Good Vibrations: Changing The Way We Experience Music Through Technology

Technology to enhance our listening experiences has taken a deeper twist lately, with the development of the Here Active Listening earbuds and the Basslet. Here consists of a pair of in-ear earbuds and an accompanying app that allows you to filter out or enhance certain frequencies, while adding effects to what you’re hearing. The Basslet’s goal meanwhile is to enhance the listening experience in your headphones and takes a different approach, by transferring the bass physically, via vibrations into your body. To understand the long-term repercussions such technology could have on the concerts and live performances, DJBroadcast reached out to a few audio experts for their thoughts on these systems.

Can You Hear Me?
On the face of it, the technology behind Here seems like a pretty decent idea; who hasn’t been to a gig where the sound sucked? So could this technology make the experience more enjoyable for the listener? According to Luke Dearnley, an Australian live sound engineer and production manager the answer is, “Almost certainly yes. There are so many times I have walked into a gig and thought, ‘oh my goodness this sounds terrible’ because of one reason or another - usually things that can be fixed with a bit of EQing. Being able to drop the high-mids a few dB, or boost the vocals would be very, very powerful.”

German musician and producer, Burnt Friedman, works across a range of genres from jazz and dub, to glitch and techno. As a musician he’s pretty sceptical about this technology. “When you stir up crap, it won’t transform into something other than crap,” Friedman says. He goes on to explain that the main problem with live sound quality lies within the performance spaces themselves, which are most often cubes or halls where the sound is reflected off flat surfaces. “We’re invited to venues where sound issues have always been neglected, and no technical application can significantly improve those conditions.”

“When you stir up crap, it won’t transform into something other than crap”

German music producer and composer Hans Zimmer has been working with Doppler Labs on Here, and says that the technology “goes beyond the DNA you were born with” and gives the “listener the opportunity to influence how they hear a piece of music and in a funny way be a part of the creative process.”

Friedman disagrees. “I don’t want people to be part of the creative process, because I believe that people want good entertainment (me included), without being stressed.” He’s happy to surrender to someone else’s artistic vision and predicts that, “If people were commonly involved with the creative process, then all parameters of an art/musical piece become subject to questions of taste. As we know, if it comes to taste, we’ll never find common ground, or a solution to aesthetic problems.” In general he remains sceptical. “If it comes to interactive applications, I usually suspect the artistic work that compensates for its lack of originality by offering enhancement tools to the audience.”

Can You Feel Me?
Daniel Büttner, a former Ableton sound developer and developer of the Basslet echoes Friedman’s sentiment. “I think the large majority of music listeners don’t want to be part of the creative process of someone else’s music. Just like you don’t want to change a meal in a restaurant. You either order something or cook from scratch. This might be a nice gadget to show off at a party though.”

Dearnley also weighs in on Zimmer’s comment. “I don’t really believe that EQing what you are listening to is being creative. In fact I don’t even believe that being a regular live sound engineer for a band makes you part of their creative process. Unless you wrote the songs with them, you just aren’t.”

“You could also put a giant reverb or a flanger over the whole mix with these earphones, but why anyone would want to do that I have no idea”

So if changing the EQ doesn’t make punters a part of the creative process, does adding your own sound effects take away some sort of creative control from the musicians and the sound technician? “No, not really,” says Dearnley, “You certainly aren’t stopping the artists from doing anything creative, but adjusting how you hear them do it. I mean applying different EQ settings (which seems to me to be the most likely thing people will use these for at live shows) is something that has been built into stereo systems for decades. Sure you could also put a giant reverb or a flanger over the whole mix with these earphones, but why anyone would want to do that I have no idea.” He points out that in most live settings the space is already too reverberant so adding more would just propel it to mush.

Friedman gets philosophical on Doppler’s case. “Another brand-new, hilarious sound app won’t manage to fill the lack of musical information, but yet provides another temporary solution for a question of taste.” He goes on, “Without intellectual effort, technology tends to become a supplement for creativity. We can see that happening - for instance - with the enormous amounts of sampling libraries that go with musical software, so that the process of choosing between countless samples replaces the making of sound.” When asked if this technology could disrupt his intention as an artist, Friedman replies, “When used during a concert, it may disrupt people’s capacity to absorb the musical utterings, and thus may diffuse my intention during a live performance.”

From his position as a live sound engineer, Dearnley takes this technology less seriously. “A large part of the job of mixing a band live is balancing the mix so everything sits right. Adding the features of these earphones over the top of that will mean people can adjust their own listening to their personal taste, and if they do too much to disrupt that balance (say remove the lead guitar entirely) it will pretty quickly sound worse to them and they will likely reverse what they have done,” he predicts.

