Inside Abbey Road Studio’s first-ever hackathon for music innovation

Eleanor Halls

Eleanor Halls on what happened when 100 of the brightest developers in music and tech came together this weekend

13 November 2018 08:30

‘With the amount of IQ in this room, we should be conquering the unknown world, not hacking music,’ delivers the CEO and founder of online music sample database WhoSampled to a pleased looking crowd of tech buffs spread across Abbey Road’s infamous Studio One – the world’s first and largest purpose-built recording studio, whose 87-year-old floors have felt the tread of everyone from the Beatles and Pink Floyd to the entire Star Wars cast. It’s 10.30 am on Saturday November 10: the morning of Abbey Road’s first ever hackathon event, in partnership with Microsoft and app developer Miquido, and the first of a planned series.

The theme? The future of music creation and innovation using artificial intelligence. Producers, musicians and developers between 20 and 50 years old, from across the world, are here to form teams and engage in a battle of ideas over a gruelling 24-hour period with no sleep. Some of them – huddled by the tins of instant coffee and hot water dispensers which the Europeans won’t go near – are still jet lagged from US flights. Supported by a team of Abbey Road engineers, producers and musicians, on Sunday they’ll pitch their ideas to a panel of industry experts, including Isabel Garvey, Managing Director of Abbey Road Studios, and David Hawkes, Managing Director of Commercial (UK) Universal Music Group. Each pitch must be pegged to one of the hackathon’s set challenges, including: ‘Can we design an instrument for the future that is more inclusive in terms of ability, mobility, skill or budget? Does an instrument have to be one object played by one person?’; ‘Can a computer help DJs find similar tracks with similar qualities including not just rhythm, tempo and key, but also mood and lyrical theme to help them create a set?’ and ‘Could you train an AI to jam with you based on certain cues?’ The end goal is that Abbey Road’s incubator Abbey Road Red will take on a winning idea as a start-up, adding to the studio’s existing 14 start-ups, which have together raised over £25 million so far.

The hackathon comes at an important time in music; the industry’s ‘moneyball moment’ as claimed by the Financial Times in July. With the surging popularity of streaming giants such as Spotify and YouTube comes mountains of new data, from user preferences to music trends. Data scientists know more about music consumption than ever before. ‘The industry was slow to change, but this move towards data science through streaming has changed everything,’ says Krzysztof Kogutkiewicz, CEO at Miquido. ‘Today, I hope Abbey Road can change the course of music history once again.’ As we continue to harness big data analytics and the use of AI becomes democratised, the future of music, from how sound will be created to how AI can be trained to compose and play music, seems limitless. Case in point: as hackers begin to mingle, Kris Halpen, a musician who suffers from cerebral palsy and so can no longer play his instruments, begins a bizarre and captivating performance using a pair of Mi Mu gloves, which, pioneered by Imogen Heap and also used by Ariana Grande, capture movement via flex sensors to play anything from the drums and bass to piano chords. An hour prior, Chirp, a new audio start-up, showed the room how to transmit data as sound waves. ‘This feels like a watershed moment,’ says Karim Fanous, Abbey Road Red’s Innovation Manager. ‘The music industry was always a bit resistant to innovation and machine intelligence, but now it’s finally happening and underpinning the whole value system.’

Data scientists know more about music consumption than ever before.

While this may be a watershed moment for innovation, for diversity, some hackers think it’s the same old story. ‘It’s just a bunch of middle-class white men,’ says one male developer in his thirties. ‘There’s no diversity of thought. I wish there were more women here.’ Looking around the room, I can see perhaps 20 women and 80 men. I ask Fanous, who co-organised the hackathon, what he thinks. ‘I think it’s young and diverse and I think it’s just right,’ he says. Seeing my doubtful expression, he bristles, ‘OK, let’s count the number of women then, shall we?’ before picking out female staff members from Abbey Road, rather than any hackers. ‘OK, I suppose it’s a reflection of tech and of the typical Dev demographic,’ he concedes. ‘You’re right, there’s not enough [women] in the room. And we hope at the next one there will be more.’ And what about people of colour? Again, I can only see a handful. ‘I disagree,’ says Fanous (who is white), now very irritated. ‘We’re veering off topic, so I don’t want to comment on gender diversity or equality although I am pro all of that.’

