Review and interview: Liquid Notes by Re-Compose through Bestservice.de
Would Beethoven been a better composer if he had access to Liquid Notes? Probably not … but mere mortals like you and I, that may be another story altogether.
by A. Arsov, July 2013
Back to the Future
In the past, I have done mostly electro IDM music. Whenever I tell people that I’m not a live musician, most of them imagine that I’m sitting in front of my computer, whispering to the monitor what to do, while my computer makes music instead of me. The rest of the world makes a decent living with their hands, while I’m faking to be a musician stealing jobs from real musicians.
And know what? Suddenly all those nightmares of the honest working heroes become a reality. Liquid Notes is a boogeyman that comes out of the computer to steal our brains, taking control of our lives. Run working hero, run… Stefan, Stefan, Roland, Karl and Gerrit will eat you alive!
OK, not really, but yes, they make it happen. They make a program that has some sort of artificial intelligence and – it works.
Liquid Notes is a “production tool that assists you with chords, scales, and harmonic movement with ease and efficiency.” That is a description from the Liquid Notes home page, and they are right. You feed the software with some simple MIDI arrangement, it will help you to develop that idea much further by changing harmonies, adding new ones without screwing the melody and making Stockhausen out of Bach. And talking about boogeyman, the aforementioned boogeyman team are one of the most supportive groups of people I have encountered in the music industry. We talked a lot even before they figured out that I had gotten their software for reviewing purpose. (I obtained it from Bestservice.de) They helped me to sort some issues even when they thought that I was using the demo version of their product. Their chief developer Stefan also offered me his mobile number while we tried to fix a problem with the virtual MIDI cable.
The software is fairly simple (and they promise that it will be even simpler in the future). You can start with some simple arrangement, a few bars filled with chords, bass and lead line, and export that as a MIDI file. The truth is that you can also use any other MIDI file, from any other author, changing it with the software and making it fairly unrecognizable. This can be ideal for remixing anything. After you have that MIDI file, you just need to open Liquid Notes, importing that MIDI, selecting the rank of every MIDI track, letting the program know if that track contains melody or chords.
More or less that’s all there is to it.
Open your sequencer with that MIDI and start tweaking Liquid Notes. Of course it is not an almighty program, so if you push those sliders too far from the origin, the results can be closer to Stockhausen than to Bach after all. But use it carefully and you will be more than happy with the results. Setting it up for the first time is a bit tricky, but as soon as you’re in the saddle everything becomes easier. I spoke a lot about work-flow with Boogeyman team, and they are aware of the complexity of the whole process. OK, it could be that I’m also a bit spoiled, my DAW is a bit slow, so all that open, close, open routine is a bit time consuming. They are working hard trying to find a solution, but no matter how many times you open your DAW (to make a simple arrangement), to close it (as Liquid Notes should be opened before the DAW) and to open it again, this program offers such rewarding results that we can easily forgive all those minor difficulties.
I’m aware that the simpler a program looks, the more complex things may be under the hood. So all you need to do is to watch the few video clips they have on their site, clicking a few knobs, dragging a few sliders and you’ll be a new Bach, or at least a more advanced you. Visit Bestservice.de, find Liquid Notes, and pay 159 EUR or 175 USD to feed the Boogeyman team. Maybe you are not aware about the fact that Stefan, Stefan, Roland, Karl and Gerrit are real people who spent several years working hard with their own hands to make this happen. Now it is your turn to whisper in the monitor!
Interview with Stefan Lattner – Project Manager and Chief Developer
SB: You are not just a programmer and hobbyist musician, as Liquid Notes proves. You clearly have excellent knowledge of harmony. Can you tell us a bit more about your musical background?
SL: Yes, I do have quite a deep knowledge of harmony and music theory, but this actually wouldn’t have been true if you had asked me before I started work on Liquid Notes. Certainly, I have picked up bits and pieces of music theory during my musical life but I could achieve all the tasks needed for my work by using my ears and by being gifted with a quite decent feeling for music.
I studied the violin and I am an autodidact in playing the piano, the guitar, and in song writing. Additionally, I went to a program of media technology in college where I achieved audio mixing and signal processing skills.
I love composing songs for my music group, “Mariachis de las fiestas locas”. And I love live staging as well as mixing our recordings. Currently, I am writing my Master’s thesis. The goal is to teach the computer in music composition by having it listen to examples.
