Darwin: Okay today I have the great opportunity to speak to somebody I got to know professionally a little bit ago, His name is KamranV. He is involved in some really neat technology. He is really into the idea of have surround sound, in particularly Quad, and Quad encoding into stereo streams. He was involved in a piece of work that I just think is phenomenal, which is a live album by Suzanne Ciani. It just a remarkable recording. And I think as we all probably know, Suzanne is really into Quad in her performances - and Kamran was able to capture that Quad and produce it in a way that people could kind of experience that Quad. And so he and I started talking about the use of Quad inside of Ableton Live, inside of Max patches and stuff like that. And the more we got into it, the more remarkable I found a story. So I begged him for an opportunity to have this discussion. He graciously accepted the challenge. And so here we are. So with no more extraordinary gashing, I am going to say hello to Kamran.
So, I started mumbling my way through some of what you do, but I know just from prior discussions you have, both an incredible background and you're doing a lot of really exciting work right now. So why don't we start off by having you just discuss briefly what your career represents and what is the work that you're working on right now?
KamranV: Sure. So I had done some judging for the National Endowment for the Arts and they dubbed me with this title "Arts Technologist". I'd never heard it before. And I was like, 'Okay, that's a good title!' So I'm someone who's very technical, that's focused around applying that to arts, and most specifically music. Most of my days right now are focused around this QUARK project, which is the Quadraphonic resource kit that I developed, which is a nonprofit project that I've done with Dublab and a friend of mine named Brett Buddin. I also am the co-founder of a really interesting company called Phonocut, which is a home vinyl recorder where you can push one button and cut a record. And I also happen to have a studio in Los Angeles called Bedrock LA, which is 112 room, massive music studio with rehearsal, recording, we have a shop, we do all kinds of stuff. We were told we are the third largest seller of guitar strings in Los Angeles.
Darwin: That's amazing. I believe that I actually was in that studio; Tom Hall booked us in there for doing some tests or something like that. It was an amazing and very psychedelic place. I loved the vibe of it was so cool working in there. So that was a really nice place. Now you just laid a whole bunch of like crazy stuff down there as your current work. And I'm going to kind of take it in backwards order maybe. First of all, as a studio. Now, it's really interesting to hear that you have this facility. And when I was there the place was just buzzing with activity, which kind of runs counter to the face of what people are suggesting the studio businesses. Like everyone's like, "Well, everyone's recording in their home now, so nobody uses studios anymore." Clearly you found a different thing to be true. Tell me a little bit about that. What is drawing people to your studios?
KamranV: Well in Los Angeles, unlike other cities, it's pretty difficult to make a lot of noise in your apartment. So that's definitely part of what makes what we're doing work. We're in a neighborhood called Echo Park, which is an incredibly creative neighborhood. Sadly we're one of few studios like this but, there's a lot of reasons why we want to stay around and why everyone wants us to stay around, which is good. But when we started Bedrock LA, frankly, it was an accident. But it came to be really out of necessity with facilities like this not really existing, and the idea of housing different businesses under the same operational umbrella.
So we have recording studios, monthly lockout studios, hourly, daily, weekly rehearsal studios, repair, rental, and as I mentioned, the retail. All of those businesses separately have been very difficult to maintain over the past 10, 15 years. There are very few recording studios that are commercial out there, but by combining all of these things and targeting it very much on a working class musician - so ones that are not just weekend warrior hobbyists, we have a lot of great customers that are that, and not ones that are doing global tours and all that kind of stuff. We fit this middle ground and we find that that middle ground gets bigger and bigger over the years. Those weekend warrior types, especially through the pandemic, are finding themselves more...
They're getting more creative and we can already see in the very limited bookings that we have more folks that would not call themselves working musicians, starting to get more serious. And on the other end, before the pandemic, we had a lot of pretty large names, established, people use our facilities. Probably the most famous example that we have is a Weird Al recorded most of his Grammy award-winning number one records at our recording studio. Which, we're not Capital. It's not like amazing. We have good stuff and a good situation, but it's not perfectly tuned with the best of the best equipment. It's a working place.
