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Taryn Southern’s new album is produced entirely by AI

Taryn Southern

Music has been made on computers for decades, but the technology has traditionally been much more utilitarian than collaborative when it comes to the music-making process. In recent years, however, artificial intelligence (AI) has evolved to a level where it can help artists actually create music for 50-piece orchestras and even help craft Billboard hits.

Singer-songwriter and YouTuber Taryn Southern has decided to push the limits of AI composition, putting the sound of her new album into the “hands” of four AI programs: Amper Music, IBM’s Watson Beat, Google’s Magenta, and AIVA. Aptly titled I Am AI, the album will be the first of its kind to be fully composed with and totally produced by AI when it releases in May.

While each AI program is unique, they generally create music by following certain parameters (genre, tempo, style).

Artists input music for the programs to analyze, and the machines learn the structure in order to create original music in minutes. Specializing in creating classical music, AIVA got so good at composing it became the first non-human to be recognized as a composer.

Ahead of the February 20 release of Life Support, the latest song from I Am AI, Southern spoke with Digital Trends about the album-making process, how time-consuming making music with AI is, and its exciting potential to break down traditional barriers in the music industry.

Digital Trends: A phenomenon of just the last few years, using AI to make music has mostly been on the experimental level to test out the capabilities. What inspired you to make an entire album with AI?

Taryn Southern

Taryn Southern: Last January, I was reading an article in New York Times, actually, about the future of artificial intelligence and how it was being used in creative ways.

At that point, out of curiosity, I was reading a lot about AI more for its data applications for enterprising companies. Once I learned it was being used for musical applications, I was really intrigued. So, I started reaching out to companies in the article asking if I could get access to their platform.

Within a few months I was experimenting with a few platforms [and] it became evident that I could create what I felt was similar to what I was able to do on my own, before artificial intelligence.

Most musicians need producers to help guide them, but with Watson Beat and Amper you can click a few preset moods and tempos and create a fully composed production. What was the process like for you? “You can literally make music with the touch of a button.”

I think the cool thing about these technologies is you can literally make music with the touch of a button.

Something like my album has been a bit more involved, though. Or maybe, a lot more involved. [Laughs]. I could make songs how I want to hear them and have the right structure in place.

With Amper, you can make it as easy or as difficult as you want. I would iterate anywhere between 30-70 times off a song within Amper. Once I’m happy with the song, I download the stems [individual music elements of a multi-track recording], and then I rearrange the various sections of the instrumentation that I really like, and cut what I don’t like.

I do that to create the structure of the song, like Life Support.

What do you mean by “upwards of 70 different iterations?”

I started with one mood, then I started converting it to several others. Changing the key. Changing the tempo.

I think I downloaded 30 stems, arranged the song, and then created a new template beat that was of the same key and genre, but as a hip hop beat. I think the original beat I went with was a cinematic, uplifting genre. Then once it had a really strong song structure that I really liked, I took the same parameters, popped them into a hip hop beat to get some of the drums, and some of the percussive elements.

Basically, [it was] two variations of the song, within different genre parameters with the same rhythmic structure.

You started with one preset/mood, it spit out a beat, then you took the best parts of that beat and mixed it with something else?

Yeah. For the [Life Support] beat, I probably iterated 15-20 times, to get something where I liked the rhythm and the melodic structure. From there, once I had a sound song structure, I went into a different preset and set the genre parameters the same, so I could take sounds to add to the song.

That adds to that layered feeling that you get from a song like Life Support, which has about 35 stems.

That must have been time consuming. Is that how it was for the entire album?

Every song on the album has a different process depending on the technology used, [and] depending on how quickly I could get something I really loved. There is another song I did on Amper that I only iterated on three times.

A lot of those iterations are around the instrumentation, [and] playing with different instruments.

With something like Watson, I’m basically taking the code, running it through terminal, then taking all of the stems, pushing them through a DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] and changing the instruments myself to whatever I see fit. There’s a lot more involvement in working with a platform like that. On the plus side, [Watson] gives musicians who potentially have more background … in writing music potential opportunity to have more creative license … where Amper might be easier for beginner musicians and early music creators who want a bit more of a full production experience.

How did you get your hands on these programs, and how were they each different?

Magenta is open source, so that was a matter of going on Github, reading documentation, and downloading it.

Fortunately, I had some friends at Magenta who have been very helpful answering questions and helping me out. They also have a number of different tools outside of Magenta, like NSynths, that are really cool, AI based tools that can help you customize a sound, or song, or tones even more than you had access to through other programs. “I’m working on a song right now that’s basically an ode to revolution and I call it my Blockchain song.”

