Hello and welcome to Microsoft Stories, a new podcast about technology and innovation.
In this episode we focus on the famous Abbey Road studio in London, which has been used by musicians such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Sir Edward Elgar, and was used to record the scores to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, Gravity and Black Panther.
Specifically, we will be looking at Abbey Road’s music technology incubator, called Red. Microsoft helps Red run hackathons, which aim to understand what the future of sound recording could look like.
You will hear from Dominika Dronska, Head of Digital at Abbey Road, and Chagall, a singer and musician who uses a motion capture suit in her performances. They will talk about what innovation means to them.
Click the play button and join us on our journey.
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Transcript of this episode
Hi, I’m Andy Trotman, Head of News at Microsoft UK. Welcome to Microsoft Stories – a new podcast looking at technology and the people who use it.
In this series, I’m trying to answer the question: what is innovation? It means different things to different people. Innovation can be as simple as adding an eraser to the end of a pencil or as complex as sending people to the Moon.
What does it mean to be innovative? How do you know you’re being innovative? Along my journey, I meet people using technology in amazing ways, and discover what innovation means to them.
Join me on my journey – and don’t forget to click the like button on this episode.
SOUNDS OF BIRDS SINGING AND CARS PASSING ON A ROAD
It’s a sunny Tuesday morning and I’m walking along Grove End Road in north London. Through my Surface Headphones I’m listening to my favourite Beatles album, Revolver. She Said She Said has just finished and Good Day Sunshine is starting as I walk across the famous zebra crossing outside Abbey Road Studios. I go up the steps and into the reception, and even though it’s a warm day, I’ve got goosebumps. It happens every time. I think it’s the history of this place and the unique place it has in music. It’s also perfect for this podcast, because when it comes to innovation, there aren’t many places that can beat the home of The Beatles.
Today, I’m here to chat to Dominika Dronska, who is the Head of Digital, and is a part of Abbey Road Red, the studio’s innovation department.
Red was Europe’s first music technology incubator when it launched in 2015. It built on a long tradition of innovation at Abbey Road, which has always been looking forward and trying to develop the next generation of recording technology. It is impossible to underestimate Abbey Road’s impact on the recording industry. Here’s Dom explaining a little more about early research and development at Abbey Road, and how Paul McCartney and John Lennon asked the R&D team for help while The Beatles were recording in the now famous Studio Two.
DOM: That department has been responsible for very fast, very crucial innovations to the recording industry. They created the very first blueprints of the recording desks, mixing desks, which do have the RED in the names until today, mastering consoles, outboard gear, microphones. They were working to the brief from the artists working here. So John or Paul would say “actually, I really don’t like the fact that I need to record my voice twice for the backing vocals, can you do something about it?” and a team would go away, think about a solution, they would put two tape recorders together and create artificial double tracking.
That push towards creating innovative, new solutions continues today. Red hosts regular hackathons with startups in Studio One, the world’s largest purpose-built recording studio, and the place where Sir Edward Elgar recorded many pieces of music. It was also where the scores to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, Gravity and Black Panther were recorded.
Microsoft supports these hackathons, which aim to create new ways of making and recording sounds, by providing artificial intelligence technology such as object detection, sentiment analysis and natural language understanding, as well as tech experts. These sessions are a hive of innovation, and they are as critical for the startups as much as they are for Red. Dominika pointed out to me that it’s hard for startups to break into the music industry.. That has a knock-on effect for today’s musicians, who won’t have access to a range of new technology. Red connects research, artists and startups to bring those cutting-edge solutions to life – whether it’s a smart microphone that can change your voice into an instrument, or a new tool that ensures artists are paid when their music is played in commercial venues.
DOM: So as you can see, it’s not only about music production music recording, it’s quite a holistic view. We are working with startups, we are launching different projects and initiatives and grants with academia where we are exploring anything from spatial audio to AI in music, to fashion music, to music design for health. And apart from that, we are obviously working with brands like Microsoft, and developers, inventors themselves, individual developers and inventors themselves during our hackathons and different brand activations and exploratory programmes.