Darwin: You know, I think that's really powerful. It's funny because when I was growing up and doing my tenure as a studio rat, we would get Mix Magazine and whoever was on the cover of Mix Magazine, they'd always have like that thing where they're looking down this like 90 foot-long mixing console, and you could see all the Focusrite Pre's in the background and all that stuff. And you had this sense, like "Until I'm there, I'm not a real studio." But I think that magazines like Tape Op make a nod towards this, businesses like yours make a nod to this, this idea that while those are idealized studios and they're really great for what they do, there is kind of a necessity for the working man's studio, because those are the things that actually capture a lot of creativity that's forming itself. And making an environment where that can happen is pretty cool. So congrats on that. I have a love in my heart for recording studios. So it's really fabulous for me to hear about successes and especially people who have been able to weather the storm of the pandemic. Because man, talk about something that put a hit on anything that requires people to show up in a building.
KamranV: Yeah. It it's been tough, but we have incredible employees that have been very patient. Our landlord has been really flexible and my partners, we've just sort of figured it out. And really our customers have come back as they've gone up and down, and as we've been able to go up and down, and been generally quite respectful and easygoing. So yeah, we're very much in a unique situation. For many years, I was the president of our local Chamber of Commerce. And we throw a yearly music festival called Echo Park Rising, and it's a boon for business and a really good moment for sort of a creative neighborhood, but the pandemic has been just brutal. Maybe 20 to 30% of the businesses are gone or close to gone. It's been very challenging.
Darwin: Yeah, that's wild. Now let's talk a little bit about this QUARK project. The idea behind that is kind of a plugin that allows people to encode, decode, and manage the process of encoding Quad into stereo. Right?
KamranV: Correct. It's one of several ways that people made Quadraphonic music or distributed Quadraphonic music in the 1970s. It's based on the Japanese one, the Sansui QS encode.
Darwin: All right. It's amazing to me, showing my age here, when that first run of Quad stuff came through. There was the special cuts of Quad albums on vinyl, or you could get tapes that would play Quad. There was a special format eight track tape that would play four discreet channels - my uncle was really into it. I remember the first time that I heard a Quad recording, that was actually really discreet. It was amazing. It was kind of an eerie experience because you kind of grow up through the process of always hearing the two channel - or sometimes one channel - system. When you hear that surround it's amazing. Do you remember what the first thing you heard that made you say, "Oh, I gotta get into this!"?
KamranV: When I was super young, I would just tinker with stuff. So there was the B speakers on your normal receiver, which is not Quad. But you know, the natural delay and immersion that provides was completely fascinating to me as a kid. I would just like hijack my brothers extra speakers or rig a boombox or whatever. So that really did it. And then as it became something that people did in the eighties, like, you know, I have a neighbor that had a Top Gun VHS and he had a very expensive early surround system. And he would play that scene where like the jet engines are going and going crazy and I'd love it. I was just like, "Wow!" - this enhanced the experience so much.
KamranV: To have that level of immersion. It did the same thing when I was messing with those extra speakers. You're just sort of engulfed, like, you know, when you play in a band and you're within the rehearsal space. As a teenager I grew up in Oklahoma, so we had the Flaming Lips doing all of these weird experiments in parking lots, where they were driving around cars to create like an immersive space. And it eventually manifested itself in an album called Zaireeka where you had to like play four disks at the same time on separate boomboxes. So like all of those kinds of things were the sort of initial curiosity of, I like the way this feels. I like the way this makes my brain feel, my body feel, but it was as the DVD was becoming a thing, that's where I was able to start to understand the technology side of it a little bit better because I was born in 1979, so I've missed actually experiencing Quad music as it was happening.
Darwin: So, one of the things that to me is kind of sad is that surround in the music environment has never really completely taken off in the way that it has in home theaters and in theatrical work. In movie theaters, or even in any decent home theater system, you've got at least a 5.1 surround system. But in most cases if you get in a car with any kind of recently created audio system, you've got a full fledged surround system going on in there as well, if not many of them.
KamranV: So sort of, yeah. The car thing is super funny to me because it's always naturally been perfect for surround sound, immersive audio, but most car systems just are doing the thing that I was doing with my A/B speakers. Most of them are like that, but some of them like Acura was super early to do actual 5.1 with the Elliot Scheiner system that they have in there. Tesla has an immersive audio button. There's a few of them, but the funny thing is they all kind of do it differently. Like I think Tesla even had Dolby in there at one point and then they took it out and put their own flavor of something in there. And it's all over the place. But it is sort of this untapped possibility out there,
Darwin: But isn't that part of the problem too. The all over the place thing means that it's really hard to create an experience and know that the people at the other end are going to experience what you created. Right?