All of that has led to a certain understanding of music theory, but most of the time I had to rely on “trial and listening”. That is an approach many musicians choose and that’s the philosophy behind Liquid Notes, too.
SB: Regarding harmony, I presume that you, along with the other Stefan and Gerrit are working together on that issue. Can you tell us, who does what?
SL: The other Stefan is our visionary, he chiefly deals with the perception of music and its effect on listeners. And nothing goes public without his approval. However, all the harmony-related models where formulated by Gerrit. I assisted him by transforming his theoretical models in a form the computer is able to understand. During this work with Gerrit, I gained my harmonic skills mentioned above.
SB: You may be bringing into reality the biggest nightmare of all purists – you have made software that almost makes music like a human – some sort of artificial musical brain. Where do you think is the strongest point of your software, to help us to compose or to help us to find harmonies that we maybe didn’t think to use – to surprise ourselves?
SL: Consider a few seconds of any musical piece. There are several properties one could recognise: timbre, tempo, scale, harmony, rhythm, several voices, genre, contour, and so on. We look at music as an interplay of changing and recurring properties and how they affect human perception. Putting it that way, we offer a tool for easily changing one of several properties to enhance the psychological effect on the listener. Therefore, all would be true: helping to find novel harmonies is one way to help composers. Enabling our users to switch through different harmonies effortlessly is a way to optimize the harmonic properties of a song. And so it is also a way to improve the quality and speed of the composition process.
SB: The program looks fairly simple, that probably means that you spent enormous time and energy to implement all the rules and interactions that are crunching somewhere in the background. What is the hardest nut you had to crack during the planning and/or programming process?
SL: You are right, Liquid Notes incorporates a hidden process chain which users might not be aware of. If one link of that chain fails, the entire process of harmonic substitution, including the recommendation feature, would fail. That chain consists of a track class detection, meaning that it classifies instrumental tracks into bass, melody, chords, etc. With the actual harmonic analysis, we then identify scales and chords in the arrangement. The recommendation table for chords connects, sorts, and organizes chords. It takes into account the previous chord and the actual arrangement of chord notes (e.g., inversions).
One of the most challenging links in that chain was definitely the harmonic analysis because we have to cope with any type of arrangement the user opens in Liquid Notes and therefore this module has to be very robust against “compositional peculiarities”. Another one was the reharmonisation module because there are countless possibilities to model a certain harmonic structure. But also the recommendation table was a hard nut to crack and we are constantly improving all those parts taking into account all the feedback we get from our users.
SB: Your future plans? What do you think that can be still improved in Liquid Notes?
SL: We are currently working on improving the usability and the coherence of Liquid Notes. It’s hard to find the right tradeoff between simplicity and providing the user with the desired information. For the next releases, we plan to include an overview bar to make the overall navigation within a session easier. Additionally, we are checking on ideas about how to display chords in different ways. Soon, we will extend the list of sequencers to which Liquid Notes can then connect automatically. There are still a few tutorial videos to do in our pipeline and also our webpage will get redesigned.
Finding a certain chord instead of having to stumble through the entire set of recommendations will be another necessary improvement to add. And there are virtually hundreds of little improvements waiting in our pipeline to turn Liquid Notes into a yet more mature product.
SB: Imagine that a Hollywood director wants to know more about Liquid Notes, so, we need a synopsis – just a two sentences that will tell us everything that we should know about your program (and to convince us to buy it.). How would you respond?
SL: Imagine that director and his composer sitting in the studio together listening to the new score for a film for the first time. And let’s suppose we are dealing with a digital score here. Under traditional circumstances, this is a situation full of suspense because a negative reaction by the director or the producers could mean that the score has to be redone from scratch. Unfortunately, as we know, directors and producers are always in the dominant position.
With Liquid Notes, the composer could simply push a few buttons and add a few harmonic twists here and there, changing the emotional effect of the score entirely. Not only could this safe the situation but even if adjustments to the score had to be made, the direction would be perfectly clear now. The composer can present several variations with ease, and he can do it instantly.
SB: I used to beta test virtual instruments and effects, always finding a way to crash the tool I beta tested, but my knowledge of harmony is not good enough to shoot down Liquid Notes. I wonder if here is any weak link harmony-wise that you intend to improve in the future?
SL: Not really, no. 😉 But truth be told, Liquid Notes in its current state is not a product to tackle complex counterpoint or similar intertwined harmonic structures with. But let’s wait and see …