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Review of Abaltat Muse

Automatic Music Composition software for video editors

By Steve Hullfish | July 09, 2008

Ireland is a land of fantastic music and musicians. I've been to Doolin, in County Clare and heard brilliant traditional musicians there. And for those with more of a rocker sensibility, you've got Irish exports U2, Van Morrison and the Cranberries.

The latest musical export from Ireland is a software application called Muse from a company called Abaltat, which means "ability" in Gaelic. This software supposedly analyzes a Quicktime movie and creates a custom musical composition based on the video content. I think most people would be highly skeptical that this software can actually compose a meaningful tune based on actually analyzing the true content of a video program. Its similar to the disbelief that any video editor has about the programs that I've heard of that will take your video footage and make a great edit from the raw bits and pieces.

I listened to the compositions for multiple Quicktime movies and couldn't really hear anything that the software was doing differently for specific content despite feeding it movies that had content styles ranging from frenetic, edgy national TV spots to documentaries to "talking head" corporate pieces. About the only musically positive thing that I could say about the compositions is that they all had nice, buttoned-up endings that were timed very well to the video.

Other than that, most of the compositions sounded as if you coaxed a dyslexic cat to chase a stoned hamster and a one-legged parakeet over the keys of one of those cheap synthesizer keyboards you can buy at a toy store.

The main problem with this software - and this could easily improve with future releases of the app - is that there are only really only six styles (called "bands") of music offered: Atmospheric, Minimalist, R&B, Percussion, Dub/Reggae and Ensemble. How can you pick the correct musical atmosphere for any and every video from six oddly chosen styles?

The "Ensemble" band is similar to a small classical music ensemble playing Bach. I would have included Beethoven, but he's already rolling over in his grave thanks to Chuck Berry. The "Atmospheric" band could have some potential for documentaries actually, since it steers away from having an actual melody. Berry Gordy - founder of Motown Records - will probably hunt down and kill the software programmers for what they've done with the "R&B" band style. Basically it tries to riff in a 12 bar blues style. Instead of the stoned hamster on the keyboard, they replace it with a coked-up guinea pig. The two minimalist bands also seem to be based on classical music. The "Dub/Reggae" style seemed to create the most realistic music, but that's probably only because the hamster was so used to being stoned. The "Percussion" band was disappointing as well. I think you'd be better off with a simple drum machine. It was also the one "band" that didn't actually come up with a well-composed ending for the video. When it comes down to it, you've only got four distinct styles to choose from: reggae, R&B, Atmospheric and classical.



In addition to the other problems with this software, the load times are also a problem. Each band has to load its own set of instruments, so if you want to explore your options by trying a few "bands" it'll take quite a while to load them all. Composing with a new band for a simple 30 second spot took several minutes, and that doesn't count any of the tweaking you should actually do to try to improve the composition and arrangement. Plus, even if you stay with the same band and instrumentation, for some reason it has to load all of the instruments every time you create a new composition with even a small change, so the software hardly encourages any kind of experimentation.

I did not do any serious tweaking of the original keyframes, (which the manufacturer suggests) though I did do other tweaks like changing the instrumentation, drum pattern, complexity and "jingle value." (The Jingle value determines how repetitive the composition is.)

I am a life-long musician. I've played professionally and my father is still a music professor. I know what defines music. The problem here is that music needs a combination of recognizable pattern and a pleasant degree of randomness or surprise. Good music is highly patterned. If you don't know what to expect next, it's annoying and unlistenable. And I'm not just talking about pop music or rock. Actually, classical music is even more pattern-based than most. I actually heard that some investment firms were hiring musicians because musicians are good at recognizing and detecting patterns.

What Muse delivers is much too random and patternless, even with the "jingle" slider turned way up. That's basically where my "dyslexic cat" criticism comes from. And with some of the bands, the "players" don't seem to have a clue what the other band members are doing. The musical stings or big percussion hits don't seem to hit on any visual item, like a cut or a bright flash, which I would figure that software would be pretty good at doing.

There are two kinds of compositions available in Muse: ANN, which is "rules based" and Color, which is based more on the analysis and color composition that the software comes up with from the video source. I tried both of these. The ANN compositions were boring and way too predictable and the Color compositions were senseless. These compositions can also be tweaked by having the user add keyframes to bring musical instruments in and out at certain times.

I read another review of Muse that was very critical of the awful synthesized sounds.
http://www.lafcpug.org/reviews/review_abaltat_muse.html> I would agree. But that reviewer spoke to a company representative about the complaint and it was explained to her that Muse isn't really for FINISHING the music, but just for composing. They pointed out that it is possible to take the finished composition from Muse as a MIDI file and import it into Garage Band or some other software that accepts MIDI and then you can use all of the instrumentation and effects in Garage Band to really complete your score. Her final efforts, after exporting into Garage Band were actually much better than the originals. And if Muse delivered a decent composition, I'd actually be willing to go to the effort of running around in both programs, trying to come up with something listenable, but there are plenty of good licks to steal and endless possibilities for hearing something that's almost what you want and tweaking it entirely inside of Garage Band without having to bother with Muse at all.

I'm sure that the producers of Muse will complain that I needed to tweak my compositions a lot more, instead of going with more of the plain vanilla delivery that the software gives you without too much guidance, but if you want to listen to Abaltat sticking a knife in their own backs, check out the three video podcasts on how to use the software that are up on their own website. The Ensemble podcast is the least horrible of them, but it only includes four timelapse images, so it's something a dyslexic cat could probably compose anyway. I think if you simply listen to the examples in their own podcasts, you'll be able to see just how bad this software is.



