Review of Abaltat Muse

Automatic Music Composition software for video editors

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 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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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…