Beatie Wolfe and Nokia Bell Labs Interview – Building the Future of Music
A collaboration between the world-famous Nokia Bell Labs and singer-songwriter Beatie Wolfe yielded one of last year’s most-talked-about revolutions in both the music making and listening domains. Fusing audio, virtual and augmented reality, ambisonic sound and a 78-year old anechoic chamber, Beatie’s Raw Space became not just a record, but a fully fledged immersive experience. […]
A collaboration between the world-famous Nokia Bell Labs and singer-songwriter Beatie Wolfe yielded one of last year’s most-talked-about revolutions in both the music making and listening domains. Fusing audio, virtual and augmented reality, ambisonic sound and a 78-year old anechoic chamber, Beatie’s Raw Space became not just a record, but a fully fledged immersive experience. MusicTech spoke to Beatie Wolfe and Nokia Bell Labs about this incredible achievement, and what the future has in store for how the world experiences music…
Home to the architects of many of the technological innovations in audio, film and television, Nokia Bell Labs, first established in 1925, has been responsible for, among other things, the first-ever long-distance TV signal, high-definition television standards and, perhaps most relevant for MusicTech readers, playing a key role in determining the technology behind the audio standard of MP3 as well as the video standard of MPEG.
The company was also responsible for some of the earliest experiments with high-fidelity stereo recording and reproduction way back in the early 1930s, as well as spearheading many early innovations in computing.
Put simply, the goal of Bell Labs is to build the future and today, this mission is as pivotal as ever. The president is Marcus Weldon and he spoke to us about the philosophy of Bell Labs and its remarkable recently revived) E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) programme.
“We like the impossible here,” Marcus says, “…and we focus on achieving concepts and ideas that might be perceived as being out of our reach.
“We’re also invested in creating new technologies – our parent company, Nokia, commercialises some of those technologies, we license patents for some of this technology as well. But, in a nutshell, our mission is to invent the future of human communication and do it in a way that’s disruptive and transformative.”
E.A.T. to the Beatie
So how did the project with Beatie come about, and why is the Bell Labs so interested in music makers? “E.A.T. actually started 50 years ago,” Marcus says. “It was a collaboration between Bell Labs scientists and creatives like Andy Warhol, John Cage and Robert Whitman. Basically, artists and scientists came to the same realisation that technology was going to have a massive impact on art and wider culture, in particular digital technology, and that what was possible in a creative sense – whether that’s video production, music production and immersive technology – was expanding, making some things that previously were impossible, possible.
“Back in the day, we produced a series of performances that have become quite well known – called 9 Evenings – and this was over 50 years ago. Many artists we work with say to us: ‘Wow, I learned about E.A.T. and 9 Evenings at art school’, and what an amazing art-tech initiative it was. That’s always massively rewarding to hear.”
Marcus continues to tell us of the resurgence of E.A.T.
“Recently, we were approached by Red Bull Music Academy with the intention of recreating 9 Evenings at the armoury in New York. That didn’t exactly happen, but what that did trigger was a real kickstarting of E.A.T. again, with a newer focus on digital technology becoming a more intimate part of art. So E.A.T. has new energy, new focus and new funding, and it’s resulted in some wonderful collaborations. Our collaboration with Beatie has been really well received and we have a number of others going on, too. We’ve been humbled by the overwhelming enthusiasm from the artistic community once they know that the E.A.T. programme is running on full steam again.”
So how did Marcus first meet Beatie?
“Well, we were doing some E.A.T. projects on our own – there’s one that might be of interest to your readers called the Human Digital Orchestra, basically, the concept was that audience feedback changed the performance and affected what music was performed and how.
“Anyway, this had proved a fascinating endeavour and we were coming to the end of it. Coincidentally, there was an art/tech festival in New Jersey which Beatie was performing at. So we were at the tech festival [Propelify] and became aware of her work and what she was doing… the event pushed us to connect. We found we had a completely resonant point of view. Her interest was in how her audience experiences and consumes her music; her perspective was that digital is great, but she wanted to capture the physical, raw experience that audiences used to get with records (such as liner notes, lyrics, and artwork). Just getting that multi-sensory engagement from a listener.”
