Q+A

Music pioneer Thomas Dolby discusses his new memoir and how technology revolutionized the music industry

Johns Hopkins professor recently released memoir titled 'The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology'

David Bowie, George Clinton, Michael Jackson, producer Jeff "Mutt" Lange, Joni Mitchell—Thomas Dolby recounts sharing the stage and spending time in the studio with a number of pop music's geniuses in his new memoir, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology (Flatiron Books).

Thomas Dolby

Image caption: Thomas Dolby

The Johns Hopkins Professor of the Arts charts his musical journey—from being an aspiring musician in late 1970s London, awash in punk's insurgent energy and an underground of forward-looking musical experimenters; to his breakout 1982 album, The Golden Age of Wireless; and on through the turbulent 1980s music industry, a decade bracketed by the 1981 birth of MTV and the thunderstorms of the coming digital music flood.

Dolby has many stories to share, and does so in an alluringly nimble and witty voice. He's that rare musician who can write about music as both a sophisticated insider and a sincere fan, capturing not only the spark that inspires a sound or a song but the craft and labor it takes to pull it out of the brain and into the air. And Dolby's career isn't limited to music—he left the pop industry in the early '90s to explore Silicon Valley's exploding technology sector, which he writes about with the same insider's insight and enthusiast's zeal.

In fact, one of the more engaging recurrences than runs through Speed is the genuine excitement Dolby brings to new things. Ideas—in music or technology—that are offbeat, left of center, and not entirely formed yet galvanize his attention.

"At that point where the solutions are easily at hand, I tend to lose interest in things," he says during a recent interview. "If you look at the stuff that I've done, from music videos, the one-man show that I did, and then getting into the software period and mobile phones, it was always at the entry level point where it was not defined yet. That's where I get the creative thrill, and by the time it crosses the chasm into the mainstream, I've sort of moved on to the next thing."

The Hub spoke with Dolby about his electronic music roots, his front sow seat for the rise of the World Wide Web, and how technology has forever changed the music business.

How uncommon was it to be a young musician in mid-to-late '70s London whose first instrument choice was something electronic? You allude to the fact that the guitar was more the tool for the punks, and the synth more for prog rockers.

Well, it wasn't even really accessible to most prog rockers unless you had a big record deal or you were in a top recording studio. They were just not that accessible. Even a Minimoog, which was really the first commercially available synth, was thousands of pounds, back in the days when thousands of pounds was a lot of money. Incidentally, those same keyboards are probably worth about the same today.

So, it was pretty unusual. The other thing was that punk was getting all of the headlines and there was this sort of bubbling underground of both art school rock following from Roxy Music and people like that and also early underground, which is more inspired by Bowie, Eno, krautrock, and things like that. For those guys, any piece of equipment you could get your hands on was quite precious.

And you were always interested in the things on the sidelines—in the book you write about going to see Throbbing Gristle at a basement club in 1977 and thinking, oh, here's some people doing something that interested you on some level.

Oh, definitely. I've always been very drawn to the unexplored stuff, stuff more people hadn't really figured out it yet. That was always what appealed most to me.

I wanted to ask about just how uncommon it was to be in electronic music in that community, because starting in the early '90s and especially in the 21st century, I think there's a lot of young musicians whose first entry into dabbling with music is through either a computer or some electronic device. And people have been making some really sophisticated and interesting music without ever picking up a traditional instrument, and there are many examples of people doing that now. For you, how was it learning to be a songwriter as an electronic musician when most people were using a guitar? How does your instrument inform the songwriting process?

In many ways it's like a composer going from piano to orchestra. You learn to compose on the piano, where you've got a full range of harmony at your fingertips, but then you figure out how to stratify it and layer it and break it up, deconstruct the composition into different timbres and how to make it interesting with that spectrum of instruments. Now, they weren't orchestral instruments, they were the range of sounds that was available on the synth. It all came from the piano, so I would usually start at the piano. A lot of my earlier songs were the ones that if you had the chops, you could do with just piano and voice, like Elton John. I was no Elton John, and I much preferred the unexpected sort of areas that you could begin to explore by deconstructing the compositions and taking a more piecemeal approach to them.

