After being locked and deserted for years, the light is switched on again in Dolby's laboratory. Phil Ward knocks and enters...
Thomas Dolby has been getting his head round virtual reality, computer games and interactive music. Phil Ward gets blinded with science...
Headspace is the name of Thomas Dolby's very own company, based in LA. Fine, but what sort of company is it? A record company? A publishing company? Neither. A recording studio? Well, yes, but... Really, it's a kind of research and production company. Great. To research into and produce what? Vaccines? Of course not. But... it is very scientific. What else could we expect from the man who brought us The Golden Age Of Wireless and The Flat Earth? Nope, Headspace is nothing less than Thomas Dolby's dream team dedicated to mapping out the future of interactive technology and its benefits for the musician in particular and the creative individual in general.
The company has been going for two years, and employs five or six composers and a couple of sound effects designers on a regular basis. It's a diverse bunch. For example, Iki Levy, who met Dolby during sessions for Ofra Haza, is a Middle-Eastern percussionist; Gerald O'Brien is a Canadian producer and TV composer; and Mike Kapitain used to be the keyboard player in Lost Toy People; Dolby's touring band. The 'sound designers' include Steve Dewey, once a Fairlight salesman, now a successful sound effects designer for TV commercials.
But it's Thomas Dolby's personal interest in interactive technology that provides the focal point. Playing keyboards and producing other artists are activities which have had to take a seat further back in his increasingly lengthy Buick. And one area of this emerging technology is of critical importance to him.
"I became interested in virtual reality about three years ago," he recalls. "I started looking at small companies that were running a sort of virtual reality cottage industry. I had imagined that I would just put on a helmet and be somewhere else - that's your dream of what it's going to be. And while you can see that potential, the fact of the matter was that the headmounted displays were very uncomfortable, and the graphics were very slow, and the experience was not much fun because you got motion sickness.
"At the same time, one of the things I noticed was that the moment there was any kind of audio attached to virtual reality, it really improved the experience - even though the audio didn't feel like a sound engineer or composer had been anywhere near it. The quality of the audio was not that great, and yet you could see right away how it could enhance the experience.
"From a technical point of view, there seemed to me to be absolutely no reason why - with the existing technology - we couldn't do very high quality audio, because whereas the boom in digital graphics is ongoing, the boom in digital audio has already happened, it's peaked already. With the right-hand at the helm, you could really improve the experience right now by working on the audio.
"The other thing I felt was that the philosophical concept behind the experiences also looked like it had been designed by technicians, and not by entertainers. I needed to grab hold of it and try and push the envelope as much as I possibly could right now."
'Envelope'. What a Dolby-esque word. It goes back to the days when he saw it as his task to stretch the possibilities of the synthesiser and its attendant paraphernalia.
"That's something that I've always done," he agrees, "going back to when I first started making records: take a kind of emerging technology and try and play to its strengths, thereby showing what the creative possibilities might be. 10 or 12 years ago it was samplers and drum machines and sequencers, which now have become very widespread and cheap. In a way, my role now is to shift into the next set of tools, which is virtual reality and interactivity. That, to me, is very enticing."
And in the meantime, some soundtrack work comes in very handy, thank you. But not just TV or movies. Headspace is on a mission to ensure that computer-based entertainments and edifications come up to the same (if not higher) musical scratch that television and film have enjoyed for some time. Their commissions are more likely to include computer games and virtual reality installations than Hollywood blockbusters, so if this really is the future they're going to be a big part of it.
"Headspace is a company that has two sides," explains its boss. "One is that we do audio, ie. music and sound effects, for other people's projects - everything from computer games, like a Sega CD game, to a location-based interactive music attraction, which we have already designed for Sony. They're building this kind of 'Sonyland', a place where people can play music interactively. And there's a theme restaurant called The Dive that Steven Speilberg is involved in. It's shaped like a submarine, and during the course of your dinner you travel around the world underwater. The portholes are actually video screens, and they needed some environmental sound effects and music.
"They're all fairly hi-tech applications, and the idea is to provide the right kind of audio for any kind of product. In some cases a games designer will come and say, 'Look, this is a fairly low-aim game. We've only got a few thousand dollars to do the audio...' and I will think to myself, there's that cassette I got a few weeks ago from that amazing 19-year old kid who programmed it all himself. He has no track record at all, never done any professional work at all, and I will introduce him to them and say I think he'd be perfect. That way we work within the budget. So, an audio service company, on one level.
"The other half of it, which is funded by the audio service, is just dreaming. All of the people I'm working with are totally intrigued by the possibilities of all this stuff. And instead of just having an idea that never comes to fruition, we have the resources to try and get it to the next level."
Dolby sees plunging into, say, virtual-submarine restaurants as a natural role, one that he has the right credentials to fulfil.
"I've always been out on the periphery. If you think back to the '70s, there were these new tools, with very few people using them in pop music. There's a real parallel with that now. The hardware manufacturers, games designers, cable companies and computer companies - and, in fact, the film studios - are going to ensure that this thing marches on. They know that they are going to make an enormous amount of money from it. They're not quite sure how, but because it's become possible technologically, it's going to happen anyway - with or without our support.