Noelle LaCharite, Leading Applied AI DevEx at Microsoft and a vocal advocate of women within tech, who has attended over 1000 hackathons and is mentoring the hackers this weekend, says ‘we have a long way to go in the tech industry. Many times, I am the only woman on this stage. Or often if there are women on the stage we’re not speaking. But at Microsoft we’re trying to prove that diversity of thought in product development actually exponentially increases its success. We made sure we spoke to Abbey Road about this. I actually feel pretty good about where we are in this room here today.’ Two other women I speak to at the hackathon also praised the event for its diversity, but all three women then caveated that their impressions were skewed from their general experiences of being the only women at tech events. It’s worth pointing out that the music industry, too, is imbalanced. New research from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released in January, which collected data from across 600 songs each year from 2012 to 2017, found that only 22 per cent of musicians are female, eleven per cent of songwriters are female, and the ratio of male to female producers across 300 popular songs was 49 to one. ‘At least it’s much better than aviation or agriculture…’ says LaCharite, trying to remain positive.

Suddenly, a giant gong, strung up on a wooden tepee structure, is sounded and the room hushes. It’s time to start hacking.

While this may be a watershed moment for innovation, for diversity, some hackers think it’s the same old story.

Twenty-four hours later, the hackers – eyes startled from Red Bull, each pressing a laptop to their chest like a second heart – present their ideas via live demos. Three key themes emerge: accessibility, collaboration, and heightened consumer experience, suggesting the industry’s most obvious next steps. For instance, several ideas catered to disabled musicians, from Face Beat – allowing composers to create music through facial recognition, with different instruments triggered by a raised eyebrow or a flared nostril – to a T-Shirt that creates music through chest sensors and body heat. To simplify the creative process, real-time lyric-generator Lyra promised to help out lyricists in need of inspiration by extracting metadata from social messages, and Xampler searched for samples by voice recognition.

In terms of collaboration, HRMI curated a network where people could play different virtual instruments together, and, amazingly, had the entire room playing different sounds simultaneously through their laptops.

As a consumer, I was excited by an app that would track dancers in nightclubs, allowing the DJ to play personalised music according to your position on the dance floor as well as your mood. (The day before, one hacking team floated the idea of matching restaurant music to the mood of the diners, but disappointingly this was dropped.) More niche was TinyLitzer, a portable analogue Foley studio so minuscule it can fit in a rucksack, and Tune Butcher, which could cut segments out of songs so you only enjoy your favourite parts.

The hackathon’s main winner, for ‘the best use of AI’ awarded by Microsoft and announced an hour later, was, tellingly, the most perceivable, presented by the least obviously ‘tecchie’ team, a group of four male and one female European PHD students in their twenties. ‘Rapple’, short for ‘rap battle’, would generate rap lyrics mimicking your own style, content and rhythm, or the style of any rapper you might be emulating. The effect becomes like a rap battle: you input one lyric through speech, and within 15 seconds, the computer will hit one (pretty decent) line back. ‘If we keep working on the idea, to smooth speech and to adapt the AI to speak in the voice of specific musicians, then it could have a lot of potential. The scaled version of this could be integrated into popular apps such as Snapchat or video sharing app TickTok with rap battles between users,’ says one of the developers. ‘We really see this inspiring amateur to mid-level musicians with lyric development.’ It remains to be seen in what direction Microsoft may take this idea.

True to the world of tech, there was one exciting moment of controversy during the weekend. A developer in his early thirties used his presentation, named ‘Teas and Seas’, to shame the hackathon and Microsoft for what he called ‘contentious’ terms and conditions, using an automated voice to read out the contract clause – painfully slowly – over a beat, while the Abbey Road organisers raged, unable to interrupt. The clause states that all participants must waive any claims and intellectual property rights they have over their idea, acknowledging that their idea may be copied by other participants, third parties, sponsors or the company and its partners. The company does not, however, claim any rights or ownerships, and must seek written consent from the participant before commercialising their product. ‘I’ve been to over 20 hackathons,’ the anonymous developer – let’s call him Jack – told me afterwards, ‘and I’ve never seen a clause like it. Both my teammates cancelled last minute because they refused to sign, and I cancelled my train this morning thinking I wouldn’t sign either. This has been one of the most contentious hackthons in the community.’ Another anonymous female hacker added: ‘I’ve been part of hackathons before where the IP is signed over and hackers are paid for their creations. It was a little strange to have this at a non-paying hackathon, as it’s very much like asking a songwriter to sign over creative copyright without being paid for that work. I know it was a surprise to many hackers there and a couple of friends refused to sign and take part.’ Jack continues: ‘In the end I came, but I didn’t present any good ideas, because I don’t want Microsoft [which, like every tech giant, has been accused of taking code and ideas in the past] stealing them from me for free.’ With a nod to the stage, he manages a reluctant smile: ‘In a way, Microsoft are the very best hackers of us all.’