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Thomas Dolby’s Very Different View Of Progress

Reporter’s Notebook: A personal quest to bridge the gap between art and the digital world.

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Thomas Dolby’s hit songs “She Blinded Me with Science” and “Hyperactive!” catapulted him to international fame in the early ’80s as a pioneer of New Wave and Electronica by combining a love for invention with a passion for music. The result defined an era of revolutionary music.

As record company politics began to overshadow the joy of performing, Dolby turned his attention to Hollywood, and scored films and computer games. This path eventually led him to Silicon Valley during which time he created Beatnik, a software startup that hit gold. By 2005, two-thirds of the world’s mobile phones embedded the Beatnik software.

“It became the audio layer of Java, and we got it more integrated, but I was losing interest in this because it wasn’t really the quality that I was hoping for,” Dolby said. “I was supposed to be the guy that put the heart and soul back into electronic music, so I took a big step back and I decided to retire from the tech entrepreneurial world and get back to my first love, which was music. I needed to divorce myself and unplug from technology, so I went back to the country where I grew up—England. There’s a little village on east coast, which has 20 houses and a lighthouse and it’s very low lying there, very tranquil and there’s a danger of flooding. Since I couldn’t build a shed studio in my garden, like most self-respecting former popstars do, my man cave was actually a lifeboat that I found on ebay. Her name was The Nutmeg of Consolation, and I put her in my garden. I converted the wheelhouse into a studio using reclaimed wood and I had a 360 degree view all around me of the ocean and the marshes behind. I put a wind turbine on the roof and added some solar panels, so at anytime of day or night I was able to record using entirely stored energy and I was happy as a clam.”

Dolby then began writing songs to make his first new album in about 15 years, but realized that during the time he’d been away doing what the Beatnik startup, people weren’t really buying albums anymore. What were they doing was playing video games, and interacting on social networks. From there, he created an multi-user online game, in which he used all the features of Google maps to create a fictional overlay for the game. At the same time, Dolby made a DIY film about the lighthouse in his village, which was being closed down after 250 years.

“I went out on the road with this one man show, where I project my film behind me and I would speak the narration and play the soundtrack. And in a weird way, this sort of brought me full circle back to the 17 year old in his bedsit from south London, and I realized that something had really changed fundamentally since I was 17. There were no university programs that I could have gone into, no experimental film programs or electronic music programs, which is why I left school at 16 and never went back. But in those days, you believed if you were a talented 17 year old that all that had to happen was the world was going to hear your music and you turn into an overnight superstar.”

That wasn’t correct, he said, because first you had to deal with the music industry, which was very hard to navigate. “But these days it is actually true that if you have the talent, you could be like Jessie J in your bedroom making a video of your voice and four months later find yourself performing the same song live on Jimmy Kimmel. It is actually possible these days to break through that glass ceiling using that ubiquitous technology if you have the skills to do it. The problem really is that there’s a certain amount of wisdom that is required to go along with creating a real career out of navigating this obstacle course.”

As a result, five years ago Dolby decided he would go into teaching to try and pass on his wisdom to the next generation of kids, who had all of these amazing resources but did not know how to leverage them for success.

“I went to Johns Hopkins and started teaching a program there at the conservatory, and I have some super smart kids,” he said. “They have very high entrance requirements to get into Johns Hopkins, but these are kids who are interested in composing for film and TV and games and virtual reality. I was able to build a lab there with help from partners like JBL Harman and Dolby Labs and Roland Keyboards and so on. I’m now into my second year of cohorts of students, who are doing a course unlike any other in the USA because of the collaboration possibilities they have with other areas of Johns Hopkins, such as the medical campus, the Applied Physics Lab, the Hubble Telescope, and the Whiting School of Engineering. You couldn’t do those kinds of collaborations at Julliard. You could go to MIT, but then you wouldn’t have a world class orchestra to play in.”

Added Dolby: “If you’re a 19 year old today and you encounter a problem, you believe that the solution to that problem is just a few key strokes away. You can download the manual, you can see a YouTube video of somebody else that’s figured it out. Worst comes to worst, you post on a forum, and by morning you’ve got a few extra responses. But there’s no such thing as an obstacle you can’t get around with just a few key presses. The problem with that is that these kids are going to grow up thinking they could solve their problems like that. And in so doing, they will be slaves to Google, they will be slaves to Moore’s Law, and all the bad products that are made to make them happy. And they will have completely missed out on the whole layer of experimentation that I was forced to go through my entire career, which forced me to think differently. And that brought out my creativity.”