"Unless artists get involved and do things imaginatively, it'll be things that are already proven - like crash'n'burn type games. We know there's a market for all of that. But people dream about what we could do, and the dreamers are not really being given the opportunity to experiment. It's sad when you consider that mega-corporations like Warner, Sony and so on have the hardware, software and the artists - yet they're not putting their toys in the hands of their artists. We're the entertainers; we know how to put bums on seats. We should be given the opportunity to mess around with it.
"There are a lot of products coming out calling themselves interactive, and a lot of them at the moment are being designed by the big companies. They're not going to their artists and asking them what they want from this kind of product. Peter Gabriel's really hit the nail on the head with Xplora 1, which is for people who want to read the lyrics and go around his studio and maybe meet some of the musicians he jams with and things like that. But for a different kind of act that might not be the case. If you're Take That, for example, you don't need to be seen in the studio. But they have their own fans, and their fans would like a way to get closer. So it's important, rather than some sort of corporation designing a Take That interactive video, that the artists get involved."
Isn't it better that artists get involved away from the corporations, so that in this experimental phase a subculture can build up without the constraints of commerciality?
"I think there will be an underground anyway. I've seen some interactive products in this country - Hex and so on - which suggest the British games industry is slightly more clued in than the record industry. The record companies have really got their heads in the sand. As artists, we're not going to need them in 10 or 15 years' time, because the delivery system will be the same for everything, whether it will be movies on demand, your interactive soap opera, your access to the stock exchange - it's all going to come to the same terminal, down the same pipeline."
And if a new industry is coming into being, Dolby believes the artist has both an opportunity and, indeed, a duty to make a mark on it.
"The games industry is already bigger than the music industry, and it's mainly directed at teenage boys. I'm actually more interested in the other half of the world, because I wouldn't like the other half of the world to be excluded from any of this technology. And I think there could be a benefit for older people, or for women, who generally don't like slaying pterodactyls the way teenage boys do.
"Within about five years, most new homes will be built with a multimedia room, which will be blacked out and soundproofed, with a good sound system, big video screen and a comfortable chair. And probably optical tie-ins to everything in the outside world.
"It will all be coming through the same pipeline, including the music. Once those rooms are in people's houses, I think that the industry will grow out of existing markets, like movie spin-offs and video games and so on. There are plenty of other uses that we could come up with for VR - like relaxation, stimulating your endorphines rather than your adrenals. All of this in going to involve music and audio, and there's absolutely no reason why the quality shouldn't be very high. I'd hate to see it done badly. A lot of people turn off the sound on the Nintendo because it's so irritating. I think that's a shame."
"The computer has become my musical instrument."
It's one thing to elevate audio to the status it undoubtedly warrants in the interactive environment. It's quite another to revolutionise the way the audio is produced. Yet that's exactly what further research at Headspace is aiming at. Thomas Dolby has a dream.
"One of the things I really want to do," he enthuses, "is develop a more intuitive way for me to interact with the computer. The computer has become my musical instrument. With a piano, you can sit there and get instant gratification for what you do, and express yourself with it. Computers can do all these wonderful things, but it actually takes longer. If I invite my friends over to jam, I can't really do what I do. I'd have to record them, send them away, do what I do on the computer and then have them come back in to see what I've done. It's a very anti-social thing and has got really very little spontaneity to it.
"I don't accept that we're using the computer to its best ability as an interface. It's a machine that was designed for doing spreadsheets and databases, and we're still using the 'qwerty' keyboard and the mouse to do drum kits, orchestras and vocals. I think that's crazy."
What's wrong with a MIDI keyboard?
"The problem is that with a MIDI keyboard you still need to deal with one thing at a time. If I'm playing the keyboard, what I'm basically inputting is notes, but I still want to be thinking about sounds, channels and tracks and about the overall structure. I think of music as a complete work in big, bold strokes. It could have changes in it on an orchestral scale, almost like progressive rock, with tempo changes and key changes at the drop of a hat. Several musicians working together can pull that stuff off, but if you try doing The Yes Album on a MIDI sequencer, it's impossible. It wants to force you into its way of thinking.
"So I dream all this music up and then come in in the morning itching to make it come out of the speakers. So I think, where shall I start? Kick drum. Which module shall I use? Which channel is it coming out on? How many bpm? Should I be routing it? I had better save that file. And what folder should I save it in? Great, got the kick drum, now what shall I do? Now, because of all the features, I can massage that until it starts to sound like a record - but it bears absolutely no resemblance to the music I was thinking of last night. A pianist or a guitarist can think something and then almost instantaneously make his instrument play it.
"A lot of us accept that. But having done work in VR, where I have to design a solution from the ground up, I've started thinking maybe I'm not just at the mercy of Opcode and DigiDesign, maybe I can get this machine to operate as a better musical instrument."
