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Clubhouse voice chat leads a wave of spontaneous social apps

Forget the calendar invite. Just jump into a conversation. That’s the idea powering a fresh batch of social startups poised to take advantage of our cleared schedules amidst quarantine. But they could also change the way we work and socialize long after COVID-19 by bringing the free-flowing, ad-hoc communication of parties and open office plans online. While “Live” has become synonymous with performative streaming, these new apps instead spread the limelight across several users as well as the task, game, or discussion at hand.

The most buzzy of these startups is Clubhouse, an audio-based social network where people can spontaneously jump into voice chat rooms together. You see the unlabeled rooms of all the people you follow, and you can join to talk or just listen along, milling around to find what interests you. High-energy rooms attract crowds while slower ones see participants slip out to join other chat circles.

Clubhouse blew up this weekend on VC Twitter as people scrambled for exclusive invites, humblebragged about their membership, or made fun of everyone’s FOMO. For now, there’s no public app or access. The name Clubhouse perfectly captures how people long to be part of the in-crowd.

Clubhouse was built by Paul Davison, who previously founded serendipitous offline people-meeting location app Highlight and reveal-your-whole-camera-roll app Shorts before his team was acquired by Pinterest in 2016. This year he debuted his Alpha Exploration Co startup studio and launched Talkshow for instantly broadcasting radio-style call-in shows. Spontaneity is the thread that ties Davison’s work together, whether its for making new friends, sharing your life, transmitting your thoughts, or having a discussion.

It’s very early days for Clubhouse. It doesn’t even have a website. Don’t confuse it with the similarly named Clubhouse.io. There’s no telling exactly what it will be like if or when it officially launches, and Davison and his co-founder Rohan Seth declined to comment. But the positive reception shows a desire for a more immediate, multi-media approach to discussion that updates what Twitter did with text.

Sheltered From Surprise

What quarantine has revealed is that when you separate everyone, spontaneity is a big thing you miss. In your office, that could be having a random watercooler chat with a co-worker or commenting aloud about something funny you found on the internet. At a party, it could be wandering up to chat with group of people because you know one of them or overhear something interesting. That’s lacking while we’re stuck home since we’ve stigmatized randomly phoning a friend, differing to asynchronous text despite its lack of urgency.

Clubhouse founder Paul Davison. Image Credit: JD Lasica

Scheduled Zoom calls, utilitarian Slack threads, and endless email chains don’t capture the thrill of surprise or the joy of conversation that giddily revs up as people riff off each other’s ideas. But smart app developers are also realizing that spontaneity doesn’t mean constantly interrupting people’s life or workflow. They give people the power to decide when they are or aren’t available or signal that they’re not to be disturbed so they’re only thrust into social connection when they want it.

Houseparty embodies this spontaneity. It’s become the breakout hit of quarantine by letting people on a whim join group video chat rooms with friends the second they open the app. It saw 50 million downloads in a month, up 70X over its pre-COVID levels in some places. It’s become the #1 social app in 82 countries including the US, and #1 overall in 16 countries.

Originally built for gaming, Discord lets communities spontaneously connect through persistent video, voice, and chat rooms. It’s seen a 50% increase in US daily voice users with spikes in shelter-in-place early adopter states like California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington. Bunch, for video chat overlayed on mobile gaming, is also climbing the charts and going mainstream with its user base shifting to become majority female as they talk for 1.5 million minutes per day. Both apps make it easy to join up with pals and pick something to play together.

The Impromptu Office

Enterprise video chat tools are adapting to spontaneity as an alternative to heavy-handed, pre-meditated Zoom calls. There’s been a backlash as people realize they don’t get anything done by scheduling back-to-back video chats all day.

  • Loom lets you quickly record and send a video clip to co-workers that they can watch at their leisure, with back-and-forth conversation sped up because videos are uploaded as they’re shot.

Loom

  • Around overlays small circular video windows atop your screen so you can instantly communicate with colleagues while most of your desktop stays focused on your actual work.

Around

  • Screen exists as a tiny widget that can launch a collaborative screenshare where everyone gets a cursor to control the shared window so they can improvisationally code, design, write, and annotate.

Screen

  • Pragli is an avatar-based virtual office where you can see if someone’s in a calendar meeting, away, or in flow listening to music so you know when to instantly open a voice or video chat channel together without having to purposefully find a time everyone’s free. But instead of following you home like Slack, Pragli lets you sign in and out of the virtual office to start and end your day.

