Subtitles prepared by human
Hello! Before we get onto our main topic for today, I want to spend a little moment talking about what it’s like to be mistreated as a musician. So, when I was just starting out classical music, I wrote my first ever piano piece. And like any beginner, I was really really proud of it and wanted - more than anything - to have it performed by a professional player. So, I did a bit of searching online, and after a bit of time, found a guy who had some really amazing performance experience who said he’d be willing to try it out. So, I sent him the sheet music. We agreed on a price... which wasn’t insignificant for me by the way... and after a few days, waiting around kind of nervously, I got this email. Now… that’s quite an unusual request, which I’ve not been asked since by any pianist I’ve worked with… because it’s kind of embarrassing to ask for: a click track to help you perform. Not to mention, the score I gave him was fairly conventional so I was reasonably sure he’d be able to work it out. So, with all that in mind, it was a little difficult to avoid the suspicion that what this guy was thinking of doing was taking my MIDI file and running through some realistic piano sampler rather than bothering to play
it... hoping, I guess, that I’d be so inexperienced, I wouldn’t know the difference between a computer’s performance and a real human one. So I asked: So, trusting that this guy knew more than me, I set aside my concerns, paid the money and a few days later got an email with a recording that confirmed my worst fears. Yes, it was just my MIDI file played through a bad sampler, with a few bogus tempo adjustments thrown in to make it sound like a few human mistakes had been made. It wasn’t even a good attempt at fakery. Compare this with an actual performance of the same piece that I recorded later. When I called the performer out on this, he insisted it was my ears that were the problem and that I didn’t have the required experience to be making judgements on his performance
style. Basically, he thought that I was so inexperienced, I’d be willing to accept something of incredibly low quality. Now this was by no means the first time I’d been taken for a ride as a musician. Before I had any classical training, I used to play in bands in the underground scene in Ireland. And during that time, I’ve been sold faulty equipment, not been paid for performances… I mean, that happened constantly... I’ve been given all kinds of bad advice by people who were supposedly more knowledgeable than me. Go back even further to when I was 4, I used to have a violin teacher who shrieked at me and called me a fool for getting my scales wrong… ...to the point where I gave up the violin. Now… the point of all of this is I remember what it was like to be a beginner: constantly being ripped off, misinformed or just made to feel small. And I say this because I’m about to tear into a service now that’s ostensibly for beginners… that promises to help you make great music without needing to feel confused. That promises to deliver you from all the elitists and gatekeepers who flaunt their knowledge and give nothing back. This service claims to be the middle finger that you can raise to those who lord their experience over you. And the only problem with that claim… is that it’s complete @#$#@ horse $#@! .
The classic playbook for most startups is to identify an enemy... which is usually some kind of old or inefficient practice... and then position your product as a liberation from that practice. When music apps take this approach... especially ones aimed at beginners... the enemy is all too often some aspect of music education. Most commonly: music theory, music teachers, notation, the fact that learning an instrument isn’t easy or some accusation of gatekeeping or elitism. For example, a few years ago, Yousician took aim at music teachers and suggested that you shouldn’t use them because their bouncy ball, garbage app was quote: Now as a musician who has had good guitar teachers... and also as a designer who has worked on some music practice apps... this is a laughable statement. However, they’re not advertising to me. They’re hoping, like the guy who sold me my own MIDI, that beginners won’t know any better. And with that in mind, step forward, Unison. A brand easily remembered because their icon resembles the U-bend of a toilet. I mean... this obviously isn’t actually their logo. I’ve put a link in the description so you can see the real thing for yourself. Um, ok, I should probably explain. You see, Unison have a bit of a history of trying to silence
their critics by hitting them with DMCA takedown notices, which cite copyright infringement. For example, they hit the YouTuber, Ave McCree, with a takedown after he gave them an unfavourable review. AVE: Like there was nothing in there that had anything to do with Unison Audio, outside of maybe, like a logo? And when this story was reported by CDM and another blog called DiscChord, they were both hit by takedown notices from Unison Audio too! TANTACRUL: What were they striking? Like, what was it you did that they claimed DMCA on? TIMl: So they said that my website itself was including copyrighted infringing material. And that copyright infringing material was me posting a video of Ave saying that Unison Audio made a DMCA claim against him! Of course, that’s ridiculous. They both rejected the claims immediately and Unison backed down. Issuing takedowns to shut critical voices up is a well established tactic and one I’m pretty used to dealing with. However, in this video, I actually feel that this presents a fun creative restriction to work within, I’m not going to be showing anything copyrighted or trademarked by Unison Audio at all. No shots of their products or website, no clips
from their videos… not even their logo. And as you’ll see in a moment… this isn’t actually too much of a problem… because their offerings are almost 90% illusion. Now, if you’ve somehow not seen one of their ads and you want to get familiar before we continue, check out the link I mentioned a moment ago, watch that for a few seconds and then come back to me. So, if you want a quick indication of how Unison customers feel about them, a quick visit to TrustPilot will reveal the following ratings: Unison’s flagship product is a thing called the MIDI chord pack. A folder full of MIDI files containing either individual chords or chord progressions that you can drag and drop into a music app. For example, here’s a folder called C major… that contains seven basic root position chords that are all in the key of C major. That’s right. It’s literally that basic. By the way, these are my own MIDI chords, with a slightly different naming convention… because it occurred to me Unison might try a copyright claim if I named my C Major MIDI chords the way they named theirs.
