Virtual Singers – are they a good idea or dangerous?

Skatergirl & The Bot Bois
I Love You Baby (I’m Such A Loser)

We are starting to see the appearance of Virtual Singer applications. I am seeing people be excited about them which I understand as the technology itself is fascinating.

I openly admit that these things concern me.

I am not at all worried that Virtual Singer AIs will rise up and usurp us for control of the planet. If for no other reason than that A.I. is still a pipe-dream. It is a term applied pretty liberally to things that are at best advanced heuristics – often not even that – just straight rules.

fans can tell that she is not a person; it will make their nerves jangle and want to turn your song off

These virtual singer apps are like Player Pianos – pianos that could play back a pre-recorded performance. It doesn’t make the piano intelligent or even remotely musical. Or at least no more so than a tape player or your phone when casting mp3s to your car stereo.

This is the heart of my concern: a good singer is good because they feel the words & story they are delivering and that feeling informs – drives the performance. A Bot doesn’t know what a boyfriend is, has no concept of love, feeling like a loser… So even if you have a complex system, where you can program in inflection and other parts of the performance, it is still not able to meet the complex subtle inflections of a real singer. Even an average one.

If we take Madonna’s first single “Holiday”, she isn’t exactly a great singer at this point (something she improves on over time) and the delivery is somewhat flat, but it is still enough to make it a joyful song (even if at no time does she ever sound joyful).

Skatergirl & The Bot Bois

Method: the video above is nothing but a quick sketch. This is what makers say virtual singers are for. Even there I have serious doubts as if the songwriter can’t sing their tune how do they know it is singable or even working?

I downloaded an app that offers a Virtual Singer based on my typing in words and a chord progression The bot will then spit out a Vocal Melody and the words sung to that melody.

I wrote every emo song ever in four lines to match my somewhat random chords and exported.

I Love you baby
You are the light of my life
Why can’t you love me
I’m such a loser

Skatergirl & The Bot Bois

Vocals (Wav) & Melody (MIDI) in hand I opened my DAW and dropped them in. I could have gotten musical parts from the app too but figured Rex Loops would be faster. Dragged in some Drum & Guitar loops and made a simple Bass part. Assigned MIDI to a piano.


Well kinda. I take it you played the video. Did it impress you – not really the song but the performance?

Technical Issues

Now completely putting aside the singing is a human experience thing, there are some issues with at least this virtual singer. I assume this will be common to most.

While initially the voice is almost ok, it goes downhill pretty quickly and really shows that it is not human. A few things to note:

  1. When the synth is backing the voice the voice almost disappears as the synth nature of the bot voice is really highlighted. This would not happen with a human voice.
  2. Look at the Spectrum and note that she is very heavy in the mids but totally absent over 8kHz. This is a real problem as the mix gets busier. She sinks because there is no Air to pull her though. Normally we might add a bit of saturation to spark her overtones a bit but seeing they aren’t there and she already sounds garbled we have nowhere to go.
  3. Note how poor her timing it is. Fixing this will make her seem less real again as we digitally smear the voice even more. A remotely decent singer relies on timing to create meaning – which she cannot do because she has no idea what a boyfriend is.

Compare this to the recent Mix Walkthroughs I have done with Marina & the Kats & Angel 7 to hear the difference against real singers. It is not an irrelevant technicality thing, as I said above, fans can tell that Skatergirl is not a person. It it will make their nerves jangle and want to turn your song off – as you probably want to turn this emo tripe off.

Marina & The Kats
Angel 7 – Genghis Khan

Bring Tha Noize

While I get the whole I don’t have a singer – I can’t sing thing, this Virtual Singer is a novelty (and one I may well use a time or two) but not a singer. Not even a Backing Singer. Not even a Song Prototyping tool – or Répétiteur as is the correct term.

With a bit of effort anyone should be able to beat this delivery or pair up with one of the trillions of singers dying for songs/backings. I know people seem to want to avoid that but The Beatles were great because it was 4 different guys (and Sir George Martin) in a room doing greater than any of them would do alone.

The magic in music comes when we add more than one person into the room. One Developer of a competing virtual singer commented to me that seeing real players had been replaced with Plugins, why not singers. Yes But that assumes that my BBC Symphony Orchestra plugin is remotely the equal of scoring & orchestrating for the real BBC Symphony Orchestra and having them play it for real in a real room. That was just self-justification.

You raise cost. Yes let’s talk cost. I know getting the real BBC SO on my choon is a lot more than using a plugin. But what is the Opportunity Cost? How much better would my track sound if I had the real BBC SO? You counter with will that could never happen and I agree as my Bandcamp earnings for the last 10+ years don’t even cover the cost of buying the plugin let alone the real thing.

This however is where my conversation partner & I diverge. I will not pretend that I have the Anythig SO on my track. I will not use a pretend singer and try to present is as though it is real in any way. Just like when Kraftwerk used Speak & Spell to “sing” on their records, they were open that this was a machine and therefore an effect – a social comment, not a singer.

The moment we start saying that a bot is the equal of a person, we have handed away all of what makes us human, makes us powerful. Again with the but I can’t sing. No, nor could John Lydon of the Sex Pistols. What a compelling performer he was. Andrew Eldritch of Sisters Of Mercy was all kinds of a mangled singer but again, what a performer.

To borrow from Nike: Just Do It

Working with the materials to hand is part of what makes a real artist. Get it done as best you can today so you have a result. If tomorrow you can use someone else to do what you cannot then grab that and do what you can that day so you have a result.

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