If you’re in the Portland, Oregon area, I’ll be at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills this Thursday interviewing Matt Kirkland, the creator of the enormously popular Dracula Daily, which originally serialized Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel as a Substack newsletter, creating an internet-scale book club with over 240,000 subscribers, now published as a gorgeous hardcover volume annotated with memes, fan art, and comics from the community.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel, told in the form of a series of diary entries and letters, and Dracula Daily delivers each one to subscribers “as-it-happens,” on the day that each message is dated, pacing it out over a period of six months from May to November.
A pandemic project born in lockdown, Matt originally ran the newsletter in 2021 for a couple thousand people, but when he restarted it last year, it blew up on Tumblr where fans were sharing their commentary and fan art every day, which is collected through the book.
I’ve loved this project since Matt first posted it to the XOXO Slack in January 2021. It reminds me of other time-shifted projects I’ve loved in the past:
Carl Steadman’s Two Solitudes from 1995, originally delivered as a series of eavesdropped emails between two fictional characters over a period of five weeks
Suck, Again, which reran Suck.com columns as an email newsletters, 20 years to the day
The slow, steady pace of updates combined with an online community can breathe new life into old works, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about it from Matt on Thursday night. Details about the event are available at Powell’s site.
In the parallel universe of last year’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, Dr. Demento encourages a young Al Yankovic (Daniel Radcliffe) to move away from song parodies and start writing original songs of his own. During an LSD trip, Al writes “Eat It,” a 100% original song that’s definitely not based on any other song, which quickly becomes “the biggest hit by anybody, ever.”
Later, Weird Al’s enraged to learn from his manager that former Jackson 5 frontman Michael Jackson turned the tables on him, changing the words of “Eat It” to make his own parody, “Beat It.”
This got me thinking: what if every Weird Al song was the original, and every other artist was covering his songs instead? With recent advances in A.I. voice cloning, I realized that I could bring this monstrous alternate reality to life.
This was a terrible idea and I regret everything.
Of course, I started with Michael Jackson covering “Eat It,” the Grammy-winning 1984 single that made Weird Al a household name.
Michael Jackson’s song is pitched lower and sung much higher than Weird Al’s parody, so I pitched the vocals up an octave and lowered the entire song by half an octave to try to match the original.
Be warned: you can’t unhear this.
Artifacts aside, it sounds like Michael Jackson doing a Weird Al impression?! Every line has a distinctly “white and nerdy” vibe: it loses any seriousness and edge, exaggerating words for comic effect and enunciating lyrics really clearly so the punchlines can be heard.
I tried six different Michael Jackson A.I. voice models, including one trained on seven hours of vocals over 300 epochs — a fancy word for cycles through the training dataset — but it didn’t make much difference. (Generally, it isn’t necessary to use more than 15 minutes of clean audio for a good model.) The results were mostly the same unholy amalgamation: “Weird Michael” Jacksonkovic.
Here’s the A.I. Michael Jackson covering “Fat,” using a model trained off songs from Destiny, Off The Wall, and Thriller.
But it’s not just Michael Jackson: Weird Al’s distinctive voice and pronunciation makes it hard to replace his vocals with any other A.I.-generated voice.
No current artificial intelligence is powerful enough to hide the weirdness of Weird Al.
The center of the A.I. cover songs community is a massive 500,000+ member Discord called A.I. Hub, where members trade new tips, tools, techniques, and links to their original and cover songs. (Update: Three days after publishing this article, Discord banned A.I. Hub for copyright complaints. See the update at the end of this article.)
Community members also upload the A.I. voice models they’ve trained, adding hundreds of new models daily to a growing database of Discord threads. Musicians are a popular category, but also fictional characters, anime characters, YouTubers/streamers, and celebrities.
A glance at recent A.I. Hub’s voice model threads is a chaotic grab bag: Francoise Hardy, Donald Duck, every member of Korean girl group VCHA, Markiplier, Tom Waits, LeBron James, Knuckles, and, uh, Adolf Hitler.
Discussions and links to the models are on Discord, but the files themselves are almost universally found on Hugging Face, a prominent A.I. startup that raised $235M in a Series D round in August at a $4.5 billion valuation from some of tech’s biggest companies, including Google, Amazon, Nvidia, Salesforce, AMD, Intel, IBM, and Qualcomm.
