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In Computero: Hear How AI Software Wrote a ‘New’ Nirvana Song

Computer-generated artificial tracks by Jingươi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse và Jlặng Morrison highlight a new project that helps bring attention to mental illness


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Computers have sầu written & recorded a new tuy nhiên in the style of Nirvana.

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Pholớn illustration by Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone. Photographs used in illustration by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images; Agencia el Universal/AP; Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty Images


Ever since Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, Nirvana fans have hypothesized about the music he would have sầu made had he lived. But other than “You Know You’re Right,” the scabrous, throat-shredding meditation on confusion that Nirvana recorded a few months before his suicide, và a few comments he told confidants about potentially collaborating with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe or going completely solo, he mainly left behind question marks.

Now an organization has created a “new” Nirvamãng cầu tuy nhiên using artificial-intelligence software to approximate the singer-guitarist’s songwriting. The guitar riffs vary from quiet, “Come as You Are”–style plucking to lớn raging, Bleach fury à la “Scoff.” And lyrics like, “The sun shines on you but I don’t know how,” and a surprisingly anthemic chorus, “I don’t care/I feel as one, drowned in the sun,” bear evocative sầu, Cobain-esque qualities.


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But other than the vocals — the work of Nirvana tribute bvà frontman Eric Hogan — the song’s creators say nearly everything on the tuy vậy, from the turns of phrase lớn the reckless guitar performance, is the work of computers. Their intention is khổng lồ draw attention to the tragedy of Cobain’s death by suicide và how living musicians can get help with depression.


The tune, titled “Drowned in the Sun,” is part of Lost Tapes of the 27 Club, a project featuring songs written & mostly performed by machines in the styles of other musicians who died at 27:Jimày Hendrix, Jlặng Morrison, và Amy Winehouse. Each traông chồng is the result of AI programs analyzing up to 30 songs by each artist và granularly studying the tracks’ vocal melodies, chord changes, guitar riffs và solos, drum patterns, and lyrics khổng lồ guess what their “new” compositions would sound like. The project is the work of Over the Bridge, a Toronlớn organization that helps members of the music industry struggling with mental illness.

“Drowned in the Sun” (In the style of Nirvana)

https://youtu.be/L9yTuO7d1rk

“What if all these musicians that we love had mental health support?” says Sean O’Connor, who is on the board of directors for Over the Bridge & also works as creative sầu director for the advertising agency Rethink. “Somehow in the music industry, is normalized and romanticized … Their music is seen as authentic suffering.”

To create the songs, O’Connor and his staff enlisted Google’s AI program Magenta, which learns how to compose in the style of given artists by analyzing their works. Previously, Sony has used the software lớn make a “new” Beatles tuy vậy, & the electropop group Yacht used it to lớn write their 2019 album Chain Tripping.

For the Lost Tapes project, Magenta analyzed the artists’ songs as MIDI files, which works similarly lớn a player-piano scroll by translating pitch and rhythm into a digital code that can be fed through a synthesizer lớn recreate a tuy nhiên. After examining each artist’s note choices, rhythmic quirks, and preferences for harmony in the MIDI tệp tin, the computer creates new music that the staff could pore over lớn pick the best moments.

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“The more MIDI files you đầu vào, the better,” O’Connor says. “So we took 20 to 30 songs from each of our artists as MIDI files and broke them down khổng lồ just the hook, solo, vocal melody or rhythm guitar và put those through one at a time. If you put whole songs through, starts lớn get really confused on what supposed to lớn sound lượt thích. But if you just have a bunch of riffs, it’ll put out about five sầu minutes of new AI-written riffs, 90 percent of which is really bad & unlistenable. So you start listening through & just finding little moments that are interesting.”

O’Connor & his team used a similar process for lyrics, using a generic AI program called an artificial neural network. They were able lớn input đầu vào the artist’s lyrics và start off with a few words và the program would guess the cadence and tone of the poetry to lớn complete it. “It was a lot of trial và error,” O’Connor says, adding that the team examined “pages and pages” of lyrics for turns of phrase that syllabically fit the vocal melodies Magenta produced.


“Man, I Know” (In the style of Amy Winehouse)

https://youtu.be/jh3dNJIYO2M

Once the compositions were in place, an audio house arranged all the different parts to evoke the musician. “A lot of the instrumentation was MIDI with different effects added khổng lồ it,” O’Connor says of the finished recordings. Then they started recruiting singers. “Everyone that we brought in, for the most part, were working tribute artists for these bands, so they could kind of vày the inflections & make it sound as realistic as possible,” O’Connor says.

Eric Hogan has been fronting Atlanta’s Nevermind: The Ultimate Tribute lớn Nirvamãng cầu for the past six years. The band started out as a one-off lark for Halloween; an excuse for Hogan and his friends khổng lồ persize Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, & Nirvamãng cầu tribute sets. But when they saw the huge reaction their Nirvana mix got, they went full grunge. When the Over the Bridge team asked hyên khổng lồ sing on “Drowned in the Sun,” he thought the project sounded both unbelievable (in the most literal sense of the word) and cool. “After the conversation, I still didn’t really think it was a real thing,” he says. “And then they sent me files & money.”