Abbey Road is used to being a trailblazer, encouraging people to come up with innovative ideas. Stereo recording was invented there by Alan Bumlein in the 1930s. Blumlein saw a movie in which a train crossed from one side of the screen to the other, but the sound remained the same.
SOUND OF A STEAM TRAIN
This disappointed him so much that he went back to Abbey Road and developed stereo recording, patented the process and implemented it in the studios. But even then it was ahead of its time, and stereo recording wasn’t widely adopted until the 1960s – even the early Beatles records are in mono.
DOM: We are used to seeing very new technology, very early technologies over here, adopting them ahead of the curve and then propagating them around the wider industry. So I suppose, yes, we have been synonymous with innovation. The studio itself is an innovation in itself or it was back in the day and with RED and with everything else we’re doing within the last five years, we tried to live up to that to that statement.
What fascinated me about talking to Dom was her view that innovation was about creating solutions to problems that don’t even exist yet. That’s how far into the future Red is looking. Red teams up with Microsoft to run 36-hour hackathons to identify problems that might not affect the listener at home but probably will in the future as technology naturally evolves. In that sense, Red’s hackathons are a little different – developers are asked to imagine the problems of the future first and then create solutions to solve them.
DOM: So I suppose innovation is always that balance between improving an existing situation but being able to be quite a lot ahead to be able to explore things in few years from now and exploring them right now.
Dominika is talking about innovation as a journey of exploration into the unknown. That’s incredibly exciting but it’s scary, too. You can’t predict every scenario that’s going to arise. You’re outside of your comfort zone but you have to be agile enough, creative enough and open-minded enough to ride that out. Maybe that’s what innovation is? It’s focus, persistence and adaptability. Some things work out, some things don’t.
Even The Beatles experienced this. Here’s Dominika talking about something incredibly innovative that worked for the band:
DOM: Incredibly, they were able to use the room as an instrument, use the studio as an instrument and that happened for the very first time. So they would be recording under the staircase in a little cupboard. When they recorded Yellow Submarine, they wanted to put the microphone in water. So somebody had found a balloon and they put it in the bucket of water to create a sort of underwater sound. They were very, very creative in their approach but what’s interesting is how they interacted with each other, how they balance and counteract with each other and how the surroundings, the environment, the engineers in the session, the producer George Martin, how they were balancing some of their wildest dreams with technological excellence.
But The Beatles also came up with a ideas that either didn’t work or weren’t widely adopted. One of the reasons for that was because John, Paul, George and Ringo got a lot of pushback from the recording engineers, who up until then had controlled the studio process. Before The Beatles came along, recording music was seen as a scientific process, conducted by men in white lab coats. Making music and recording music were two very different things, overseen by two different sets of people – musicians and engineers. The Beatles broke down that wall and merged the two.
One musician I spoke to is now breaking down the walls between artist and audience by using gaming and avatars. We will hear from her later.
Right now, I want to explore the tension within innovation. When you try to do something innovative, you inevitably have to push things in a new direction, but there will always be people who want to push back in order to keep things the same. That tension can create its own innovation as you reach a middle ground that works for everyone. You create something you didn’t expect to because you achieved something that wasn’t your intended aim.
But innovation in this case doesn’t just have to be born from conflict or even success, it can also come about through failure. As Dominika says: Innovation is a journey through all sorts of ups and downs and will take you in many different directions.
One of Red’s first hackathons, which Microsoft helped to run, looked at how AI and machine learning could be used to help create music.
One team was struggling to create a real-time synchronisation tool for laptops, which would help musicians together even when they weren’t in the same room. Instead of playing in harmony, there was a very small delay between each laptop, which created a weird sound.
DOM. At around 3am, when I met them, they were sitting with their heads in their hands, absolutely destroyed. And they told me that they tried it, but it didn’t work.
But at that very moment when I’ve met them, they were saying, well, it didn’t work. We will have nothing to present tomorrow. But this sound is interesting isn’t it? And we talked for a little bit longer and I think they felt inspired by this weird delay they created through, I suppose, what was an error in sort of the technological approach to start with, and in the end they won one of the main awards.
