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Robot rock: how AI singstars use machine learning to write harmonies

Ed Newton-Rex and Patrick Stobbs have teamed up to create an all-singing AI Jukedeck

For K-pop stars used to Pop Idol-style fame factories, Tuesday’s concert at Blue Square Concert Hall in Seoul was still an artificial first.

The 3,000 screaming fans were real, as were chart-topping, body-popping girl groups Spica and Produce 101 — but all of the songs were written by a London-based song-bot.

Each of the tunes in the set had been composed by Moorgate-based Jukedeck. The artificial intelligence (AI) start-up was founded by 30-year-old former King’s College Cambridge choristers Ed Newton-Rex and Patrick Stobbs (Stobbs is also a Google alumnus).

Simply, the technology reads music and learns what notes, chords and combinations work in order to generate good music.

More technically, Jukedeck is a neural network machine-learning AI: the more data that is fed into it the better it knows when a G should follow a D, or when a crotchet is more “pleasing” than a quaver.

Jukedeck definitely isn’t about making musicians defunct, though. The K-pop anthems were a collaboration between Jukedeck and popstars at Enterarts, a South Korean music and entertainment company, who added “the human emotion” to the songs.

The South Korean girl group Spica performed songs created by Jukedeck's AI (Multi-Bits via Getty Images)

The AI cannot yet produce lyrics or vocals. “We don’t want to replace people,” says Newton-Rex.

Indeed, the Jukedeck team is made up of 17 musicians, with a third of the office devoted to drum kits, pianos and guitars, and a whole wall given over to vinyl sleeves (everyone who joins the company has to add their own record to the wall).

Instead, the founders see Jukedeck as a tool for making music-writing more accessible. “That’s the most powerful thing you can do with it,” Newton-Rex notes. “It understands music theory, so any amateur can jump up a few grades.” If musicians aren’t quaking in their boots, music teachers must be.

And the big brands have been calling: so far, Jukedeck’s work has been used as background music by Coca-Cola, Google, UKTV and the Natural History Museum.

Jukedeck has customers in 169 countries and since the AI went live in 2015 it has written more than a million tracks.

And the future? “I feel Liam Gallagher composing with a robot would be a viral hit,” says Newton-Rex. But although drum machines and pianos are no problem for Jukedeck, orchestral compositions and other more complex arrangements are still a way off.

“But we’re working on them,” says Newton-Rex. “Classical composers are the benchmark.”

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