Hugging Face plays a central role in the A.I. music community, providing free and reliable permanent hosting. A.I. Hub now requires Hugging Face link to list a model, and the tool that I used to generate these samples, AICoverGen, suggests using direct links to Hugging Face models in its UI and examples.
Most users just upload models to their own accounts, but some upload hundreds or thousands of models made by others into enormous repositories of A.I. voices: this one account alone has nearly 4,000 voice models, from celebrities and musicians to cartoon characters and YouTube personalities.
The RIAA is very aware of A.I. Hub, and has targeted the community for uploading datasets — the original copyrighted songs used to train voice models — demanding in June that Discord shut it down, remove links to the infringing files, and reveal the identity of uploaders.
Despite their demands, A.I. Hub is still going strong, though put into place strict rules around linking to copyrighted datasets, particularly A.I.-processed vocal separations used to train new voice models.
But the RIAA hasn’t, as far as I can tell, taken any action against the A.I. models themselves or the people making them.
Continuing my descent into Weird A.I. hell, I next tried to get Madonna to cover “Like A Surgeon.”
According to the model’s creator, it was trained on “13 minutes of clean, studio quality acapellas from her 1984 album, Like a Virgin” over 500 epochs. Again, her singing pitch was much higher than Weird Al, so I pitch shifted it up an octave.
It definitely sounds like a female vocalist, but not a very good one, and only vaguely like 1980s Madonna.
Moving into the 1990s, I made the questionable decision to have A.I. Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Nirvana,” Weird Al’s 1992 parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I tried several models, but the best was by a YouTuber named @Cleberslk, who wrote, “Fun fact: I made the model on my phone in a hurry.”
I’m not sure why he has a vaguely European accent, but that’s probably the least offensive thing about it.
Discord and Hugging Face are critical to the A.I. voice cloning community, but there’s another big tech company that plays an important role for many A.I. hobbyists: Google.
Generating audio with these models will work on most PCs with a decent video card, but if you don’t have a compatible GPU or are simply intimidated by a terminal, Google Colab allows anyone to quickly and easily run entire generative A.I. workflows on their servers for free, or upgrade to more powerful GPUs for a small hourly fee.
I’m on a Mac, which doesn’t have an Nvidia GPU required for running inference on these models locally, so I used the Colab notebook for AICoverGen, a powerful package that handles every step of generating A.I. covers from an existing model with a convenient web UI. It took a few minutes to start up, and then under a minute to generate each song.
This software isn’t difficult to use, but Colab and WebUI interfaces can be imposing for non-technical users. Like with Stable Diffusion and “magic avatars,” a number of startups have moved to launch paid products that fill the usability gap, including Kits AI, Voicify AI, Voiceflip, voicemy.ai, and covers.ai, making simple apps for generating vocal covers with officially licensed voices (or not) or training your own models. It’s only going to get faster and easier.
With his channel There I Ruined It, Dallas musician Dustin Ballard built a following of 3.1 million TikTok followers and 700k YouTube subscribers making absurdist song remixes and mashups. For the last four months, he’s started experimenting with voice cloning, collaborating with a friend-of-a-friend in South America to change his vocal tracks to sound like other singers.
Ballard achieves uncanny results by recording entirely new vocal tracks of his own, presumably doing a passable impression of each artist in their vocal range and style, before the A.I. voice cloning is applied.
This allows him to do things that would otherwise be challenging with today’s current technology: applying A.I. to change the lyrics, melody, meter, or intonation to make something wildly different from the original.
At least for now, the best way to pull off this Weird A.I. project in a believable way, without every artist sounding vaguely like Weird Al, would be to get someone to sing Weird Al’s lyrics in a similar range and style as the parodied artist, and then apply the A.I. voice cloning.
But this likely won’t be necessary for long: Singing Voice Synthesis (SVS) and Singing Voice Conversion (SVC) are active fields of study that are moving very quickly, and even in the last six months, we’ve seen major improvements in quality, speed, and ease of use for vocal melody detection and voice changing. For example, the library that Ghostwriter used to mimic Drake and The Weeknd for “Heart on My Sleeve” last April was so-vits-svc, but it’s already largely defunct and archived by the repo owner, replaced by the now-ubiquitous RVC, or Retrieval-Based Voice Conversion.
