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Novices and pros use high technology to compose

For those who bailed on fourth-grade violin lessons to play soccer or who didn't want to brave the occasional ridicule that came with joining the high school band, computers may offer a second chance at taking the stage.

    For those who bailed on fourth-grade violin lessons to play soccer or who didn't want to brave the practice or occasional ridicule that came with joining the high school marching band, computers may offer a second chance at taking the stage.

    During the past year, music has been one of the Web's fastest-growing sectors. The Net is becoming a full-force catalyst for shaking up the established music industry. Songwriters and bands are trying to land their big breaks through a plethora of sites that offer free music files in the popular MP3 format. And old-school record labels are starting to sell digital tracks online alongside CDs.

    But the medium isn't limited Net music waits for its cue (year in review)to promoting music created in garages or flashy studios. The Net and a wide variety of software packages also are making it possible for anyone--from kindergartners with an attention span to seasoned composers with a creative block--to draft full-length scores and collaborate with other would-be musicians.

    As more DJs garner loyal fan bases with their turntables and without accompanying bands, several companies are trying to tap the same idea by driving music novices and professionals alike to pick up their laptops to make music.

    One such start-up, mH20.com, will launch next month allowing members to use thousands of prerecorded samples to compose songs simply by dragging and dropping sounds into a virtual piece of sheet music. The company will compete with companies such as Mixman Technologies and Res Rocket, which also offer software and virtual studios.

    Consumers can freely listen to all of mH20's samples, but they have to pay a fee of about 20 cents each to use them in a composition. When two people have purchased the company's software for $250, they also can send music scripts to each other, which takes no more bandwidth than a regular email with a small attachment. mH20 charges $3.99 per month or $29.99 a year for access to all of the samples and its community, which includes free home pages for members.

    The company's founder, 25-year-old David Danon, came up with the idea for mH20 after he and a distant friend were collaborating on some songs via their speakerphones. They wanted a better way to connect and better sound quality, he said, and that spun into mH20.

    "This makes someone who doesn't know anything about music sound like a composer," Danon said. "In the future someone who sounds really good may just be some kid in Dayton, Ohio."

    Another program being released this month, "Alice" (Algorithmically Integrated Composing Environment), was authored by University of California, Santa Cruz, music professor David Cope. Alice is geared toward the experienced composer, who can use it to track his or her style and fill in the blanks in works in progress. The CD-ROM includes a book and will cost around $45.

    Cope, an accomplished composer in his own right, has been researching the use of artificial intelligence in music composition since the early 1980s. His first program, Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI), can be used by anyone to create an opus inspired by the styles of composers such as Mozart, Bach, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Joplin and even Cope himself.

    EMI (pronounced "emee") is the foundation for Alice. During the past 20 years, Cope has defended his research against critics--mostly other composers and music purists--who fear that his efforts will "kill music" as they know it.

    Cope said the debates are reminiscent of the technophobic 1957 movie "Desk Set." In the film, Spencer Tracy's character builds a dehumanizing supercomputer, also named "Emmy," to streamline people's tasks in a research department headed by a defensive Katharine Hepburn.

    "I can see composers using Chuck D on Net music (Q&A)this in the next century," said Cope, who is getting ready to release his latest book on the subject, "Virtual Music."

    "It's hard to compose; can you imagine how hard it is to design a program that composes well?" he added. "It doesn't lack a human touch; a group of humans created the hardware, the software was created by a human, humans created the music in the database, and the output is judged by humans."

    Some well-known musicians say there is a place in the world for these programs, but that they will never replace the real thing.

    "They can't sample emotion," said Dennis Wilson, director of jazz studies at Kansas State University, who has performed trombone on more than six Grammy Award-winning albums working with greats such as the William "Count" Basie orchestra and the New Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. He's now a member of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band.

    Wilson said that no one should bank on making a career in music solely by using a computer when they have no sense of music. "To really hit it big, you eventually have to go live," he said.

    But he added that the programs could help preserve and share musical ideas by musicians who aren't formally schooled.

    "I'm able to arrange because of my training; (I) know what I'm hearing and (how to) get it down on paper," he said. "The collaboration between an arranger and singer--that is a major area (in which these programs) could help artists communicate with each other."

    Some programs are designed for live performances, however. Mixman chief product officer Josh Gabriel, for instance, used a PC as the sole musical backup for funkmaster George Clinton at a San Francisco club two years ago.

    "That is our whole trip; Mixman lets you play live with other musicians," Gabriel said.

    And at a time when national investments in education technology are surging as music and arts programs are fading, programs like EMI and mH20 could be used by schools, proponents say.

    mH20, for one, is anticipating that. Its software and memberships will be free to schools and universities that can't afford the service. Artists such as GZA of the Wu Tang Clan and Max Roach are designing tutorials on how to create songs using samples, which have become mainstays of rap and hip-hop music. The site also includes more than 500 instruments from around the world, with descriptions mH20 gathered from the Smithsonian Institute.

    "The kids can learn about other countries in the world--their history and music," mH20's Danon said.

    Whether programs like mH20, EMI or Mixman will help "bedroom producers" replace trained musicians is really in the ear of the beholder, some say.

    "If it's all about sales numbers, then McDonald's is the best place to eat in the world," Cope said. "In jazz, people who can't read music or don't know the history of what they are doing sit down at a guitar or piano and do extraordinary things. It's all a matter of taste; if one person likes it, it is good."