Thomas Dolby at Beatnik Incorporated

Exerpts from EQ Magazine - Issue #6


Photos by Steve Jennings
The following quotes feature Thomas discussing the benefits of web site sonification for individual artists as well as creative aspects of internet music production and delivery. For further technical information about Thomas' company, Beatnik - and for demonstrations of Beatnik in action! - please visit the official web site at


Thomas Dolby at his Beatnik office 1997


How does Beatnik benefit the musician in the real world?

Thomas: "I think music and technology have always complimented each other. And I think it's very important to recognise that during the 20th century we've gotten really good at making a recording of a performance and then broadcasting it to a large number of people. In previous centuries you didn't have that wide an audience - just as many people as were in earshot of you - but on the plus side, every performance was a little bit different. You had some real-time feedback between the performer and the audience. There was no ultimate version of your hit song. There was one version you'd play in the market square and another version you'd play for the king and his courtiers. And if you did good, they'd pelt you with coins, and if you did bad, they'd pelt you with rotten vegetables. Or worse. But then technology came along in this century that allows you to capture a single performance and get it out there to a huge number of people but in a totally one-way manner. The audience would just let it wash over them. Other technologies, such as film, did the same thing. You went from theater to film, where now you put your actors in front of a film camera and print these reels, and you send them off round to all these cinemas. And so a huge number of people see them, but it's a totally one-way experience. So the appeal to me of the new technology is that you egt the best of both worlds. You get the potential for a very wide audience but you don't sacrifice anything in terms of the instant nature of it."


Feedback via Thomas' fan list & other similar internet communities:
"There's a couple of things that are fascinating about that. Number one is when I pick a sound or certain chord change in 'Mulu' - I'm sitting at a piano somewhere, and I have a sense that, out there, there is an audience where I'm gonna raise the hair on the backs of their necks, because I did it to myself... when I found that chord change or that sound, it happened to me. It happened to me and, in the back of my mind, I'm thinking: 'Out there, therre are people who ate going to get the same thing from this that I did.'

"But, when I make a record and I've got that record out, what feedback do I get? I see radio play, I see royalty statements, even if I go to a gig people are screaming and hollering, but I don't really see the hair on the backs of their necks. So, the kind of feedback that I get is in these very abstract terms. Now, conversely, if I go into a newslist and ten people are sharing the fact that they all got that off that particular song, then I succeeded. And how would I ever have known that ten years ago? So, in a weird kind of way, it puts me a lot closer to my audience."



Thomas plays a double panpipe (with both melody and drone pipes) in his Beatnik office. This type of instrument is predecessor to the first 'pipe' organs of the 3rd Century BC.



"I may have sold half a million copies of that album and there's only 500 people on that list... the numbers are staggeringly different and yet the gratification that I get from knowing that I've connected with 500 people is, in some ways, much larger than knowing that I've sold 500,000 albums.Project a few years into the future: if I write a song and instantaneously upload it onto the 'net and get that kind of feedback by morning, now you're getting close to real time."

On the possibility of interactivity interfering with the musician's vision:

"I don't think that interactivity necessarily has to be confined to letting the public noodle with your music. The interactivity I'm talking about is the fact that in a live performance, with a loose structure to the performance, the audience is part of the event. If a band goes on the road and it does indeed vary from night to night - and evolve - then the audience has something to do with that. So there's a feedback loop that goes on between the audience and the performer in a live situation. And that really has played second fiddle for most of this century to the other way, which is that you create this one gleaming artifact and then you go tour to promote it."



Beatnik technology for modern musicians on the Internet:

"To transpose a melody up a minor third is not computationally very intensive, so most of what the composer is doing in the compositional stage doesn't require a lot of computer power to do.

"What requires a lot of computer power, though, is when you hit a site where you're downloading or streaming audio - to actually put this rich digital recording over a telephone line - and replay it on a user's machine. So, it seemed to me that if everyone in my audience had Studio Vision and a sampler on their computer, then it would be great. All I would have to send was the recipe instead of the whole damn wedding cake. They would hear the music instantaneously with no quality loss over the way I was hearing it. They'd hear it with fidelity. I would have some guarantee that what they were hearing was what I intended."

however... "In the instance of general MIDI, where you can't account for what sound card they have or how that's going to sound, or for streaming audio where there are just so many factors, like available bandwidth, the amount of server activity, there seems to be very little quality control involved in what kind of loss you get. You get glitches, you get dropouts, you get complete stops where you have to restart it, and I hate the idea of people listening to my music in that light. So what I built for myself and for others was a way that I can create and it'll come out sounding pretty much the way that I intended it. You're playing back linear files that people have created, and one of the aims of RMF (Rich Music Format) is to give the composer, if he or she has a set way that they want the public to hear the music, a guarantee that it will, indeed, sound that way."

