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Breakthrough Songwriting with Orb Producer Suite


Orb melody
I've been using Logic Pro for a few years now (and GarageBand before that) and have always marveled at how good the Drummer function is. You can choose one of several styles (Rock, R&B, Songwriter...) then pick a drummer (Duncan, Logan, Kyle...) and you get a great drum track that sounds like a human. You can have the drummer track follow another track (typically the bass track) and there are controls to adjust the volume / complexity, fills, etc. I used the Drummer feature extensively on my rock opera and it sounds like a real drummer, even to my drummer friends. (Added bonus: at least one person is playing in time!)

I've wondered why there aren't additional features like this for automatic accompaniment, like Band-in-a-Box but with a user interface from the 21st century. (Yes, Band-in-a-Box pioneered this approach, but they seem to delight in cramming more and more features and musical styles over several decades making the product somewhat byzantine.)

To my delight, I recently discovered Hexachords Orb Producer Suite 2.0. It's a series of four inter-connected plug-ins: Orb Chords, Orb Bass, Orb Arpeggio and Orb Melody all for 99 EUR. The suite operates as VST plug-ins and work with any major DAW. I took it out for a spin this weekend and found it to be a great experience. 

Orb chordsWhat the Orb Producer Suite does is automatically generate musical patterns. You can pick from categories of Chord Progressions (minor, major, epic, dark, uplifting...), set the key, tempo, how many bars and then Orb does the rest. If you don't like what it comes up with, you can adjust several parameters (density, complexity, polyphony, spread...) or just re-generate again until you get something you like. I went for a pretty straightforward I-V-IV-II main chord sequence in the key of D, that is D A G E. Once you've set the chord sequence, whenever you generate a bass, arpeggios or melody it will lock-in with the chords and scale you've set.

Orb synth presetsThe Orb Producer Suite includes a pretty decent wavetable synth with dozens of worthwhile presets. I opted not to use the synth except to evaluate the parts, and once I got something I liked, I dragged and dropped it into Logic Pro and used its built-in synths and MIDI instruments. 

Of course, some of what Orb Producer Suite generates sounds awful, but with a bit of adjustment you can get something that sounds quite good. In fact, about 95% of this song was generated by Orb Producer Suite. I made a few adjustments to the MIDI tracks to vary the solo with a few staccato notes and to make the horn stabs sound more, ah, horn-like. But the bass track, the arpeggios are all 100% as generated. 

The end result may or may not be your cup of meat, but I can honestly say, it's unlikely I could have come up with the melody on my own. My contribution (other than the slight changes to the MIDI) was in deciding which of the dozens of generated parts sounded good and then picking the appropriate arrangement in Logic Pro including the instruments, effects, mix, adding a bridge, adding horns and strings (also generated by Orb Producer Suite), adding a Drummer track, and so on.

Orb parametersOrb Producer Suite claims to be AI-powered, which might be true, or it might be marketing speak for some basic if-then-else logic about what chords or notes go well together.

Some of the melodies or bass parts generated by Orb Producer seemed more random than musical to me, but clicking again or adjusting the parameters helped me narrow in to the kind of pattern that I wanted. I look forward to working more with Orb Producer to help me break out the usual I-IV-V  / pentatonic rut that I often find myself in.  

While Orb Producer Suite works great, Hexachords has a bit of a mixed reputation. They had previously shipped a comprehensive AI-powered DAW called Orb Composer which, while very powerful, also was apparently rather buggy. I think they are turning around their reputation with the Orb Producer Suite. I found no major problems while using it in Logic Pro. (It stuttered a few times on playback, repeating the first bar, and I had to restart Logic pro once.)  

Sadly, it looks like Orb Composer is currently no longer supported by the company. I'm hoping they create a new more full-featured version of Orb Composer that builds on what they've shipped with Orb Producer Suite 2.0.

What do you think? Can AI help humans compose music? Have you tried any other generative music programs? Let me know in the comments below.

(Update: I added a few more tracks on Soundcloud in different styles.)

