Interview: Abbey Road Studio’s Mirek Stiles and Karim Fanous explain Spatial Audio and the power of AI

Last month, I sat down with Mirek Stiles, the head of Audio Products at Abbey Road, and Karim Fanous, Innovation Manager at Abbey Road Red, to learn more about the way the iconic British studio is embracing and helping develop the next generation of technologies, from spatial audio – which aims or the audio experience better emulate real world environments – to AI. We reflect on the history Abbey Road has had with innovation, and how the changes that are happening in the industry today, is just the next evolution in decades of change that Abbey Road has been at the forefront of.

Firstly, can you explain a little bit more about your roles?

Mirek Stiles: So I work with companies like WAVES and Native Instruments and we create music making software plugins and instruments based on our IP from the past, or our acoustic instruments. On the side I’m on the advisory board for Abbey Road Red, and I look after the Abbey Road Spacial Audio Forum.

Karim Fanous: I work across all our innovation initiatives at Abbey Road Red, but my focus is to lead the incubator.

Why is there such an emphasis on innovation at Abbey Road?

Mirek: Abbey Road, since the doors first opened in 1931, has had a strong connection to innovation. Back then if you wanted to record something, no one was really making that gear. You had to build it yourself. They had factories in London, a huge facility, with a massive R&D department – they would build microphones, wax cutting equipment. And that had always been there, until the late 70s. The last project they worked on was the world’s first digital mixing console. So they were always ahead of the curve. We know this because we’ve got such a great archive, and the plug-ins I’ve been creating with companies like WAVES, they involve me to do a lot of research on that process.

The department REDD (Record Engineering Development Department) has been in operation since the mid 1950s, and then was closed off in the 70s I think. The way it worked was that Abbey Road was a testing ground for technology, and vice versa. Abbey Road producers and engineers would make requests for things that were missing. So that innovation R&D side of the business went away in the 80s because the maths didn’t add up any more. Suddenly companies like Neve and SSL were on the scene and mass consuming these recording devices, so there was no need for us to do it ourselves anymore. And that’s a shame because they did some pretty amazing things. So we’re trying to get back to that sense of innovation, from a technical point of view. Abbey Road has continued being a barometer for tech and innovation over the years, but it hasn’t been grown in house for a long time. So we want to get that sense of creation back.

Karim: There’s been so much innovation at the studio though over the 87 plus years, a side of the legacy which not that may people know about. It was the first purpose built recording studio complex, the experiments for the patenting of stereo were done within the walls as well. You’ve got the creation of ADT… and that was always internal. Now, with the incubator for example, we’re asking ourselves how can we look outside and help talented founders adopt new technologies into the industry, in the same way that our predecessors did.

When you think back to the 1950s, you think about music innovation at that time, everything was new…

Mirek: When the studios first opened, they were still cutting to wax – tape machines hadn’t been invented yet. They were mono wax recordings. I would say that the biggest game changer in terms of the history of Abbey Road and the history of the music industry is tape machines. And this alludes to almost AI in a way. Before tape machines you had the option to stop and start the recording. If a musician made a mistake, you had to start over. and again and again and again. Tape machines come along and you can cut four different takes together and make one seamless performance. Is that cheating, or is that augmentation? Is that making music creation easier? So you can come to concentrate on the art without having to worry too much about the technical aspects. There are a million ways of looking at it.

And so much has happened since then. From Mono to Stereo… and Stereo took a long time to be taken seriously in a way. When it was invented, it was so ahead of its time that there was no way for the public to play it back on. Or for anyone to play it back. So they took down their notes and it went into the archives. We weren’t ready for it yet. And then even when it did come back, it took a while for it to be taken seriously, from the point of view that it was all about mono.

There’s the famous case of The Beatles, where, for a large proportion of their catalogue, they’d spend most of their time on the Mono, getting that exactly right, and then the Stereo mix was something they did just quickly afterwards. Pan the drums to the left, the vocals to the right. Done. No one was going to hear it anyway, was the sort of attitude. Little did they know that that was the version that most people would end up listening to. And by the time they hit The White Album, stereo was a serious format, and that was it by then. But it was a long transition period.

Karim: That’s why there’s been an amazing opportunity with the recent remixes of the Beatles catalogue

Mirek: Yeah, we’re doing a lot of source separation at the studios now. There’s an engineer who works at the studios who has come up with an algorithm that allows you to dissect sound off a mono mix once it’s committed. You can remove the drums, slightly, you can remove the vocals, slightly, and be able to do these remixes from a mono source. So that’s another area where we’re heavily invested. And that’s really exciting because it opens up the palate for a lot of historic recordings to be reworked for newer formats.

And the transition from tape to digital has been no less gradual either.