Beatie herself told us more about her plans for the record that would become Raw Space. “I’d been thinking about creating different tangible formats for music since my first album, 8ight,” she says. “That record was released as a 3D vinyl for iPhone in 2013. My second album was released as a musical jacket and intelligent deck of cards. With Raw Space, I had been thinking about the idea of the anti-stream for the streaming world.”
Marcus says that Bell Labs was “focused on the inverse of that, which was to condense everything about the analogue experience and transmit it at a digital level. It was during these conversations we realised that the future of human communication, in this sense, had to be a complete audiovisual experience that you could capture and transfer to someone else. So our two worlds collided and, ever since then, we’ve been the best of collaborators!”
Chamber of secrets
The Bell Labs anechoic chamber, used as the stage for Raw Space, has a fascinating history. Built in 1940, and using large, wedge-shaped absorbers, the chamber absorbs over 99.995% of the incident acoustic energy above 200Hz.
“The first experiments were done in there for telephony,” Marcus tells us. “Engineers wanted to understand sound being played out and spoken into a classic telephone headset, so all the experiments in there originally were built around basic two-way communication using the old headsets – and how to best treat the sound being generated, being sent and then received in a way that maximised the human perception.
“It always seemed to be secretaries who were chosen to go into the middle of the room with a fake head suspended above them. The dummy head was the audio pickup and the person below was asked: ‘Does that sound good to you?’. If they answered ‘yes’, then the type of signal sent to the fake head was recorded.
“We’ve used the anechoic chamber for various other things like sound-field measurements and radio measurements and various other sound-honing experiments. It’s the perfect environment to look at sound in detail. Now it’s also perfect for doing ambisonic sound experiments. Some initial experiments were done in the 70s and 80s, but now it seems like a very relevant, widely researched undertaking – to generate rich, deep sound fields. So, once again, the chamber has opened its doors and continues to be a vital laboratory.
“After all these years, some of the acoustic foam looks a little greyer than it used to, but it’s fully functional and has lost none of its properties. It had become a bit of a curiosity, I suppose, for a long time, rather like E.A.T. itself. Well, we’ll be using the anechoic chamber again – it’s really becoming a centrepiece of the work we do here at Bell Labs. Artists love it, because it has such a radically different sound profile to any other room.
“There’s no reflective sound and there’s no external sound. It’s less sensory deprivation and more sensory optimisation. When I go in there, it feels incredibly quiet and contemplative. Beatie was saying that she would often meditate in there and indeed, between performances, she could very easily find herself drifting off, because it’s so quiet. It’s a pure environment, sonically. If you’re in there for a while, then your own heartbeat is the loudest thing you can hear. Artists go in there and they feel reverential – and they feel motivated to do something unique!”
Raw Space, the final frontier
Beatie tells us how her concept for the record developed in tandem with Bell Lab’s technological support: “I visited the incredible anechoic chamber at Bell Labs and liked the idea of that being the stage for a live stream. It’s this ultimate room of listening, audio history and rawness.
“I started with the concept of the record playing on continuous loop, playing on a turntable in the centre of the Bell Labs anechoic chamber. I was interested in people being able to log into this magical space and hear the record played in this pure and focused way.
“This means people are not able to skip, pause or shuffle,” she continues. “Then, I thought about all the missing album artwork, the lyrics, that backdrop for the music, and how the chamber could become filled with that art via the live AR [Augmented Reality] as the record played through – as though the vinyl was coming to life.” Beatie tells us that she “kept developing this enhanced streaming idea and finally, described the Raw Space vision to Marcus and he got behind it immediately.
“The intention with Raw Space was to create an enhanced form of streaming that combines the music with the artwork, lyrics, liner notes and visuals of the songs in a seamless fashion that makes the listener feel like they’ve been transported into the whole world of the album.”
So from a purely compositional point of view, did the creation of Raw Space’s music have this ultimate art/tech delivery system written into its DNA?