Beatnik's Rich Music Format: a multi-use compression protocol that can, in a single file, stream MIDI, digital audio, and a 40-bit data-encryption algorithm (for adding copyright information to that file) simultaneously. It can crunch large files down to very manageable sizes the way MPEG does, but with the added function of performing several duties at once, all within the same file.


Musicians: "Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, David Bowie, Brian Eno... I think in some ways especially Eno, because he manages to juggle art and commerce incredibly well like Leonardo DaVinci did. DaVinci invented the drum machine and the helicopter, but also managed to paint the Mona Lisa. Eno managed to create ambient music yet still be at the commercial peak of U2, Talking Heads, Devo, Bowie, and so many other people."

Producers: "There are a few producers I admire for what they do. I think Trevor Horn's a great producer. I hated working with him because he's a maniac. He manages to make everybody feel very, very dispensable by virtue of the fact that he's got six studios on the ball at any one time. You might play a part and he would just take a four-bar loop of that and do a whole remix with it in another room. I didn't like that very much. At the other end of the spectrum, I think Mutt Lange is a great producer as well. He's quite the opposite - he'll never commit to a single note unless he's convinced it's going to end up in the song. But he can sometimes be frustrating because he'll make you play a 16-note melody all night. So he's a real perfectionist... I also really like William Orbit. He's a purist programmer and producer who's done a lot of his own stuff and stuff for other people. There's a lot of people I respect, but I'm not a generalist."

Music: "I don't like most music. I like a very small percentage of the music that I hear in any genre. Two percent of classical music that I hear, I adore, and it makes me want to go and learn to orchestrate stuff like that. Then if you took an average piece of successful or popular classical music it sounds to me like somebody saying 'two plus two equals four, two plus two equals four'. And yes, we have reassured ourselves over and over again that the planets will revolve."

Coffee: "It depends on what time of day it is. Usually after a meal I like a black espresso. Usually in the morning I like a double cappuccino."


On the creation and maintenance of his own web page:

"I've grown up with this discipline of: I work really hard at tweaking this immaculate artifact, but by the time it comes out, I'm on an island somewhere. Now it's up to the public to decide if they like it or not.

"When I first made my web site (The Flat Earth Society webpage), it was the same thing. I started off small and it got bigger and broader and it turned into this gleaming artifact, and we finally went online with it and I'm sitting back going 'There! Do you like it?' Little did I know that's where the work's just beginning. The bigger and broader and richer it is, the harder it is to maintain and have any sort of freshness to it. And the real trick is being able to respond to feedback to keep things alive, keep it fresh, and also make it apparent that when they hit your page they have some input.

"My overall perspective on how I feel as an artist in the Internet era is that it's been tremendously beneficial."


On writing and publishing his own music via Beatnik's software, and negotiating his own sales via the Internet:


"The more time goes on the more I consider that a seriously viable way to go. To take Beatnik and do some serious work with it, I think, is becoming more and more viable."
Thomas amid various musical equipment, Beatnik offices, 1997


On his dual role as musician and businessman:

"I think that you have to immerse yourself in whatever job it is that you're doing. And I think that might be quite tricky. My hope is that I can go back to music and do it purely for the love of it and not have to even worry about making a living doing it.

"That would be a useful benefit. A lot of amateur or semi-pro musicians I think overlook that somewhat. They forget that they will be giving that up if they go professional. There's something to be said for the fact that if you're not making any money doing music, then you're doing it for the right reasons. I do rather like the idea of going back to music without having to depend on feeding my family from it."




1984 - Thomas Dolby in Los Angeles, "The Flat Earth" US tour continues
1985 - Thomas Dolby with Ryuichi Sakamoto
1986 - Thomas Dolby, collaborations with Joni Mitchell, work on film scores
1988 - Thomas Dolby, Mike Kapitan, "Aliens Ate My Buick" and the Lost Toy People
1992 - Thomas Dolby, the making of "Astronauts and Heretics"