Academic researchers have already demonstrated that it’s possible to use a neural network to “beautify” vocal tone and intonation, synthesize new vocals from text naturally, and transfer the style to another artist’s voice, opening the door to generating new songs from written lyrics in someone else’s style without any source song to base it off of, or any musical ability at all.
To end this godforsaken project, I made my way into the 2010s with Lady Gaga covering Weird Al’s “Perform This Way,” off his 2011 album, Alpocalypse. I used a model made by @udrivemecrazy, using only five minutes of “super clean acapellas.”
Finally, I chose a song off of Mandatory Fun, Al’s fourteenth and final studio album: Lorde covering “Foil,” Weird Al’s tribute to aluminum foil, loved by home cooks and conspiracy theorists everywhere.
I actually kind of like this one?? But it’s also possible I’m losing my grip on reality.
In addition to being the world’s most beloved song parodist and arguably the most famous accordion player in the world, Al Yankovic is a brilliant songwriter in his own right.
Many of my favorite songs of his are original “style parodies,” riffing off another artist’s style, but not directly parodying a particular song.
Unfortunately, many of the artists that inspired him are unavailable as pre-existing A.I. models. So as much I’d love to hear synthetic versions of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh singing “Dare to Be Stupid,” David Byrne singing “Dog Eat Dog,” or James Taylor singing “Good Old Days,” none of these singers are on A.I. Hub, so each would require training a new voice model.
That shouldn’t be a big surprise: after spending some time in A.I. Hub, I get the sense that it skews young, and some of those older artists are maybe off their radar, just based on the voice models, covers, and requests they’re making. My guess that many of those 500,000 users in A.I. Hub are enthusiastic and motivated teenagers.
The vast majority of what happens in A.I. Hub is non-commercial: the models are distributed freely and people are posting their YouTube-hosted A.I. covers constantly, though some people do take paid commissions to train voice models in the #request-a-model channel.
Like with so many conversations around generative A.I., I’m left with big questions around the ethics and legality of these tools. Some artists like Holly Herndon are excited about it and happy for others to use their voice in this way. Some, like Grimes, are okay with commercial use if they get a cut. Others want nothing to do with it, regardless of whether it’s free or not.
I first wrote about audio deepfakes here in April 2020, when Jay-Z asked YouTube to remove several deepfake audio parodies of his voice offline. Those were obvious parodies, but back then I wrote:
“It’s easy to imagine a court finding that many uses of this technology would infringe copyright or, in many states, publicity rights. For example, if a record producer made Jay-Z guest on a new single without his knowledge or permission, or if a startup made him endorse their new product in a commercial, they would have a clear legal recourse.”
That’s now the situation artists are facing with pseudonymous producers like Ghostwriter, who are using the names and voices of well-known artists to drive popularity for a song, making their own music without their knowledge, consent, or compensation. The reaction to “Heart on My Sleeve” from the music industry was swift, issuing takedowns to every streaming platform that he uploaded it to. Ghostwriter followed up with another song last month using A.I. versions of Travis Scott and 21 Savage, uploaded only to X and TikTok. (TikTok removed it quickly, but it’s still up on X.)
The recording industry seem likely to continue clamping down on commercial use of A.I. vocals, but ultimately, I don’t think it will do anything to stop them from being made.
Half a million excited kids are out there in Discord doing their thing, and more are joining every day. No copyright intended.
Yesterday, Discord permanently banned A.I. Hub, presumably because of repeated copyright violations, only two days after publishing this article.
TorrentFreak’s Ernesto Van der Sar was first to report the story, which cites an unconfirmed report from a newly-created server, which claims that “AI Hub was banned because of copyright, apparently someone did the trick of editing posts and added several links with copyrighted content, which left Discord with no option but to DMCA the server.”
Earlier this month, I wrote about Tiny Awards, a tiny prize to honor websites that “best embodies the idea of a small, playful and heartfelt web.” I was invited to be a part of the inaugural award’s selection committee, and helped narrow down the 270 submissions to 16 finalists, which were then open to public voting.