They won that award because what they created on the day, they asked all of us to go to one URL on our mobile devices and hold our devices up. And they pushed the sound from one device to another which created almost like a multi instrumental type of sound around the room. They’ve turned us and our mobile devices into an orchestra, an electronic orchestra. It was a beautiful situation.
It seems like innovation is very unpredictable. You can plan for it, but sometimes it doesn’t occur quite how you expected it to. Does that make it any less special when it does happen? I don’t think it does.
It’s a question of when the innovation strikes. If it happens late in the process then you might think you’ve failed, like the award winners that Dominika has just mentioned. However, if it happens early in the creative process, and you come up with an incredible idea and everything goes to plan, then that can be a lot less stressful.
For example, another winning hackathon solution was called Rapple, which was created by a group of PhD student using Microsoft Cognitive Services. They used speech to text recognition to build what has been described as an AI rap battle opponent.
SOUND OF A RAP MUSIC BEAT
DOM: So the way it works and the way they presented brilliantly during the final pitch was you would basically rap at the microphone, you’d put your punch line essentially, and in real time, the software they developed would understand your lyrics, would analyse your lyrics, translate them into text, understand them, analyse them, and it would respond back with a synth voice, in rhyme, in tempo, in the rhythm, and with sort of sense, so that was lyric generation, sort of semantic analysis, real-time synthesis of the voice, all happening in one sort of millisecond.
This is technology that can help a musician be innovative. It can spark innovation. Imagine you’re a rapper and you have writer’s block. Rapple can help with the next line or the next verse. Dominika believes it’s a great example of technology empowering people to achieve more.
DOM: Absolutely beautiful collaboration between human and machine, technology and artists. And we see a lot of potential in solutions like that. And we are, both of us as Microsoft team, we’re super pleased that those guys had won and created such a great tool.
So once these innovative new ways of creating and recording music get into the hands of musicians, what happens then? Do they use them as a starting point for their own innovation?
I spoke to Chagall, a singer and musician based in the Netherlands who is also a mentor for some of the startups involved in Abbey Road Red. She also performed at the closing ceremony of the Red hackathon in 2019.
Chagall uses a motion capture suit by Xsens and the MI-MU Gloves, which let her control the music by moving any part of her body. If she wants a low bass note, she might move her head. She might create a guitar sound by lifting her arms. Or the audience could hear keyboards when she spins around. Here’s Chagall:
CHAGALL: So I’m wearing all of the motion capture devices and controllers myself, so I’m singing and moving at the same time. And the movement controls all kinds of effects and applications in my laptops that are on the side of the stage, then I don’t have to physically interact with.
Chagall’s live performances are a complete digital experience, so as well as electronic music, the audience can also watch a real-time rendered video played on a large screen behind her. This shows colours, shapes, pictures or sometimes an avatar of Chagall that matches her movement. All of this is created using Windows-based software.
It sounds like an incredible experience for the audience. A complete visual and audio concert that’s been created using cutting-edge digital equipment. It’s a great example of innovation, but what amazed me is that Chagall doesn’t really think about innovation at all. The suit and gloves she uses, the visual experience she offers audiences, it’s all a means to an end. And that end is using the music to connect with people.
CHAGALL: And so, the technology and innovation is not a goal in itself for me. It’s something that … I use and I guess some sort of innovation as a result of it. And in my case, I think something that I really didn’t expect. And, as I said, it wasn’t the goal at all, but some sort of new form of live entertainment or live experiences.
Even if you don’t set out to be innovative, and the innovation is a by-product to your ultimate goal, can you still create something that’s innovative? It certainly seems so.
As well as how Chagall creates music, there’s also a certain amount of innovation in what she creates on stage, too. Because she is controlling the music through her suit and gloves, she can decide what to play next. Think of a guitar solo on an album and how the guitarist might play a longer and slightly different version live on stage. Chagall can do the same.
