Here at BAMM.tv, we’re always keeping an eye out for the latest exciting developments in the worlds of music and tech. That’s why we’re thrilled to offer up an exclusive interview with none other than Vince De Franco – musical innovator par excellence, whose incredible career to date has seen him invent new instruments like the Dimension Beam and the Mandala, collaborate with artists as varied as Yes, Tool, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Prince, Tina Turner and Peter Gabriel (not to mention working along psychedelic figurehead Timothy Leary) and develop several online systems.
In short: the man is a pioneer in a world where the term pioneer is thrown about with impunity. We were lucky enough to pick his brains about the future of music … and he had some fascinating stuff to say.
Do you think these are particularly exciting times for musical progression?
Yes. Everyone is a musician, and always has been. As time goes on we are moving closer to a reality in which our innate musical self is more easily projected onto a medium and distributed than ever before because of intuitive and accessible tools. More people are being more musically creative than ever right now because the tools necessary to create and record music are already in their pocket or on their desk in the form of a phone or tablet or laptop. The ability to share musical creations is also more widespread than ever right now by way of a few taps on a screen or clicks of a mouse. To me, more expression and more sharing of expression is progressive and creates excitement.
Does increased accessibility of technology mean that more and more people can create their own instruments/sounds?
There are an infinite number of ways to synthesize sound, from tapping two rocks together to playing a cello to speaking words to running a computer program, etc. So, we’ve always had the ability to create instruments and sounds with the tools around us, but with today’s increased accessibility of technology there’s been an exponential increase in the ability to create novel sounds. These days we’re hearing more and more new sounds than ever before.
How do new musical inventions come around, in a ‘chicken or egg’ sense? By which I mean, does an invention come about because an artist requests a specific sound, or does the invention arrive first and is then leapt upon by artists?
It can happen both ways. I may be experimenting with a new technology meant for some purpose outside of musical instruments and it suddenly becomes apparent that a more evolved version could facilitate the ability to express oneself musically.
The Dimension Beam [D-Beam] infrared musical controller came about because I was working with an IR beam that had 2 levels of reflection detection for video game control, but I pushed it up to 1000 levels in order to track my guitar neck. After it was presented at a musical convention it was leapt upon by many artists and then eventually licensed to Roland.
The Mandala Drum on the other hand came about because Danny Carey of the band Tool asked me to make him a three zone drum trigger that would connect to his Mac and output sound with just a few milliseconds of latency. In the course of creating that trigger I invented a membrane technology that could detect at least hundreds of zones, and now we’ve got a whole new instrument in the Mandala.
You’ve worked with Tool, who are noted for their experimental attitude. Which other artists are great to work with in this sense? Are there any you would like to work with in the future?
Groups like the Melvins and Fantomas use unconventional methods live and during recording. That sure keeps things fun and interesting. Also, Ryeland Allison as a composer and sound designer, etc., has kept my mind sharp for many years. He’s always trying new techniques whether he’s working on something like the Dark Knight score with Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard or solo compositional projects and groundbreaking sound libraries. He’s been a great help during development of the Mandala Drum as well. And there are also people like Aphex Twin [Richard James]. I’d be into somehow collaborating with that wizard.
The notion of ‘muscle memory’ machines (devices that will program our muscles with ‘memory’ – the same kind of muscle memory that a guitar player spends years developing through practice) sounds intriguing. Could you tell us more about this?
Going through the motions of playing constitutes practice whether a mechanical device is guiding/pushing you through or not. However, a mechanical device could reduce the amount of time it takes to ‘memorize’ something because the perfectly executed repetitive steps would, of your own volition, be forced upon you. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Sophisticated physical rehabilitation and therapy machines are being developed and used successfully at places such as the Kessler Foundation and UC Irvine. People are relearning how to walk! In theory there is no reason why their findings couldn’t be adapted to the development of the physical and mental motion necessary to play an instrument.
How do you think such muscle memory devices would compare against classically-trained people? Is there any contest for innate musical ability (i.e. if I used this machine, hypothetically, would I have the same skills as, say, Eric Clapton?)
There are plenty of people out there who have trained themselves to cover Clapton songs amazingly well, note for note, with all his inflections and technique. A lot of those people can pull off amazing covers of other players as well. That doesn’t mean they could’ve written any of those songs though. Developing muscle memory helps develop technique to get from one place to another and can help add some flair along the way. That’s not creative skill however. That’s technical skill. Technical skills are a tool that can support creativity but not necessarily conjure it.
What implications do you think these muscle memory devices would have on music and popular culture in general?
There’d probably be a lot more shredders out there …on all musical instruments! But, that wouldn’t do much to enrich culture. I think the cultural impact of musical muscle memory development would be analogous to the impact of motion picture special effects technology on culture. On their own, the effects do nothing. There has to be a great story underneath. Something essential. If there is, and the effects are top notch and used wisely, culture can be affected positively. Individuals are touched in a mythical way by these artistic offerings, and a unified feeling ripples through the collective unconscious. It’s similar with music. The inspiration and life experiences that fuel the musician will need to be there underneath the muscle memory technique which is being used as a tool to support the essence of the creator.
You also state that we will soon be able to play instruments using only our thoughts – which, again, is similarly fascinating. Could you expand on this?
Scientists at places such as UC Berkeley and University of Utah and Northwestern are already decoding and translating brainwaves into words and control signals for mechanical devices. Their applications for this technology are in the field of medical treatment right now but I see great new forms of musical expression emerging from their developments. Just think, directly from your mind to an instrument to someone else’s ears. Physical ability may no longer be required to compose music or record a new symphony for the ages!
What implications do you think such thought-controlled devices would have?
There will be a lot of previously untapped smiling and happiness bubbling to the surface. Something big will be unlocked in a lot of minds that hadn’t previously been able to fight through themselves. There will be a new freedom of expression. It makes me think of the amazing viral videos of people with new cochlear implants that are hearing for the first time ever. Thought controlled musical creation will be just as momentous in an inverse way.
Are there other exciting music/tech developments you could share with us?
The sound of a billion drums beating!
What do you think the music industry will look like in 20 years time?
A struggle between individuals and large operations will continue, with the state of technology helping define whose court the ball is in along the way. In terms of substantial revenue streams for artists, the live experience can always prevail, as well as merchandise sales. The problem is that there will always be a way to exchange recorded music freely unless a technology comes along which adds a new and overwhelmingly desirable dimension to the musical listening experience by way of a medium or tools that are not easily accessible by most people. Then the distribution of those tools will regulate the distribution of the recorded musical experience.
You had a long-standing working relationship with Timothy Leary. Do you think it’s beneficial to use the experimental, psychedelic approach of someone like Leary when approaching technology?
Timothy used to say ‘Everybody gets the Timothy Leary they deserve.’. What I got was was a mentor in the form of a world class psychologist that stressed the importance of learning. He encouraged me to continue exploring areas that were most exciting to me; physics, music, technology, personal expression and interpersonal behavior. The deeper something is examined the more properties and possibilities arise. The evolution of my learning processes resulted in divergent thinking that helped lead to the development of several technologies and the formation of my company, Synesthesia.
Thanks for talking to us, Vince!
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