Pragli

Raising Our Voice

While visual communication has been the breakout feature of our mobile phones by allowing us to show where we are, shelter-in-place means we don’t have much to show. That’s expanded the opportunity for tools that take a less-is-more approach to spontaneous communication. Whether for remote partying or rapid problem solving, new apps beyond Clubhouse are incorporating voice rather than just video. Voice offers a way to rapidly exchange information and feel present together without dominating our workspace or attention, or forcing people into an uncomfortable spotlight.

High Fidelity is Second Life co-founder Philip Rosedale’s $72 million-funded current startup. After recently pivoting away from building a virtual reality co-working tool, High Fidelity has begun testing a voice and headphones-based online event platform and gathering place. The early beta lets users move their dot around a map and hear the voice of anyone close to them with spatial audio so voices get louder as you get closer to someone, and shift between your ears as you move past them. You can spontaneously approach and depart little clusters of dots to explore different conversations within earshot.

High Fidelity is currently using a satellite photo of Burning Man as its test map. It allows DJs to set up in different corners, and listeners to stroll between them or walk off with a friend to chat, similar to the real offline event. Since Burning Man was cancelled this year, High Fidelity could potentially be a candidate for holding the scheduled virtual version the organizers have promised.

Houseparty’s former CEO Ben Rubin and Skype GM of engineering Brian Meek are building a spontaneous teamwork tool called Slashtalk. While Rubin left, Houseparty sold to Fortnite-maker Epic in mid-2019, but the gaming giant largely neglected the app until its recent quarantine-driven success.

His new startup’s site explains that “/talk is an anti-meeting tool for fast, decentralized conversations. We believe most meetings can be eliminated if the right people are connected at the right time to discuss the right topics, for just as long as necessary.” It lets people quickly jump into a voice or video chat to get something sorted without delaying until a calendared collab session.

Slashtalk co-founder Ben Rubin at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015

Whether for work or play, these spontaneous apps can conjure times from our more unstructured youth. Whether sifting through the cafeteria or school yard, seeing who else is at the mall, walking through halls of open doors in college dorms, or hanging at the student union or campus square, the pre-adult years offer many opportunities for impromptu social interation.

As we age and move into our separate homes, we literally erect walls that limit our ability to perceive the social cues that signal that someone’s available for unprompted communication. That’s spawned apps like Down To Lunch and Snapchat acquisition Zenly, and Facebook’s upcoming Messenger status feature designed to break through those barriers and make it feel less desperate to ask someone to hang out offline.

But while socializing or collaborating IRL requires transportation logistics and usually a plan, the new social apps discussed here bring us together instantly, thereby eliminating the need to schedule togetherness ahead of time. Gone too are the geographic limits restraining you to connect only with those within a reasonable commute. Digitally, you can pick from your whole network. And quarantines have further opened our options by emptying parts of our calendars.

Absent those frictions, what shines through is our intention. We can connect with who we want and accomplish what we want. Spontaneous apps open the channel so our impulsive human nature can shine through.

For more of this author Josh Constine’s product analysis, subscribe to his newsletter Moving Product

Sours: https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/18/clubhouse-app-chat-rooms/

What is it?

It’s hard to know exactly where the trend for overtly pitch-shifted, processed vocals in modern pop first began. 

While vocoding had been commonplace in more outré fields for decades and intermittently used in a somewhat gimmicky fashion on various big hits, particularly those concerned with technology (here’s looking at you, Trevor Horn) it arguably wasn’t until Cher’s 1998 dancefloor-filler Believe that on-the-nose auto-tune became the viable ingredient in the stew of modern pop production it is now.

Since then, processed vocals have become commonplace across many genres, with the rise of EDM and its often cartoonish musical landscapes bleeding across the spectrum of pop. Vocals that – to varying degrees – modify in pitch and intensity, distort, stutter and loop can be found almost anywhere. It’s a state of affairs that plugin heavyweight Waves is keenly aware of. 

Its solid form in this field is demonstrated by products such as the recent voice-controlled processing synth OVox and the classic (but still mightily useful) Tune. Waves now offers up speedy, real-time pitch-shifting and instant access to some of the modern vocal producer’s tricks, all controlled via an intuitive UI.

The basic simplicity of the UI invites immediate experimentation and reminds us in no small way of SoundToys’ excellent Little AlterBoy, with which it shares an identical dual-knobbed design. That being said, there is a significant amount of complex, and utterly unique, programming potential here. 