When he first heard the music, he was dumbfounded. “I was lượt thích, ‘I don’t know how to this,"” he remembers. “I had lớn have sầu the guy who came up with the AI traông chồng mumble & hum . I would feel weird trying to lớn assume what would vày. They had to give me a little bit of a roadbản đồ, and then from there, it was fine.”

O’Connor & his staff put about a year inkhổng lồ research and development for the songs và another six months to lớn get recordings finished. As they worked, they sought out superfans of the artists to lớn help police themselves for potential plagiarism. They worried that the Doors-esque tune, “The Roads Are Alive sầu,” might sound a bit too much lượt thích that group’s “Peace Frog,” but ultimately decided it didn’t. “An audio engineer took ‘Peace Frog’ và played it for us,” O’Connor says. “He’s lượt thích, ‘This is what “Peace Frog” is doing; this is what this is doing.’ It’s different. OK, now we’re comfortable with it.”

“The Roads Are Alive” (In the style of the Doors)

https://youtu.be/xW6_QAcujr8

Nirvamãng cầu proved to be one of the harder artists for the machines khổng lồ approximate. Whereas an artist like Hendrix often built songs like “Purple Haze” and “Fire” with easily definable riffs, Cobain frequently played chunky, punky chord progressions that confused the computers. “You tended khổng lồ get a wall of sound,” O’Connor says of the Nirvana-inspired music Magenta produced. “There’s less of an identifiable common thread throughout all their songs khổng lồ give you this big chunk of catalog that the machine could just learn from and create something new.”


“<‘Drowned in the Sun’> is accurate enough to lớn give sầu you that vibe, but not so accurate to lớn where someone’s going to get a cease-and-desist letter,” Hogan claims. “If you look at the last quote-unquote Nirvamãng cầu release, which was, ‘You Know You’re Right,’ this has the same type of vibe. Kurt would just sort of write whatever the hell he felt like writing. And if he liked it, then that was a Nirvana tuy nhiên. I can hear certain things in the arrangement of <‘Drowned in the Sun’> lượt thích, ‘OK, that’s kind of an In Utero vibe right here or a Nevermind vibe right here. … I really understood the AI of it.”

Hogan says he especially appreciated the lyrics that the computer concocted. In his opinion, Cobain’s words were always “sort of a hodgepodge,” but he feels these lyrics are more direct without losing sight of Cobain’s typical messages. “This felt lượt thích a complete thought,” he says.

“The tuy vậy is saying, ‘I’m a weirvì chưng, but I lượt thích it,"” he says. “That is total Kurt Cobain right there. The sentiment is exactly what he would have sầu said. ‘The sun shines on you, but I don’t know how’ — that’s great. Essentially, what I get from the song is, ‘I’m F-ed up, và you’re F-ed up. The difference is that I’m OK with it and you’re not."” (When Hogan heard the music, he offered to play the guitar himself, but the producers declined, opting for a machine.)

So then is “Drowned in the Sun” some kind of Frankenstein creation, existing in defiance of God and the universe? “I don’t know if I’m the best guy lớn talk khổng lồ about ethics,” Hogan says with a laugh. “I mean, I travel around the country pretending khổng lồ be somebody.

“You’re Gonna Kill Me” (In the style of Jimày Hendrix)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIoCVX6F30E

“I think that you’re going to have a lot of people who are going khổng lồ vilify this & are going to lớn look at it like, ‘Oh, it’s the death of real music,"” he continues. “But I’m totally fine with it. Used as a tool, I think it’s pretty cool. I don’t know what’s going to lớn happen legally in the future. Once you start going down the road of where it starts to lớn really sound good, maybe then you start to have sầu an issue with that.”


Over the Bridge’s intention is to simply raise awareness about mental health resources; the organization runs a Facebook page that offers tư vấn, as well as Zoom sessions and workshops lớn educate artists and make them feel less alone. (They have sầu no plans to sell the tracks.) “Sometimes just the acknowledgment of one other person saying, ‘I’m feeling the same way that you are’ is enough to take people at least feel that they’ve got some sort of tư vấn,” says Michael Scriven, a rep for Lemmon Entertainment whose CEO is on Over the Bridge’s board of directors.

Scriven hopes the project also raises awareness about just how much work goes into AI music. “There’s an inordinate amount of human hands at the beginning, middle và kết thúc to create something lượt thích this,” he says. “A lot of people may think is going to replace musicians at some point, but at this point, the number of humans that are required just to get to a point where a song is listenable is actually quite significant.” Each song required work from O’Connor, a Magenta technician, a music producer, an audio engineer, và the vocalists. “We’re not going lớn push a button and replace these artists,” O’Connor says.

“I hope go deeper with AI,” Hogan says. “There’s so much more in this category that you can bởi vì.”

If you are struggling with thoughts of self-harm, theNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can also reach theCrisis Text Line by texting TALK khổng lồ 741741.

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