Still, we’re not getting any younger. With an ageing DJ population and corresponding audience, perhaps the Here Active Listening earbuds and Basslet will make it possible for people to enjoy music even as their hearing slowly deteriorates.

Too Old to Change
Seb Chan is the Director of Digital & emerging Media at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Chan acquired the music player and data visualization, Planetary, for the Smithsonian’s collection and is deeply interested in how music cultures are changed by technology. He’s also a former DJ who was instrumental in developing Sydney’s independent electronic music scene. Chan says that “obviously as my generation gets old and our hearing gets worse, we’re going to demand more customized ‘hearing assistance’ so that we can still enjoy the ‘music of our youth’ as we age. There’s a fair amount of audio research going into listening technologies and dynamic EQing - imagine being able to tune your Hi-Fi for your ears more effectively, or, better, automatically as you enter the room.”

Doppler Labs also tout their earbuds as having the capacity to “suppress the jet engine on an airplane” and “reduce crying babies,” but Friedman counters with the question “wasn’t this already introduced to the public by Bose's noise cancelling headphones, which work pretty good as silence providers?”

Büttner however thinks they’re a good idea. “We are bombarded with visual and acoustic information. The acoustic information is very hard to block because we don’t have sunglasses for the ears. This is how I see Here: sunglasses for the ears.” 

However, Dearnley points out that working in high volume situations like clubs, dance parties, and gigs, presents the problem of sound leakage. “In-ear earphones won’t block out all sound around you. Sounds that are particularly loud may well seep past into the ear, so they would be quieter, but not removed completely.” John Lagomarsino, writing for The Verge, road-tested the current Here prototype and found that sound leakage is a current issue. Dearnley adds that many sounds like aircraft noise and construction work are partially felt. This means that the ‘bassier' parts of those sounds are sensed by the body and would not be diminished at all by these kinds of devices.

“What I wish for is less technology throwing useless information at us"

Inner Bass
And this sensation of bass in the body is how the Basslet was created. As an upright bass player himself, Büttner explains that the physical feeling of music is an essential part of the music making. “Without feeling the instrument vibration it’s close to impossible to play an acoustic instrument accurately,” says Büttner, “when I did some prototyping to build electronic instruments with haptic music feedback I realized that it’s also something crucial for music listening.” 

When we use headphones, we lose the body sensation of music and often try to compensate this by pumping up the volume,” explains Büttner, “But the physical music perception is not something headphones can deliver. So I started looking at alternatives.” The Basslet wristband has its roots in robotics and haptic research, and allows the recreation of very low bass frequencies, very efficiently, in a very tiny format. It works with your headphones and receives the music wirelessly. The nifty thing is that it doesn’t feel like a vibration on your arm. Instead it creates what Büttner describes as “an immersive experience where we think there’s actually more bass coming from the headphones”. 

So far over 400 people in Berlin and New York have tried out Basslet and it’s getting good feedback. “We’ve seen a lot of commuters interested in Basslet as they listen to music on the way to work or at their co-working space. The Basslet really helps to surround yourself in music and block out the outside world, which is what we often do in crowded urban environments.” 

Like smartphones with cameras, and fitness wristbands, could these technologies simply place another layer between us and reality? Seb Chan says that it’s a human trend to mess with our world. “At the end of the day, humans have always altered their environments and our perception of sound frequencies is both physiological and cultural - and so this is really just an incremental step forward, not a huge change.”

Friedman’s criticism goes deeper, referencing author and cultural theorist, Mark Fisher. “It will be a pleasure wearing the Basslet, etc. but there is something at stake here, as well. Technical developments may set new normative standards for listening modes, or, like 3D does for moving images - not for the music's or the movie's benefit, but for sustaining consumerism. Like many other tools and features, it seems to be covering up the void, the lack of conceptual density or cultural relevance. I would rather opt for a "down-grader", like music played back with a 120Hz cut, instead of a boost, to reveal the musical content of a piece (surely brought across without low end), instead of emphasizing the frequencies of an "empty" piece.”

In addition to this, Büttner is sceptical of products like fitness band. “What I wish for is less technology throwing useless information at us and more products that help us live a better life by enlightening us or making us feel better. One of the things that drives me to build and release the Basslet, is the big smile you see on people’s faces when they use it for the first time. I think there should be more technology products that make people smile.”