116. Speaker

We’ve been messing around some more with AI generated tunes (see Post 114). This time we’ve got the FolkRNN system to compose four jigs that we’ve strung together into a set that we can accompany on Carolan. However, there’s a new technical twist. Rather than playing the AI tunes back through an external PA system as we did over in Stockholm in November, we’re now playing them back through a bluetooth speaker that is fixed inside the Carolan guitar itself.

The net effect is that the whole set up is far more portable; you can just take the guitar (and its hidden speaker) along to an acoustic venue such as a folk club or traditional session to perform, discreetly triggering playback from a phone. There’s no external gear to lug, no need to find a power socket, and perhaps less chance of breaking the ‘acoustic instruments only’ etiquette that normally applies (setting aside for the moment the question of whether it is acceptable to play AI generated tunes, or to play along to a backing track!).

For the record, the speaker is a Boompods Aquapod that we picked up a while back for other purposes, and in practical terms it does the job well. It’s small and light, easily fitting through Carolan’s top sound port (which once again proves its utility for introducing technology into the instrument as discussed back in Post 104). It can be held in place with a few strips of velcro, has a good long battery life, and maintains its bluetooth connection for a long time, so you can switch it on and insert it before entering the venue, rather than having to obviously fish around inside your guitar during the evening. On the subject of fishing it’ also waterproof in case we should ever wish to perform underwater, but that’s probably left as another project for a (very) rainy day!

The idea of playing backing tracks back through the body of an acoustic guitar, essentially using it as a loud speaker, is not a new one. The Acoustajam is a small wireless amplifier and actuator that can be inserted into many acoustic guitars. Smart guitars such as the LAVA ME feature in built vibrators that do much the same thing and can be used to add effects such as reverb, delay and chorus to your playing, a technique that is is also used in Yamaha’s Transacoustic guitars.

So how does it sound? Here’s a rough test of playing along to the new jigs. All sound is coming through the body of guitar (as recorded on a iPhone). It’s probably good enough to play out somewhere in my opinion, though the AI’s acoustic guitar voice is still a bit harsh, and it’s difficult to maintain the balance of volume between that and the accompaniment (at times my accompaniment is overwhelming the melody). It would be better if the AI track could somehow respond to my playing, at least by raising and lowering its volume.

This quick and dirty experiment raises some wider thoughts. Having the AI generated sound emanate directly from the guitar strengthens my own feeling that the AI has become part of the instrument. There is a growing sense here that Carolan could become an intelligent guitar that can recommend, compose and play tunes. Perhaps it might even start to do this autonomously? Given that the guitar has always had a distinct persona, that of a roving bard (see Post 73), there is a growing and playful sense here of the instrument as being the embodiment of some musical character. Could it become more of a fellow musician, a co-creator of music, than a musical tool? If so, how might this change my relationship to it? Could this be a creative angle to explore that might lead in new surprising directions? Carolan’s persona as an autonomous musician feels nascent right now, but perhaps it will begin to emerge more strongly over the coming years?

It is perhaps not so fashionable to talk of AI actually being ‘intelligent’, at least in research circles. While the early pioneers of AI were keen to consider whether it could acquire a human-like intelligence, most notably Alan Turing and his famous Turing Test, the AI research community currently seems to me more focused on thinking of AI, especially machine learning, as a powerful tool for people to use rather than an autonomous personality. Maybe it’s time to revisit this, at least in a musical context. Not that I’m claiming that an AI-enhanced Carolan guitar is actually intelligent like a human. Rather, and more subtly, the question is whether it benefits me as a human player to imagine that it is a persona. Does imagining Carolan to be an AI embodied as a guitar change my attitude towards how I approach it as a human player, potentially unlocking some new creative potential in my own playing?

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