Liquid Notes | Using AI to Add Intelligence Back Into Music

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Screen 4Obvious statement of the year: Electronic music is everywhere. Or more specifically, (with its commercial viable surname), we speak about the explosion of “EDM” (electronic dance music) and its dual role both a unifier of the hundreds of sub-genres electronic dance music and simplifier of the not so subtle nuances of these different sounds.

I could go on all day about this but I’ll spare you. Point being, it’s everywhere and doesn’t seem to show any indicators of slowing down quite yet. And with growth in industry, there comes money and opportunities. The level is raised all around and the talented, hard working, or crafty individuals are able to propel. But with any growing industry, you get a parallel movement of quality on all scales. More awesome material also means more rubbish.

However, defining rubbish is a tricky thing when you’re talking about creative work. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in an industry where output is the goal, things start to look scarily homogeneous when everyone relies on the same tools, sounds, sync buttons, and formula for success. As electronic legend Tim Sheridan queries in his piece “Is EDM killing the art of DJ’ing?” it would appear creativity, ironically, is taking a back seat in this flat world where everything sounds the same.

Luckily, we find companies like Liquid Notes who are looking to re-introduce some depth and counteract this trend. By processing MIDI files through the Liquid Notes’ simple to use interface, musicians can make complex changes and chord progression adjustments on the fly, give themselves new ideas in a live environment, and overall increase their creativity capacity. Think of a painter, stuck on a piece, being given a whole new set of brushes and paint to take their art in a totally new direction if they desire.

We sat down with Roland Trimmel, the head of operations for Re-Compose, (the developers of Liquid Notes) to talk music, technology, and business. Enjoy!

 Liquid Notes is available as a direct download and retails for $175.

Thanks for joining us Roland. I understand Re-Compose’s operations moved from LA to the bay a few years ago. Tell us about your connection to Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles music scene is very important for us because of the connections. One of our team members, Gerrit Wunder, does a lot of work with Hollywood film composers such as Hans Zimmer. Gerrit underwent a high-class academic education at the University of Music in Vienna. He is one of the very few composers in the world who consecutively won both the prestigious ASCAP Competition and BMI Award for Aspiring Film Composers in Los Angeles. Of course, he knows a ton about harmony and music in general. And he’s been around a bit in LA. Besides, the original founder of Re-Compose, Stefan Oertl, went to the film scoring program at the USC Thornton School of Music, so there is a long standing connection with LA.

It seems like you have an extremely diverse team. Does that carry over into your product targets? As in, is there any particular demographic or population of musical artists and producers that you’re trying to reach?

Diversity is definitely the case with our team. We have similar but also different backgrounds, ranging from composers to DJs to specialists in artificial intelligence & machine learning. There is a good balance in there which is key for us to develop products that find its customers among a diverse crowd of EDM producers of all styles, film composers, and many more. Music is all about creativity and less about a particular style, and so is Liquid Notes.

Can you tell us more about what Karl does with artist outreach? Is the strategy to reach high profile DJ’s to back your software, or are you going with a more grass roots approach?

We do both. What you are always trying to do is have a famous artist talk about your product. But it’s very crowded in that space and as a startup you have to keep on trying to reach out to them. The biggest connection we got so far was Florian Meindl, he’s one of the most sought-after DJ’s at the moment, based in Berlin. He loves the product, it’s the first time he’s able to make some chords sound exactly the way  he envisioned them.

However, you need to build a solid base of grassroots people who support your product. Because Liquid Notes is very well suited for people who have a limited musical background and experience, we build on them to spread the word.

Let’s say they have the basics in music, and then you can teach them a little more and it helps them out immediately. Otherwise, they are left alone and it becomes just trial and error. And so they keep flying blind along the same well trodden paths.

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So what’s your particular background and how did you end up with a team of musicians?

I’ve spent nearly a decade in Internet and Tech. I grew up with music surrounding me. Many of my friends were into bands and started making music. The village I grew up in in Austria has a cultural center, Cselley Mühle, and it became very popular in Europe in the late 80’s with, for example,  Joe Cocker giving a gig in front of 1.000 people only. I don’t have a formal musical training and I never played an instrument, so I’m the one who basically asks the ‘dumb’ questions. But of course, over the past 3 years, working with my team, I’ve learned a lot and now I have a more solid musical background in the basics. I can explain things and have a good general point of view of the product and know exactly what’s good and what’s bad.

