Apple's New App

Today, Apple released one of the most amazingly advanced apps it’s ever made—but one aimed at a fraction of its users.

It’s called Music Memos, and it’s for people who write music.
Apple had noticed something about songwriters. When they want to capture little musical ideas, they fall into the habit of recording them into Voice Memos, a simple audio recording app that comes on the iPhone. Apple’s music team thought: “Well, we can do a little better than that.”
Music Memos (free) starts out looking a lot like Voice Memos. There’s nothing there but a Record button. You’re supposed to tap that button and then start noodling on your guitar or piano, playing your idea for future reference. (Other instruments are fine—this means you, ukulele players—but piano and guitar work best.)

There’s no metronome, no click track, no count-off; you just start when you’re ready. (There’s even an Auto mode that begins recording as soon as you start playing, saving you the tap on the Record button.) Understand, your instrument is not plugged into the iPhone; it’s recording only from its microphone.

Your virtual backup combo
So far, none of this is especially impressive. The real magic happens on playback. At that point, the app can add bass and drum parts automatically.

I’ll wait while you recover from that sentence.
If you’re a musician, you must already be scratching your head. How can a little app create bass and drum tracks automatically, without any input from you?
Remember: there was no metronome. So to come up with a drum track, the app must analyze your playing and figure out what the time signature and tempo were, and then create a virtual drummer that plays along with you, even when you speed up or slow down. As you can see in this Music Memos Demo, it does all of this rather spectacularly:

But what about the bass? To come up with an automatic bass line, the software has to do something even more impressive: It has to analyze the harmonies of what you played, and determine for itself what the chords are.
This is a very difficult job. Software that can understand complex harmonies is every bit as amazing as software that can understand spoken English. Maybe harder.

There have been music apps that can transcribe single-line melodies,where only one note at a time is ever sounding (from a flute or a singer, for example). But for software to hear and interpret polyphony—multiple notes played simultaneously (chords), as from a guitar or piano—is astonishingly hard. It’s like asking you to type out the transcript of four overlapping, simultaneous party conversations.

Music Memos is among the first apps ever written that can perform that task—and as far as I can tell, the first free app, for consumers, ever.
How well it works

If you play something pretty straightforward—a blues progression or a fairly straight-ahead rock ditty, for example—Music Memos nails it. You record, you turn on the virtual bass and drums, and hit Play, and your jaw falls out of its socket. As long as you didn’t stray much from the primary chords in the key, the bass plays along perfectly.
(Unfortunately, it’s hard to hear the bass when you’re relying only on your iPhone speaker. It’s loud, clear, and distinct through earbuds, headphones, or speakers.)

The bass player doesn’t always get it right, though, when the harmonies are even slightly more unusual. It simply guesses the wrong notes to play.

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