This morning, Tiny Awards announced the winner: the dizzying and delicious Rotating Sandwiches by Lauren Walker. When I linked to it here back in March, I described it simply as the “best of the web, right here,” so I’m pretty happy with this result. Lauren will receive a $500 prize and a tiny trophy. Congrats!
The organizers of the award also released the full list of all 272 nominated websites, a “dizzying snapshot of the boundless creativity and artistic endeavor (and, occasionally, silliness) of the web (and, by extension, the people who make it).”
The organizers originally asked each member of the selection committee to decide on their top two picks from the full list of nominees. Given the volume, diversity, and quality of the entries, this was no easy task.
Now that the winner’s announced, I thought I’d share my own decision-making process, along with my personal list of runners-up.
I ended up eliminating several nominees because they didn’t meet the contest criteria, either because they launched long before the June 2022 cutoff date (e.g. Lynn Fisher’s wonderful Nestflix), required an app/download or subscription (e.g. Spotify-based projects), were primarily commercial or viral marketing for an agency/company, or in one unfortunate case, stole their content from another artist.
When I finally narrowed down my personal top list of contenders, I broke the tie by ranking each on the three core values that the contest was meant to highlight: the “small, heartfelt, and playful” web.
To be clear, these were just my own personal picks: each of the eight members of the selection committee contributed their top two websites, which became the shortlist of 16 finalists that everyone voted on. Here’s the email I sent to Matt and Kristoffer, the two organizers:
You have no idea how hard this was for me! Here’s my top two:
Brr.fyi – brr.fyi. This anonymous blog came out of nowhere last year, documenting life on a research station in Antarctica, one of the most remote places on earth. But it uniquely uses the web to communicate their personal experience to the rest of the world, from mundaneobservations to the quietly profound. At a time where it feels like blogging has largely fallen by the wayside, this newly-launched blog (July 2022, just in time!) is a shining example of why the web is great.
The HTML Review – thehtml.review. “An annual journal of literature made to exist on the web.” Incredibly well curated, simple and poetic experiments with HTML from 17 individual contributors. Grid World is my personal highlight (and also nominated, ranked high in my list), but really, they’re all great and special and unique. A publication worth supporting, completely non-commercial and made out of pure love of the artisanal web. I hope it goes on forever.
I had some very close runners-up, but they weren’t as 1. small, 2. heartfelt, and 3. playful as those two — usually a bit lower on one characteristic out of the three. All of them met all the criteria, including dates. But they’re all great and I love them, and it was super painful to choose!
Playful and heartfelt, but technically complex, so perhaps not “small” by many definitions:
The organizers have already announced they plan to hold the award again next year, which I’m very excited about. I think it’s important to remind people that the internet is more than a bunch of apps and walled gardens made by large companies, and literally anyone can make a little website to make it better.
In May, the creators of two of my favorite newsletters, Naive Weekly and Web Curios, reached out to see if I’d consider joining the selection committee of Tiny Awards, a tiny prize to honor websites that “best embodies the idea of a small, playful and heartfelt web.” I loved the idea and quickly accepted.
There were some additional rules: sites must have launched in the last 12 months, work on mobile and desktop without requiring an app or download, made by individuals or a group of creators (i.e. not agencies or brands), and should be primarily non-commercial.
Nominations were free and open to the public, unlike some other web awards, and the selection committee ended up reviewing over 270 submissions, which we narrowed down to a shortlist of 16 finalists, a wonderfully eclectic collection of websites.
The winner is decided by public voting, which is also free and easy, and closes next Thursday, July 20. I hope you take a look and cast your vote. Here’s a little about each of the finalists. Update:The winner was announced!
“A living collection of internet dreams,” (we)bsite is a community-contributed collection of blog posts and notes about the internet we love, hate, and dream about, with a unique interface for browsing and sharing messages as stamped letters.
A set of short essays about digital textual communication, A Friend Is Writing is presented in the form of a simulated chat app with pieces of the essay delivered in dozens of short messages across multiple tabs, all competing for your attention.
A Walking Poem generates “psychogeographical poems” using real Google Maps directions from your current location to a random place around you. Allow access to your location, decide how long of a pooooem you want, and go.