Got it, so I see the development team is based out of Austria?

Exactly. The development of the product is primarily based in Austria, with a lot of input coming from me sitting in the US. It’s the best of both worlds: we’re at the spearhead of technology in California, and we have an excellent development team in Austria. It stems back to 2007: Austria is a great place for a R&D startup. The country has excellent experts in all possible fields, competitiveness in the beginning is relatively low. And Austria funds outstanding business ideas with substantial grants. This provides for a more relaxed acceleration towards the next stage. In the beginning, Stefan spec’d the company out, modified his findings, and developed the algorithms with his team. Right now we’re  in the process of incorporating here in San Francisco, and the next step might be Los Angeles, but that’s still to be discussed. We want to build up a whole business development team for sales and marketing here in the US (in close contact with the big music production companies and others).

Could you give us a little bit of background on the tech and the algorithms that are involved?

It’s important to know that Stefan spent half his live doing scientific research–privately and with academic institutions, but also in-house–to tackle the question of why a particular song causes certain motivational reactions in you. The question seems very simple, but the answers to it are wild. It has to do with altered states of consciousness, trance inductions, neuroscience, and the whole body. When you go to a club and listen to trance or house where a DJ or band are playing, you may suddenly start to jump cheerily in the crowd from an ecstatic feeling. And if you hear the same song at a café, it may not do anything to you. Making a long story short, all the findings that he gathered on the psychological side was in parts implemented in the artificial intelligence in the program. More is to come.

Next we have three building blocks: One is music theory, i.e. the compositional structure of the music plus the theory of harmony. The second part of it is the whole psychological aspect, how you can optimize the music for certain conditions. We can use our technology  to trigger motivational responses, like for fitness. It can motivate and enhance your athletic performance, and this is also what you can do with the technology.

The third part is like a lot of machine learning capabilities. We had to feed our algorithms and models with a fair amount of data to get more precision into the system when identifying a song. It also allows the software to behave more like our human brain, with different possibilities for variation of a song to be possible.

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Definitely sounds like a lot of development went into the process.

The algorithms are very complex, and a lot of money has been spent in the course of  their development, which went along the course of about five years. In terms of harmonic theory skills, we’re now on the same level as a professional composer in most standard genres because the software lays all the musical key ingredient out in front of you. It knows the correlations between one chord and another, no  matter if it’s a single- or multi-track arrangement. Whenever you make a change, the program not only adapts every instrumental track automatically but also delivers you suggestions: options, so to say, from more conventional to less conventional with a color coding providing you information on the latter.

So does it become more of a creating or refining tool?

Assuming creating a song has a simple three part phase: Build a first set of beats for the underlying structure of the song, add some more instruments, effects, etc. to reach a higher level of completion of your idea, and eventually fine-tune it, I’d say it’s phase number two and three.

That is because at present Liquid Notes is a standalone application and does not allow you to add chords. It’s not perfect when it comes to the workflow. You need to grab a song, pull it through Liquid Notes, make your changes on it, and output it again. It can become quite tiresome. Consequently, with one of the next updates we’re bringing, you can actually start adding editing chords right in Liquid Notes.

Could you give us some examples of where this becomes really useful?

A musician could play a chord very easily on a keyboard and port it directly into the sequencer. That’s phase one from above, and that’s when you require a lot of skill and training if you want to do more. For exampole, sometimes you need to change your chord progressions to become more intensive and deliver more weight. Say, you’re working on a sound and you have a client sitting next to you. They don’t enjoy the outcome of what you produced, so you want to make some changes. With Liquid Notes, you can do this very quickly and add some depth to it – taking the song in a whole new direction, or just doing a minor fine-tuning. Instead of taking hours to produce these subtle changes, you make them instantly and have more time to work on other stuff.

What’s the development team look like man-power wise?

At different times we had nearly ten people working on this project, although in different domains. Stefan is the person who builds an arch from technical thinking over composition to psychology. Besides him, we employ software developers whose mindsets are deeply rooted in the field of cutting-edge algorithmic creativity. And then there’s one person in charge of all our backend systems, making sure that customers can buy the software seamlessly on the web. Last but not least, we’re also working with graphic designers who are closely tied to the music making aspect – not to forget Gerrit, and some other professional composers, DJs and producers that are involved in the development of our software.

