Tech & Work

Q&A: Ben Sollee tells TechRepublic how his virtual reality app will innovate the experience of music

With streaming taking over the music industry, artists are struggling to find ways to stand out. The Vanishing Point, an app that integrates music with virtual reality, attempts to do just that.

Ben Sollee
Ben Sollee tests new VR app "The Vanishing Point"
Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

Musician Ben Sollee is known for his innovative use of the cello, blending a classical style with avant garde touches. Now, Sollee is extending his unique style into a business model for his music. Instead of sticking with the traditional means of music distribution—through record labels, live concerts, downloading and streaming—Sollee is branching out into the world of virtual reality.

His new, free app, The Vanishing Point, is slated to be released November 3. It's the result of a collaboration between two artists, one programmer and a sound designer. As Sollee put it, it's a "Fantasia-like experience"—a musical virtual journey.

Sollee has long been interested in using digital means to support his art. His last album, Half-Made Man, for example, was paid for entirely through crowd-funding—he made close to $20,000 in just 36 hours.

Sollee is also crowd-funding this project, through Indiegogo. But with a less-concrete form, the VR app is not drawing anywhere near the same kind of financial support—not yet, at least.

TechRepublic spoke to Sollee about what he's attempting to do with this new app, the technical aspects of recording the music for VR, and the business considerations in this new venture.

How'd you come up with the concept for this app?

As a musician, there are so many opportunities to get your music out there. You can sell it as a CD; you can feature it in Pandora, Google Play; you can stream it from Spotify. You can put up videos with lyrics in them on YouTube. You can make music videos, you can make live performance videos, you can do all those things. And they all have pretty much one thing in common—generally, people expect them to be free. Furthermore, they don't expect advertising within the songs. Pandora and Spotify, they can all make money because they can have advertising between the songs. But as an artist, I can't advertise in my song. Although, I guess I could if I had the clout—there are hip-hop artists that do it. When those cars are mentioned, they're not mentioned offhand, they're mentioned because there's cash involved.

The live experience is extremely hard to disseminate through the technology that we have right now. Ben Sollee
More and more, recorded music is being thought of as a free market. After a while of trying to catch up with that, I just didn't want to roll with it anymore. So I kind of stopped putting out CDs, really focused on the live show and what I could do more in person and that experience. That's a very difficult thing to reproduce—there's no screen, headphones, speakers, even through a theater it's so low resolution compared to being in person. The body language, the little tiny tics people make, the audience, the resonance of the room.

The live experience is extremely hard to disseminate through the technology that we have right now. It's so filtered, just visual or just audio, just stereo audio—maybe even mono audio. I was looking for an opportunity to get a little bit more control of how I was presenting my music to my audience. People aren't really listening to CDs anymore. And different streaming services have different qualities. I was grappling with, "How am I going to get this next piece out so that I really have the ability to give people a curated experience?"

How did the idea for the app come to you?

I tinkered with the idea of putting out an app, but just putting out an app is so expensive. And then I came up on this piece of music called "A Short Ride in a Fast Machine" by a composer named John Adams and I thought, "Oh, this will be great, we can make a VR app where you can ride on this machine and listen. I then met a wonderful ex-patriot of Kentucky named Pat King who has worked with many developers at this game company based out of Massachusetts. We spent about a couple months going back and forth on different ideas, augmented reality within a show, using different animation techniques to help people understand what's happening. I told him about this idea of doing a Fantasia-like animation to a piece of music—in this case it was "A Short Ride in a Fast Machine." He was like, "Awesome, we can do that."

We decided we would crowdsource the rest of the campaign. I started re-recording the music, rearranging this classical piece for a more new-American ensemble that included banjo and strings and synthesizers and drums. We got so far down the line and then we couldn't get the permission from John Adams' publisher, to put out the app with their name or with their music. So we had to kind of retool and write a whole new piece of music.

It's not going to be fully funded—it's much slower than funding for a record. There's a basic understanding of what a record is, what I can do with the record, what this record does for the artist, me. It has an inherent value. People are like, "That record's worth at least 10 bucks, I'll give at least 10 buck to the campaign." But what is an app for? Especially when you only pay $2 or get it for free.

Crowdsourcing for an app, especially a virtual reality app, has been a bit more of an education campaign than we intended it to be. People just don't quite know what virtual reality is.