PART OF A SONG ENTITLED “IVORY / WINTANA” BY CHAGALL
CHAGALL: In that moment, maybe I want to really focus on singing. So I want to limit myself from having to move a lot so I can really sing. But there’s other moments in the show where it’s completely free and I can jam with whatever instrument I choose in that moment. And I definitely do solos and stuff like that. So it depends on the song but for me, it’s really important to feel free and feel musical in that moment.
It sounds like Chagall is trying to reach a place where she gets lost in her creativity – in a good way. She becomes so creative and introduces so much innovation into her music at that point that she becomes almost indistinguishable from the music. Because she is creating those sounds by moving, for the audience watching her, she almost becomes the music.
CHAGALL: For me, that’s the most exciting bit, when the technology becomes like a real tool but an invisible one…
And I have to sometimes take a step back and be like, OK, they have never seen anyone play bass with their head before. So I have to make sure to give them the most valuable experience in that moment, that there’s no way around that fact.
But now I do feel like it makes it a little bit meaningful to give the audience some sort of understanding, because then they can appreciate the work and then the … what they are seeing a bit more when they do feel like they understand. They don’t need to know every single thing, but they need to at least believe that what they’re seeing and hearing is being created at that moment.
Chagall’s performances are best experienced in person, so I’m interested to know if lockdown had affected her creativity and innovation. Her output is so visual, so what happened when music venues closed and people were told to stay indoors?
Did the innovation stop, or just change course?
CHAGALL: But I kind of took it as an opportunity to go back to where everything in my career has come from, and that’s just me and songs and just like old school music, without any technology. And so I kind of went back into the studio and found myself having more studio time than I’ve had in years, which actually was really nice. And so I just wrote a lot of songs and did production.
And so, it was really important for me to stay connected to, or reconnect to what’s actually happening inside of me. And to what I’m thinking about and what I fear and worry about. So actually, what’s happened is that as a reaction to everything, I’ve just gone really back to my roots musically.
It’s very difficult to stop being creative and innovative when it’s your job and your passion. Passion is a huge part of innovation. It pushes you to try new things, and reduces that fear of failing that stops so many people from exploring new ideas.
Chagall scaled back her work but the results weren’t any less innovative to her. They were just a different kind of innovation. She adapted to what was going on around her, which is something I’ve heard time and again from innovative people during the making of this podcast. She just wasn’t doing incredible, visual experiences… well, that’s not true. There was one.
CHAGALL: And at the same time, I’ve also, I mean, I’ve done some little projects where I was involved with, for example, a performance that was happening in in a virtual space. And that was really interesting. That was collaboration with Berkley College of Music in Boston.
I went to Boston then to mentor the students to make an interactive performance. And so they were all electronic music students, but in this course they were learning if you are in an interactive space, how the music should work, but also the interactivity itself.
The students ended up creating a game. If you completed the game, you got to see a 2D avatar of Chagall performing a song she had written.
CHAGALL: But it was that was still interesting because there were the players of the game, so the audience, and they were all there in real time and they had little avatars. So while I was performing, I could see all these little avatars bounce up and down. And I was actually a little bit nervous. Even though I couldn’t see any of the audience members, I couldn’t see their expressions, I couldn’t physically feel their presence. But because I saw these little avatars moving around on the screen, I knew people were there. It was a really weird experience.
PART OF A SONG ENTITLED “IVORY / WINTANA” BY CHAGALL
There has been a surge in virtual music experiences since lockdown began and while Chagall sees the benefits of gigs in videogames and online worlds, for her, nothing will beat a live experience where she can see the reaction of the audience and react in the moment.
The same is true of the hackathons that Abbey Road Red run. They could be held virtually, over the internet, but that’s not the same as being there in person. Creating something surrounded by others who are creating things can boost your own innovation and take it in new and unexpected directions.
What if The Beatles had written and recorded everything via Microsoft Teams? The sound would have still been fantastic, but I’m not sure it would have been the same.
Unfortunately that’s all the time we have today. Thanks to Dom and Chagall for chatting to me. And thank you for listening. Look out for the next episode of Microsoft Stories, soon.