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Singer-songwriter robot is heading out on tour

Along with his new singing and songwriting abilities, Shimon has some new hardware. That includes a mouth, eyes, new eyebrows, and a series of new movements. He also had new hands, allowing him to play the marimba faster than any human can. (Credit: Gil Weinberg/Georgia Tech)

Shimon, the marimba-playing robot, has learned some new skills, researchers report.

Shimon sings, dances a little, writes lyrics, and can even compose some melodies.

Now he’s taking them on the road in a concert tour to support a new album—just like any other musician.

“This is the first time that I actually wrote a song, because I had inspiration: I had Shimon writing lyrics for me.”

The new album will have eight to 10 songs Shimon wrote with his creator, Gil Weinberg, a professor in the School of Music and the founding director of the Center for Music Technology at Georgia Institute of Technology, where he leads the Robotic Musicianship group.

Shimon’s album will drop on Spotify later this spring.

Shimon’s reinvention

“Shimon has been reborn as a singer-songwriter,” Weinberg says. “Now we collaborate between humans and robots to make songs together.”

Check out the video for Shimon’s first single, “Into Your Mind” here:

Weinberg will start with a theme—say, space—and Shimon will write lyrics around the theme. Weinberg puts them together and composes melodies to fit them. Shimon can also generate some melodies for Weinberg to use as he puts together a song. Then, with a band of human musicians, Shimon will play the songs and sing.

“I always wanted to write songs, but I just can’t write lyrics. I’m a jazz player,” Weinberg says. “This is the first time that I actually wrote a song, because I had inspiration: I had Shimon writing lyrics for me.”

Weinberg and his students have trained Shimon on datasets of 50,000 lyrics from jazz, prog rock, and hip-hop. Then Shimon uses deep learning, a class of machine learning algorithms, to generate his own words.

“There are lots of systems that use deep learning, but lyrics are different,” says Richard Savery, a third-year PhD student who has been working with Shimon over the past year on his songwriting.

“The way semantic meaning moves through lyrics is different. Also, rhyme and rhythm are obviously super important for lyrics, but that isn’t as present in other text generators. So, we use deep learning to generate lyrics, but it’s also combined with semantic knowledge.”

Shimon sits behind marimbas with 5 other musicians on keyboard, drums, and guitars standing around
Musical robot Shimon plays with human musicians on one of his new songs. Shimon has learned to write lyrics and sing alongside his human collaborators. (Credit: Gil Weinberg/Georgia Tech)

Savery offers this example of how it might work: “You’ll get a word like ‘storm,’ and then it’ll generate a whole bunch of related words, like ‘rain.’ It creates a loop of generating lots of material, deciding what’s good, and then generating more based on that.”

When Shimon sings these songs, he really does sing, with a unique voice created by collaborators at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. They used machine learning to develop the voice and trained it on hundreds of songs.

New sound, new look

Along with his new skills—all developed in Weinberg’s lab—Shimon has some new hardware, too, that changes how he plays and moves on stage. To be clear, he’s still mostly stationary, but he has a mouth, new eyebrows, and new head movements designed to help convey emotion and interact with his bandmates. He also has new “hands,” that have totally changed how he plays the marimba.

“We also want to make sure he’s interacting with the other musicians around him to give that feel that he’s performing with people.”

“Shimon plays much faster—about 25 to 30 hertz at the maximum—and also much more expressively, playing from a soft dynamic range to a strong dynamic range,” says PhD student Ning Yang, who designed all-new motors and hardware for Shimon. “That also allows [Shimon] to do choreography during the music being played.”

For example, Shimon can count in at the beginning of songs to cue the band, and sometimes he’ll wave his mallets around in time to the music. New brushless DC motors mean he has a much greater range of motion and control of that motion. Yang accomplished that by bringing his engineering knowledge and musical background together to create human-inspired gestures.

He worked closely with fellow PhD student Lisa Zahray, who created a new suite of gestures for the robot—including how he uses those new eyebrows.

“We have to think about his role at each time during the song and what he should be doing,” Zahray says. “We also want to make sure he’s interacting with the other musicians around him to give that feel that he’s performing with people.”

That partnership with people is key for Weinberg. Teaching Shimon new skills isn’t about replacing musicians, he says.

“We will need musicians, and there will be more musicians that will be able to do more and new music because robots will help them, will generate ideas, will help them broaden the way they think about music and play music,” Weinberg says.

Shimon, Weinberg, and the entire band are building a touring schedule now with the goal of taking their unique blend of robot- and human-created music to more people. Weinberg says he hopes those shows will prove to be more than a novelty act.

“I think we have reached a level where I expect the audience to just enjoy the music for music’s sake,” Weinberg says.

“This is music that humans, by themselves, wouldn’t have written. I want the audience to think, ‘There’s something unique about this song, and I want to go back and listen to it, even if I don’t look at the robot.'”

Source: Georgia Tech