Darwin: Okay. Today, I have the great opportunity to interview somebody who I consider kind of a friend. We've worked together at Cycling a bit. He's now spun off into doing some remarkable new work that I'm really excited to talk about. His name is Jean-Baptiste Thiebaut and he is based out in London. He has got this thing going called Music Hackspace that's very exciting. And so, I'm very anxious to talk more and learn more about what he's got going. So, with no more ado, let's talk to Jean Baptiste. Hey JB - how's it going?
Jean-Baptiste: Hey Darwin. Well, I'm doing great. Thank you so much for having me today.
Darwin: Yeah. Well, thanks for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to help me out. I know that, well, one of the things I'm kind of constantly amazed by is the number of different projects you have going through the Music Hackspace. You've really taken this virtual education thing and kind of goosed it by having some really interesting people doing classes. Can you tell us a little bit about Music Hackspace? How it got started and what you're doing right now?
Jean-Baptiste: Yeah. So, the Music Hackspace started in 2010. So, it's almost a 10-year anniversary this year. I was at the time working for Novation/Focusrite. And one day I was venturing in the basement of the building and I saw all of these synthesizers and gear that Novation was going to throw away. And I was part of the London Hackspace at the time. And I sent them an email saying, "Well, is anyone interested in hacking away with all of this gear? Because it's going to scrap." And to my surprise, many people responded including Martin Clang who had the company Robot Technology. And then him and I started meetings every two weeks, which people were just interested in using technology skills and also a musical vision to sort of hack away and design their own things. And so, the [inaudible] way it started and. And then it evolved and I invited people to talk about their work, a lot of research because a lot of my background is in academic research. And so, I invited people to come and talk about their research and their work. And we did that for a long time and fast forward... 10 years COVID hits, and we're not able to host any of those meetings and workshops anymore in person. So, in March, I started to do live streams and also offer these workshops online.
Darwin: Now, one of the things is that first of all, it must have really changed the perspective of offering these kind of speakers and opportunities. Because now, instead of a London audience, you really potentially have a worldwide audience, right?
Jean-Baptiste: Yes. And that's a fantastic opportunity as well for the Music Hackspace to stop being a hobby or something that I do at the weekends and evenings, but be my main occupation. And for the past six months, I've been really focusing on that. Sort of setting the baseline for it to grow potentially as my main occupation and be sustainable.
Darwin: Right. Now, one of the things I notice is that you also have spread a fairly wide net. I mean, I know of the Music Hackspace primarily through the different kinds of Max opportunities that have come up. I know you're working with Kevin Kripper on doing video stuff. I actually did a weekend workshop. I know a number of other people also have done that. And so, that's cool. It's really cool for the Max community to have a place, but you've also worked with a lot of other technologies as well, right?
Jean-Baptiste: Yeah. So, well, in the past, there's been workshops on modular synthesizes on... So, a lot of hardware projects are interesting to our audience. And that stems really from the frustration that many encounter in buying off the shelf products and bending them to the vision they have. So, when you see projects like Imogen Heap gloves coming out, it's incredible how much she had to reinvent the entire tool or the entire chain. All the way from capturing the gestures, to creating our own messages. And then their own software as well to respond to the gesture.
And I think a lot of the people interested in the Music Hackspace are either artists, like Imogen, who have this vision in their head, but need the scientific or technology support. And conversely, we have all sort of engineers who want to apply their skill to optimize a project than banking or building databases, or... it's really a range. I mean, we do have the students in art coming and also the people who work in London, in the city and... But the hobby and the passion is really music. So, we started to realize that as a community and then we have people who aspire to become developers, aspire to be music technologists. And that's when we started to offer workshop.
Darwin: Yeah. That's actually pretty powerful because - talk about uncharted territory. When I talk to people who are either software or hardware developers in the music industry, there is no clear path to get into it, right? Some people study telephone electronics, and somehow end up making synthesizers. Some people are database developers and all of a sudden start doing plugin development. Some people are DJs and become plugin developers. There is no really accepted path for how... If you have a desire to become a developer, there's no even accepted path for how to do it. It's kind of cool to have at least a place where people can kind of come together and share that kind of knowledge.
Jean-Baptiste: Yeah, that's very true. There's no clear path. And I mean... I think also it's because it's a very recent industry. I mean, the early nineties, there was only native plugins from Avid at the time, I suppose or Digidesign. And then it opened up as more of a marketplace. And now, we have over 12,000, I suppose...plugins.
