George Tzanetakis

Rise of the robot musicians

UVic professor George Tzanetakis on track to create computer music systems that can jam with humans

The thing about robot musicians is they’ll never trash a hotel room, show up to a gig drunk or break up a band after meeting an eccentric performance artist.

At least not yet.

The music-computer lab of George Tzanetakis at the University of Victoria is ground zero for the rise of robot musicians. But don’t think of it like anthropomorphic C-3PO strumming a mandolin – it’s more like a series of mallets linked to solenoids on a drum, backed by sophisticated software. Tzanetakis effectively wants to teach music to a computer, and for the computer to pick up on musical cues while jamming with humans.

“When you play sound, a musician hears what is happening. We are trying to add the ability to understand music to an artificial agent that performs,” says Tzanetakis, an assistant professor in the department of computer science, and in the department electrical and computer engineering – and the school of music.

“The idea is to make the system musically intelligent, to have robotic musicianship.”

It remains early days for robot jazz bands. Mechanical musicians are largely limited to percussion instruments due to increasing engineering complexity as each mallet and its actuator is added to the mix, and to the software that crunches the music in real time to adjust the tempo and volume.

“We want the musicality of the system to learn how to slow down, speed up, understand if it is too loud. We are still working on making sure it doesn’t get drunk,” Tzanetakis jokes.

Of course computers, even advanced learning systems, don’t understand music or sound or much of anything else – they just crunch data in sophsticated ways. Gabrielle Odowichuk, who worked in UVic computer-music lab as a masters student, said completely computer-driven music seems unlikely. Computers still can’t connect on an emotional level.

“You need a human component or its boring. All robots need a human component,” says Odowichuk who worked on gestural control of sound. “Often you can program in more randomness to make it more human. But when it comes to conveying something and connecting with an audience, computers lack expressiveness.”

Tzanetakis sees robots and computer musicality as the natural evolution in how technology influences how music is made. To him, it’s no different than the person who first strung wires and called it a piano, or plugged in a wah-wah pedal.

“Using computers and robots is the same process,” he says. “Musicians accept synthesizers, drum machines and DJ sets. If anything a robot is more innocent than a drum machine. It’s just another technical dimension.”

How this work will eventually influence the broader music world is hard to predict. Tzanetakis, a 37-year-old native of Greece who earned his PhD in computer science from Princeton University in 2002, tends to be about five years ahead of current popular technology.

Tzanetakis’ early work on acoustic signal processing laid the groundwork for popular apps such as Shazam, which can recognize songs by holding a smartphone up to a speaker. He’s helped develop melody-matching systems that identify songs by users humming or singing. His music sensing algorithms are at the heart Smule’s AutoRap app, which creates a rap song out of any set of sounds, and the Ocarina app, which transforms an iPhone into a flute.

Of course, when he began working on what’s called audio fingerprinting – systems that analyze, dissect and find patterns in acoustic signals – smartphone technology didn’t exist.

“If I do my job right, stuff I’m doing now will be commercial in about five years,” he says. “What is commercial now is stuff myself and others were doing 10 years ago. Ten years ago there was no iPod, no iTunes. The world was a different place.”

Tzanetakis expects the next big creative leaps to involve computer systems that can analyze and extract individual instruments and voices from complex music scores. The human ear can pick our individual conversations in a noisy party – computers cannot.

“It’s really a hard problem, far from being solved, but is actively researched,” he said.

Despite being at the forefront of intertwining computers and music, Tzanetakis, a jazz musician and pianist before he became a computer scientist and engineer, admits he doesn’t always practice what he preaches.

“I’m a sax player. I have typically avoided playing with technology.”

editor@saanichnews.com

 

 

Just Posted

Canadian Coast Guard breaks ground on permanent search and rescue station in Victoria

Victoria-based SAR will do all rescues in local harbour and parts of the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Police actions under investigation following Langford arrest

IIO investigates officer-related incidents that result in serious harm

Victoria woman, 76, challenges alcohol-screening laws after failing to give breath sample

Norma McLeod was unable to provide a sample because of her medical conditions

Victoria council looks to self-impose carbon tax on staff airfare

A new carbon pricing fee would put additional funds into the city’s Climate Action Reserve

Gas stations could push to 167.9 cents a litre this week

Analyst says high prices are due to supply and demand

WATCH: Cougar saunters through Metchosin yard

Spring cougar sighting caught on camera

Wanted by Crime Stoppers

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

POLL: Do you think the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris should be rebuilt?

Images of one of the word’s most iconic landmarks were seared into… Continue reading

‘B.C. cannot wait for action’: Top doctor urges province to decriminalize illicit drugs

Dr. Bonnie Henry says current approach in ‘war on drugs’ has criminalized and stigmatized drug users

New report on 2017 wildfires calls for better coordination with B.C. First Nations

Tsilhqot’in National Government documents 2017 disaster and lists 33 calls to action

B.C. youth coach banned amid sexual harassment, bullying scandal: Water Polo Canada

Justin Mitchell can’t take part in Water Polo Canada events or clubs

Wilson-Raybould: Feds want to just ‘manage the problem’ of Indigenous Peoples

Former federal justice minister speaks at First Nations Justice Council meeting in B.C.

Island Cup set for East Sooke on May 3-5

Off-road racing event expected to attract over 50 racers

Female real estate agents warned of suspicious man in Metro Vancouver

The man requests to see homes alone with the female agent, police say

Most Read