Mirek: It always takes a while for these things to be trusted. When I started working in the studios, we were still using tape machines. There were Pro Tools tricks, but no one wanted to record into a computer. They didn’t trust them. “Is this thing going to break down while recording? I know a tape machine is going to work. It works like a tank.” So it took a while for people to trust the computer. And for the computer to become more stable for recording. And for digital processing to become better. Nothing happens instantaneously. There’s always a gradual process. Guys I work with now, they’re all recording and mixing in the box, using digital plugins. 15 years ago they were saying I’m never going to use Pro Tools. But if someone says to me they don’t like using a particular piece of technology, I totally respect that. It needs to prove itself to you as much as the other way around.

And the panel you were just on was about spatial audio. What are the potential advantages of actually getting that right in the long term?

Mirek: Many. We’re seeing VR and AR – and I’m not saying both will stick around forever, but something that comes off the back of them will crack it, if not VR or AR – but sound is always so key to experiences like that, because you need the sound to fill in the gaps of what the eyes can see. You can see 110 degrees at the most, so you need sound to fill in the blanks in real life, and in these immersive experiences. So it’s something we’ve got to keep ahead of, which is what I see my job is – to future proof what we can handle.

Is it achievable through existing technology?

Mirek: Oh totally. It’s not the best it can be at the moment, but it will get better. It’s still early days in the grand scheme of things. You can experience very immersive experiences over headphones and over sound bars, i.e. in a convenient way where you don’t need to set up a room full of speakers. Which, let’s face it, not many people have the appetite to do. But this isn’t fantasy, it’s getting to the point where an artist can create an immersive experience and it won’t be heard by just ten people. It can be heard by the masses. That’s what’s really exciting I think. And we are getting a few composers and producers through who are willing and interested to explore this; they want to use ambisonic microphones and spatial audio arrays, and I’m there to help the artists achieve that. So hopefully we’re going to see more and more of that and see it grow and develop.

When it comes to Abbey Road Red, what sort of projects are you seeing emerge from that? What’s exciting you at the moment?

Karim: It’s all exciting! On the creation side, we had Vochlea Music who were on a panel here… it’s a clever, intelligent microphone that senses your inputs, translates it and puts it into the correct output. If you’re beatboxing, and then you make a trumpet noise, it’ll hear you and translate into that trumpet synth. There’s generative composition, you’ve got very powerful engines or combinations of neural networks, and other blocks of music technology, which can learn music, and pump out authentically created and played and produced music in its own right. So that generative composition platform is in its early stages right now. And we’ve got marketing platforms, whether it’s vinyl crowdfunding, YouTube music licencing for influencers… and then at the other end of the chain, we’ve been looking at spacial audio headphones, and other things.

At the moment we’re very focused on the role of AI. It’s pervasive across the whole music value chain. So that goes back to generative composition. Humtap are one of our start ups who are bringing that to casual fans. Scored are bringing it to the synch space. And our newest company LifeScore is all about using humans and high quality human musicianship and composition, and recording, to use as a building blocks for an adaptive music experience. What’s important to us here is combining the human and the machine narrative. People are worried about substitution, they’re scared of technology. It’s not about that. It’s about how we harness it to get the best of both worlds, and enhance our musical experiences. So for us LifeScore is helping plow forward for that path.

Where else can AI take us?

Mirek: Machine learning and AI also opens us up to helping us with mundane things.

Karim: Like being able to arm a track with metadata before we record. There are people working on that technology at the moment.

Mirek: Or say we need a headphone mix for the band; the desk can see what’s coming in and spit out the headphone mix directly to the band and you don’t even have to worry about it. Though I spoke to one engineer about that and he said that he liked doing the headphone mix, he liked doing the “mundane” because it gave his brain some down time. So no one thing works for all.

Karim: On our panel about AI this morning, we were talking about the benefits that AI will have, and someone said that it’ll enable us to have more downtime and watch cat videos. And so maybe instead of admin head downtime, we can watch cat videos or whatever else and maybe that will lead to more creativity in the long run, because you’re relaxing in what may be an even more inspiring way.

And outside of the studio, what excites you when you see a band live?

Mirek: Well I caught a band here at SXSW called Black Midi, and the performance was just really raw, vibrant, exciting… I couldn’t even tell you the style. The drummer was doing crazy jazzy type stuff, the guitar was heavy. When you see something like that, that you haven’t experienced before, that’s what gets me excited. I had to sit down for a while and just think about it, and take it in. That’s what it’s all about. And those guys weren’t using any special technology or anything – except I think the guy grabbed his iPhone at one point to get some feedback and samples.

Karim: It’s fun to see to see technology playing that sort of a role in a visceral experience. It was fun to see the guitarist do that. I agree, they were brilliant.

Mirek: We also saw this artist named Chagall, who uses the MI.MU Gloves. They allow for gesture control of her music; really the polar opposite of the other band.

Karim: It’s an amazing immersive experience. She’s wearing a body tracking suit as well. She’s one of our mentors at Red too, she’s pioneering immersive live experiences in a way no one else is.

Mirek: Yeah I’d never seen anything like it.

Head HERE to learn more about the Abbey Road Red Incubator, and for more about Abbey Road Studios, head HERE.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor of the AU review. You can find him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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