Lifehouse method

I worked with Pete Townshend and Lawrence Ball to create lifehouse-method.com
a realisation of Pete Townshend’s
Lifehouse) concept and
also “the method” as described in Pete’s “The Boy Who Heard
Music”
. Pete was
responsible for the vision, Lawrence provided the music direction and I did
almost everything else (managing the project and the 99% of the programming).
Fleur Richards from Net Design did the graphic
design and a couple of developers from Net Design produced the Flash applets
for sound selection and “clicking a rhythm.” Finally, Javier Seplveda produced
the Java applet used to record audio from within a web user interface.

Since lifehouse-method.com was shut down earlier this year and the wikipedia
article
doesn’t have that
much detail I thought it was time to write a bit more about the project. Due
to contractual constraints I can’t say much about how the system worked but I
can at least show what it was like to use.

The home page started out with a Flash applet that let you play snippets of
Who tracks but it was never really related to the method itself and it got
replaced by a news page after a few months.

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lifehouse-method.com home

After logging in (registration was free) you were presented with a page
listing music you’d already composed (if any) and allowing you to “sit” for
more - Pete likened the composition process to sitting for a painted portrait
and so users of the site were referred to as “sitters.”

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Sitter home

The first step was just a page giving some information about the portrait
process.

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Portrait intro

The next page checked that the browser supported Javascript and Java.
Originally we also tested for the quicktime plugin but this got dropped after
a while since the use of Flash made it unncessary.

I wish now that we’d handled this in a different way - checking for Javascript
as soon as people entered the site and minimising the process that people had
to go through every time they “sat” for a “portrait.”

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Browser test page

The portrait process involved given the system an sample of a voice, an image,
a sound and a rhythm. I was instructed to make the system as much like “the
method” in “The Boy Who Heard Music” as possible so that explains the rather
odd input to the system. Since we did not want to limit the use of the system
to musicians we did not use the sound, voice or rhythm in the generated music
but used digital signal processing to extract information about the input that
was used to create the music.

The first real stage of the portrait process was to record a sample of your
voice - you could skip this step if you didn’t have a microphone. Originally,
we planned to provide a set of male and female sampled voices so people
without the ability to record audio could choose the voice that they liked
best - however, Pete hated the idea after listening to some demo recordings
and so we just made the system capable of working without a voice sample.

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Record voice

The next step was to upload an image. I’d wanted to provide an easy way to
grab images from the sitter’s flickr photostream if they had a flickr account
but never found the time to do this.

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Upload image

In case not everyone had an image to upload, we also allowed people to select
1-3 images from 20 randomly selected images out of a total of 100 that Ghene
Snowdon
created.

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Select image

After uploading or selecting an image it was time to record a sound - this
worked as for recording the voice but this time we provided alternatives for
people who weren’t able to record a sound or upload a sound file.

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Record sound

We tried to make selecting a sound as fun as possible - we presented them as a
10x5 grid (a Flash applet). Moving the mouse over a sound would cause it to
play in a loop. Clicking on a sound would select it. The last three sounds
selected were highlighted in red and these were used as the sound input to the
composition.

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Select sound 1

The sound grid with some sounds selected.

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Select sound 2

The final step was to record a rhythm - this could be done by recording the
sitter clapping or banging something using the java applet, uploading a sound
file or “clicking a rhythm” using the mouse.

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Record rhythm

This screen showed a Flash applet that would record the relative time between
mouse clicks allowing the user to create a rhythm by clicking the mouse and
play it back before finally deciding to save it.

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Tap rhythm

At this point the system had everything it needed and the sitter got to see
this page while the system was doing its stuff.

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Composing

Finally, the music is ready and the sitter can listen to it by clicking on the
big red play button. Rather than producing MIDI files and leaving the playback
quality dependent on whatever sampled instruments were present on the sitter’s
computer’s sound card we went to quite a lot of effort to ensure good quality
playback. Steve Hills created some new instruments in SoundFont2 format and
these were used to generate MP3 files. The software was also capable of
panning instruments to separate them in stereo “space” and choosing a volume
level for each instrument in an attempt to make the end result as good as
possible. A later, experimental, version of the system also used
compression.

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Listen

lifehouse-method.com was officially launched at Pete Townshend’s Oceanic
studios on 25th April 2007. John Pidgeon “sat” for his musical portrait in
front of about 20 journalists. After listening to the portrait composed for
John Pidgeon the audience got to listen to a remix of another John Pidgeon
piece by Myles Clarke.

Pete Townshend introducing the event and giving some of the history behind
Lifehouse

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Pete Townshend

Photo by G. Snowdon

John Pidgeon listening to the music the system has composed for him.

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John Pidgeon

Photo by G. Snowdon

Lawrence, Pete and John taking questions from the audience

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Lawrence, Pete and John take questions

Photo by G. Snowdon

Some of the audience

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Audience

Photo by G. Snowdon

Here are a few examples of music that the system composed for me (click on the
triangles to play):

If you can see this then Flash is probably not enabled on your web browser |
Tune #1
—|—
If you can see this then Flash is probably not enabled on your web browser |
Tune #2
If you can see this then Flash is probably not enabled on your web browser |
Tune #3

You can also find some more music produced by lifehouse-method.com at the
Lifehouse group on vox.com

The lifehouse-method.com servers were shut down in June 2008 and the only
thing remaining at that URL is a page saying the site is no longer
operational.

At the time we produced lifehouse-method.com the portrait process seemed OK
and we did not have time to do anything better. I’d always hoped to go back
once the site was launched an re-do the interface to make it more streamlined.
For what it’s worth here’s a list of some of the things I was planning to
implement that never saw the light of day because the site was shut down
before I finished them:

  • the ability for people to allow others to listen to their music
  • a flickr-like way for people to comment on music
  • a way to see & hear the inputs used to create a piece of music and to see a representation of how lifehouse-method.com saw those same inputs (ie a visualisation of the data extracted from them).

Update: 27/11/2011: It was Steve Hills, not Myles Clarke, who created the
Soundfont2 files. Sorry Steve! Myles was involved in all other aspects of the
project related to audio production.

Update: 5/02/2012: Lawrence Ball has an album, Method Music, released by
Navona Records Visit
www.navonarecords.com/methodmusic
to visit the album’s mini-site for the liner notes, extra media, and more. The
album is also available on Amazon
UK
and
US