“Well, yes and no…” Beatie tells us. “I find songwriting to be the most natural process for me, and because of that, I always have a bank of songs to draw upon. After the magical impression of being in the chamber, the process was one of curating the right music for the story and idea. As with my previous work, Montagu Square, it was more about curation than creation. One track on Raw Space I’ve been gradually developing for 10 years, and another I wrote very recently. With Raw Space, I was conscious of choosing songs that ran together coherently, but also took the listener to different places, both emotively and visually.”
Beatie says that “the music is at the core, but the project and the music are in dialogue. Each song has its inherent story, and I find it’s about using different kinds of arrangements to enhance the storytelling. So I didn’t do anything as literal as trying to create sound in the studio to accommodate visuals, but wanted to remain true to the songs and their stories.
“However, because the emphasis is such a visual and atmospheric one, I did think, particularly in the mixing process, about where we could expand the atmosphere, soundscape, and really create the feeling of those changing moods, spaces and landscapes. Because I was thinking about the ambisonic mix on Raw Space, you’re hearing things more in the round, not in a flat way.
“On the track Pure Being, for example, the drums feel very distant, and the placement of the instruments in the mix creates the sense of a big dark space which suited the film-noir visuals we developed and, of course, the chamber itself. I thought about the atmosphere you can achieve with small musical details like high-pitched electric-guitar ambience, white noise and crickets, more than I have before.”
All systems go
Marcus began leveraging technology to implement Beatie’s vision – not least, some incredibly detailed and responsive ambisonic sound technology and immersive camera devices. “We used a 360-degree camera that Nokia owns, called the OZO,” Marcus explains.
“So we were doing 360 capture, live streaming it over the web using YouTube as a partner – we have good relationships with Eric Schmidt, the ex-CEO of Google who used to be an intern at Bell Labs, so he was a big advocate of Google and YouTube helping Bell Labs with this project.
“So we live-streamed for a whole week and we had augmented reality assets being generated in the room live while we were streaming,” Marcus says. “We did live stitching of different cameras and art assets, as well as handling the stream in real time. We wanted to send the ambisonic sound feed over the web in real time, too, but unfortunately, YouTube didn’t have the functionality to facilitate this. So we had to settle for stereo sound.
“But in the room itself, you had a full ambisonic sound field – so you could move around this space and hear different elements of the mix, changing the experience. So the record was augmented visually and then augmented sonically.
“We started from a base of purest rawest sound,” Marcus continues, “with no echo – no reverb, etc. Once we’d captured it, we could relay it in any form we wanted: separating different parts of the track and enabling the listener to feel like they’re experiencing the track live.”
So what did these augmented-reality elements consist of? “The augmented reality elements combined both the lyrics and the album artwork,” Marcus tells us. “Building on Beatie’s initial idea to recreate the old vinyl-record experience, but in the modern age. We really mashed everything together she talked about.”
Understandably, the project required a lot of work and preparation to pull off. “We gave live performances for three days prior that same week, and we’d been running many tests to make sure it’d all work. We hit the button and went live on a Friday morning and then just stayed up for a week.”
Old meets new
“The high-tech aspects of the project are actually being used to celebrate and enhance a traditional format,” Beatie tells us, “and that’s vinyl, but it feels like it’s coming to life around you. It’s that mix of old and new that I love, using tech to recapture some of music’s old-school magic. And I think the live feel of the album, echoed in the non-synthesised production, provides a nice contrast to the high-tech, art presentation.”
So where can you hear this, and what does the future hold for Bell Labs? Can we expect more of these groundbreaking integrations of modern tech into the music listening – and indeed the music-making – experience?
“So the Beatie album/VR experience is on YouTube and will stay there,” says Marcus, who also tells us that Beatie performed the record for Stephen Fry, who was utterly captivated by the performance and the fusion of technology and music.
“In terms of upcoming projects, we’ve been working with a beatboxer recently, using similar techniques, we’re also doing some work with visual artists, so as you approach their work in a VR environment, things blossom and change. Bell Labs has changed the world, we’ve proven it over 90 years and so, rather than subscribe to a rather pessimistic, dim perspective of what the future has in store, let’s change it and try to build a human-focused world, fusing the latest technology – and art is at the forefront of that.”