Both Microsoft and Apple launches Active Music software

Over the last few months I have saved up a number of drafts for blog entries, and am currently trying to get some of them online, while deleting others. Here’s one on active music software, and how both Microsoft and Apple try to get into this field.

Active music is about creating solutions where the user experience is that of a participatory nature, as opposed to the (mostly) passive act of listening to pre-recorded music. There have been quite a lot of research on this over the last years, so it is great to see that this is starting to be incorporated in commercially available products. Early this year both Microsoft and Apple launched exciting new music software. The approaches are different, but both of them give users a more active music experience.

I wrote an entry about the previous version of Garageband some years ago, and at that time Apple made it possible to play along with some prerecorded tracks using the “Magic GaragBand Jam”. Now, in the ’09 version of Garageband they also introduce the possibility to learn to play (guitar and piano only) from various artists. This follows in the tradition of introductory courses on VHS tapes and DVDs, but it clearly becomes more interactive when you can do it on your computer. I guess you can also use the “Magic GaragBand Jam” to play along your pieces while practising. Apple has also included some guitar effects, so GarageBand is clearly in transition from being a sequencer for compositional use only, to be more of an interactive tool for performers.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has launched Songsmith. While Apple offers only pre-recorded tracks to play along with, Songsmith has a “virtual listener” that finds the pitch you are singing in and adds accompaniment that matches. Everyone that has tried to do pitch extraction and automatic harmonic accompaniment knows that this is not a trivial task, and it sounds like Microsoft has done a fairly good job in making this work seemlessly (at least from the demo…). Now let’s try to sing some jazz tunes with complex harmonies and see how it can handle that…

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.