In the book, it sounds like the learning curve for you for being an early musician to working in the studio and doing soundtracks and production work was fairly easily navigable. Did having a background in electronic instruments and understanding how they work readily translate into being somebody who could go from being a sideman in a band to working in the studio to scoring for soundtracks and being a producer, because you're familiar with the hardware and operations on some level?

Well, the recording studio was a world unto itself, and through my early experiences in studios, I caught on as quickly as I could to how you take a band or composition and record it to multi-track tape. There was a whole language to that, which I picked up on partly by watching other people and partly as amateur recording equipment became more sophisticated and affordable. The metaphors that it was using were the ones that came from the professional recording studio. I had a Portastudio, which was a 4-track tape recorder running on a cassette, but it had a little mixing desk, and you could basically record up to four tracks. If you needed to make more space, you could take three of those tracks and bounce them down to one and delete the other tracks. Now, you've got more space to do over-dubs.

The principles of that, and how you get the signal from point A to point B with a minimum of additional noise and minimal loss of quality, those were all the same principles as applied in a professional recording studio. Between working on that stuff at home and then the occasional sessions that I got to do in proper recording studios, I picked that up fairly quickly. I'd done a lot of live mixing work in my late teens, I'd done a lot of live sound mixing for different bands. I had a bit of an engineering background from that point of view.

But I imagine doing live sound for a concert is a little bit different from doing a sound in a studio.

It's very different. One thing that's important is even after you spend hours, days, weeks fine-tuning a certain sound, you need to have this ability to sit back and listen to it as if for the first time. A lot of the people that influenced me early on, for example "Mutt" Lange, the producer, I would watch him and he'd spend 10 hours hunched over the mixing desk working on a drum sound. Then he'd sit back in his chair and you'd watch him, and it's like he'd just walked in off the street and he's hearing it for the first time. He would make comments at the end that were so fresh that you really couldn't believe that he could sort of detach himself.

Is that a skill you can learn?

It's like a mind trick, really. I don't think anybody is born with it. I think you acquire it. Filmmakers need that skill as well. If you're editing for hours on end, you need have to be able to switch into what I would almost call punter mode and respond to what you're seeing or hearing as if for the first time. The decisions that you make at that point are absolutely vital to the end product. That's certainly something you can learn over time.

Although you're telling your own story in the memoir, you're also telling some parallel stories going along the different technologies that you have interests in and the music business itself. You decided to move from music into technology in the early '90s because of what was going on in the music industry. Looking back, that makes sense now, but at the time I get the impression that those communities didn't really talk to each other much at all. What made you decide this was the direction you wanted to go?

I moved to Los Angeles in the late '80s and I was working with software and hardware, much of which came from just up the road in Silicon Valley. I started consulting with those companies and making suggestions to them and showing them ways to use their product that they maybe hadn't thought of themselves. There was a development program called Max and I started working with a programmer. I think the first thing that we did was an installation at the Guggenheim to do a virtual reality sound exhibit. I started working with the programmer and I just got completely hooked on the idea that I could make my own software to do my own things.

This was simultaneous with the record industry cracks starting to show, with the beginning of digital downloads. It was a bad time for the industry. In a way, I got my wrists slapped for not trotting out a bunch of synth-pop hits. The record industry basically said to me, Look, if you want to do self-indulgent, atmospheric, organic sounding records, then don't expect any funding from us. Those two things, combined with the excitement of Silicon Valley and making software, it was a done deal.

Did you go into it thinking I have a very specific type of thing I want to get involved in, or did you did you enjoy this discovery aspect and hope to meet some other people that you could partner with and figure something out?

I think the first idea that caught me was the that there were all these interactive experiences starting to emerge, like virtual reality, computer games, and so on. A composer of linear music—let's say, a film composer—has this vocabulary of tricks and devices that they use to convey a certain emotion or help you with time and place, or empathy for this character, suspicion of that character. You have this arsenal of ideas. If you're playing a computer game where the user is dictating how the story goes, how do you apply those smarts in that environment? If you just play music at random against a dynamic user experience, then more often than not it's going to be the wrong music.

I started thinking that in the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) realm, music is real time enough that you could actually build an engine that has some intelligence in it that would create a real time soundtrack. That was what I went into it with, and the first funding I got was from a company called Interval Research, which is owned by Paul Allen. I put together a programming team and we started to work on this. When that funding ran out, what was starting to get a real buzz around it in Silicon Valley was the internet and specifically the World Wide Web.