Bird Game is like a free minimalist Tabletop Simulator in the browser, designed to make it as easy as possible to start playing board games with other people online. Choose from eight different games from Uno to Catan from a simple sharable link, no registration required.
Brr.fyi started in July 2022, an anonymous blogger documenting life on a research station in Antarctica, one of the most remote places on earth, transmitting their unique experience to the rest of the world from mundane observations to the quietly profound.
A tiny website that shows the current color of the himmel über Karlsruhe (translation: “sky above Karlsruhe”), a city in southwestern Germany. Don’t miss the archive with daily collages going back to July 2022.
“A Declaration of the Interdependence of Cyberspace” is a revised update to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 declaration, a collectively-written demand for independence from the large technology corporations currently dominating the internet, available for signing or forking for your own use.
Solar Protocol is a “naturally intelligent network” that’s hosted across a network of solar powered servers and is sent to you from whichever server is in the most sunshine. Don’t miss Sun Thinking, a group exhibition exploring the “qualities and logics of solar power and solar powered computing networks.”
the html review is “an annual journal of literature made to exist on the web.” Its second issue, published in spring 2023, features an incredibly well curated selection of creative, thoughtful, and poetic experiments with HTML from 17 individual contributors. (Don’t miss Grid World.)
User Sentimental eXperience is a series of four interactive experimental web essays, each exploring the “comprehensive meaning of positive (or rich) user experience,” with design process documentation for each one.
Wild Heart Homestead documents their efforts in “cultivating agroecological reciprocity” on their urban homestead in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, covering gardening, soil health, beekeeping, fermentation, and more in a series of detailed journal entries and reports.
Yesterday, Twitter started blocking all logged-out access to Twitter, requiring signing in to view any tweet or profile. Elon Musk called it a “temporary emergency measure,” claiming they “were getting data pillaged so much that it was degrading service for normal users!”
Apparently, it didn’t stop the crush of traffic and, this morning, Musk announced they escalated their actions against supposed “extreme levels of data scraping” by rate-limiting the number of tweets you can view.
Immediately, Twitter users started seeing “Rate Limit Exceeded” messages and every trending topic was about the collapse of Twitter:
Are shadowy AI companies scraping Twitter for training data? Maybe!
But on Mastodon this morning, web developer Sheldon Chang noticed another source of unusual traffic: a bug in Twitter’s web app that is constantly sending requests to Twitter in an infinite loop:
This is hilarious. It appears that Twitter is DDOSing itself.
The Twitter home feed’s been down for most of this morning. Even though nothing loads, the Twitter website never stops trying and trying.
In the first video, notice the error message that I’m being rate limited. Then notice the jiggling scrollbar on the right.
The second video shows why it’s jiggling. Twitter is firing off about 10 requests a second to itself to try and fetch content that never arrives because Elon’s latest genius innovation is to block people from being able to read Twitter without logging in.
This likely created some hellish conditions that the engineers never envisioned and so we get this comedy of errors resulting in the most epic of self-owns, the self-DDOS.
Unbelievable. It’s amateur hour.
He posted a video of the bug in action, sending hundreds of requests a minute.
On Twitter, software engineer Nelson Minar independently reproduced the bug with his own video capture.
It’s currently unclear when this bug went into production, or how much it’s actually impacting their traffic, so it’s hard to determine whether this bug inadvertently inspired Twitter to block unregistered access and add rate limits, or if the bug was triggered by the rollout of those changes.
On Bluesky, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth wrote, “For anyone keeping track, this isn’t even the first time they’ve completely broken the site by bumbling around in the rate limiter. There’s a reason the limiter was one of the most locked down internal tools. Futzing around with rate limits is probably the easiest way to break Twitter.”
Sheldon suspects the bug was related to yesterday’s decision to block unregistered users from accessing Twitter, but in a followup, wrote that it’s “probably not the cause of their scraping panic and most of these requests are being blocked.”
It seems very likely that killing free access to the Twitter API led to a big increase in scraping, since countless businesses, organizations, and individuals used it for their projects. It’s also plausible that these issues are entirely unrelated.
If you know more, leave a comment or get in touch. Confidentiality guaranteed.