As an early adopter of the iconic Fairlight CMI digital workstation in the early 1980s, pioneering musician and producer Thomas Dolby is no stranger to technological advancement. He reflects on a career full of innovation and muses on how the future of sound may benefit us all

“I’ve always liked things that are very modern and futuristic,” says Thomas Dolby, calling from his home in Baltimore. Wearing a fetching blue beanie, he looks far younger than his 64 years.

“The technology I play with is mostly forward-looking and hasn’t yet been fully explored or developed. I have a soft spot for obsolete ideas of the future, if you like.”

As a revered new wave musician, producer and tech innovator, Dolby has been at the sharp edge of sound pretty much since he first started dabbling in electronics back in the mid-1970s. Look up old clips of his live performances and he’s inevitably surrounded by banks of synths and monitors, occasionally donning steampunk goggles and aviator headgear just for the sheer hell of it.

But, as we’ve seen over the years, there’s no gimmickry here. Dolby has always been ahead of the curve, a restless visionary striving to discover and master emerging tech before anyone else, never happier than when he’s tinkering with shiny new kit.

“I’m a performer and impresario, a show-off,” he declares. “I want to create something that will make people’s jaws drop. So it’s not tinkering for its own sake. I like playing with the tools and finding something interesting to do with them, but then this artistic picture emerges of something that I have to get out there and give to the world.”

If you listen to Dolby’s early 1980s singles, references to a technology-driven world in ‘Airwaves’ (“Control has enabled the abandoned wires again”) and to embracing the future in ‘Windpower’ (“Etch out a future of your own design”) set out his stall, influenced by science fiction writers such as Jules Verne and HG Wells. Themes of technology also underpin his debut 1982 album, ‘The Golden Age Of Wireless’. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Add into the equation his stints as a filmmaker, music director for the TED conferences, author (his acclaimed memoir, ‘The Speed Of Sound’, is a proper page-turner), university professor and AR/VR expert, plus his previous work with the likes of David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and George Clinton, and you soon begin to realise this Zelig-like figure has crammed a lot into a 42-year career.

A heck of a lot.

Settle in. This promises to be quite the story.

Born Thomas Morgan Robertson, he was dubbed “Dolby” (as in Dolby Laboratories) due to his incessant fiddling around with tapes and keyboards. It was this passion for music and tech that led him to study at the Royal College of Music in London, but his scope soon widened into electronic realms.

“When I first got interested in keyboards, you could go to the West End in London, find a music shop and try things out – a Minimoog, an ARP, a Solina string synthesiser,” he says. “That was my first hands-on experience with synths, but they were prohibitively expensive.”

His first real analogue synth was a Powertran Transcendent 2000 – as used by Joy Division – which he acquired in the mid-1970s, allegedly salvaged from an EMS skip in Putney. From that point, there was no looking back.

“It didn’t have a keyboard,” he chuckles. “I could just get it to generate notes which I would sort of manipulate and record. I also had a two-track Revox reel-to-reel which allowed you to ping-pong between the left and right channels, adding new tracks. And a Boss Dr Rhythm drum machine – it was that and the Transcendent that got me started.”

After strengthening his armoury with essentials like a Micromoog, Crumar string synth, Roland JP-4 and JP-8, Dolby signed a record deal with EMI in 1981. With a significant advance now burning a hole in his pocket, there was still one game-changing tool he really coveted: the Fairlight CMI. Introduced in 1979, the digital synth/sampler revolutionised music, allowing artists and producers to record and manipulate voices, instruments and real-world sounds in new ways. Dolby was soon sucked in, alongside other notable early adopters.

“It was still pretty new,” he says. “There were half a dozen or so in London, and they attracted a lot of interest. You’d go for demos and be rubbing shoulders with people like Trevor Horn, Hans Zimmer, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. But it needed a roadie to crate it around. You felt like a pioneer because only a handful of extremely wealthy people could afford them. The same year I bought my Fairlight for £85,000, I also bought a flat in Fulham for £23,000.”

AI, art directed by Mark Hall

Having got his Fairlight home, he became instantly hooked.

“There was almost no single day when I wouldn’t get up, turn the thing on, and in a few minutes I’d have something that had never been heard before,” he recalls. “It was really exciting to be in that position – I was very fortunate.”

Typically, Dolby knew nothing about the Fairlight before he started playing around with it, preferring just to get hands-on.

“I’ve never been one to read the user manual or learn the science behind the technology itself,” he admits. “I’d always just dive right in – that’s what I like to do. I love being one of the people defining how to use a new technology. So yeah, a lot of it was trial and error.”

In those early days, Dolby’s fascination with futuristic themes was invariably laced with humour. Arguably his most recognisable single is the irresistibly funky ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ from 1982.

The irreverent video for the track, storyboarded by Dolby himself, features eccentric boffin Magnus Pyke as The Doctor (not that one) at “The Home for Deranged Scientists”, yelling “Science!” at various points, with Dolby giving knowing glances to camera. (Amusingly, Pyke would later complain about being accosted by members of the public shouting “Science!” at him in the street.)

Throughout the 80s and beyond, Dolby released further critically acclaimed and moderately successful albums and singles, while being lauded as a synth and sampling pioneer. But not everything was rosy. Musically, he admits, he felt a tad adrift.

“My record company didn’t really understand me and left me to my own devices,” he explains. “With hindsight, it was probably commercial suicide to be so endlessly restless with my music. Rather than figuring out the formula that made me successful, I went orthogonally off in a different direction.