No, I actually think they’d really try that. Now, apart from basic major chords, you also have your relative minor chords along with a few borrowed chords. Again, the organisation you see here is a little different but the idea is the same. In addition, each key comes with a few chord progressions which are nearly always 4 bars long and occasionally 8 bars long. In total, Unison provide just over twelve hundred MIDI files. Sounds like a lot of work until you realise that they only had to create this once for one key… with the other twelve keys simply being transposed versions of the same thing. For those who don’t know what I mean, if you want all your chords and chord progressions from C major to be in D major. There. Just do that. So, apart from being easy to make, what are the problems with this product ? Well... I’m going to break it down into three things and I’ll expand upon them all later First: At $67, when there is no promotion on, it’s wildly overpriced and very poor quality - even for a MIDI pack Second: The product is explicitly sold as something that will help you produce polished music... promising to leapfrog you to a successful, professional status, which is nonsense. Third: As with all technologists, Unison claims to be contributing towards a social good by
providing an alternative to musical education, which it repeatedly casts as a negative thing - using the problematic, dog whistle term ‘music theory’ as a catchall for what’s holding musicians back from reaching their potential. And I suppose if musical education didn’t exist, then I guess we wouldn’t know there is anything to be learned and then we could all enjoy MIDI packs forever. Hold on, let me just shove this knife in my brain… ...fun… S’up? my name’s MaK from FlushValve… and I’m proud to announce to you today the one and only FlushValve MIDI chord pack. MIDI chord pack Chord pack MIDI pack MIDI chord pack MIDI chord pack ...like me. I’ve got over twelve thousand listens on Spotify per month. ...if you know MaK from FlushValve, you’ll know that I only use
Now, you might be thinking: Well, basically, when a chord has three notes, if you add another note… now it’s PRO LEVEL. I have over twelve thousand listens a month. Slade have seven hundred thousand listens a month. Rebecca Black has four hundred and eighty thousand listens a month. The Thrills… an Irish one hit wonder, who disbanded in 2008 have a hundred thousand listens a month. So, how did I... a contemporary artist who brags about his Spotify profile on ads that reach millions of people... achieve 12 thousand listens a month? By using... ....at the Arts Institute in Vancouver. And even after all that...
BEN: I don’t think I’m going to be dealing with this noise any more! JESS: Who the hell would study, like, music theory DAVID: Music theory is just so boring HAMEED: You don’t need to spend ages learning Music theory LIAM: Listen to your heart rather than what some old jazzman wanted to teach you JESS: You know what? I’m gonna take this and I’m just going to put it in the bin WILL: All this mind-numbing plinky plonky business. It’s all just pointless LIAM: Learning is stupid And by the way, these chords mean you don’t have to spend any extra time producing. What does that mean? It means they’re great. The moment you drag them into your project, your project is PRO level. There’s no need to do any extra production because the moment you drag the chord in. Stop. Just stop creating. It’s done. Here’s a beat I made that’s completely PRO. It’s in 4/4 at 120 BPM because I don’t know how to change that default in my DAW. Now if I add these Chords. Listen to that. BEN: Alright, let's see what this baby has got. See how it runs.