Darwin: That's amazing, yeah. I remember back when you could collect all the plugins. That is no longer the case by any stretch of the imagination.
Now, one of the things I'm curious about though, is you started the Music Hackspace with a bunch of toss away synths in the basement in Novation. But that's not something you actually can really do in sort of a remote COVID world. How have you been able to bridge the gap in sort of hardware accessibility? Is everything software? Or do you have classes where people have a common thing? Like maybe it's an Arduino or maybe it's a Daisy or something like that. Do you have any kind of hardware connections right now through your virtual learning?
Jean-Baptiste: Yes, so, we do and it's a process to get there. We've not fully cracked how to address the logistics of shipping a hardware kit to get people... To make sure that people have the same environment to start with our workshop, which is essential for an online workshop where you don't have the ability to debug really people and then put your hands in the PCB as it were.
So, it's essential that we have... we offer some kind of kit or something that people all start with a controlled environment. So, they get the most of the workshop. So, we did have our first hardware workshop in August with Sam Topley who's teaching... She's an artist and she works with Arduino, with other hardware and also with e-textile. So, it's a really interesting workshop where you get to build a noisy pompom. So... It's really fascinating.
The process of building a pompom, is open to a seven year old, but if you mesh through the virtual pompom some conductive material the... And you connect the pompom to a small hardware board, as you press harder into the pompom, you're creating more conductivity. And that signal is captured by the PCB. And then you can send that to a speaker and create the kind of noisy machine. And then she offered that workshop in August and we're doing it again at the end of the month. And again, November.
Darwin: That sounds really exciting. And also it does sound like, because it's sort of a very active thing, it sounds like something that would be kind of... It'd be easier to make that visual connection to people when you're doing the virtual or on screen kind of stuff. You can show it like, "Here's what it looks like. And here's what it's like when it's working properly." That makes a lot of sense.
Jean-Baptiste: Yeah. And also, she has some experience doing it. She sells as a kit already so that you can already order it from her and get started with it. For other workshop series that we have that use hardware, led by Kacper Ziemienin and was based in the Netherlands. For his workshop, you have a lot of materials to order directly from a company. And that proves to be a bit more difficult. So, one of the things I'm looking to do is to streamline the ordering process. You can get into a workshop and make sure that you have all your equipment in advance and everything.
Darwin: Right. Well, now, this is again though, where maybe having a worldwide reach actually kind of is a little bit of a pain. Because now fulfillment across country borders can be a little bit of a pain.
Jean-Baptiste: Absolutely. This is something that's difficult. I mean, we... For Sam's workshop, we had to also to pay very different shipping rates for the US and sometime they can be stopped at customs for some time. So, the logistics of asking people to buy into the workshop a month in advance, is yet to be proven to be effective.
Darwin: Right. Well, I know I did an interview a while back with someone who lives in Brazil. And their discussions about trying to get anything across the border, just sounded ridiculous. I mean, it seemed almost impossible to interact with the rest of the hardware world simply because things would get stopped and held up at the border for such a long time.
Jean-Baptiste: Yeah, that's right. I mean, Brazil and other countries like India as well, have a very high custom tax as well. I mean, Brazil is 50%.
So, there's always that to consider when you send... Even if it's components rather than finished products. Every country has their own custom taxes and policies. So, it's a journey. I mean, I think it's important for what we offer to continue to promote hardware. And I think a lot of people are very eager to get started and it's actually relatively easier than people think to get started with Arduino and a few PCBs. So, it's important to help people get started with that. I think for our program here anyway, it's part of the core of what we want to continue to offer.
Darwin: Yeah. That's awesome. Now, one of the things I like doing in my podcast is talking to people about their background. And you've already kind of dropped the hint that you did academic research for a while, which is kind of interesting... It's interesting to think of a concept in terms of also working within the musical instrument industry. But also, you clearly have a real heart for music and for art. But you also have this heart for education and learning. The fact that you've stuck with this for 10 years just shows your love of hardware and your love of hacking and your love of education. So, I'm curious about your background. How did you get all of these interests? Where did they come from and how did you combine them? Did you go to school in some way that helped you combine them or was this all based off of passion? So, I'm kind of curious about where you're coming from, how you got started and how you developed sort of the career that you have.
Jean-Baptiste: Yeah. I mean, I think when I look back, maybe my trajectory is the same as everyone in this industry. It's a typical...
Darwin: There's no typical, man.