KamranV: Absolutely. And this is the essence of the light bulb that went off in my head with the QUARK project and what I did that led up to even thinking of doing QUARK. Working with Suzanne Ciani on what we're told was the first Quad vinyl in 30 years. Every time one of these spatial audio format things happen there's a lot of fragmentation. I'd say it's less now than it has ever been because a lot of Dolby Atmos, DTS X, MPEG H, all of these things are kind of knocking on the same door in the end. And from what I'm understanding they're all sort of coming from a very similar multi-channel wave AES spec with just different metadata headers for object-oriented-whatever. So it seems we could be in a better place then than we've been, but just like the past, the process of making and listening is still unbelievably difficult and expensive.
It's confusing. I feel like Ambisonics is a pretty open way to think about things, but explaining and understanding the way Ambisonics works is very difficult. And I feel like I'm some level of an expert, I get confused quite easily in the Ambisonics conversation. Then things like Dolby Atmos, DTS X, MPEG H and there's a bunch of different versions - Sony 360. There's a bunch of different versions of the same sort of object-oriented idea, they're expensive to use. I think it's not just inherently expensive. I think it's the way that people feel like they need to work is expensive. And this is the idea with QUARK and Quad and frankly, it's Suzanne who completely opened my eyes to why Quad is the sort of bridge.
It's because she just said Quad is musical. And that resonated to me because I was making 5.1 records when I was at Interscope. The formats were SACD, DVD audio, and dual disc. They were really ambitious records. Some of them were remaking old records. Like I worked on Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral, and Backseat Change. And several others with Sting and few others. And those have their own challenges because everyone knows what that mix is, and you're sort of representing it in a spatial format. And there's a little controversy and a lot of work to like go back and start over. But we also were able to make the spatial surround version at the same time for a couple records with Teeth by Nine Inch Nails, and Guero for Beck.
And that presented a really unique opportunity that all of the mixes being made at the same time. So sort of the artistic intent was happening at the same time, of how things were supposed to sound and feel. We had a lot of resources to do it, but it was really eye-opening because we'd end up in these situations where, like with Beck - the producers of the record, The Dust Brothers who are amazing producers, they took a shot at this sort of spatial mix. And what they ended up doing is they ended up sort of trying to put everything everywhere. It sort of loud and chaotic, but it wasn't really utilizing the space in a way that that was as musical as they are in two channels.
And I realized that with Quad and what Suzanne said is just the simple act of removing that center channel, which is controversial with mixers by itself. Frankly it was only added for film, it wasn't really meant to be for music. Then taking away this sort of stuff with the subwoofer, the LFE depending on how you think of it. It really opened up the mind space of actually being able to work in spatial sound. Just that simple thing makes a huge psychological difference in making music. And that's what led me back to Quad.
Darwin: It's really interesting because I don't think I've ever before really thought about sort of the sensibility of something like 5.1. The way you talk about it right there all of a sudden you get this sense of like, "Oh yeah, this is just kind of a bunch of utility stuff tacked on." You got the center channel that was really kind of there for dialogue, and it's kind of a mess when you try using it in a musical sense, you have the sub, which they even label, "Low Frequency Effect", which is like - you're going to have earthquakes in your music?
If Quad is musical, 5.1 just kind of sounds like utilitarian or something in comparison. And not an especially useful implementation. That's really neat. Now when you're doing... actually I'm going to hold on it on that for a second, because a lot of this stuff is kind of really tied into your growth and learning about surround stuff, but also where you're coming from. And one of the things I really like doing in my podcast is talking to people about how they became the kind of creative person that they are. You dropped already little hints of like watching the Flaming Lips do their stuff in Oklahoma, which is kind of a launching point for some pretty fascinating stories, I'm sure. But why don't you fill us in a little bit - where are you coming from? How did you originally get into music? How did you originally get into electronics and technology and how did all of these things mesh together for you?