AVE: Ah! Ough! Aauughh! Ooooh! BEN: He he. DAMN! JESS: Ooooh! WILL: Wait, what? DAVID: Ooh, I could never think of a progression like that! LIAM: And that’s it, there’s your song, right there! HAMEED: It’s just the next hit. You guys know, right? BEN: Right, that is… without a doubt… PRO LEVEL harmony right there. Right in the can, just like that! ...like me. Mac from FlushValve. Now you might say “MaK from FlushValve, why do I need your chords when I can just use a free open source pack that has 5 times as much content as yours does?” I’ll give you my Mac from FlushValve response: Flush Valve’s C major is better than all other C majors… because… you can also pick up our FlushValve vowel pack for free.
Basically, you just open your text editor and copy and paste your vowel for PRO WORDS. And if you act now, we’ll also add over 75 word progressions that you can copy and paste right into your text. I didn’t think... and I have over 12 thousand listens on Spotify per month. Education is mind-numbing. FlushValve. Why would you think? So, before going any further on Unison Audio, I want to be sure I’m being clear about MIDI chord packs themselves. There’s nothing musically wrong with the idea of dragging a chord into a project, especially if you use it as a jumping off point for experimentation. There are actually a few practical applications I can think of for advanced users too... like, it could function as a quick way of trying out polytonal ideas or generating random sequences with scripting, etc.
If you are a beginner getting to grips with the complexities of music technology and recording, this might be an OK starting off point. However, it’s my pretty firm opinion that regardless of your chosen style and genre, you will only be capable of reaching a professional level when you move beyond systems like this and develop a more intricate understanding of the music writing techniques that’s suitable for your genre. This flies in the face of Unison’s advertising, which can be seen by looking at three of their selling points: This is a weird promise. All their major and minor chords are in root position only. If you don’t know what that means... well, the real point is that chords can be rearranged into multiple different positions depending on the number of notes involved. It’s a simple skill to learn and crucial to being able to manipulate harmony effectively. The idea that Unison would use the term ‘pro-level chords’ when they haven’t even got a solution for basic positioning really does set my teeth on edge. So… what about their chord progressions then? Well, there’s not very many of them. They only provide 12 in the major key. Twelve in minor key and then another 12 ‘advanced progression’, also for major and minor… for a grand total of 48 progressions. Of course,
they count it as 576 progressions because they’re using the same 48 progression in each of the twelve keys. Again, for those who don’t know what I mean: here’s a progression in one key. If you move it up like this, now it’s in a different key. They just counted this one thing as twelve things. Now, I did notice one or two deviations in how the notes were ordered in certain keys… but the progressions themselves were the same each time. And the majority of these progressions are so run-of-the-mill, they’d be embarrassing to use. Like... listen to this one. That sounds like an ad for life insurance. And even if you do find one you like... everyone else has the same progressions, so how exactly is your music going to stand out by default? By being conspicuously generic? This one is... bizarre. The basic chords they provide are just data. They don’t even have a sound… until you pick an instrument to assign them to… and then you’re gonna need to manipulate the sounds and produce the result. They can argue that the pack provides the base blocks that help you get started, sure. But there’s nothing here that helps with anything past that point. No aspect of production
is covered here. It doesn’t develop your chords into an actual musical idea, it doesn’t help you choose sounds or apply FX. It doesn’t help you mix or master the final output. I am unconvinced! Well, what matters most? I’m going to guess that for anyone willing to invest money to better their song writing, what matters most to them is that they’re happy with the music they write and that they’re able to see it resonating with those who listen to it. And if I’m right about that, then take it from me: I didn’t study formal music theory until after I’d been in a band for 10 years. And when I did study theory, I found I already actually knew quite a lot of it… stuff I’d just picked up due to being an active songwriter. My point is: learning is a crucial part of being an effective musician... regardless of whether that learning involves music theory... and a MIDI chord pack isn’t going to fast track you past the need to know your craft. And as for music theory… you don’t need to study theory to feel comfortable as a writer… but don’t buy the line that learning about how others wrote music is a waste of time… or that it’s even really that hard. 6 year olds study grade 1 music theory in the UK and there’s a lot of it that you can just skip past.