Jean-Baptiste: There's no typical. So, I'm not unique in not being typical. Well, it started... Really the center is music. I think when I was a student in Computer Science, it was the mid-nineties. I wasn't passionate much about Computer Science, but I could learn it. But I started a band and the band took a lot of the energy that I would otherwise have put into my studies and that pulled me into the direction of making music. And so, I played with his band for six or seven years, and I graduated for my Computer Science degree as well. And then I was thinking of mixing the two, how could I apply my Computer Science skills but still working in a music environment? And I was lucky to find my first job at the GRM, which is based in Paris, Groupe de Recherches Musicales, the electroacoustic center that was founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948, I think.
And then there, I was exposed to electroacoustic music, to a complete new world. And so, I worked with Christian Zanesi and others who were composers. After electroacoustic music, and I was building a software called the Acousmographe. So, I worked on the existing current base of that software. That was the early 2000. I met a friend there, was working also with the GRM and he introduced me to the world of academic research, where I could actually continue and do prototyping experimenting with software and music. This is when I discovered Max, that's what I think that's most 2002. And I went back to university and started a PhD in Music Composition with technology.
So, the angle was around that music tech focus. I experimented a lot there. My thesis was revolving around sound in space. So, I did a few Max objects that experimented with Ambisonics. And also, how you build trajectories in space for your music in real time or offline, actually. And I didn't finish that PhD because it was without funding and it was kind of hard to survive, but I did find funding for another one. And that's when I moved to London in 2005, to start a PhD in a Computer Science department where my focus changed a little bit. And I was looking now at composers at work. So, studying more from a cognitive science perspective, what the interaction of composers was. And what defines the creative process and how it evolved from pen and paper to representing music on a computer. And that sent me into many directions, of course, because it's an evolving field. Computer representations change all the time, but it was very interesting.
And I suppose it was the early days as well, of what we call today, a user experience. And a lot of my research was part of this foundation of user-experience and observing people ethnographic work, to look at people in their context and see where the process breaks down. And how you can build solutions to make that creative process better. So, that led me to the end of the year 2000, that upon graduating, I did a bit teaching at university. But didn't find a position to teach any music technology. And I thought, "Well, I'm in my early thirties by this point. And if I want to have a shot at, at a different carrier than academic career now is the time." And I applied for a job at a Focusrite and as a software engineer and then I got the job. So, I built plugins for a while at Focusrite.
Darwin: Interesting, what plugins were you working on?
Jean-Baptiste: So, the first plugin I worked on was plugin called Midnight. It was a virtual version of a compressor that was famous in Focusrite's hardware. So it was an emulation of those. And my role diversified a little bit and rapidly at Focusrite. Where I did bring a lot of user experience into the design of products. So, I helped set up the first user-centered experiments where we had... So, I was inviting people to test our products and all the product managers and people involved in creating the products were in a separate room, watching as people engage with our tests.
It was great. I mean, people loved it. And I think it became, I mean, it did become a practice at Focusrite. That scaled and applied to all the other products, because it... Everyone was amazed. When you design a product for someone else and you don't test your assumptions, then you can only cry when people are not buying the product or not recommending it. If you have a way to address that problem before it hits the market.
That has a lot of value. So yeah, I did that and it was very interesting. As my role diversified as innovation manager Focusrite, I was a lot traveling and meeting others to sort of get this information from others and then see how the company could make more innovative products. So, it's a lot doing outreach. I met David Zicarelli at the time and I had some crazy ideas about products we could do together. And so, it was fantastic when David came to our offices in the Highway Common, we had a meeting to uncover some possibilities, which didn't materialize,but it was still the beginning of a story. There, I also met Roland Lamb who had founded ROLI a few months before. And he would offer me a job that I would eventually take.
So then joined ROLI as a startup at the very beginning, as the first senior hire working there. So, it wasn't like employee number three, I think. And I stayed there for nearly seven years and all the while continuing to run Music Hackspace. I mean, to be honest in the Music Hackspace, I was very much helped for five years by **Teddy [inaudible]** and Susan Garcia, who did a fantastic job at doing a curation of more sound art, as well as workshops. Susan introduced the workshop to the mix. So, a lot of the rich aspect of the Music Hackspace today, comes also from a lot of collaborators over the years who brought what they wanted to see in the Music Hackspace.
Darwin: Sure. Now, the other thing I know is that you... Are you still based in London?
Jean-Baptiste: I am still based in London, yes.
Darwin: Okay. Because I know that you have maintained a pretty close connection with the academic world there. You've been really close with the people at Goldsmith, right?
