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SMC 2010 conference notes

I've just been at SMC2010, the Sound and Music Computing conference. It's the first time I've been so one question I had was, what differentiates it from other conferences in this research area like NIME, DAFX, ISMIR, ICMC? What's its specialist subject? The answer is that it deliberately tries not to over-specialise, they keep the topic broad to encourage cross-disciplinary thinking, and there's a good strong representation of young researchers so it's a good place for fresh ideas and making new connections. My paper about timbre remapping came across pretty well I think.

One reason I was keen to go to this conference was that it was hosted by UPF's Music Technology Group in Barcelona, because that group is the main place where people have done research on very similar lines as my PhD topic of beatbox-based control. It was great to meet Jordi Janer whose PhD was about singing-based control, and Marco Marchini and Hendrik Purwins who presented a poster about a kind of rhythmic beatboxing equivalent to the continuator - give it a piece of rhythmic audio and it will try to continue by chopping up the sound and outputting patterns in (hopefully) the same style. The most interesting part of their work is the automatic approach to clustering, where they hierarchically cluster all the sound events, and then let the system choose the appropriate clustering level (i.e. how many clusters to lump the events into) at playback time, by judging how 'informative' the markov-model resynthesis is at each level of clumpiness.

Also interesting was Ho-Hsiang Wu and Juan Bello's poster about representing the musical structure of a song. We all know that many songs have repetition in them, whether it's verse-chorus-verse-chorus or something else - and we can analyse this automatically from the audio, for example by detecting repeated sub-sequences of chord patterns or timbre. Their contribution is to visualise this detected repetition using 'arc plots', pretty little monochrome rainbows that reminded me of the kind of information aesthetics practised by Information Is Beautiful. The end result is that pop songs create little plots which generally all look quite similar but with little shape differences that you could spot by eye, whereas I imagine classical music pieces would probably each have their own visual signature that could be quite different. Could be a nice way to get an instant visual impression of the musical structure of a piece of recorded music.

The keynote talk by Ricard Sole was thought-provoking, discussing the theory of complex networks, with some results of his created by applying this theory to languages, software, and other things. Sound and music wasn't mentioned, but I know it's useful stuff that was food for thought for many people. (In our group we have some researchers who have looked at this kind of thing already - when you consider the network of MySpace bands & friends, for example, that's a complex network where issues of small-world-ness, hubs, etc. Which reminds me, I wonder how Kurt is getting on with his thesis... :)

In fact some of the research presented at SMC was grappling with these issues too, such as the work by Martin Gasser et al showing that the problem of hubs in music similarity (i.e. songs that keep getting returned as good similarity matches to various input songs, even if they don't sound that similar) may be affected by the "homogeneity" of the audio in the music database.

The concert programme was packed full of things: lots of soundscape-based work, and more generally electroacoustic stuff. My favourites out of those were Impulsus I by Lina Bativa (an audio-visual piece which had a great narrative energy despite being really abstract), and Juan Parra Cancino's reacTable performance which I mentioned in my post about the reacTable.

But one of the things I was most grateful for was the deliberate non-art-music session. Electroacoustic stuff is all very well, but I can't generally cope with so much of it packed into a week and after all, this is a broad conference where many of the researchers are working on pop music, techno, breakbeats, and stuff like that. As the conference chair (Xavier Serra) said, it's actually quite difficult to get the non-art-music in the conference, since research conferences aren't usually their scene and most of the good examples of techno-enhanced popular music are quite happily making music in front of normal crowds... So, many of us were glad to spend an hour listening to Japanese pop made using Vocaloid, and a dance set made using Loopmash. (Sergi Jorda also told me he had hoped to get a dance music set in the reacTable concert, but the performer wasn't available.)

This is something that we need to work on as a research community - the SMC hosts did well, assisted by the fact that some of their own technology has gone directly and quite notably into music tech used by producers - but it's one of those things that's going to need a constant bit of extra effort to try and encourage that kind of thing into these conferences.

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