KamranV: When I was in Oklahoma, I had that bug and I was really obsessed with music and music-making. I loved Michael Jackson's Thriller when I was in kindergarten and when I found out that someone named Quincy Jones was the person that made something like that happen and be possible that got me really curious about how music is made. Like, what is the process? Frankly, that's what drove me to pursue this as a career because historically my family doesn't really have like a creative background like that, per se. My older brothers, one of them got into radio, one of them got into like graphic arts and design, but they were just ahead of me making it a little bit easier to justify this to my parents, but you know it was a new path.
So I went down that path. I went as far as I could growing up in Oklahoma with junior college classes at night, learning recording arts and things like this. Working at little small studios when I was a teenager, being in bands, and came out to Los Angeles most specifically to get into music and arts and things like this. But, I went to school at USC and they had a program that I could learn all of these things. I had classes that would teach me how to make a mic preamplifier from scratch, or understanding synthesizers, or how to read a contract, it went all over the place. And that was a good foundation that got me into all this. And I just happened to be pretty handy with computers growing up.
And my brother convinced my parents to get a computer when I was younger, that sort of opened the door to the web. And in the late nineties the MP3 was becoming a thing, Web 2.0 was just starting to really happen. And that really opened the door; I interned at Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys record label, and got an amazing experience. There was a website called Artists Direct that they merged with, or there was some sort of business relationship where they started to put all of their merchandise through this new thing to sell shirts and things online called Artist Direct. I was folding the shirts that were being sent out through this website. It was a crazy thing. And at the same time, I'd have to like fax the SoundScan information to everyone.
So it was like a whole day of faxing. So it was like this weird dichotomy of the past and the future. And then it led me to Interscope, which had a New Media department that was starting. Most of the New Media department at the time was mostly sort of marketing people that were using this as a tool. And I was one of only a few people that was the technical side of that. So I eventually ran the technical side of that under a guy named Courtney Holt, who gave me a shot. I interned for this guy named Steve Berman, who was a big marketing guy there. So I got a lot of very close education and unlike other people that would try to get their start at a label, because I had that technical skill, I skipped a lot of steps. I didn't have to be someone's assistant first, I didn't have to temp, all of that stuff.
So it allowed me to see a lot. So anytime something new would come to Interscope, which at the time was the largest label and had massive artists. I managed hundreds of websites for Eminem, or Dr. Dre, or Weezer, Pussycat Dolls were huge at the time. All kinds of random pop, rap, rock, whatever. Everything that we get, I would be the person that would vet the technology. So whether it was a cable video on demand, I co-produced the first cable video on demand shows that we put out, new formats like DVD, audio SACD, or even web streaming, like that was completely new. The idea of streaming anything on the web was new. So I define the specification for all of Universal's video streaming which lasted for many years, those specs I had to just figure out.
Eventually, mobile and ringtones. Like I started the mobile division of Interscope and sold those first ringtones from there.I was in a very fortunate position that I had enough technical skill that Jimmy Iovine would send down a CD that I would have to rip through four different programs as an MP3 to upload to a server. So I'd get all of that stuff to negotiating the first ever global mobile deal for Black Eyed Peas, which were not famous at all at the time, with Motorola. For what was actually the first iPhone, it was a Motorola ROKR.
Darwin: I remember that there was a little window of time when Motorola snuck in there too. Wow, that's amazing. So you literally were kind of surfing on the front end of all of these technologies. You must've seen a lot of things kind of come and go too, light things up big and then fizzle out, right?
KamranV: A ton. I mean, unfortunately there were a lot of artists, that happens to at a major label. And because I was that tech person, I'd usually be the first after they decide they're going to try and sign this person, take them by and show, "Hey, this is the tech guy that'll make your website and do all this cool stuff." So I'd be early on the list to meet the artists. And then of course after things don't work out, the artists would come to me and say, "Could you please keep our website up as long as you can." So I would quite often be the last person at the label talking with them because it didn't matter to me. I would keep their website up as long as they'd let me, it was fun. There's this format called DataPlay. That was sort of like a smaller than mini disc mini disc in a cartridge. That was a huge deal. And we made some prototypes and did all kinds of stuff, but it never really made it out commercially.
