Beatles live performance coming to venue near you

That's a headline you could read in the not too distant future thanks to a new technology that is hoping to change the way we listen to music forever.

The concept, created by Zenph Studios and called "Re-Performance", works not by re-mastering music in the traditional sense but by capturing an artist's or instrument's musical essence or DNA and allowing it to be controlled and re-performed.

"It will be a sea change", claimed Jeff McIntyre, director, sales and marketing worldwide of Zenph Studios, when Pocket-lint sat down to experience the technology. "Everything you've known to be frozen will be free".

The best way to get your head around the new technology is to think of the movie "Jurassic Park". In the film Richard Attenborough's character extracts DNA from an insect trapped inside a piece of amber to re-create living dinosaurs.

The key here, is that Attenborough's character doesn't just re-master the dinosaurs, he re-creates them.

Instead of dinosaurs now think musicians.

Studying how artists like Rachmaninoff and jazz pianist Art Tatum performed, the company has created a software algorithm that allows them to re-perform, not just their original performances, but anything they want.

"We know what makes an artist sound like them", says McIntyre.

The company describes itself as a "software company that specialises in the algorithms and processes for understanding - and re-creating - precisely how musicians perform".

What that means in reality is that where currently producers can create remastered tracks by taking the original and doing their best to enhance, clean and improve the track they are still having to work with the original recording, which could be poor, based on when that track was originally recorded.

Zenph Studio's approach is to work out how the musician and the instrument acts and responds, then get a computer to play that track again as a real-time, real-life performance, which in turn can be recorded using modern techniques. The new track isn't a re-mastering, but a re-performance, as if the musician was actually playing it even though the artist may or may not be dead.

The technology works by ascertaining how an artist strikes a note and then recreating that note again. For the piano, the company takes into account everything from how an artist strikes a note to their hand movement, how they play when tired (yes, it can recreate fatigue) and even, as for the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, how they play with their feet. For the guitar there is even more to take into account, like pad placement, fingernails, and bending of the strings, the list goes on.

The result is that songs recorded 100 years ago can and will be able to be re-recorded with modern recording equipment, allowing old songs to be revitalised and enjoyed once more "in surround sound or headphone listening".


An example:

These two files were made in 1926 and 2005: "before" and "after" recordings by legendary pianist Alfred Cortot. He's playing Chopin's third prelude, lasting 55 seconds. The recordings offer a glimpse into what is possible when a performance can be separated from its original acoustical setting.


The concept that Zenph Studios is pitching is a simple one.

"If we can recreate music rather than just re-master it, then music can be truly interactive", says McIntyre. "Who buys a paper map? The map is dead".

McIntyre believes that offering a more interactive music experience, just as consumers can with Google Maps over a paper map, will be the key to the success of music in a world that is quickly moving away from the "frozen" media we once knew.

"You will be able to change key, tone, make it sadder, happier as well as change the point of view or the location, making it sound like it is being played anywhere in the world".

In a move that will no doubt offer mind-boggling opportunities, the technology allows an array of options including the ability to record the music with different points of view as if you were in the audience, or even actually playing the instrument.

"Imagine if you wanted to hear the songs Norah Jones plays as if you were Norah Jones", says McIntyre. "We could re-record her performance with the microphone where her head is as she doesn't have to be sitting at the piano. Or how about if you want to hear what the song would sound like in the audience at a certain concert hall or venue. All is possible".

However, the one that is likely to really garner interest will be the ability to play "fantasy band".

"Re-performing artists that have been dead for years is one thing, but what about the ability for John Lennon to play in the Rolling Stones?"

According to MyIntyre the software Zenph has created will allow them not only to capture that musical essence, but also allow you to inject it into new tracks, which that artist has never played before.

"We've already proved it can be done. Earlier in the year violinist Joshua Bell played a duet with pianist Rachmaninoff. Working with Joshua we were able to produce a piece that was if the two artists had worked on the piece together. It was a completely new piece created by a living artist and one who had been dead for over 60 years".

But it's not just about bringing back the dead for wishful duet albums, (could you imagine Clapton and Hendrix, or Johnny Cash and Lennon?), but also re-creating music for video games.

"Beatles Rock Band was a defining moment in the music industry", claims McIntyre. "For the first time you could see execs acknowledging that music wasn't just for listening".

He is right, Rock Band: The Beatles and the Guitar Hero series have both enjoyed success in the video games charts as gamers clambered to play "musical instruments" in their living room.

But imagine if when you played the game you could sound like you were in the Cavern in Liverpool playing as one of the Beatles, in a recording that sounded like it was real thanks to point of view and location, rather than just a track being re-played.

McIntyre confirmed that Activision has already expressed an interest in the capabilities of the technology, hoping it will allow it to offer a product that has an edge over Harmonic's Rock Band offering.

"They want the technology like yesterday, unfortunately we just can't work that fast".

Zenph believes that there are so many uses for the technology that the possibilities are endless. How about repeat performances of an orchestra at a ballet or opera with the individual musicians captured so they play once and then get paid without having to turn up (the unions supposedly back the move, but it will be interesting to see it happening), or for teaching you how to play an instrument (why have Mrs Fairbottom from down the road when you can have Art Tatum?).

While Apple already offers the ability to download a select handful of music lesson videos given by artists such as Sting and Norah Jones via its GarageBand software package, McIntyre believes that a re-performance would allow the user to select hundreds of songs all at the press of a button.

So how far off is this technology?

It's here right now. There are already a couple of re-performance CDs available to listen to and we are currently touring with "Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff". The dead composer will be playing at Carnegie Hall on 6 November, 100 years after he first played in the US.

As for the "fantasy band" element, McIntyre believes it will take around 3 to 5 years before it hits the home, with consumers able to mix and match artists to create new bands, music and experiences.

The reason for the delay isn't the technology, it's there now, however it takes time to capture that "essence". So far Zenph Studios has captured just four artists; Glenn Gould, Rachmaninoff, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, all of whom are dead.

On the instrument side of things the company has done piano, with the bass guitar around 90% done with plans to capture all the instruments eventually.

"When we started it would cost us $14 a note to capture the musical DNA, now we are down to $2".

The biggest hurdle, however, is going to be legislation:

"We are breaking new ground here", states McIntyre. "There is nothing in the law about bringing back artists from the dead to play to a concert hall or stadium full of fans".

The concept is a licensing nightmare, who gets what, how is the pie divided, what happens about dead artists, is copyright re-enabled when it runs out? None as yet is accounted for.

With the music industry still reeling over the digital march and consumers wanting more interactivity and an enhanced experience, Zenph hopes that it can be the answer to their prayers allowing us a new array of options when it comes to listening to music in the future.

 



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