Jean-Baptiste: That's correct, yes. I mean, I did my PhD in a kind of rival university in some ways, which is Queen Mary University of London where you have the center for digital music - which probably today, is the biggest in terms of the number of PhD students. It's always the biggest in Europe.
A bit is coming at the same sort of discipline range, but more from an artistic perspective. And I think that's where I feel connected a lot today to the interaction group. That's under the direction of Atau Tanaka. And that's where I'm currently visiting research fellow and where the Music Hackspace is hosted.
Darwin: Very interesting. Now, I'm curious about a lot of that stuff because you have... That's an amazing bit of background. First of all, I have to tell you that when you say that you were with ROLI and you were with them for seven years, it's still kind of blows my mind that ROLI is even been around that long. I think of them as sort of the newest kid on the block, but the fact of the matter is they've been around for 10 years now, too. And so, you really have the opportunity to be involved with a number of organizations, just either as they were just getting started or in the case of Novation/Focusrite, when they were kind of right on the edge of blowing up too. So, you were involved in some real growth areas in the whole music technology industry. How much of a connection did you find between the things that you would work on in academic and academic research in the things that you were seeing, people interested in, in the regular MI industry and in musical instrument development?
Jean-Baptiste: Do you mean in the... In people's interest in-
Darwin: Well, how much the things that you learned in academia actually were the things that were desired in the marketplace.
Jean-Baptiste: From academia to the industry, I've found that my knowledge of C++ and it was not great but it was good enough to get a job. That was the thing that I could most easily translate. I think the research aspect where we're partners and the fact that when you have all of these skills, that I'd be searching and thinking are coming into play and useful for communication with team members. But this was never the main skill that the industry was looking for. So, I think today, product management, testing as well is a great testing and support, or are usually great ways for people with... Is it just a degree and looking for our first experience are usually a good way to get into the music industry. But it's really two worlds apart, academia and the industry in general are very different.
It's hard to get a job anywhere. In fact, when you build your character towards becoming an artist, interactive artist, how much of that can translate into the objective that someone else sets for you? A lot of artists, I think are struggling also. If they want to make that jump because they don't own the vision, they own the execution of a task rather than the vision in a lot of the cases that transition is sometimes difficult to make.
Darwin: Yeah. Now, one of the things that I find pretty fascinating with what you talked about with your research, and that you kind of came at from a couple of different directions, is this idea of a computer representation of things that the composer is working on. And where current user experience might actually fail the composer, right? In doing that research, did you come up with sort of any surprising results or fundamental things that you came to realize were either particularly effective or particularly problematic for composers?
Jean-Baptiste: Well, I did set out with a very ambitious plan of finding them all, but... I just want to set expectations here. What I did find fascinating was to observe what happened on pen and paper and looking back at the history of music notation itself. Starting from a Guido de Arezzo in the seventh century and the school of Notre Dame where all of a sudden, a polyphony arrived. And then how do you represent polyphony and time? And that the complexity increased as the notation system became more complex and more allowing the different variation of time and nuances. And pitch on the staff.
And that process of composing visually what exploded was the Ars Nova in the 17th century, when you visualize your notes and you organize your notes and on a piece of paper, its kind of a reflexive process. So, some composers have this immense mind where they know exactly how things are going to sound like. So, they just use the paper as a medium to project that.
Jean-Baptiste: But for the common mortal, it's more laborious than you put your notes on the staff and then you see how it looks. And sometimes the shape of it itself, is reflexive and inspires you to continue. On a piece of paper, the concentrate of the page are both reflexive. They help you, they inspire you but there's a constraint. The fact that it breaks, you need to go to the next page might mean that you finished your movement a bit earlier. Or you articulate a new thing just because visually you need to helps you think.
And so, there's great benefits of having visual representations for sure. And no one could hold a symphony in their head entirely, you need to sort of break it down and notate it and computers do that remarkably well. But there're also shortcomings, of course, and the lack of physicality. You're not at your piano and sort of transcribing the notes that you play, but it's enables electronic music, and it enables a ton of new genre as well. So, I didn't find any another prize truth.
You may research, but it's a journey and it's an evolving journey. So, computers definitely offering fantastic opportunities. But I don't think we have yet a single music software that really cracked the way to support the composition process. It's all a constraint and it all dictates a can of aesthetics. From the timeline of the first pro tools, to a more sophisticated loop based system like Ableton, you have a compromise of what your thought process is like when you compose music. And it helps sometimes it offers you options, but you have to bend it to your aesthetics. And so, sometimes while the representation is your way.