With Watson Beat I just reached out to everyone I could at Watson telling them how I’d love to get my hands on this.

They emailed me back last fall, and … [via Google hangout] they set it all up on my computer and walked me through the whole program. They’ve been really helpful and I’ve been in direct contact with them quite a bit. I’m really impressed with the background code they’ve done on this and the program.

It’s really intuitive. What I like about Watson is being able to inject the code with any kind of data or inspiration point of music that I’d like.

For instance, I’m working on a song right now that’s basically an ode to revolution and I call it my “Blockchain song.” It’s a song that’s inspired by the blockchain revolution, but I really wanted it to encompass this idea of revolution. So, I’ve been feeding Watson various songs, as far back as the 1700s, that represent revolution, trying to see what it can … glean from those songs to make a new anthemic, revolution song.

I would hope the Beatles’ Revolution made it in there at some point.

[Laughs] I started with 1700, 1800 revolution songs, because there’s no copyright issue with those.

Currently, the rules around teaching AI based on copyrighted works is still a grey area. So I’m trying to play within the bounds of what’s legally acceptable at this point. I thought it would also be interesting to have these really old songs as inspiration points.

It’s probably 15 songs from the 1700s and 1800s that are old-school anthemic songs, and it was really fun to have the AI algorithm learn from those songs and then force that function through anthemic pop structure that Watson already designated to see what kind of things it’d come with.

You mentioned AI being taught copyrighted music and spitting out new compositions. Did someone tell you teaching AI copyrighted material was a legal gray area, or did you figure that out yourself?

I figured it out myself. I think, as is the case with all of these new technologies, you’re writing the rules as you go.

Ten years ago, I don’t think there were many people talking about artificial intelligence and copyright infringement. These are conversations that are happening in every single industry, not just music. I actually just did a panel at the copyright society this week that was digging into these predicaments.

They asked, “What kind of attributions are given if artificial intelligence is learning off copyrighted works?” A lot of these things have to be figured out, but there aren’t any hard and fast rules on this.

Hypothetically, if someone ran a copyrighted song through AI, would the original song be discernible to the copyright holder?

I have run popular songs through, just to see what would happen. Usually what comes out of it is something that is not even close to resembling the original piece. It depends on the AI.

Sometimes it’s just running pattern recognition on the chord structure. Other times it’s running statistical analysis, saying “if there’s an F-chord here, then you’re 70 percent likely to get a G-chord after the F-chord or an E-minor chord after the F-chord.” … If we’re looking at this from a purely theoretical point of view, I think that holding an AI accountable for stealing from copyrighted works would be very similar to holding a human accountable who’s grown up listening to The Beatles their entire life and now writes pop music. [ Laughs]. …

If we’re looking at a really sophisticated AI program that is built … similar to the way our own neural networks integrate and mimic information, then you could think of an AI as a really sophisticated human. [Laughs].

Even artists joke that some of the best music producers out there, like Max Martin, are just really advanced AI … Many of his songs have repeatable patterns that can be studied and mimicked.

So when the album’s done, will the programs be credited as producers?

I look at each of these AI programs as creative collaborators, so they’re produced in collaboration with Amper, AIVA, Magenta and Watson. There are 11 songs in total, although I might be adding two songs.

Have you used multiple programs on one song?

Which program have you used the most?

One program per song. I’ve probably used Watson and Amper the most. If I end up with 12-13 songs, those would be additional songs from Amper.

What was your experience with AIVA?

AIVA was trained specifically off classical music.

It primarily writes symphonies. I have two songs with AIVA that I love that are really unique. Because they were trained in classical music, it’s like, “How do we take these classical interpretations and turn them into pop songs?” So, they have a very different kind of feel to them, but they’re symphonic in the way that my Amper songs have symphonic and synth sounds.

One of the most expensive aspects of making an album is paying for studio time and producers.

If you can do it in your room with a program, this has the potential to reduce the role of the human producers, doesn’t it?

I 100 percent agree. I think that the most exciting aspect of all of this is it will democratize access. I know that’s a really scary thing to the industry, and for understandable reasons.

No one wants to lose their job and no one wants to feel like they might be beat out of their own game, vis-a-vis a computer. But at the same time, the music industry for so long has been kind of an old-boys club. … It has many gatekeepers.

If you want to produce a really well done album, it’s expensive.

You have to find great producers, [and they] are not cheap. Sometimes the artists don’t make any money. As a YouTuber who grew up in the digital content revolution, I love when new tools come along that allow me to be scrappy and create without worrying about how I’m going to pay my bills.