These two knobs, labelled Pitch and Formant, can be scaled up or down by 12 semitones (or if selecting the ‘Fine’ view, by 1200 cents). Pitch in this context is referring to the central tone of the human vocal, whereas Formant covers the resonant frequencies that shape the overall timbre of the vocal.

If you’re a tad confused as to this subtle difference, a quick dabble on a pre-existing vocal track sonically illustrates that difference – and also how dramatically this simple tool allows us to totally transform our vocal sound.

To the left of the Pitch control, the Flatten button allows us to force the input signal to snap to a predetermined note from C2 to B3 – and makes it affect an eerie monotone. Our tests prove that this is a really handy, speedy tool for building up augmented choruses and harmonies across multiple tracks. The resulting effect of building several carefully tuned, flattened vocals can easily conjure that slightly robotic Bon Iver-esque texture.

There’s a simple Wet/Dry mix knob to the right of Formant too, while between both our major knobs, a small link chain simply allows us to move both controls simultaneously while thoughtfully keeping any offset in play. This is particularly handy once we get into the more advanced controls.

Round the bend

Digging into the presets a little further reveals a diverse range of instant effects. There are some presets that can bolster a performance, like ‘Fake Vibrato’ which sneakily adds a realistic-sounding vibrato to your vocal. It’s actually astonishing how our (admittedly sub-par) vocals can take on a studied polish by delicate application of this preset.

Dad Support provides us with a very recognisable sound used by many to fatten up a vocal section with a low baritone. It reminds us of the numerous Stormzy tracks where this technique is frequently used. 

The more fun presets include Game Over which add a cool arcade game effect, which could be used to add some sonic colour, while the demonic Dark Magician is – genuinely – absolutely terrifying, particularly when applied to a tender, close-mic’ed voice. 

It’s clear that some of these presets should only be applied to vocals at specific parts of a track, while others could subtly run throughout sections (Low Double Tracker is a nicely subtle enhancer). All of these presets could serve a purpose in your tracks, and can be used as jumping-off points to explore the outer reaches of what Vocal Bender is capable of.

Performance and verdict

Though the main controls are simple to experiment with, and results can be crafted speedily, once we reveal the modulation and automation options, vast creative scope presents itself. The four sub-windows can be revealed by clicking on one of the four acronyms beneath the main window – this is easy to miss if you’ve not consulted the manual. 

Each of the four modulators can be neatly dragged to the Pitch, Formant or Mix knobs, to kick in once a certain threshold is met. Clicking on M1 or M2 opens up a sub-window where we can delicately build up unique LFOs, and Step Sequences, using both a Pen tool and the delicate carving of the Phase, Warp, Smoother and Level controls. 

The ‘Organic Modulators’ (AM and PT) use the input signal itself as the starting point of their modulations, AM (Amplitude) allows you to use the amplitude envelope of your vocal signal to dictate when other modulations come into play, while PT (Pitch) erases all pitch detection data from the vocal signal to make way for more detailed and individual pitch variations. 

Also consider...

Output Audio Exhale
A vast ‘vocal engine’, similarly geared towards emulating modern pop vocal quirks.

iZotope VocalSynth 2
A versatile and highly adaptable voice processing system, VocalSynth 2 sounds and operates better than ever.

A simple blue ring, along with a small indicator displaying the acronym of the modulation appears beneath one of the main knobs, once you’ve dragged and dropped.

Dragging vertically over this modulation slot adjusts the modulation depth, illustrated by a small coloured arc inside the knob. This type of automation can be a superb way of introducing vocal effects (such as sudden pitch drops, or additional vocal support) that activate based on the volume of the input signal, so the intensity of your performance can be the triggering factor.

While we’re only really scratching the surface of the range of possibilities presented by the plugin’s modulation controls, the aim of the game with Vocal Bender is really getting that professional-sounding vocal manipulation at speed. 

We’re happy to report then, that not only did Vocal Bender provide that within minutes, but that there was absolutely no processing lag. We can dramatically scale the pitch of our backing vocals on the fly during track playback, and experiment with modulating our vocal in order to get the right tonal qualities without any CPU slack.

We’re happy to report then, that not only did Vocal Bender provide that within minutes, but that there was absolutely no processing lag

If you just want to jump straight in to emulate the tricks of the pros, then Waves has thankfully provided a wide range of impressive presets. These include those that add additional deep and high voices, vocal doubling, harmony effects and humorous ‘character’-types such as ‘Chipmunk’ and ‘Broken Bot’. See the boxout for more information on these.