Jean-Michell Jarre's EON app

Jarre eon

I must admit, I've fallen down the rabbit hole into synth nerdvana lately. I'm not sure, maybe it was with Daft Punk's demise, and a Sound Opinions podcast that mentioned French synth pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre. I was vaguely familiar with Jarre's breakthrough 1976 instrumental album Oxygène. I was mostly listening to classic rock back then, before the 1977 new wave / punk tidal wave from the UK. Somehow, Jarre's work never really surfaced again for me, despite my recent interest in the Krautrock Motorik synth sound of Krafwerk, Neu! and similar proggy instrumental artists like Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.  

A bit of research revealed that Jean-Michel Jarre (or JMJ as he's known), despite turning 72, has remained prolific for 50 years with Guinness record-breaking concerts in Paris, Houston, China and Moscow. More interesting, he'd continued to delve into new technologies including including Virtual Reality and releasing a generative music application called EōN.

EōN is basically an infinite album. It's based on seven hours of Jarre's work, presumably thousands of samples, that get combined into unique, unrepeated songs.  The app is $9 on iOS and twice that (!) on Mac OS. An Android version is in the works. The app runs offline without internet connection and requires little battery power to run in the background. 

I cannot recommend this app enough. For anyone interested in generative music, or synth music in general, this is an amazing application. It generates unique and interesting instrumental music. Of course, whether you like the app will depend on whether you like Jean-Michel Jarre. Personally, I find it fascinating and I've been listening to it non-stop. The music ranges from ambient background synth pads to light industrial / techno EDM.

I have listened to EōN for more than 100 hours at this point and I can't say I've heard anything repeat. I will occasionally recognize an ambient sound (variations of water flowing) or a particular clacking drum sound, but that's it. The app also generates some interesting trippy graphic patterns, though mostly I'm using this with the display off.

I find EōN is great for background music while working, writing, reading, running, driving, you name it. Tracks mostly blend together seamlessly, but once in a while (maybe 2-3 times so far) I've found a song doesn't work for me, in which case you just hit the "next" button and move on to something else.

You can find some samples on Youtube and there's also a limited edition Snapshots of EON album. (Though it costs way more than the application, so I'm not sure why you would want that.)

I find EŌN to be much more interesting and compelling music than other generative music applications I've seen. It's got a mix of styles, textures, beats, instruments and effects that keeps me engaged. Brian Eno has certainly done some pioneering work in this area and his apps are more interactive, but the music is, frankly, boring. (Of course, that's a matter of taste. Some people like Music for Airports.)

The EŌN app was developed in conjunction with iOS synth developers BLEASS systems who built the audio engine and audio algorithms. The graphics were developed with Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo. 

My only wish is that the application had just a hint of interactivity. For example, I would find it interesting to know how many hours or songs I've played. Presumably songs could be recreated with a unique seed and it would be cool if you could share your favorites with other users of the app or recall them later, perhaps generating interesting random names. As it stands you can record 30 second fragments in realtime, but once a song has played, it's gone. And if you were connected, it would be fantastic to see a map of other EON listeners and somehow share your favorites or vote on tracks.

What's clear is that despite the lack of interactivity (or perhaps because of it) you are listening to music that has been designed by JMJ himself. I'm fascinated to understand what kind of rules are behind the generation. Does he build songs up from the bass line and/or rhythm? Are sound samples modified at runtime? How is the instrumentation determined? How does one song evolve into another?

I would love there to be a more general-purpose generative application from BLEASS that exposed more of the rules, perhaps with other artists samples. One can easily imagine a Kraftwerk or Neu! flavored application that generated Motorik music. Or heck, why not an app where you could load your own samples into a massive library, control the instruments and create your own rules. Zappa created a technique called Xenochrony where he re-purposed guitar solos into different songs to interesting effect. Why not do that for any instrument or sample? Just imagine what you could generate with samples from Erik Norlander on the Uno Synth Pro.

EŌN opens up a fascinating new era of generative music and is a new milestone in the creative arts.