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CES: Music Mastermind proposes a 21st century musical instrument

January 8, 2010 |  8:03 am

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CES isn't usually a place for mulling existential questions, but here's a couple for you: What constitutes a musical instrument, and what does it mean to be a musician? I couldn't help wondering about that after seeing a demo of a prototype from Music Mastermind, a two-year-old Calabasas-based start-up founded by a former major-label executive and a Wall Street trader. MMM is developing a music-creation tool that erases the line between video games and composition. It enables people to create full-blown, professional-sounding songs by singing into a computer or specialized portable device, then using a software band to provide the backing track. And it does so with the look and feel of a video game.

Co-founder Matt Serletic, former CEO of EMI's Virgin label and current owner of Emblem Music Group, said the software is designed to give amateurs a way to translate the melody in their heads into a song they can share. But by creating a community around the game, it enables would-be professionals to use the software to audition their material and build an audience for it. It also gives established professional recording artists a new way to interact with fans -- for example, by putting the vocals and instrument tracks for a song into the game and inviting fans to add their mark.

Although the software, which is based on Unity's engine for 3-D animated games, is still being developed, MMM provided a sample at a private party in Las Vegas Thursday evening. Serletic brought in a ringer -- Angie Aparo, a professional singer-songwriter -- to use the program's virtual recording studio, which was staffed by rock-garbed avatars on vocals, drums and bass. As Aparo sang a brief melody into a microphone wired to the laptop through a small mixing board, the program recorded it and tweaked the pitch to bring it into tune. (Aparo didn't need it, but one can imagine how important that feature would be for some users.) He then mimicked the sounds of a bass drum, snare and cymbals to trigger and record sounds from a synthesized kit, which the program turned into a drum loop. To fill out the song, Aparo chose a virtual bass and acoustic guitar, whose tracks were generated automatically by the software. (Users can change notes and chords as desired by adjusting some on-screen controls.) He was about to overdub some backing vocals when the demo gremlins attacked, sending the session into hiatus.

Despite the technical problems, the results were impressively polished, even hi-fi. It's obviously not the same as playing the notes yourself on real instruments with honest-to-goodness recording equipment, but it's close enough to be startling. That's why MMM's chief technical officer, Reza Rassool, calls the software "the first 21st century musical instrument." He, Serletic and co-founder Bo Bazylevsky consider themselves part of the movement democratizing the creation of music and reinventing how the next generation of artists gets discovered. Noting how karaoke shattered the wall between the masses and the performing class, Rassool said, "We think there's another wall that we can break, and bring people into the composers' realm."

Of course, the barrier involves more than just the amount of time, effort and money it takes to learn how to play instruments and record them. Most people don't create music (or art or books or movies) because they'd rather enjoy the fruits of other people's labor. Still, interest in music and video games is well-nigh universal, and MMM has combined the two in an instantly appealing way. Even pros like Aparo are drawn to the software. "For songwriting, I wish I had it now," he said. But wouldn't he miss playing the guitars and other instruments himself? "It's almost like a different instrument," he replied, then added, "That is the instrument."

The price and release date of the MMM software and its hand-held version are still to be determined.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey

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