Abbey Road Studios has a long history of musical innovation. The northwest London site immortalised by the Beatles became the first world's first custom-built recording studios when it opened in 1931 and has also been the birthplace of stereo sound and the Artificial Double Tracking audio technique still in use today.
In 2015, the studio opened up another chapter in its music technology story with the launch of Abbey Road Red, the first music-focused incubator in Europe.
Successful applicants to the programme receive a bespoke development plan tailored to their individual needs and goals. Over the following six months, they gain access to Abbey Road and Universal Music's expertise, industry and facilities to help them turn their ideas into products.
"What the incubator was designed to do was help look for and introduce the next set of universally adopted technologies into the music business – in the same way our predecessors did," innovation manager Karim Fanous tells Techworld.
On the top floor of the Grade II listed 19th-century townhouse in St John's Wood, Fanous demonstrated the creations of recent incubator graduates, from a COTODAMA Lyric Speaker that creates real-time visualisations of lyrics that match the song's structure and words to a Vochlea system that turns a user's voice into a real-time MIDI controller.
The Beatle's classic Abbey Road recording of Let it Be is newly-interpreted through Vochela's Dubler Studio Kit. Image credit: Abbey Road Red
Fans can get nostalgic about digital developments in music, from the loss of tangible albums to automated recommendations replacing the traditionally more serendipitous ways of discovering new songs.
"I think people can sometimes be wary of new technology and there's that fear of substitution," Fanous admits. "But that's not at all the way we see it. We see technologies like COTODAMA enhancing your experience of lyrics, [while] Voclear will help you create music."
Much of the disruption to the music industry in recent years has come from outsiders, with Napster's file-sharing network and Spotify's music streaming service initially being met with resistance by major record labels and artists. Abbey Road Red could help drive future disruption from within.
In October, two new startups joined the incubator that could help achieve this goal: Audoo, the creator of a smart meter that can listen to music played in commercial establishments and reports them to rightsholders, and MyPart, an AI-powered search and recommendation platform that uses "song mining" to find hidden gems based on a set of reference tunes.
Other recent graduates of the programme are focused on the creative process, such as Humtap, which allows anyone to create a song by humming a melody, tapping a beat, choosing a genre and then leaving the AI to create an original piece of music.
Humtap is one of a growing range of startups that are harnessing AI to create art, causing critics to worry that automation could detract from human creativity. Fanous is dismissive of their concerns.
"Music is relational. Our experience of it is soulful, relational, interactive. When we create music, that music is created according to how we're feeling: how our day's going, how our relationships are going, what we're experiencing that day," he says.
"We can use AI to enhance that process, but at the end of the day, it's created by us and intended to be listened to by our friends and family and fans, and I don't think AI is going to take that away. I think it's just going to enhance that process ... I suppose what you should be asking more is what will my creativity become, and how will AI fold into these different layers of creativity?"
He recalls Abbey Road Red's recent interview with Benoit Carré, a leading exponent of AI-augmented music, who predicted that AI could have an epochal musical moment akin to the influence that the invention of the MPC drum machine and sampler had on hip hop.
"What the MPC did for hip hop, AI is going to do for music, but we just don't know how yet, because it hasn't happened," he says. "It might spawn these amazing new genres or experiences, but we don't know what they are yet."