While he doesn’t seem to accept the title of engineer, his bio on the Peabody Institute website says he is the holder of multiple patents in the field of interactive audio. In addition, “between adding music to the mix as in-house Music Director of every TED Conference from 2001 to 2012, Dolby taught himself to be a digital filmmaker. In 2013 he won multiple awards for his groundbreaking film, ‘The Invisible Lighthouse,’ which chronicles the closure of a 250-year-old lighthouse visible from his coastal home in Suffolk, U.K.

“I love technology for what I can do with it, but I’m not really interested in it for its own sake. I was bad at math. I was bad at science, biology, physics; I had no patience for that but when I would see the creative possibilities of it, I want to get my hands on that and show the world what I can do with it. I’m an odd mixture of 90% introvert/hermit and 10% exhibitionist, and I have this streak where I want to show off with the shiny toys especially when they’re new and people haven’t really figured them out. So very often there’s possibly a disruptive technology and the first people that glom onto it are usually the ones who can see the financial opportunity of that disruption. Artists are at the opposite end of it: they look for the beauty in things, they look for the opportunity to express themselves in a new genre,” he said.

The other side of Moore’s Law
While there are exciting possibilities, Dolby is also frustrated with the fact that technology isn’t coming together with music fast enough.

“Because of Moore’s Law, many of the technologies that I used to make my music were very rarefied,” he said. “In fact, in a lot of cases I adapted them for different uses, like the synthesizers, and like the fact that before there were drum machines I adapted a disco lighting console to play my drums because it was turning lights on and off rhythmically, and that’s what I needed my drums to do. Then they came out with drum machines and better ways to do it. Also, a lot of the technologies early on were very big and bulky and expensive.”

Dolby’s frustration with Moore’s Law involves an implicit assumption that 4 is better than 2, and 8 is better than 4, and so on. “That works up to a point, but there comes a point where more is less. At that point you need to completely pivot in a different direction creatively in order to find something. What has frustrated me is that in many other areas of life, from some sort of consumer device and the Internet of things, through to creative digital work that’s done in film and in computer games and so on, AI and deep learning are coming to play. If you see a Lord of the Rings movie, all of those little soldiers behaving like an army are actually programmed to behave that way, to run away or whatever it is that they do. And in music, a lot of electronic music is made with sort of the equivalent of Lego blocks [in the form of WAV files]. Lego blocks have no knowledge of each other or how they relate to each other. You just stack them and you build something, so you’re in control. But there’s no relationship between them, and that’s not really the way that nature works. It’s certainly not the way music works when musicians are playing in a room together. They’re responding in real time and their fingertips and their voices, and their ears, there’s a sort of loop happening which is really unique. It also relates to the acoustics of the room and the sound of the stage, and what comes back from the audience.”

At the moment, Dolby believes there’s a gulf between the technology world and what’s happening in music. “A lot of music product companies are saying, ‘We’ve got the 128k version coming out next month, and that’s going to be twice as good as what you’ve got today.’ They are still locked into the old model where they could design a much better one, but because we shut the product down into a little box we’ve inherited the legacy and the baggage of the previous generation.”

What Dolby is most excited about in music is virtual reality — musical interfaces that allow the user to build or sculpt with music. No knobs, no sliders, no dials. Rather, a much more intuitive interface for music.

Dolby asserted that partnering with technology companies is the way to close these gaps. He hopes some technology companies will work with his John Hopkins students, as well as help him make the right connections so that pro audio companies develop the musical instruments that he dreams of.

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4 comments

Gil Russell says:

Nicely done story Ann and thanks.

Dolby’s comments on modern technology and the “creation myth” that it sits behind hit home at much of the industry currently. Sometimes being outside the tribal thought patterns are needed to establish the proper framework to peer within.

Ann Steffora Mutschler says:

Thanks for the comment, Gil. I found Thomas’ observations on technology refreshing, which, as you say, are outside of the tribal thought patterns we are used to in this industry.

Sally Slemons says:

Ann, very enjoyable story on an unexpected topic. Thanks.

david moloney says:

Super article. I’ve been a fan of Thomas Dolby since the 80s, both music and technology. The’s a true innovator across the spectrum

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