Vocal Bender is certainly one of the slickest vocal plugins we’ve experimented with. While those hankering for more expressive vocoding effects will find more appeal from Waves’ larger OVox vocal synthesizer. The (complimentary) Vocal Bender is undoubtedly the best in class for quick-fire, modern pitch manipulation.

MusicRadar verdict: Modulated vocals are going to be in vogue for a long time, and with this valuable tool, you’ve all you need to shape your own with no stress.

The web says

“Despite the initial simplicity of the interface, this is a surprisingly powerful plug-in. The ability to create robotic vocal sounds, artificial harmonies and vibrato in one plugin is very handy. This isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you’re working in contemporary music, you should explore this for its formant shifting sounds alone.“
MusicTech

“In the context of a mix, the sound quality is impressive and everything works smoothly when modulation is added. The key to great results is automating the controls and also making sensible use of the modulators, but there are plenty of presets to get you started.“
Sound On Sound

Hands-on demos

Waves Audio

Sean Divine

Reid Stefan

Specifications

  • TYPE: Vocal processor plugin
  • KEY FEATURES: Real-time monophonic voice manipulation, zero latency, LFO, SEQ, Amplitude and Pitch modulators, ‘Flatten’ feature, Mix knob
  • SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS: Mac OSX 10.13.6 or later (Intel only), Windows 10 64 bit (version 2004 and above); 8 GB RAM, 8 GB free disk space on the system drive, 
  • CONTACT: Waves Audio
Sours: https://www.musicradar.com/reviews/waves-vocal-bender
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Review: Waves Vocal Bender


Price $149 (currently discounted to $35)
ContactWaves

It is virtually impossible to turn on commercial radio or listen to a pop playlist on a streaming site without hearing heavily pitch-processed vocals. Just listen to tracks by Billie Eilish or Frank Ocean. Vocal Bender from Waves is designed to recreate that sound easily and quickly without overcomplicating control.

The plug-in’s main tone shaping controls are two big virtual knobs: pitch and formant. These are the critical elements that make up vocal sounds. Additional controls include a wet/dry blend, a link control, and a pitch-quantising tool that locks incoming audio to a single note for a robotic effect.

Waves Vocal Blender

Basic operation

Exploring the plug-in’s extremes, pushing everything up or down an octave sounds surprisingly pleasing, and with the wet/dry blend, it allows you to add some real depth to the vocal. The formant control works by moving the opening sound of the note without altering the main pitch. The formant is where the shape of our words come from, so it affects the timbre without affecting the sustain too heavily. This had a much more subtle effect and created that characteristic robotic effect for which the plug-in is made.

Waves Voice Blender

Digging a little deeper, we find some really useful effects. By flattening the pitch to the root key and moving the formant down four semitones, we can create a useable harmony line. The track we’re working on is pretty harmonically simple, so the process works well but might not be so effective on a complex jazz-fusion track!

Waves Vocal Blender

Modulation

Deeper still, Vocal Bender has an extremely powerful modulation section in its Advanced Tools section. There are two LFO powered modulators with a wide variety of wave shapes and the ability to draw your own. There is also a step sequencer for more pattern-based pitch shifting if that’s what your track needs. To link a modulation section to a control, simply drag the modulator you want to assign onto the target function. You can then increase the amount of modulation by dragging the value up or down for the direction you want the modulation to move. It’s incredibly intuitive.

In addition to the LFOs, Vocal Bender also analyses the incoming audio, allowing you to use its pitch and amplitude as modulation sources. The modulation took us a little time to get to grips with. It’s easy to end up with a wobbly vibrato that overwhelms the vocal performance. However, you can assign modulators to each other, and with careful use of amplitude modulation on an LFO controlling the pitch, it can produce reasonably subtle and musically useful vibrato.

Despite the initial simplicity of the interface, this is a surprisingly powerful plug-in. The ability to create robotic vocal sounds, artificial harmonies and vibrato in one plugin is very handy. This isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you’re working in contemporary music, you should explore this for its formant shifting sounds alone.

System Requirements

  • MacOS 10.13.6+, Windows 10 64-bit
  • CPU Intel i5+, 8GB RAM, 8GB disk space

Key Features

  • Available in AU, VST, VST3, AAX, Audiosuite
  • Simple vocal pitch shifting
  • Pop vocal effect
  • Basic two-knob interface
  • Zero latency for studio recording and live performance
  • Modulation control of all functions
  • Wet/dry blend
Sours: https://www.musictech.net/reviews/plug-ins/waves-vocal-bender-review/
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