • 5 jeremy // Jan 25, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    This sort of work has a long history. It isn’t just MSR that has tried things like this. I’ve seen similar work out of IBM Research 15-20 years ago. And I know PARC has some people that have worked on similar problems.

    Here is another example, from 25 years ago:

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0305.html?m%3D12

    Personally, I like things like this. Yes, the results can be particularly bad. But there is something redeeming in the fact that it even exists.

  • 6 ken // Jan 25, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    I downloaded a copy of SongSmith a while ago. Not for me, but for my niece (6). She will go nuts over it. Too bad my daughter isn’t old enough. Is it going to produce professional quality music? Heck no. But wow, for a kid to be able to shout into a mike and get OK instrumentation, what a great way to encourage creativity and improvisational singing. As for the ad, I found it humorously bad, but it also seems to be geared towards kids. Non-threatening adults, bright cheery voices, simple dialog and situations — the kid introduces it to her dad, who uses it at work with great success, and the whole family has fun.

  • 7 Max L. Wilson // Jan 26, 2009 at 4:23 am

    the ads for this are really funny. its good to see something less serious come out of microsoft. there was something for the iphone that i saw that was really interesting though! RJDJ (http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=WPrIPcyemdM). it takes sounds fed into it, or from around you, and turns them into music. give it a watch.

  • 8 Daniel Tunkelang // Jan 26, 2009 at 7:51 am

    You guys have a point: this is a toy, not office productivity software, and perhaps I’m being too harsh. Maybe this is even the ultimate “I’m a PC” answer to “I’m a Mac”.

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