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The New ‘Ethical’ AI Music Generator Can’t Write a Halfway Decent Song

Admittedly, our testing artists did push Jen beyond the boundaries of what a “normal” person might ask in a query, veering more toward a “record store clerk” level of familiarity with recorded sound. Cleveland, for instance, failed to get anything good out of a query for “mid-tempo California garage rock influenced by ’70s Indonesian pop,” while Heywood expressed dismay that Jen didn’t seem to recognize his request for “city pop,” a type of Japanese music that came to prominence in the mid-’70s and has seen a minor resurgence in popularity in recent years. But to Heywood, that kind of breadth of music is necessary, especially as a musician.

“A lot of musicians or producers, when they ask something of each other, they’ll use bands and other artists as a reference point, like, ‘We’re going to go for a Prince type of sound,’ or, ‘Let’s add some Clavinet like Stevie Wonder,’” Heywood explains. With Jen’s lack of understanding of both existing recording artists and even some fairly common genres and instruments, it makes it hard to really land on something specific.

“I kept trying to coax some warmth out of it, like vinyl hiss or saturation or something lo-fi or vintage sounding, but everything it made had the same kind of hi-fi, video-game-menu-screen-type sound to it,” Heywood says. “They even give you ‘lo-fi’ as a prompt suggestion, but that didn’t seem to make much of an impact. If you’re trying to get a certain sound, like ’80s funk, the closest you’re able to get is something that sounds more like Daft Punk.”

Every electric guitar sound that WIRED and the testers generated sounded almost too clean, and it was virtually impossible to get it to produce a track that wasn’t in a 4/4 time signature unless you used the word “waltz” in the prompt.

Some of this, says Jen cofounder Shara Senderoff, is to be expected. The tool is in its alpha phase, and the 10-second and 45-second tracks it generates are “meant to inspire and provide a starting point for creativity, not necessarily a final product,” she says. New capabilities are coming, and because Jen was trained using a limited data set, it has room to grow and “will expand significantly in the beta phase,” Senderoff adds.

Everything Jen made under the guise of rock music, Heywood says, was akin to “the clip art version” of the genre. Cleveland was able to coax out some songs that sounded “like they could be used in a car commercial” or that were “getting into Black Keys territory,” but says more than anything, she felt like all Jen’s musical suggestions were just plain hokey.

“It felt like the kind of music I’d make if I were messing around with my friends, joking about the cliches of other genres,” she says. “I could see some of the songs on a super bad Netflix dating show, but nothing I made felt like a threat to me personally.”

But what about everyone who makes the tracks you might hear on a Netflix dating show? Could Jen be a threat to their jobs? According to Blickle, almost certainly.

“If you’re a producer with a small budget and you’re just trying to get your content out, now you can say, ‘I’m not even going to pay a designer or an animator. I can just use an image generator,’” he says. “The same thing is true for a music budget. If they can pay nothing for something that was going to cost them $2,000, then great, someone will think that’s $2,000 in their pockets.”

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