Can you describe what the app will look like and do?

It's a musical experience. It's animated to great works of music. This app is coordinated with music that I'm writing. You're going to climb upon a machine that we're calling the Orbomotive Machine because it's powered by a magnetic orb engine. You come up on the machine and the music takes action once the engine is in it and then you can take off into this landscape. At the beginning it's very open, an airy environment with birds flying overhead and in the distance you see windmills. Things are moving fast, you see things happening. The windmills, you notice, are kind of turning in rhythm. And then all of a sudden, rocks start falling out of the sky, you notice how those rocks are coordinating with all these hits in the music. Then you head into a forest that suddenly springs out of the thing and all the while you're able to look around you every direction. Up, down, behind you and kind of experience this much like if you were on a real roller coaster.

Then we take you through the arid desert, the forest, a water zone, and head into a city environment, like a metropolis. It has hyper-loops and holding buildings and then you take off the edge of the world. In this world, earth or otherwise, there is an edge and past that edge, there's kind of chunks of land like in "Thor" or the movie "Labyrinth" where you're seeing them without the base floor, it can be very disorienting and the music kind of matches with it. It's a choreographed experience.

How do you actually record the music for this app?

We played with this new format of music, ambisonic. Instead of having a stereo or binaural recording that stays static no matter where you look in the app, we're actually playing with the audio so that it gets ambisonic and spatialized. Whenever you look to the left in the app, the music will move to your right ear. And as you look up, it will be spatialized down so that it really feels like you're in an environment.

That's a really amazing new opportunity for music compositionally. We've never had that ability before, to fix the location of an instrument in an orchestra. It's always been wherever you go, that's where that instrument is. It's recording a kind of rigid, fixed thing and it's no longer that. That's one of the things I'm exploring with this app.

What are the technical considerations for recording that sound?

There are two basic approaches to spatializing. One is to record everything in mono, isolate it separate so that you can, like Legos, place them wherever you want them in the 360 degree sphere of sound around you. The other approach is to record things with an ambisonic microphone. Sometimes it's tetrahedronal, sometimes we even had 32 microphones. Basically where they can measure the proximity of the sound to that castle and spatialize it based on that. That gives you the opportunity to capture live experiences, shows, nature, cityscapes, all these different things and really be able to look around those aurally. To listen around.

Where category does this app fall in? It's not music, it's not a live performance, it's not a movie.

That's exactly what we're trying to figure out as we describe it to people with the crowdsourcing campaign. We're like, "Hey, help us fund our ... new song ... video ... experience ... maybe our game?" It's not really a game because you don't play it, but it's not just an experience because it's virtual reality. And it's not really a virtual reality thing because it's a music piece. It's not just made for you to be in reality, it's altered space. It's made to come with music that you can alter in that space. So we don't quite know what to call it. It's a panatrope.

Who's your audience?

I feel like virtual reality is totally approachable and trans-generational. Much like my audience. When you go to a show of mine, you'll see 80-year-old professors teaching Sociology at the local university as well as 5-year-old kids just learning to play the cello. And everyone in between. Hipsters, business folks. It's a place where people can meet. And I feel like that's what this can be for the app.

As a musician, it's not enough to just say, "It's so sad that all of my revenue is going away because of streaming." It's not that the revenue is going away—it's just not as valuable anymore. The format is not as powerful as other things that are out there that people are willing to pay for. It has a perceived value that's less.

There's no separating the fact that people want visual content with their music these days. Are there audiophiles that don't want to be interrupted with visual content? Absolutely. But most people are really happy to have visual content. Like vinyl, people want to see vinyl—they want to have a thing to hold. This experiment is saying, "Okay, let's take that a lot further. Let's really create an immersive environment that you experience using that."

How does this fit into the context of innovation in sound?

When Walt Disney was deciding whether he wanted to do Fantasia, stereophonic recording was a pretty new deal. Most recordings weren't in stereo. They were all monophonic recordings. It's a single microphone in a room or a cluster of microphones mixed into one sound. So he had to actually go back and re-record those great works for orchestra in stereo sound. And then he had to generate all those and sync them with the animation. Fantasia was the first movie to come out with the stereophonic sound. It really changed how people saw things.

This is the opportunity to help influence that sound. To really put someone in the room with a great instrument and spatialize that audio. I'm really excited to be part of that.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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