I wouldn't have been able to say this when I was working there, but I thought it was all stupid. I mean, it was such a waste of time, a waste of money. We spent so much money and time on that. And the thing that actually attracted me to mobile phones and doing ringtones as like a business it was this thing where me with one other person - this younger guy named Roy Kosuge. It was literally the two of us. We went from zero budget and zero dollars of revenue to like nearly $20 million of revenue in a year.
Unfortunately I wasn't smart enough to get any of that money, but hopefully the artists got some of that, you never know. Yeah, it was crazy. By the time I left, it was like a 90 million dollar business. It was crazy. This was on literally nothing. It was a shitty sounding, eight-second, whatever, right. But really the power of that, and the reason that I even cared about it; the first thing was my boss, Courtney, had a phone and he threw it on my desk and he said, "Figure this out." That's literally how it started. And so I was like, all right, I'll figure it out. And the thing that I realized is one day, and this was at the time, one day phone numbers are going to be people and not places. And I had a really strong epiphany about that.
And when that day comes, that means everyone is paying for a phone and service. So if we can somehow be a very small sliver of that payment, it will be the biggest business in the history of any entertainment business. And the math I was doing was like, at the time we were going from 2G phones to 3G phones. So it was sort of fast-ish connection. And in order to do that, I remember Sprint had a deal where you spent 10 bucks per month to get 3G service, and you had to upgrade your phone. So my thought was, if the entire music business could be $1 of that $10 per month, it would be huge. And we would have done that if two things didn't happen. One, if we weren't busy selling eight-second shitty sounding MP3 as a ringtone for $4, that was distracting everyone because it was just free money. And then the other thing to blame is challenging because the whole way the music business works, it's very opaque the publishers and sort of the artists that had the most clout and power, it was in their best interest not to allow this to happen. So there was a lot of resistance from publishers, especially.
And the artists that were at the top, effectively, had the most to lose because this hypothetically would equalize things a little bit. And as we see now at it's still basically a very similar thing that artists at the top make the most and blah, blah, blah. And there's all kinds of philosophical things we could get into about that. But that was a strong moment in my mind that I really, even today, I still believe that figuring out a way for things like music and arts, even things like Netflix or whatever. I mean, they're doing it on some level by bundling it with your cell phone plan for a year or whatever it is. But I feel like making those types of things feel as free as possible to the consumers, but still be meaningful revenue for the artists, is incredibly important. I'd rather that dollar from the Sprint plan goes to artists as opposed to some middle person in the middle of the cellphone upgrade stuff, you know?
Darwin: Yeah. That's really interesting. So what was your move then away from Interscope? Did you move from that and did like you get drawn in other stuff or was it like all of a sudden they decided, "Yeah, We're not going to do New Media anymore now." Beause in a way it sounds like kind of a fat spot to be sitting.
KamranV: It was a great spot to be sitting. So I made the horrible mistake of following the money. I was at Interscope in this great spot with great people working with me. And we had decided to start a division of Universal that focused on this, called the Universal Music Mobile. And as I was like getting offers to go other places and all this stuff and make a lot more money. Cause I was making I think like $35,000 or something as all this was happening. So I was making very little money. I've never reaped any of the benefits of being at the bleeding edge. I'm usually too far on the edge. So, we started this division, found someone to run it. I was a part of the hiring process of that person.
And then when I was getting lured away, I was like, Hey if you can just give me a little bit more money, it would be great. And Interscope couldn't do it. Universal Music Mobile could. So all of a suddenI became the head of marketing of the label group - the mobile division - and it was an awful job. I was not the right person. It was more of a like you're always trying to please everyone because you have all the labels and politics and all that stuff. So I didn't like it. I wasn't good at it. I really wanted to focus on things like I talked to you about like sort of bigger ideas and even direct to consumer and other things like that.
Darwin: Well, and it sounds like that actually dragged you away from technology, which was something that you loved.
KamranV: Yeah. It really did. And so I ended up not being the most happy person in that position and being in conflict with the agenda of the people I worked with. So they unceremoniously let me go. And I started anew. I've got a lot of offers to do other mobile stuff, but it was the mobile thing... It wasn't mobile. It was the idea behind what's possible. So a lot of these like ringtone companies would want to do stuff. So I ended up just starting a live recording label with a guy named Mitchell who owned a venue out here called Space Land and The Echo and some others. And my next thing was the beginning of being able to record portably in a reasonable fashion.
