Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It's All in the . . . Timing

There’s an old joke about a comedian convention where the celebrity comics are scheduled to tell jokes at the event’s big banquet. Everyone in the audience knows all the jokes already because the jokes have been catalogued for the convention. To save time, the speakers decide to just say the joke's number instead of telling the whole joke. The first speaker is a star, a legend in the business. “Forty-seven!” he calls out to laughter all around. “One-hundred and sixty-two!” The audience explodes with deep belly laughs and leaps to its feet in an ovation. The second speaker, a newcomer to all this, thinks, “Wow, this is easy.” When it’s his turn, he strides onto the stage and in his best stage voice proclaims, “Twenty-six!” Silence. Undaunted, he tries again: “Eighty-four!” Silence again, and the audience is now shifting uncomfortably in its seats. With a mighty roar the newbie lets loose with his finale, “One hundred and thirty-five!!” Crickets. After his ordeal, the shaken comic approaches a veteran and asks, “What happened? I did everything the guy ahead of me did. But I bombed. Why?” The old comedian puts his hand on the younger man’s shoulder and says gently, “Kid, you just didn't have the timing.”

Music, like comedy, is all about the timing. And it’s just as hard to master when playing a minuet as it is to entertain an audience of seasoned showbiz types. A student can memorize the pitches and rhythms of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, but it takes a concert-level artist to bring out the special musical expressiveness of the piece that makes it a transcendent listening experience. To do that requires a command of timing. Everyone has seen amazing videos on YouTube of young children executing incredibly difficult pieces with technical mastery. But the common complaint that fills up the comment spaces is that the performance lacks feeling and emotion. What they’re talking about is “expressiveness,” and that, it turns out, is closely related to timing.

At least that’s what new scientific research asserts. In a project conducted at McGill University, a scientist has determined that timing, and to a lesser extent volume changes, are the key ingredients listeners use to determine whether a piece of music is expressive. In other words, after working hard your whole life to a metronome to develop your timing, you may have to abandon it to become more expressive.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, Director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University, devised a series of experiments to test how humans measure expressiveness in music. In one of them, he uses a set of Chopin Nocturnes, first played by a pianist with timing variations according to his taste, and then programmed as a MIDI file with no variation in timing or duration (all notes were quantized to their written, sheet-music value). Then a third track was created, which was quantized exactly halfway between the human and fully quantized versions. Not surprisingly, musicians and non-musicians ranked the original, musician-performed version as the most expressive of the three.

That by itself may not seem that revelatory, but that was just the first question in the experiment. In subsequent tests, percentages were changed, and factors other than timing were brought into the mix. In one listening test, expressive factors in the human performance were amplified by 150%, with volume and tempo variations exaggerated from the original human rendering. Interestingly, listeners found that too much expression had a counterproductive result—losing effectiveness if you take it too far. Human players, it seems, know how to appeal to human listeners in a way that machines can’t replicate. At least not yet.

Dr. Levitin gave his listening subjects music examples where only the volume was changed while the timing was maintained as it was in the original, and then the converse—where the timing was altered while the volume was kept constant. These comparisons are more difficult to hear, but listeners still came down on the side of timing as being the expressive factor in the majority of the results. In other words, of the two principal factors involved in conveying expression—volume changes and timing alterations—it is timing that humans find has the more expressive power.

In these experiments, all the listener had to do was pick the more expressive example of three. But since we’re all musicians here, let’s raise the bar. Take the test yourself, but instead of just choosing, say, answer A as the most expressive, go ahead and identify the other two choices, according to the info in the experiment's introduction. Try to identify not just the most expressive of the three, but which is the straight MIDI rendition and the other the “150% humanized” (or exaggerated) version, or which track has only volume changes and which one has timing changes. The differences are sometimes subtle, so to make it challenging, see if you can do it on one pass. It gets more difficult when the choices involve not just timing or volume, but timing and volume together, in various combinations. (The tests also included randomness in addition to uniform percentages.)

