Lifehouse method

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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 Sepúlveda 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