We had this ADAT HD-24 hard disk recorder that I bought, that was super new. I would just do that direct outs on the monitor board and do some mixes with a bunch of friends. I had a friend that had an on-demand CD company, so we'd mix it. And then within a week have CDs at the next show, like if a band had a residency, and it was also the beginning of sort of small HD cameras. There was no iPhone at the time. It was like 2006 and I bought these little HD cameras and I had a five-camera HD shoot in a backpack and just a one rolling rack for 24 channel recording. So I'd have backpack and a rolling rack and we'd do these super sophisticated recordings that most people didn't even think was possible at that time.
And I recorded thousands of shows. I think we only commercially put out like 35 of them, but I have tons of these things. It was so fun. I was working constantly very closely with all kinds of artists, mostly developing, that you probably have never heard of and never will. But it was a really good education to go from major label tunnel vision to going full on into how it really is. I managed bands in the meantime too, so I knew how it was on some level. And I had a band that did pretty good on a semi-major label and all that. But this took me even out of that side of managing to just hands-on in the trenches.
Darwin: Right. That must've been an opportunity to hone a lot of new skills. For awhile, I was involved with doing live recordings at a coffee shop and it was like an every week thing. And now this was small, it's not large-scale like what you're talking about. And I still just remember the sort of like churn of it, but it really does hone certain things. Like the ability to kind of look at an instrument and be like, "I know what mic is gonna work on that." Or talk to the singer and just know from talking to them, you kind of get a sense of what microphone is going to be the right fit, you know?
KamranV: Yeah. And the thing that I didn't expect to learn that I think has been a very valuable thing is the comfort level of that process. A lot of times when people are recording or documenting a concert they forget that the concert is the concert first. It's a live concert first, this recording comes after if the concert sucks, the recording sucks. What I learned to do was be virtually invisible. Like with that five-camera kit, sometimes it would just be me using peripheral vision with two of the cameras and then the other three just locked mounted. And then I'd have a friend hitting the record button on the audio. As I would scale up and do bigger and bigger shows and webcasting was a part of that, I was doing webcasting at Interscope in the early days too, as we got more and more sophisticated and did bigger and bigger shows...
I remember being at this huge festival in Portland, it was either The Decemberists or The National. We were doing this webcast early webcast and the production manager or the tour manager pulled me aside and said, "Come here, come here, bring all, bring everyone over here right now." And I was like, "Oh shit, he's going to call it off?" Like what's going to happen. And he said, "I want to tell you that I've done a lot of these things. And you're the only people that have ever done this in a way that does not completely annoy me. It's so easy. You're respectful. You're out of the way." And that was helpful.
Darwin: Well, it's interesting because that is the truth as the recordist, you start thinking of your role there as being the important thing, and it's not, the performance is the important thing. And your job is to capture that and hopefully not harm the performance in the process. That's really interesting. So now, how did you get involved with Suzanne and working on her record? Was it through this live label or was it something else?
KamranV: It was something else. So technically that label is still around as an entity, but we haven't done stuff for many years. I had my company, basically me as the company CyKik, and have done a lot of projects with different larger companies, whether it's like a Sonos Studios, we did this really fun thing with some friends of mine. It was called Sonos Studios. It was this art gallery that did conversations, workshops, performances as Sonos was starting. I mean, no one knew what Sonos was when we started and now it's this big brand, but Sonos took this huge leap to make an art space. And my friend, Adam, who has a company called Imprint Projects convinced them to do this crazy idea of renting this space in Los Angeles and turning it into this gallery and through doing projects like that...
And I'd worked with Indiegogo as their agency of record and Casemate and Gibson Guitar and a bunch of other sort of bigger brands doing these kinds of things for them. Eventually, Adam and I re-imagined a festival called Moog Fest with Moog Music. And in doing that we applied a lot of the learning that we had from doing this Sonos Studios experiment. So instead of just a music festival, it was a music festival where the barriers were lowered, where the people on stage and the people in the audience were closer to being peers, as opposed to sort of this audience-artist-fan relationship. And we had really ambitious talks and conversations, workshops, you know, all kinds of stuff. And it was this really fun moment. I did that for about five years. We started a new company with it.