Go to the New York Times website and take the test. The article thoughtfully includes pdfs of the sheet music for further study. After you run through the experiments, try a different approach to your music. If you've been running scales to a metronome, working out with drum machines, or invoking your synchronized arpeggiator to quantized grooves, try injecting some rubato into your music. It will give you a new take on expressiveness, and it might even improve your ability to tell a joke.

Takin' Your Music to the Cloud

This week Amazon launched a major new online locker service called Cloud Drive. It is so named because it follows the current trend of “cloud computing,” which is just a fancy name for “online.” If you use gmail or yahoo mail, you’re already engaged in “cloud computing,” and all it really means is that you’re accessing something (music, email, word-processing functions) online instead of from your device’s internal hard drive, SD card, or other internal storage medium.

As far as digital data being moved around in cyberspace, Amazon is hardly doing something revolutionary. YouTube and Rhapsody have been streaming their content to you from the Web since their inception. But Amazon is unique and ahead of the curve in one respect: Cloud Drive is specifically targeted to music listeners and purchasers of music on Amazon Music, and it beat to the punch both Apple and Google, who were concurrently developing similar services.

Here’s how it works: You buy a tune from Amazon Music, just like you normally would. But instead of the file being downloaded to your computer, as is done now and as Apple’s iTunes does, the song is shunted over to your locker in Cloud Drive. When you want to listen to your song, you just “summon it from the cloud”—that is, have it streamed to your player. You also have the option of downloading it, of course, just like a conventional MP3 purchase. And you can also upload your own tunes, ones that didn’t come from Amazon. Amazon gives you your first five gigabytes of storage free, with songs purchased through Amazon not counting against that amount. Accessing your music—Amazon-purchased and self-uploaded—is smooth and elegant using Amazon’s browser-based interface.

Digital music vendors needed to take this step, and Amazon was the first, so they should be applauded for their forward thinking. Subscription music services are growing and the convenience of streamed music is convenient and reliable. It’s only the record companies’ tight grip on their product—and their cluelessness in taking advantage of digital distribution methods—that have prevented such services from emerging before. In fact, when tried to introduce the very same business model in the past, they were shut down by panicked but powerful legal forces in the record industry.

But Amazon isn’t so easily cowed by record companies. Since they already sell you music (as iTunes does), they’re just introducing the intermediate step of storing it for you. When asked by Billboard Magazine if he thought to seek licenses from the labels, Amazon’s Director of Music Craig Pape replied, “We don’t believe we need licenses to store the customers’ files. We look at it the same way as if someone bought an external hard drive and copied files on there for backup.” In other words, “We don’t need no stinking licenses.”

Cloud Drive users will enjoy several benefits. First, you don’t have to worry about storage space on your mobile device. You have access to thousands and thousands of tunes, but they don’t all need to be physically resident on your device. You also don’t have to keep up with the sometimes confusing process of synching several devices and keeping track of which one is up to date (a routine some of my non-technical friends still can’t wrap their heads around). Another bonus is the issue of backing up. I don’t care how careful you are, Amazon is better at it, and their servers will always be more reliable than any individual’s hard drive, DVD, or data stick.

The one obvious disadvantage is that you can’t hear your music where there’s no online access. And if you’re not in a Wi-Fi hotspot, you’ll eat up cellular minutes by listening to music. This will become more of a concern as carriers move away from unlimited data plans to tiered-usage ones. And there’s one aspect that may be a disadvantage, depending on how you feel about it: Amazon will now have one more way to track and monitor your listening habits.

Another aspect that may not be seen initially as a disadvantage, but that will certainly provide bumps in the road for everyone, is that record labels are being shut out of the “digital music locker” revenue stream if only Apple, Google, and Amazon can provide them—and do so without additional licensing from the labels for this new delivery medium (one that is growing in use). That will just spell trouble for everybody, if only for the distractions that the inevitable lawsuits will generate.

But the horse is out of the barn, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and there’s no going back. Once Google and Apple follow, the record companies will have to focus on getting a share, rather than trying to turn back the tide. Even with a few setbacks and sideshows, the technology of Cloud Drive and its ilk are a boon to mobile music listeners everywhere.