That might be the entry point for someone to say, “Wow, I love music. I’m going to do more of this.” … I feel like these kind of things are actually just helpful in widening the creative community and allowing more people to join the creative class.

After this album, will you continue to use AI to make music?

I’m sure I will.

I can only imagine these are just the first few technologies to become available and there will be many more and they will evolve.

I’m really excited to see how they evolve.

But, they really do make my life easier as the artist, because I can focus on so many of the others things that I love to focus on in the creation process.

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Vizio P-Series (P65-E1) review

Vizio P-Series Models

While we reviewed the 65-inch P65-E1 model, our review applies to all P-Series TVs 55-inch (P55-E1) 65-inch (P65-E1)

Let’s be honest: Ever since the holidays came and went – your living room still sadly bereft of a beautiful new big-screen — you’ve been jonesing for a spanking new, HDR-packing, 4K TV.

But if you’re not interested in plunking down the kind of cash it takes to land the big kahunas from the likes of LG, Samsung, and Sony, your craving is going to drive you headlong into the value king that is Vizio. Vizio’s P-Series displays offer an intriguing proposition: Serious, high-end picture quality in a massive screen, available at a very reasonable price (as low as £1,300 for a 65-inch big boy). The question is, of course: Can the P-Series deliver the goods?

Spoiler alert: Yes, yes it can. While not a perfect 10, Vizio’s P-Series offers a gorgeous display of big-screen real estate that will supe up your living room and get your 4K motor humming.

Out of the box

As you might imagine, at first glance the P-Series looks almost identical to its peers in Vizio’s lineup (including the M-series and E-series displays we reviewed). But pulling the foam sheath away from its stout frame reveals a definite step up in style.

Sexy in silver, the P-Series is arguably the best-looking TV in its class, offering a relatively slim bezel, chic and rounded foot stands to hold the unit together, and an overall frame that’s thinner than you’d expect from a full array-backlit LCD/LED TV. Encased in foam at the bottom of the package is a UPS-brown box of accessories, including a slim-and-basic wand remote, an HDMI cable, a power cable, and a setup guide.

Features and design

As discussed in our other reviews of Vizio’s 2017 lineup, there’s a reason we keep calling the P-Series a “display.” Namely, these bad boys aren’t technically TVs because Vizio declines to install an over-the-air tuner found in virtually all other TVs on the market. It’s not a huge deal for those connecting a cable or satellite DVR system via HDMI, but cord cutters leveraging an HDTV antenna to get their live TV fix will need to buy an outboard TV tuner to get things connected.

They’re not pricey, but it is one more step, and one more HDMI slot in use, which normally would have been accounted for with a basic coaxial input.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Luckily, the P-Series has an impressive number of HDMI inputs — five in all — and unlike its siblings, four of the five support HDR content (via HDMI 2.0a), meaning you can connect your 4K HDR gaming console, 4K HDR Blu-ray player, and a 4K HDR streaming device with room to spare. Frankly, that’s a huge improvement over the M-series, and there’s more where that came from. Like the M-series (and E-series), Vizio’s P-Series offers full-array backlighting with local dimming (called Xtreme Black Engine Plus) to provide superior brightness over edge-lit TVs.

Yet, while the M-series does pretty well with its 32-zone backlighting (actually a step down from the previous year), the P-Series packs a whopping 128 zones inside. That may just sound like a big number, but the more zones, the more effective a TV’s local dimming system is. This translates into darker blacks and fluent contrast control across the entire screen as light and dark objects interact.

What that means for viewers is a richer, more dimensional picture, less haloing around bright objects on dark backgrounds, and better details in darker scenes. Sexy in silver, the P-Series is arguably the best-looking TV in its class. In fact, thanks to Vizio’s Calibrated and Calibrated Dark Picture settings (we recommend the former for most environments), the P-Series looks excellent right out of the box.

While serious videophiles may want to get more granular with the calibration, we made only a small tweak to the color setting, raising it by a few points, to get things locked in. The P-Series offers HDR support for both Dolby Vision and HDR10, the two biggest players in HDR at present, which helps provide better contrast and richer color shading for supported content. But the P-Series also offers much higher peak brightness than the M-series (more on that in the Performance section).

In order to access the Wide Color Gamut available with HDR content, you’ll need to go into the Input Settings and turn Full UHD Color to “On” for any input connected to a 4K HDR device.