We ran it, we did all kinds of crazy experiments. It was really good. And the year that we moved the festival from Asheville to Durham, we did several events leading up to the festival and Suzanne was slated to play the festival, as sort of her comeback to synthesizers. It was a 2016 festival, so we sort of started this path maybe in 2015 with her. And one of those things was a performance at Gray Area in San Francisco. We did that event, it was her first time in 40 years doing solo synth anything. And because when she was doing synthesizers she only performed in Quadraphonic, of course she performed in Quadraphonic. So it was this crazy moment. Fortunately, I insisted that we record it. And when it was done my wheels got turning again on all of this surrounds stuff.
I was like, first off, how is it possible that this icon, she had never put out anything in a spatial format. Even though in the late sixties, she was pioneering it, how you perform in spatial sound. So that was one sort of guilt that I felt like I should help figure this out. So I came up with all kinds of ideas. One of my ideas was, "What if I got all the dead stock Tascam Portastudios and just did Quadraphonic cassettes?" But they didn't have any more dead stock, so that was not gonna work. I looked into all of these old 1970s formats and Suzanne - she is just the perfect person to do this with because she has a level of respect that she's earned, that she can take risks like this and people will listen.
And as a collaborator, she is so trusting. She and I became fast friends and really she let me just go at it. So I researched for a long time talking with people like Bernie Grundman, who did some of the original Quad masters back in the day with hobbyists that are making software or hardware. There's a forum called Quadraphonic Quad that I met a bunch of really cool people on there. This guy named Quad Bob actually introduced me to this company called Involve Audio in Australia that was making new Quadraphonic hardware, which I found completely fascinating. So between all of that, I honed in on the way that I wanted to do it, this Quadraphonic Sansui QS math. To me that fath is also very musical and it's eventually what Dolby sort of based their ProLogic 2, which is sort of the defacto matrix to audio standard. The hardware was tough. I was using a bunch of different hardware, lots of in and out, lots of all this stuff. And it took a lot longer and it was a lot more difficult than it should have been. And that's what led to QUARK the, the software plugin.
Darwin: Got it. So with this plugin - I watched some videos and I actually loaded it up and played around with it for a minute. It basically has both an encoding and decoding system as well as a pass through system. So you can do accurate monitoring and stuff like this. My question is, how do you do this and not have a hundred companies ready to sue you into oblivion. Maybe it's a myth, but at least my understanding of the surround world and a lot of these encoding systems is that companies like Dolby and DBX and some of these others, they're not only guard it very carefully, but they're very litigious about anything that even looks like it's kind of wandering into their territory. How do you avoid that? And you said this is based off of the Sansui stuff. Does Sansui no say, "Hey, wait a minute. That's, that's our gig." How do you navigate that stuff?
KamranV: Well I told you, in college I learned how to read contracts. So this math is public domain. It's been in the public domain since I think sometime in the nineties. Which is why Dolby was able to sort of repackage it into ProLogic 2, in the way that they do. I'm sure I can be challenged on a lot of this stuff, because this is just based on my own research, but the base math, the AES paper that tells how to do this, that we based all of this on is in the public domain. I believe even Dolby Prologic 2 at this point is in the public domain. That's part of the reason why companies like Dolby continue to make new versions is because they're fighting this fight against the expiration of their patents.
So this is public domain and I'm not selling it either. It's free. This entire project is free. I got a couple NEA grants, through Dublab - which I'm on the board of Dublab, which was also early internet radio pioneer. So we've been very open with it. And in my opinion, I think that's the only way that this is going to work. If you don't have working musicians practicing with the tools easily, it will not stick. And that's why it didn't stick in the seventies. That's why it didn't stick in the nineties. That's why it's not really sticking now.
Darwin: That's interesting. Well, so since you're based off of this kind of like common math thread it should mean that a lot of... Well, if the QS stuff eventually kind of was like the ProLogic 2, that should mean that there's a lot of equipment that kind of automatically decodes this stuff, just because, right?
