AI-generated blues lacks a human touch – and a metronome

I heard a new song last weekend called ‘Soul Of The Machine’. It’s a simple, old-fashioned song in E minor with a standard blues chord progression (knowledgeable musicians would call it a 1-4-5 progression). In it, a voice sings about being a trapped soul with a heart that once beat, but is now cold and weak.

“Soul Of The Machine” isn’t a real song at all. Or is it? It’s getting harder to tell. Whatever it is, it’s the creation of Suno, an AI tool from a startup of the same name that focuses on music generation. Rolling stone said this song’s prompt was “solo acoustic Mississippi Delta blues about a sad AI”. And you know what? I doubt I’d bat an eyelid if I heard it in a mix of human-recorded Delta blues tunes. The song is technically impressive, quite convincing and not that good.

I have been a semi-professional or professional musician for about ten years, on stage at least four nights a week. Part of that time I was playing in a genre called Western Swing. Bob Wills is the best-known example of this style, but some very smart people have argued that more of his credit should go to Milton Brown, who drew more directly from early blues and swing acts like The Hokum Boys (with Big Bill Broonzy). or Bessie Smith. I preferred to play more like Milton Brown.

I’ve played the basic chord progression of “Soul Of The Machine” – and variations thereof – countless times. So when I say the chords swing in nonsensical ways, it’s because I’ve dabbled in this style too. Playing with the rhythm and structure should build and release tension, and this song doesn’t do that. By contrast, notice the difference in the way Mississippi John Hurt cleverly plays with the rhythm in “It Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” using tricks like dragging breaks or singing sections at a different beat than you might expect .

But when I tried to play my guitar along to ‘Soul Of The Machine’, I couldn’t keep up the tempo. The song just ends steadily, like a steam engine slowly coming to a stop. Bad tempo or weird chord changes aren’t wrong or bad in themselves – there’s nothing definitively wrong or bad in music – but people those who struggle with rhythm don’t simply slow down. Instead, their pace rises and falls. And if they make weird chord choices, it’s because they like how it sounds. AI has no such motivations.

Suno’s model could ultimately create music that doesn’t contain the idiosyncratic artifacts—like dragging tempos or strange chord changes—that draw attention to its algorithmic core. But making no mistakes is only part of what it has to do to compete with human music.

As a musician, performing in front of a live audience was necessary to make money and become a household name. But we also had to be good. Doing it right means reacting during a show, sticking to a part of a song if the crowd is loving it, or changing the setlist on the fly. When we were at our best, we formed a kind of symbiosis with our audience for a few fleeting moments or sometimes for an entire set. The best artists can make that happen almost at will. (I was not one of those artists.)

It’s hard to imagine that Suno or anything like it could ever pull that off. So I don’t expect it to be an outright replacement for live music, one of the most important parts of the medium, anytime soon. But that’s just part of the package, right? Before we get to a robot band that draws people to a dance floor or makes people cry in an auditorium, AI must move beyond the parlor trick of imitation and start showing that it understands what makes people tick.

Suno co-founder Mikey Shulman told us Rolling stone that the relationship with listeners and music makers is currently “so lopsided” but that Suno can fix that. He said Suno’s goal is not to replace musicians, but “to get a billion people much more involved in music than they are today.” The company’s founders “envisioned a world of massively democratized music production.” That’s an idea that often drives people towards AI art as well. It sounds like a friendly, lofty goal, and I understand the appeal – it’s not too different from what led Neo to learn Kung Fu via a neck plug-in The Matrix such an attractive idea. No, Suno won’t immediately teach anyone how to make music, but if you want to make a blues song and have never picked up a guitar, ‘Soul Of The Machine’ could bring that feeling almost within reach.

But I always get stuck on that word: democratized. Rolling stone paraphrased Suno in that case, but many proponents of AI art have used the word “democratize” while extolling the benefits of creating text or art through an algorithmic proxy, and it carries the troubling implication that creative people at somehow guarding the creative gate. process.

Even if that were true, it’s not very clear whether Suno could help with that. The question is whether these types of tools can even remotely make the leap from digital faxing to human creativity.

AI image generators have the same problems with details, like the image above where I tried to get ChatGPT to give me something like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. As a teenager, I would pull Mignola’s comic pages as close as my eyes would allow me so I could soak up the details. Here the details make it worse, not better. My enjoyment crumbles when I see oddities like a missing foot or a jacket turned into the fake Hellboy arms.

I’m sympathetic to the desire to use AI to make up for the shortcomings I have as an artist, but every time I hear talk about democratizing creativity, I can’t help but imagine someone arguing with one of these gatekeepers when they could just do that. walk around them by simply doing creative things.

That’s not to say you won’t find people trying to preserve art, but I have found that there are more artists who offer help and encouragement beyond my bona fide requirements before I can join them. You could sum up the attitude of many artists with this quote from songwriter Dan Reeder: “You can make a mess of the simplest song, and no one will laugh at you. And if they do that, they can give me a blow job too, because no one is allowed to laugh at you.’

None of this is to say that AI needs to completely replace creativity to be useful. I wouldn’t object if you told me you thought the AI ​​voice parody songs of Dustin Ballard’s There I Ruined It – which work because of his impressive singing ability and musical acumen – are art. And if The edge‘s Becca Farsace showed in a December video that Boris Eldagsen spends months on AI-generated artwork that shows how his “promptography” can lead to thought-provoking work.

In both cases, AI is not used as a shortcut to creativity. Instead, it reinforces the ideas they already had and can even inspire new ones. If anything, they reinforce the idea that if you want to create something, there’s only one way: just be creative.

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