Not-so SmartCast

We’ve made no bones about being less than enthusiastic about Vizio’s latest iteration of its SmartCast interface, an amalgamation of built-in Chromecast streaming and a very slim selection of on-board apps. The user experience just isn’t as intuitive as what you get from from LG and Samsung televisions. Just getting to the right input can be a hassle, as Vizio TVs don’t skip over empty inputs and tend to switch to input options you may be trying to simply scroll by.

Vizio P65-E1 Compared To

That said, Vizio’s system gets the job done, and it’s certainly zippy — especially for initial setup, which takes just minutes (barring any firmware updates).

Using Chromecast streaming from your phone or tablet is an effective (if not always stable) way to stream all kinds of content on this Vizio display, and most importantly, Vizio’s on-board app selection includes Amazon’s Prime Video, which is currently not supported by rival Google’s Chromecast system.

Performance

Any quibbles we have with SmartCast are small potatoes after seeing the P-Series in action. Frankly, the P-Series’ picture quality is an impressive testament to Vizio’s engineering might, offering rich and dimensional contrast, ultra-clear resolution to the finest pinpoints on-screen, and a rushing collage of colors that will have you staring into the subtlest details of your favorite movies — to the point that it’s easy to lose the strands of the plot.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends We knew right from the Sovereign throne room in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 that the P-Series was special.

The iconic background shimmers in yellow light, with subtle variants of metallic blue and deep, sparkling golds, while the queen’s yellow eyes dart around in striking detail. There are plenty of details that draw your eyes with the P-Series, but the subtleties of the color reproduction continued to be one of our favorite traits. Deadpool‘s intro scene wasn’t just a carnival of carnage, but a chance to marvel at the excellent Blu-ray transfer, allowing for nuances to shine through like the different shades of nickel and brass on Colossuss’ circlets of armor, or the worn shoulder pads of Pool’s uniform, which are more distressed at the edges to reveal little glints of white. The brilliant picture quality is a testament to Vizio’s engineering might.

The P-Series’ impressive contrast helps make all the colors pop, while also adding deep dimension to the picture. In addition, the display offers impressive black levels and details in darker scenes, even in challenging moments like The Martian’s deep space shots. Speaking of The Martian, it offers one of our favorite telltale scenes for testing, in which a search light sweeps around the top of the hab in the Martian twilight.

We’ve seen lesser TVs lose virtually all surrounding details to black clipping there, smearing the craggy peaks, but with the P-Series we could see the entire landscape of rock and sand surrounding Watney’s deep-space prison. The TV does have a few blind spots, as it were, including poor off-axis color reproduction and contrast (something we’re getting tired of complaining about with LCD displays), though it’s perhaps a bit less notable than the M-series, and definitely outperforms the E-series there. We also noticed a bit of image flicker in a couple of outlying scenes, including a panning shot of trees from Planet Earth 2 in which the TV’s processor seemed to get confused by all the leaves, creating a strobing effect.

However, it was relegated to just a few select moments, and not something that put a damper on our experience.

Greg Mombert/Digital Trends When it comes to HDR, the P-Series isn’t as piercingly bright as top-tier LCD displays from Samsung or Sony, but its 600-nit average brightness outshines the M-series, and the TV can get “much brighter” in spectral highlights, according to Vizio. It’s not something that’s incredibly notable on its own, but the display’s ability to offer more sparkle in extremely bright details such as the flash of lip gloss or the beads of sweat on a closeup of a character’s face combined with the display’s impressive contrast add up to a highly dimensional picture that’s extremely captivating.

Warranty information

Vizio warranties its P-Series TV for one year for “defects in materials and workmanship” when the product is used in normal conditions.

You can find out more by visiting the website.

Our Take

While all of Vizio’s SmartCast displays offer impressive picture quality, the P-Series is the nexus at which affordability and high performance meet for an incredible value. Is there a better alternative? The first TV that comes to mind is Vizio’s own M-series, but when you consider that the P-Series offers better contrast, higher peak brightness, and overall better performance for just a few hundred dollars more, this is one case in which it just makes more sense to spend that extra cash and go for broke.

TCL also makes a pretty impressive TV in this general price class in its own (confusingly named) P-Series, which also offers an intuitive Roku-based interface. But those who want a larger screen (above 55-inches) can’t get it from TCL until Spring of 2018, and Vizio’s version still offers better overall performance for our money. How long will it last?

As a budget brand, there are always some considerations about durability over time, but the P-Series feels well-built and Vizio is a massive brand with a good reputation in the industry.

Should you buy it?

When it comes to excellent picture quality at a killer price, this is the TV to buy.

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