KamranV: You're absolutely correct. That was when we submitted Suzanne's record for grant reconsideration for immersive, we included a decoder. A custom decoder that we made with Involve, and the Involve decoder is amazing. As far as a hardware decoder, it's the best thing out there, even better than the vintage stuff. So we put one in there and when I sent it to them, they said, we can't accept this because this is a custom thing. You have to use your piece of hardware. And I said "No - It works through Dolby Prologic 2." And it happens to be the most accessible spatial format in the world because every receiver and even TV for that matter basically made since 2001 has one of those Dolby Prologic to decoder chips in it, which means that pretty much anyone can decode it. They just don't know how to do it.
Darwin: That's interesting. So, that recording was beautiful. I have to tell you that I'm so glad that you captured that performance too, because that's really a pretty amazing historical point. From there though, have you continued to use this for mixes and releases and stuff since then?
KamranV: Yeah, so I have maybe up to four records coming out this year using this. A lot of the past couple of years has been development on things like Phonocut and development on the actual plugin. So I haven't done a lot of commercial releases of things, but I've done live webcasts testing the tool and the process. I've done art installations at the Los Angeles County museum and MOCA and things like that using this technology. So it's this sort of this practice, of making sure it works and how in the ergonomics and all of this. Now granted, no one hires me to do mixes. Like I'm not like a great mixer that people want to have mix everything, but with guidance from people that are good mixers, I've come to a process with this.
And it's really exciting how easy this fits into the workflow and also what the possibilities are working from this. So as an artist, if you sort of start making your music in Quad, in four channels, the difference between now and in the seventies, we're using panners that are vector-based, it's not an analog panner. Once you've made your music in space that vector data can scale out to 128-channel Atmos mix. The tools aren't there yet to do that, it's still difficult, but the data is there. That's exciting to me because having had to go back and remix old stuff into spatial sound, it's a massive pain in the ass. It's a lot of work. People even do it today with film, they get stems and then they remix it into Quad and throw the dialogue in the center channel. Wouldn't it be nice if you, as an artist, could just deliver your Quad mix to a film. And you just create a new process. Of course you start to think ahead, well, we're entering this VR/AR - all of this space, right. How much spatial music is out there to put into these things. There's not much.
Darwin: Yeah. It's interesting. It's almost like the specifications are way ahead of anyone actually making music that can take advantage of it.
KamranV: Exactly. And that is the purpose of this Quad thing is let's keep it simple, straightforward. Working musician need to be able to make music in Quad. Not just some technician remix it, they need to be able to think in Quad. And if we can get over that hurdle, and this little software tool is a part of that, and also minimize the issue of people being able to listen to it, cause who do you know with an Atmos system? Then all of a sudden it becomes real. And this becomes a creative platform instead of a technical one.
Darwin: That's really smart. That's really savvy. Man, I just looked at the counter and we've blown through our time already. It's killing me. Before we go, hopefully what we've done is we've turned some people onto the idea of looking into this and maybe playing around with it. And even with it being free, there are still some efforts that will take to play - particularly getting a second set of speakers wired up. Hopefully people can scrounge something out of their closet or something that'll work. But, for people who want to give this a try, where would they go to find this QUARK system? And how would they learn to use it?
KamranV: Yeah. So QUARK.CyKik.com. The download is there and also on the website, there's some instructional videos, most specifically one for Ableton Live, which you know, using Max, it's possible to do spatial music in there. The Audio Routes tool set is awesome. And really the only thing that makes it possible.
Darwin: Excellent. That's fantastic. So we strongly suggest people get out there and give it a try. It's actually, on a basic level, it's really easy to use, but it can also get as complex and as functionally bizarre as you want it to be. So it's a pretty interesting system. I love the fact that it's freely available. I think that that's kind of a powerful opportunity for people because again, at least from the feeling of a engineer or a musician, a lot of times the second I would start tapping into surround type stuff. You immediately run into this bizarre pile of IP issues and formatting issues and stuff like that. It's such a headache and it's so fabulous that you've put together this kind of simple way of just dealing.
KamranV: Thanks, man. Yeah, a lot of good people made this happen and all sort of with the same creative goals, frankly. It's been sad that this hasn't been possible yet. So hopefully this is a good step towards that.
Darwin: Yeah, hopefully so, well with that, I want to thank you so much for your time and taking time out of your schedule. It sounds to me like you have at least four jobs to get back to, so I'll let you off the hook, but thank you so much for taking the time. It was really great talking to you.
Copyright 2021 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.