The PC is a powerful platform for music production, but software that crams in as many sophisticated features as possible often leaves casual users out in the cold.
Microsoft’s Songsmith is refreshingly different; it’s a fun tool that automatically generates a backing track for anything you sing.
Its simple approach makes it one of the most entertaining and inclusive music-making packages we’ve seen. It feels like a Wii console game, with an air of wholesome family fun and controls so easy that a five-year-old could master them. However, unlike musical games such as Guitar Hero, Songsmith is a genuinely creative experience, with a tangible result.
You start by choosing a musical genre from a list of 30, ranging from bluegrass to techno. Most of these sound sanitised and naff, but in a way that’s part of the software’s charm. Next, you choose a tempo, and then you’re straight into singing your vocal along to a drumbeat. Any microphone will do for recording, including a headset.
Within a couple of seconds of clicking Stop, Songsmith has analysed the vocal melody and constructed an accompanying chord sequence for the virtual backing band to play. Its knack not only for following the voice in a meaningful way but also for generating chords that have an internal continuity and balance is remarkable. It struggles to make musical sense of tuneless wailing, but we can hardly hold this up as a criticism of the software.
Two sliders marked Happy and Jazzy change the generated chord sequence to the user’s taste. A low Happy value favours minor chords, while a high value favours major chords. Meanwhile, the Jazzy slider varies from simple chords to a seemingly random succession of fruity chords. A new chord is picked each bar, but it’s possible to change this to two per bar or every other bar. You can also alter individual chords by picking from a list of suggestions or typing one in manually. Doing the latter requires a pretty good understanding of harmony, not least because the software doesn’t recognise the # key. This means that F# must be entered as its enharmonic equivalent, Gb. However, this won’t affect those who aren’t bothered about specific chord choices and just want to have some fun. After recording the vocal and tweaking the Happy and Jazzy sliders, it’s not too late to choose another genre from the drop-down list for an instant remix, or to change the individual instruments in the Mixer settings.
Anyone who is serious about songwriting will become frustrated by the software’s inability to vary the intensity of the backing track, among other limitations, but this software isn’t really for them. Songsmith is about entertainment as much as creativity, and it gets the balance just right. If you’re tempted, download the demo, which is fully functional for six hours’ use. You may find that six hours is enough to get as much as you can from it – the novelty of hearing your voice with an instant backing track soon wears off, so Songsmith’s longevity relies on creative input and at least a smidgeon of talent. However, if you fancy yourself as a bit of a crooner, we bet that after six hours you’ll be hooked.