Darwin: So, now let's move back to where you're at now, which is working with this Music Hackspace and this kind of wide variety, both of artists that you're working with, as well as educators. What got you into the educational part of it? Was it just kind of the natural evolution of the Hackspace? I mean, you said that some of the people you were working with brought in workshops as an idea or whatever. Is that what kind of pushed you towards working on education?
Jean-Baptiste: The education of the music aspect, is something that was always part of the culture. But education and learning is something that I think carries a lot of stigma from institutions. And I think we always wanted to be different. So, workshops are a great way, when it's led by an artist, to share the practice. There's no notion of getting a certificate. So, we've always had it as a key part, as sharing, the sort of experts who come to talk and then have Q and A, and the mingling around pizzas. And in this point, informal learning wasn't bad. And even today, through online workshops, I really want to foster this peer learning, which is a way of learning with others.
It's always easier, when you attend a group project that... Learning comes because you're motivated to finish the project. And with others, you teach others some things and you learn from them, the thing they understood better.
And this is one things that we want to emulate in the workshop themselves and break away from the lessons, where you have a lecturer and the professor teaching and people suddenly listening. So, I think today we can have a different approach, where everyone, if you're going to workshop, I want everyone to feel that they can participate. They can ask questions and they can learn bursts from the workshop leaders, but also from the peers.
Darwin: Sure. So, for people that are interested in getting involved in the Music Hackspace first of all, do you have... How do you determine who you bring in as lecture as a workshop hosts or presenters? I mean, if people were interested in doing that, would they just try and contact you through the Music Hackspace?
Jean-Baptiste: Yes, absolutely!
Darwin: Because I think I have a lot of people that listen to my podcast that would love to be involved in doing that.
Jean-Baptiste: I have this idea of building an entire curriculum where you could almost compare... The vision that I have for two years from now, would be if you follow every workshop at the Music Hackspace possible, then that you would acquire the same skills that if you went for three year university degree.
I mean, I want to offer some things in smaller sizable chunks, that's always interesting. So, there's a range of things. For now, we're focusing on the culture of music, hardware software. So, that's Max, of course, but also Pure Data, Title Cycles, Csound - which we haven't featured yet, but I'd love to have a Csound workshop one day.
All the way, also stemming from the artist vision. You know, because it's through a vision, artists often develop their own mechanism and that's fascinating and a great way to learn. So, artists will have built their own project - I would love to invite them to contact me and see if they want to do a workshop, that's always welcome as an addition. The other thing that I wanted to offer, in time as well, is around the techniques for music production. So, compression, recording, mastering mixing, all of this is a bit of a dark art, and there's plenty of videos available on YouTube. But having someone to teach you live or is also something that I want to be curating at some point, but it's for 2021.
Darwin: Right. Well, that sounds really interesting. And now, unfortunately, our time is up. But before we go, for people who want to check out what you're offering, that's musichackspace.org, correct?
Jean-Baptiste: That's correct. musichackspace.org.
Darwin: And now, you have some things where it's free presentations and some things that are paid workshops and stuff like that, right? And how is that split up exactly?
Jean-Baptiste: We're still finding the rhythm. You know, it's been at least about six or seven months since we've been doing this. Now, workshops are ramping up. So, I'm looking to have at least 20 workshops every month.
Darwin: Oh, wow.
Jean-Baptiste: So, the... which is what we have for this month. And I would just never want to have less than this. And most of these will be paid for, we might work with partners. We want to refer them for free, and we'd be very happy to curate those for them if they wanted to have a custom sort of arrangement.
Jean-Baptiste: And then we have the live streams that are free. And in some way, they're comparable to the podcast. It's discussions or presentations by experts that I invite, or that asked me if they want to be there. And these are happening at the moment, twice a month. And they're on Monday evenings for the UK. So, that's earlier for those in the US and then these are great for people to engage as well and follow and interact and ask questions to someone who was talking. It's free, of course.
Jean-Baptiste: And this can be watched on Facebook and YouTube live.
Darwin: Oh, that's awesome. Well, JB, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to have this discussion. It's really great to hear about your background and how you got here, but also the exciting ideas that you're bringing to the Music Hackspace and sort of the... Already the breadth and an exciting set of options that you've brought forward. So, thanks so much for hanging out and having this discussion. I appreciate it.
Jean-Baptiste: Thank you so much, Darwin.
Darwin: All Right. And we will talk again soon.
Copyright 2020 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.