If this is the best that the manufacturer can do with their own software, I think you'll agree that this is software that you wouldn't want to touch with a ten foot double-bass bow. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd have to give this a 1, and that's saying something because I have reviewed software and hardware for more than a decade and this is the first awful piece of software I have had to review in all those years.

And to put the final stake in its soulless heart, it costs $495. There are so many other ways to spend that kind of money and end up with a far better result. Like getting your dyslexic cat neutered or buying an exercise wheel and some munchies for your stoned hamster.

But if you need MUSICAL things to do with your $500, then try tricking out your copy of Garage Band with a bunch of extras or trying Adobe Smartsound or SonicFire Pro or even head over to http://www.sounddogs.com and buy 10 cuts as you need them. Or music composition lessons. Or just use a cut from the latest U2 CD and spend the other $480 on the retainer for a good lawyer.

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Comments

Mark Altekruse: | August, 26, 2008

Dear Steve,

My extensive traveling schedule has taken me to many countries around the globe including Ireland where I have visited towns in County Kerry as well as Cork, Dublin and most recently Galway.  I share your enthusiasm for Ireland and its rich history of artists and musicians.  Though my travels are for business I also get to experience the amazing musicianship and artistry first hand. I also participate and attempt to bring some of this influence into my own music and playing by way of study and improvisation.

As you can surmise, I am a musician. I have co-composed music for film and commercial broadcast as well as composed and co-produced projects with some of the worlds finest musicians.  Many of these musicians are highly recognizable names that I won’t go into here (that’s why Google exists). You should also know I have worked in creative marketing capacities in worldwide positions for Apple, Inc and in the music products industry (Roland and Korg) and am now the head of sales and marketing for Abaltat. So much for my background as I want to get to the point, which is to respond to your critique of Abaltat’s Muse.

I realized, long ago, that no single creative technology for music, film and video or photography would suffice for every circumstance. It is always a combination of tools and technology, both old and new.  After many years working for companies focused on creative products as well as being a power user of DAW applications I have formed a simple belief about the use of technology in the creative arts: the measurement of any creative tool is its ability to allow the user to generate content that can be effectively utilized - in whole or in part - within a given project.  In modern filmmaking it is often the case that multiple technologies across the principle platforms are engaged to bring a story to life.  Including dozens of technologies deployed for the other half of film: that being all the areas of sound.  As the technologies supporting these endeavors have become more comprehensive so have each become specialties requiring high levels of expertise.  It should come as no surprise that, to date, learning to use audio technologies is as scary for most video editors as it is for most composers and sound designers to become full-fledged power-users of NLE’s.  Few people are true masters of both.  Though many indie’s are certainly getting their feet wet.

Although the sophomoric cynicism you used in your analysis of Muse is something professional readers can easily do without, we feel you were spot-on in many of your criticisms.  The simple fact is this: all v1.0 software from any manufacturer or developer is in need of improvement and Muse v1.0 was not an exception.  For our development team it is an ongoing search for and enlistment of professional use and feedback - a quest, of sorts, to acquire positive criticisms and validation in order to get the software headed in the right direction.  That is why we have been hard at work since the release of v1.0 (Nov ‘07) gathering feedback from video and film editors, musicians and sound designers all over the world and have incorporated this learning into our latest version, Muse v2.0.

Abaltat’s Muse v2.0 offers multiple improvements over v1.0 with regard to methods of composing and its available genres all of which enable users to create a great number of recognizable styles of original music.  We have even included presets for each of the Bands allowing anyone, regardless of his or her abilities in music, to quickly achieve results for a specific clip.  For the film and video industry, Muse 2.0 is poised to become an invaluable tool that:

- Enables video editors to create soundtracks that are supportive of the video and its associated narrative.
- Provides a variety of temp track files that can be shared across video editing and sound design/composition teams. No more language barriers - just concrete examples.
- Gives users arranging tools in the form of familiar keyframe events and keyboard commands enabling customization of the soundtrack: change instruments; alter scales; fade parts in and out; stereo panning; add harmonies based on color; assign principle or secondary colors to control the melodic and bass parts; and more.  These are tools both video editors and composers can easily utilize.
- Acts as an idea generator for composers and sound designers as well as educators and students.
-  Produces music without royalty-fees.

I recently showed Muse v2.0 to Craig Abaya who is the Director of Digital Media & Entertainment at San Francisco State University.  Craig is a filmmaker as well as a musician and photographer. I asked him for his impressions of Muse and he sent me an email stating, “I am blown away by Muse’s simple interface, its responsiveness to user settings and its ability to interpret a scene’s footage.”  Then he went on to say, “Nothing will sink a film or video project faster than music that hasn’t been cleared. Even the use of temp tracks has become a costly and litigious proposition. (It seems that) Muse solves this problem by allowing filmmakers to compose tracks that match the feel they are looking for without the fear of copyright infringement.”  Muse 2.0 will be installed in the SFSU Digital Video Intensive program beginning this fall.  We are thrilled.

I will work with you on a review copy of Muse v2.0 and would love to get your impressions after you have had a formal introduction to it. But this time, Steve, please use the tools built into the software for editing and arranging. You might be able to buy instant pudding, but there is no such thing as instant soundtrack.

With my best regards,

Mark Altekruse
Director, Sales and Marketing
Abaltat

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