Believe it or not… that’s actually the more sane stuff. Now we need to delve into the crazy… because with Unison… there’s a lot of crazy! Prepare for a U-bend in your brain! The most ridiculous thing about Unison’s offerings is that, no matter what way you slice it, there’s a better option for free. So, if you use a DAW (the thing the Unison chords are meant to be dragged into), then the chances are you already own a much better alternative. In Reason, for example, there’s a tool called Scales & Chords. It takes a few minutes to get the hang of but... look, once open it, you can just press a single note and it will play the appropriate chord, depending on your selected key and settings. You can choose the number of notes per chord. The ordering of the notes. You even have this little toggle called ‘color’, which suggests some slightly jazzier alternatives. Now if I add an arpeggio tool listen to how you can just fiddle with it in realtime. In Cubase, there’s the Chord Assistant. With FL studio, there’s a really nice option
integrated right into its piano roll. In Ableton, there’s a free plugin called the Nordman Chord Generator, among others. These are all far more sophisticated, usable and well integrated then a list of static files. And even if you still for some reason want a MIDI chord pack because you just really like the look of it and want to try it out, then there is already a larger and better and free, open source chord pack available. That’s right, it’s called SHLD and you can get it right now (the link is in the description). And when speaking to the creator of this chord pack, I found out something you might be interested in. LUDOVIC: I took two… existing python modules, which are… ‘Mingus’ and ‘chords2MIDI’... maybe one hour later, my chord pack was done. TANTACRUL: You’re kidding? It took you an hour? LUDOVIC: Yes TANTACRUL: (laughs) and this leads me to One of Unison’s ads talks about the ‘hundreds of hours’ and ‘thousands in development costs’ that went into creating their chord pack… which might be true… if at every decision point in the production process, they deliberately chose the most time-consuming
option available to them… as a kind of challenge. Let’s just imagine how we could make this ourselves. If it was me… I’d just use that Reason feature I told you about… setting the options appropriately for complexity and mode and then just transposing the final setting 12 times to cover each key. Then I’d do the same for chord progressions. Chords and chord progressions by themselves can’t be copyrighted, so I could sell this… if I was so inclined. Unsion have amazing turns of phrase. My favourite is obviously ‘pro-level chords’. I just love the idea that a single chord could emanate professionalism. For those who don’t know, chords are like words in that they’re not just brilliant in isolation. You have to put them in sequence. And just like you can’t walk over to someone and say ‘recalcitrant’ and expect their minds to be blown, a chord isn’t going to just top the charts by itself. I mean… maybe one day it will… I don’t know... Another little selling point of theirs is that their pack is ‘royalty free!’ Hey guys, this is great. I can finally use C major, royalty free. That’s like selling someone a dictionary on the basis that it grants them the right to use words. Another one of Unison’s claims that I love relates to one of their products: the MIDI
wizard, a tool which automatically generates MIDI chord progressions. According to Unison, the chords it produces ‘actually sound good 93% of the time!’ Handily, on the same page as this quote can be found a few audio examples, which I assume are there to provide proof of this claim. So to test this statistic, I created a poll on both YouTube and Twitter and unfortunately, the findings I got back were a little different. How confusing! So with all that said, what is it Unison are doing that is actually effective? That’s the scale of their digital advertising. They pay for a lot of it. So if you’ve searched for something vaguely related to Unison... once your IP is recognised... you can’t not see them. Type Ableton into Google? Unison Midi Chord Pack. Top of the page. Search FL studio? It’s the second ad down, the one under FL Studio. Searching for music production tutorials on YouTube? Unison is everywhere... with ads featuring a collection of influencers, who seem to have no problem shilling garbage to vulnerable beginners. The business logic is clear. Create a product that doesn’t require any maintenance and advertise it at scale. It doesn’t matter if the product is garbage or if your advertising
contradicts what’s in your product... because if you advertise broadly enough, some people will pay for it. Why? Because they’re innocent and excited. They’re just like me when I was sold my own MIDI file. And that takes me to my last point: I don’t think that the apparent success of Unison... who recently bragged that they’ve made a hundred thousand sales of their MIDI pack... should be seen as an indication of how lazy people are or something like that. This whole idea of encouraging laziness and talking about learning your craft as if it’s a chore is Unison’s fiction. You shouldn’t let it get you down because you feel it’s an indication that music is in decline or something like that. It’s just a bunch of jerks masquerading as musical revolutionaries to fool people into parting with their money. And if their Trust Pilot score is anything to go by... it looks like they’re not going to fool those people a second time. That money is only going down the U-Bend once, then everyone’s going to learn and move on. And with that in mind, Unison does actually provide a useful experience... ...that can help you learn as a musician... ...by helping you recognise garbage when you see it.
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