And this is where VR comes in - not just a futuristic distraction, but a highly sophisticated way of sending instructions to, and receiving information from, the computer.
"Virtual reality is more than just a gimmick. It's actually a great way of interfacing with music, and one of the reasons is this: if you create 3-dimensional graphic objects, they have, in addition to a position in space (which you can see as an XYZ axis, mappable to MIDI in terms of pitch and volume and things like that), they also have physical behaviour characteristics. Say I have a ball; what's it made of? How much friction is on the surface? How heavy is it? What happens when it bounces? What is the floor made of? How hard does it rebound? What planet are we on? What happens when it collides with this cube? All of those things are physical attributes which you also can map to MIDI.
"When you're dealing with objects, you're dealing with a MIDI controller that doesn't require a specific skill. Maybe you're better at playing a keyboard, or better at playing a wind instrument, but whatever you have a skill for, you use that as an input controller. The average man in the street can take a cassette out of a box, pour water from a jug into a cup, and put flowers in a vase and things like that, and if you're dealing with objects like that, and you make them into a MIDI controller, then you're dealing with a skill that everybody can cope with.
"So you can see the connection with games: in a lot of games, and in VR, you're dealing with everyday objects. What I'm beginning to do is to make those everyday actions into a MIDI controller. Now, there's a couple of things about that..."
We're listening, Thomas, we're listening. (Anyone else remember Magnus Pyke? - Ed)
"Number one; it's great for games, because it means that music becomes fully interactive, and it means that people are generating a musical score from their own actions within a game. As a composer, by constraining that with MIDI, I can make sure they generate a score that will enhance their experience - one which suits the environment, rather than being just loops or those weird soundcard bleeps and blips and things.
"And number two; it's possible to create an environment which knows about me as a musician. If I worked with you as another musician or as an engineer, and if I say 'blue', by next week you'll know what I mean by 'blue'. Now, a computer, as it stands at the moment, will say 'blue, red, green, yellow or brown?', and it will keep giving me all those options all the time. So I actually feel that a much better way to harness the power of a computer would be to imbue it with those kinds of human attributes, where it's a much more intuitive collaborator. In a way, it gives me a narrower palette of colours, rather than a cupboard full of paints.
"It learns as you work with it. Maybe at the end of every session it could make some observations about the way you work, and ask, 'Do you want to memorise any of these?'. Or I could consciously go in there and say, 'When I say 'breakdown' I want you to remove any high-end percussion and leave the kick drum and the bass in'. So then all I have to do is say 'breakdown' - I don't have to go in and do all that editing every time, because I've done it a hundred times before. I hope, at the end of this, to have a musical instrument that is a lot easier for me to compose music with and to perform music on."
Phew. So much for slaying pterodactyls. For all this envisaging, the tools which Dolby and his team are employing for this work right now are real enough. So far, their work in VR has been on the PC, since according to Dolby "that's the entry-level VR development platform". The PC runs a development language called World Tool Kit, which is actually multiplatform. Inside the PC is a graphics accelerator card, and a couple of Advanced Gravis sound cards which will do synthesis or hard disk recording on the PC. "Using two of them," Thomas explains, "I'm able to get eight tracks interactively in real time, off the hard drive, in addition to the graphics.
"But eventually I want to use a Silicon Graphics machine, because it can do really magical and wonderful visuals. It was the machine used for Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, and the low-end ones actually have very good audio facilities. It'll do 4-track hard disk editing, and there are people developing musical applications for it which are very, very powerful. It uses audio rather like a MIDI sequencer which has one single list of MIDI events. Our interface divides it up into tracks, but as far as the computer is concerned it's just a list of ones and zeros. In a way, 'tracks' are obsolete.
"So it does some good things with audio, but mainly the look of its graphics is very, very sexy, so I'd like that to be the graphic engine for my musical system."
And the musical system itself is Mac-based...
"We've got them networked together. We're just about to switch to a server system where basically we have a giant Quadra with something like 10Gb of memory in it, where we have a big library of all the sounds that we have. Anybody can draw out what they need at a given point. And the nice thing about that is that we can keep all the spaces working all the time, and if someone needs to do a final mix or something they can be in the number one room, whereas if someone is just composing something he can be in one of the cheaper rooms. Everybody's locked into MIDI."
It's a unique environment created by a truly pioneering artist. Many pop musicians born into a pre-Nintendo world of MTV and MIDI have had at least some grounding in how to exploit integrated systems and a highly visual image. But not many have grasped the multimedia nettle quite so firmly as Thomas Dolby, a man dedicated to getting his head round the audio-visual parts other people cannot reach.
"Well, I always did, because of music videos. I quite often thought ahead to the video and almost wrote the song as a kind of soundtrack for the video. One of the things I'd like to be able to do more and more is develop original titles in-house. The first one of those I'm working on right now is a CD-ROM game based on a Coppola movie called The Conversation [1974, starring Gene Hackman], It's very audio orientated, and I've managed to find a collaborator - a CD-i developer funded by Philips. It might be out by the end of '94, beginning of '95."
Interview by Phil Ward
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