The first websites were starting to appear and getting people very excited, and they were silent. When I talked to software companies it was hard to talk about sound and music because they tended to feel that sound was a distraction, it annoyed the guy in the next cubicle. If I was able to get them to think about music at all, they would generally say that music files are really big, and they don't stream well. And if you compress them down, making them small enough to load quickly, then they sound really tinny. Sound really has no place in the web.

I thought, OK, but MIDI is actually tiny. MIDI is sort of like HTML. When you build a web page, you don't send a giant JPEG or PDF. You have some objects like graphics on the client side, and then you arrange them using a description language, and you say here's the font, here's the size, here's the hyperlink, et cetera. That's why the web page is able to load quickly over a modem.

There's no reason why music shouldn't be done the same way, because the MIDI is tiny. If you put some chunks of audio on the client side to begin with, then you can juggle those chunks in real time based on what the user does. As a concept, this made sense and was appealing to the technologists.

When I explained this to [Netscape co-founder] Marc Andreessen, he said, We should put this in the browser. In those days it wasn't really clear whether the use of the web was going to be for entertainment or for business. Some of the most popular sites were businesses, like the Coca-Cola website. Coca-Cola has decades of investment in their brand, which included sounds and music. Netscape had to tell Madison Avenue, you can't have music. You can have the logo, that's easy, but you can't have your music because it takes too long to load. It felt for a while like we could solve this problem and put sound on the web using this principle, and this was a good enough idea that I could get venture capitalists to cut me a check.

Sure enough, it was amazing and it was popular and we had millions of people download the software for free and play with it, and we got some great sites and so on. The big problem really through the '90s was the moment you put in a barrier of asking people to pay for it, then you lose all of those millions of downloads. So long as it was free, people loved it.

In that section of the book, you talk about things that you tried that worked out well and some that didn't. And toward the book's end you write about how you feel like at this point in your career you've developed a creative mindset that you might be able to impart to the next generation of artists and musicians. Can you tell me a little bit about the creative mindset you're talking about? Do you feel that you've learned something you can pass on, from both successes and failures?

I certainly hope so. One thing that's really exciting about the film world is that if you want to max out your credit card or hit up your uncle, you can go make your independent zombie movie and maybe get it screened at Sundance and be an overnight sensation. It's not the case of starting off in the mailroom or making people tea anymore. If you have talent and you have something to express as a filmmaker, then the barrier to entry is really down.

In the sound domain, technology hasn't evolved as fast as video. For a few grand you can get a camera that's capable of making a feature film, but the sound on it is crappy as ever. In fact, the only way to do sound is the conventional way to do it. There's a very strong need to instill in the students that this is an area of the filmmaking process that you can't really cut corners. Not to belittle the cinematographic part of it, which obviously is a big deal, but we've yet to experience a breakthrough in sound technology that gives you top quality as easily as a Canon 5D gives you a great picture. That's a really important part.

The other thing that's important is that if I have a filmmaker and they're dealing with a soundtrack and they have bad dialogue because there was a vending machine fan in the background, they know that OK, we've got bad sound here. How do I get rid of the vending machine fan on the soundtrack? There is a way for them to do it.

That's unfortunate in many ways, because they didn't have to think outside the box, they didn't have to find another way around it. I would have asked, How important is the dialogue in this scene? Could we actually just play it with music? Could you actually just use the sound effects, or use that vending machine to sustain attention during that time? Do you have a shot of the vending machine? If you had the shot of the vending machine there it would make sense that there's that sound in the room.

Just finding different ways around things, and that very often is what they don't have. If you're able to take them out of their comfort zone and take some of those easy solutions away from them, then it sort of forces them to realize there's more than one way to skin a cat. Now, by the time they leave here, jobs they're looking at in the workforce will be things that I have no experience of, this sort of software or hardware that they're able to use will do things that I have no experience of. But maybe there will be a little voice in the back of their head that says, oh, maybe we could try this a different way—to see the problems as opportunities to get creative and do something individualistic and different.

Finally I wanted to ask you, out of maybe all the compliments you've ever received throughout your career, does anything beat being called pretty funky by a member of George Clinton's Parliament after you played with them in D.C. in the 1980s?

That was one of the best, yes. Mind you, George also told me I was no fun when I debunked his Bermuda Triangle experience. But, no, that was one of the best.

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