Monthly Archives: November 2017

When Nothing Is Original, Only Innovative

Recently Machine Head released a single from their upcoming album. You can check it out below. Almost the moment it came out people, myself included, noticed the striking similarities between the main riff and Strapping Young Lad’s main riff from “Love?”. Devin Townsend dismissed it and even wished the band the best. He made a few other comments about influences and whatnot, and I agree with him on some of those points.

Overall it seemed like it wasn’t an issue to those who should have cared. The news outlets, however, are having a heyday (I’m only timely with this post because I saw this coming). After the semi-controversy over Machine Head’s release the very tired debate resurfaced: how original are we as people and when is it blatantly ripping off someone? Honestly I see part of it is as an issue of originality and then there’s issue of how much influence is too much.

Western culture, especially in America, love to demand innovation and originality from everyone and everything. Some people rise to the occasion. At least, with the innovative part. In truth people aren’t that original. The human experience bears its own limitations to some things. I remember in college learning there are something like 17-34 individual story lines because of universal experiences. Even if we ignore how having contact with anything will influence artistic output influences will creep in other ways. Have a really cool bass line? Does it sound familiar? Turns out you heard something similar a few years back and it stuck with you. Or maybe something an artist played really resonated with you and you wanted to expand on that aspect. If it was ever a factor at all, and Robb Flynn has remarked it wasn’t anything but coincidence, it was probably more of the latter.

There are other issues to consider with similar sounding music. There are legal elements that I won’t fully delve into (not sure I’m qualified for that anyway) but one must acknowledge there’s a line between plagiarism, homage, influence, and outright coincidence. Where many people heard the riff from Strapping Young Lad other bands were cited like A Perfect Circle. Sometimes some elements are so overused or generic we hear it in many songs possibly without realizing it. Confirmation bias plays a huge factor in those instances. Assuming someone did lift something how can we look at it? If something is lifted what was done with it? Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was lifted almost verbatim from another popular work of the time. Devin Townsend admits he lifted lyrics from a Yes song…in the very Strapping Young Lad song at the heart of the issue.

 

Even if content was lifted directly from somewhere else when is it called plagiarism and when is it called creative license?

While there are legal and ethical standings to determine if a work steals from another a solely artistic standpoint isn’t well defined. One could argue that even following music theory is lacking in originality the same way pulling implements from other sources displays a lack of originality. I personally am not of that philosophy, but I can understand it. Much of Western music theory has rules for aesthetics and practicality. Moreover In reality various art forms didn’t really deviate from a certain forms and rules. One was considered an accomplished artist if they followed those form to the letter. In poetry free verse was called “doggerel” (and with some groups still is) until Romantic poets found merit in deviating from any verse form.

Western culture no longer believes in close imitation as a form of creativity. Artistry is tied to innovation, or at least the appearance of such. Like I’ve mentioned several times originality isn’t a strong point in humans. Innovation, however, is a strong human trait. We have a knack for taking what’s already there and make something seem new or adding a new paradigm to the existing work. It’s why I keep stressing the issue of when is something blatantly lifting another’s work and when is it taking something already done and going in a different direction. It’s why I strive in my reviews to focus on the artistic intention. Otherwise I’d constantly bemoan how nothing is good because it’s unoriginal, when the focus should be on what the artist is presenting.

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The Future of Pop Stars Probably Aren’t AI

I read an article on Pitchfork the other day where it was another puff piece about whether or not future pop stars will actually be human or not. One thing I definitely appreciated about the piece was how it went into the history of AI pop stars leading all the way up to well-known programs like Vocaloids. Otherwise I felt it was another “future of” puff piece, but I want in on the puff piece pretension. It lets me pretend my opinion matters to the occasional person who actually reads my blog. Moreover I feel the topic presented was rather short sighted.

Does the future of pop music lie in something like Vocaloids? The short of my long-winded opinion is not yet and not necessarily with an AI image as the pop star. There. You now have debate fodder.

Now for the long answer…

Even though technology is moving at incredible rates not much is geared towards creating vocal synthesizers musically. I’ll use Vocaloids as my example since they are currently the most well known for singing synthesizers. Vocaloids were developed by Yamaha, which also isn’t the best when it comes to any sound synthesized. There’s a reason it’s one of the “go-to” brands for beginners of something like piano. They’re relatively inexpensive, and it’s reflected in the quality. The timbre is tinny, the clarity is lacking, the synthesizer sounds nothing like the instrument in question, and the sound variety tends to be – in my opinion – poor. This is especially reflected in the older generations of their Vocaloid line. In addition to the typical Yamaha sound quality older generation Vocaloids also lacked enunciation necessary for singing. Based on other opinions of Vocaloids in the West I’m not alone in this sentiment. There were some modulations, updates, and newer versions where these issues were somewhat addressed.

One of the ways the synthesizer shortcomings are addressed is the newer Vocaloid editions use actual samples of singing and speech instead of analytics. Combined with the updates the quality results in less tinny, less muffled, and more importantly more organic sounds. The technology still has a ways to go, but Yamaha made some strides. The only issue I see is whether or not Yamaha will continue to keep improving the technology and updating the language library to improve the overall quality.

Vocaloids, however, aren’t known just for being software. Many know them for their mascots like Miku Hatsune. While I surmise this is the direction Pitchfork was heading with the “future of pop stars” remark I still disagree. One part of the reason is despite internet popularity it hasn’t translated to widespread popularity outside of Japan. Another part of the reason is with software like Vocaloids the mascots are copyrighted to where if one uses the image for fan-made work it’s fine, but for commercial use it needs clearance with the copyright owner—which if I recall is Crypton Future Media with Vocaloids. Conversely the software is free to use without the same restraints. People are free to use it in conjunction with other instruments while recording their own music. It’s no different than using other similar licensed software for creating music. This disconnect of the image of the pop star from the “voice” creates not a future icon in the way the Pitchfork article insinuates. Rather than creating a platform for holographic stars to appear on a world tour it creates an opportunity for the future of pop stars to be the music creators themselves. There exists a few examples with Livetune being one of the more prominent ones. While it’s fair to assume we wouldn’t necessarily see the artist featured in any music video, people familiar with a particular artist’s work still would clamor to attend a concert of said artist. Various artists in electronic music come to mind as established examples. If anything I see a trend of focusing more on the music thanks to increasingly available technology to artists not otherwise accessible in earlier periods.

More easily accessible technology has and will contribute to changing how we consume music. Music synthesizers, while full of potential, are not up to snuff just yet for serious consideration when associated with a particular image for replacing human pop stars. This opinion may change if said technology improves, but even then I think the future pop stars will not morph into some image of a particular character, but the image of the artist behind the song. The voice synthesizer will become another instrument with its own malleable characteristics suitable for the artist’s desired outcome. Rather than what will the future pop star be artificial we should as will future pop stars be the ones behind the mixer.