“Eventually, the industry lost patience with me. Because I kept changing my music around, they felt it was like continually having to break a new artist. A Bowie-like chameleon without Bowie’s knack for nailing it each time [laughs].”

But the music industry’s loss was very much technology’s gain. In the 1990s, Dolby reinvented himself first as a go-to software consultant, then as a pioneering digital music and sound technology entrepreneur. He co-founded the tech company Headspace, which created one of the first virtual reality platforms and provided tools for interactive audio. In 1999, when Headspace changed its name to Beatnik, he developed software synths for mobile phones, a technology that became virtually ubiquitous across the world.

“Basically, Nokia licensed our engine and got a four-voice reduced soundset Beatnik synthesiser working in all their phones, and it shipped in three billion mobiles,” he says, with a flicker of a smile. Nice work if you can get it.

Dolby throws himself wholeheartedly into whatever he does. Following the path less travelled with total immersion. He essentially taught himself the art of filmmaking to make his lovely 2013 documentary, ‘The Invisible Lighthouse’, chronicling the decommissioning of 250-year-old Orfordness lighthouse that used to flash on his bedroom wall when he was growing up. And his 2011 comeback album, ‘A Map Of The Floating City’, was another lightbulb moment, with Dolby helping to develop an online alternative reality game based on the music and lyrics.

Jump forward to today, and Dolby is head of the Music For New Media degree course at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute in Baltimore, teaching undergraduates how to compose soundtracks for film, TV and video games, incorporating 3D sound design for virtual and augmented reality.

Despite his considerable achievements, there’s still a lot that excites him about what the future might bring. With technology in all its forms continuing to evolve at a rate of knots, sound design certainly has the potential to become far more creative and tactile.

“I’m not worried about the future,” he says. “I’m worried about whether there’ll be a planet to do sound design on, but I’m not concerned by robots taking over and wiping us out or anything like that. Everything I’ve seen says that the more technology advances, and the smarter the tools get, the more need there will be for a human curator as the guiding intelligence. In my opinion, our interpretation of what machines come up with is what really makes good music – it’s not down to some algorithm.

“All the things we’re currently doing will be enhanced with AI, no question. But I don’t think we’ll ever just type in, ‘Give me the sound of a virtuoso violinist’, and the result you’ll get will be cut and paste, finished, job done. That might work for academia, for writing essays and things, but it’s not going to work for music. The more advanced AI gets, the more skilful humans are going to have to be to curate it, interpret it and tweak it to make it useful.”

Virtual reality, music, art performances and installations have already become more immersive – such as Abba’s current ‘Voyage’ avatar concerts, using the latest motion capture technology, not to mention Dolby’s own revolutionary virtual reality installation, The Virtual String Quartet, at the Guggenheim in New York back in 1993. Although Dolby can foresee these elements evolving and becoming more prevalent in future, he predicts that human emotion and our innate sense of togetherness will prevail.

“More interactivity and integration of personal technology into a live event has got to be a better thing,” he says. “But live events give people something they don’t get from technology – the shared experience of hooking up with your tribe and going to see something you will all appreciate. And that, it seems to me, is highly valued, especially among young people. So I think installations and live events are here to stay.”

Dolby has also previously talked about gestural and intuitive technology – how does he see that panning out?

“I can definitely see it happening,” he asserts. “I stroll down Oxford Street and there are all these pedestrians with faces buried in their phones, walking out in front of taxis and buses. I find it hard to believe that this is really a vision of the future. So whether it’s smart specs or a chip implanted in your neck, there has to be some way of mixing the real and digital worlds that doesn’t involve you tripping over the kerb, bumping into lamp posts or getting hit by a tram. I think that’s certainly going to appear in some form.

“I was talking to somebody recently about smart hearing aids, and the idea that they could become hip. They’ll not only play your music but also enhance your hearing, translate for you, keep track of your blood pressure, give you directions and so on. Same thing with contact lenses, specs or whatever. Face furniture is going to take a big leap forward.”

He also envisages more ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) experiences – a “low-grade euphoria” which can be triggered by audio and visual stimuli – creeping in.

“People are always on the lookout for new experiences,” he muses. “And ASMR-related technologies are interesting. On a certain level, they’re for hedonists who can afford the latest and greatest experiences. But I do think there’s a lot of very exciting development going on there.”

Despite his evident enthusiasm and passion for future tech, Thomas Dolby seems ready to pass on the baton.

“My feeling personally is that the pole position for those things is inherited by successive generations of innovators,” he says. “I’m now at a point where I don’t need or want to be on the frontline anymore, nor do I have the right to be there. In a way, I need to hand that mantle over to people with that kind of energy and imagination.

“At my stage of life, it’s better to be teaching young people how to be open to these emerging ideas. I think I can make a better contribution by doing that, rather than still being down in the trenches and messing with this technology myself.”

Thankfully, he’s not winding down completely. Although there’s no new music in the pipeline (“There’s always the possibility, but I’ve got no particular plans at the moment”), Dolby is very much in his happy place, continuing to take himself squarely out of his comfort zone.

“I’m working on a novel,” he reveals. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and it’s definitely not my first medium, but that’s what makes it exciting.”

Thomas Dolby’s acclaimed memoir, ‘The Speed Of Sound: Breaking The Barriers Between Music And Technology’ is published by Icon

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