The Sounds of Science

With music mixing as easy as logging on to a website and typing on a keyboard, everyone is getting into the act

There was a time when music’s cutting edge was all about jamming. Performers would gather in a room and just play, picking up on one another’s riffs and rhythms, on the moods and environment they shared. It’s the defining image of the pre-electronic jazz era and, subsequently, of improvisational rock groups like the Grateful Dead or Phish. In other words, it’s all very 20th century.

Technology, big surprise, is rearranging that world. Progressive music and sound creation is increasingly moving out of the hands of guitarists and keyboardists in smoky studios and into the chat rooms of tech boffins in cyberspace. Digital workers are generating new approaches to music making, melding the creations of far-flung performers into a seamless, real-time oeuvre and building tools that you–yes, you!–can use to make your own life’s soundtrack.

It can be as simple as typing in a Web address. Log on to Beatnik Inc.’s and, with just a standard computer keyboard, you can remix the likes of Britney, Moby or Bowie. Tweak the timpani, bomb the bass, vanquish the vocals–and when you’re done mixing (or mixing out) your master’s voices, send the song to a friend or a community of fellow remixers for an immediate response. This is a quantum leap in the musical domain, as suddenly you and I and some guy in Poland have become–wait for it–artistes.

“Interactive music used to involve an audience sitting there throwing money or rotten vegetables at an artist on stage,” says Thomas Dolby Robertson, the beret-clad chief of Beatnik, which is based in San Mateo, California. “Now the audience is invited to participate in the activity, so that becomes the entertainment itself.”

Dolby is the godfather of Internet music. Nearly 20 years on from his celebrated album The Golden Age of Wireless and its hit single She Blinded Me With Science, he continues to wow technophiles with the gadgetry that he flaunted so vividly in the early 1980s. “I’ve always loved scratching around the peripheries of new technologies to see what is possible,” says Dolby, who uses the nom de musique he picked up as a kid playing with machines making electronic burps and whistles. He experimented with synthesizers and drum machines when that era arrived, and then with its multimedia mutation when music videos first gave sound its color. Now, his sights are firmly set on music technology across an enormous range of Internet devices, some fitting in the palm of your hand while others continue to evolve in the lab. “I believe any medium is at its most exciting when nobody quite knows what it is,” he says.

Here’s how it all works. Beatnik’s online audio software separates a song into various tracks. You could have, say, 10 tracks to play with–drums on one, lead vocals on another, oboe on a third–which you could switch on and off in real time to mold your mix. O.K., it’s Music 101, but the outcome is fun for novice mix-masters. And the technology is leading to the creation of new experimentation and new performers among people who have never so much as tinkled an ivory. “The loop between the product and the audience has shortened,” Dolby says of his digital utopia. Indeed: to about the time it takes to download on a 56K modem.

There’s a lunatic fringe to the new music making, too. Several thousand kilometers and a bad haircut away is Kazumichi Grime, who by day is a visual-effects artist in Sydney, but come night composes music with a vast Australian network of soundsmiths known as Clan Analogue. An online collective of musicians, visual artists, designers and coders scattered from Sydney to Canberra to Melbourne and beyond, Clan Analogue stands at the leading edge of electronic music. Much of it is now rooted in software engineering where sound, in all its forms, is prey to previously uncharted dissection and such exotic musical genres as glitch, minimal and microscopic. Glitch, for example, is a school of music born of the mistakes and errors found in the digital-editing process itself. The sound is then isolated, pitch-controlled, amplified, encoded and, of course, broadcast to the world via the Internet.

Grime (to his mother he’s Tobias) was involved in the Clan’s inception in 1992 when a bunch of like-minded mavericks, fed up with the record industry’s lack of enthusiasm for electronic music, decided to go virtual. Since then, this digital community has cooperated to produce more than a dozen CDs. But their true camaraderie lies in the many thousands of microsecond loops, chunks of application code and thousands of postings on obscure mailing lists that fly among them night and day–a virtual countrywide workshop.

Grime’s PowerBook is crammed with short sounds and beats and a number of beta programs he has written to make it all gel. He works with the likes of conceptual artist and fellow Sydneysider Steven Greenwood. “I trigger his projected video frames with the peaks and gains from my slightly chaotic, and sometimes accidentally triggered loops,” Grime says. Translation: the two have developed software that recognizes sound distortions so that Grime’s loud and soft noises trigger Greenwood’s various visual images. More mind-bending: because Grime can build the software as he’s performing, even he doesn’t know what sounds he’ll produce. Grime’s next venture is about to be released through Codex Series, a New York-based CD-ROM project, to which he contributed sound files for something called Moodstats. The project’s Mood-o-meter allows you to record your spirits and compare them with other people’s in a global Web database. After you’ve checked out the latest stock market quotes, for instance, Grime’s music, an ethereal plunking and swirling, will change, reflecting your level of panic.

Grime may be on the edge but he’s as eager as Dolby to share the ware. Embedded in his website is a range of his music-mixing tools and the means for anyone to grab a sample to use however they wish–for creating video games, film or their own CDs. You might not be the next Jerry Garcia but, hey, at least you won’t be a deadhead.

With reporting by Daffyd Roderick/San Mateo

Originally in TIME Magazine, online at Site design also by Adam Connors.

Search for more TIME Magazine articles, reviews and interviews.