Understandable for the level of complexity we’re seeing. Are there any other competitors in the marketplace?

Cognitone, based in Germany, is the only company that has been capable to deliver similar technology on an algorithmic level, yet even though both of us came up with the same idea for an intelligent  harmony & melody editing tool, our products and our approach differ drastically. We prefer a lean and clean method for easy usage and low entry barriers for starters, whereas theirs is an absolute high-end solution only for professionals.

So different markets all together.

Definitely. Cognitone caters to professionals. Their products are fairly complex to handle, definitely not for the average user. They created a very sophisticated piece of work and we think they’re really great. It’s just not a direction we’re headed towards.

We felt most users wouldn’t use 80% of the features of a highly complex product. Our goal, which I wouldn’t call automation, is more focused on putting all the possibilities right in front of you and making it easy for you to access them and use our products.

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Makes sense. So tell us about your launch and feedback process.

We soft launched two years ago and the first version that went to clients (that wasn’t beta) is a year old. We built everything up from the ground up, so there were a couple of targeted segments and target groups we had identified back then. The EDM crowd was one of them but we also tried to target others.

We’ve been working our way around it and there is a lot of work actually with editors. It’s always surprising to see who ends up being very supportive simply through constant and continuous work on different platforms (forums and so on) to reach customers. It was always important for us to identify who would be amplifiers and multipliers so you get genuine feedback.

So how has the exponential increase in popularity for electronic music helped over the years?

I think the easiest way to sum it up is that everyone is really excited with what we hold in our hands. Every project has its ups and downs, but you just go back to the drawing board and find out things aren’t so bad. We’ve learned an awful lot of things about the market, about the product and other related things, and received a ton of feedback we’re thankful for.

The motivation of our team is superb and it’s interesting that you bring up this EDM explosion, we never let it distract us. We saw it happening and figured there’d be a certain relevance for people who produce that kind of music, but it’s still very hard to reach them. Sometimes you feel like you have the coolest product on earth, then you get honest, deep feedback and it puts your feet back on the ground. *laughs*.

Sounds like an exciting time for your team. I’m seriously excited for you.

I feel like we’re going to either make it or break it. It’s become much easier for us because we have something that we’re very passionate about. Something special (technology-wise). The next step is to really lock in the distribution channels to sell enough product. At least so we can break even, and the on from there… Overall, the outlook is great, but you know how things are, they can totally change tomorrow.

Of course. Is there anything else you’d like to cover?

What we’ve experienced so far is breaking through the noise. We’re in a segment where there are a couple of big players: Native Instruments, Pro Tools, Apple, Ableton, to name a few. Those companies have deep pockets and spend heavily on advertising. So you can imagine our situation of being a small company which has put a lot of resources into our technology. There’s very little left for marketing and advertising. It’s a tough thing to advertise on, say, Youtube since it’s not exactly a consumer product.

But something we really have under our belt is just how intuitive the program is, and the potential that people see in it. It’s really great, we build from there.

So to cap our discussion let’s talk about how Liquid Notes fits into the “Is EDM Killing the Art of DJ’ing?” article. What’s your take?

We linked the article in a recent story on Liquid Notes because it’s a really great reference point for how people are using tools, playlists, sync buttons, and other bits of technology. On one hand, making things easy triggered the explosion, but on the other hand, you end up hearing the same things over and over again.

I’m getting the impression that Liquid Notes really helps to retain the creative aspect for musicians.

Definitely. There are a couple of things which I outlined before, with future development and making everything easier. But right now, for someone to be a professional musician, you actually don’t need to know too much, just enough. That is the real difference here: we allow you to play on a professional level, and by using our software you will learn a lot about music, and the many possibilities there are.

So creativity is key.

Exactly. For example, you look at fashion design, and you realize that there’s an awful lot of talent out there with great ideas. But to take things to the next level and really stand out you need experience on top of it. That’s what we’re trying to foster with our products, having it become the one tool to take you to that next level.

Got it, well Roland, thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate you chatting with us.

No problem at all! Our thanks goes back to you at TechZulu. It’s always amazing to find others who share the same interests as us.

Tim Wut

Tim Wut was once in pursuit of a paper-laden career in bankruptcy law. He now writes for TechZulu, covering startups and founder stories. He explores the inspiration that drives entrepreneurs and shares lessons learned in the startup trenches. Writer by trade, storyteller at heart.

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