Let's open the possibilities of remixing music

Dr Rob Toulson, Director of CoDE Untitled Page
Dr Rob Toulson is Director of the Cultures of the Digital Economy Research Institute. His role is to develop research projects that link arts and culture with science and technology in both academia and industry. Rob's background is in both digital electronics and music production. He has developed and launched a number of innovative digital products and has also produced a number of successful commercial music releases.

Listeners have long been inspired to interact with existing music and create their own versions of tracks. Vinyl offered the opportunity for scratching and tempo manipulation, and mixing songs together. With the arrival of digital and the internet, things moved on. But now Rob Toulson has invented an app which uses the huge processing power of phones to offer all kinds of new options...

I have been working with Justin Paterson from the London College of Music (University of West London), in collaboration with music artist Daisy and The Dark to create an exciting new interactive music app format. Using a bespoke mobile application, we have embedded audio tracks which allow the listener to explore and effectively ‘remix’ the music as they listen, allowing a song to be different on each listen depending on the listener’s mood or environment.

We had two key objectives: firstly, we wanted to see if we could develop a new commercial music format that the consumer would be willing to pay for. This meant we needed to create something unique, something that was not currently available to music fans through conventional platforms. Secondly we wanted to design a format that allows the musician to connect more closely with their fans through their recordings. So we wanted to create a way for fans to ‘get inside the music’ – to be able to explore the building blocks of the songs as well as the broad creative vision of the artist. So how does the app work? It has a number of touch-screen user interfaces that allow the listener to manipulate the playback and sonic structure of the music. Listeners are able to change the style of the playback of a song: perhaps to hear a stripped back acoustic version of it, or a more upbeat dance version. They can also mute the vocals and enjoy an instrumental version, or take away the drums to play along themselves, or listen to the piano as a solo so they can learn to play it. The interface is intelligent and seamless, so the user gets a smooth and unique experience depending on their mood. To make this all possible we built a robust audio playback engine for the Apple iOS operating system. The playback engine allows multiple tracks to be played at the same time and features a number of intelligent cross-fade algorithms that the user manipulates with a simple touch screen interface. The audio engine itself is being patented by the collaborating universities, as a unique platform that can be repurposed for enhancing any commercial music release.

We wanted to create a way for fans to ‘get inside the music’ – to be able to explore the building blocks of the songs as well as the broad creative vision of the artist

The album app has further creative features too: artwork, song lyrics, production credits, an artist biography and other visual media that was previously included in the heyday of the vinyl music format. We believe the album app is an important development for the commercial music industry. It allows artists to connect on a heightened level with their fans and showcases ‘concept albums’ and creative artistic visions that are greater than just the music alone.

Research matters

What inspired you?

I was inspired to initiate this project given my own music production work with a number of music artists. We would often start by recording a simple acoustic version of a song, and then build up a commercial pop version by layering drums, bass, strings and backing vocals. The artist would then often choose to have a dance remix version of the music created too. I felt that these three versions could all be aligned with each other, so the listener could choose one dependent on their mood. Given that the music industry is currently failing to generate a financial return for many music artists, we thought this could be a potential platform to offer something different, and one music fans would be more willing to pay for.

Any surprises?

The real surprise was in the way the app encouraged a new level of creativity in the artist Daisy and The Dark. Once we had explained the concept the artist was inspired to see how far this technology could push their creative vision. They set about creating new appropriations of their music, including a cappella takes, classical renditions, rock-guitar versions and combinations of everything mixed together. So the technology itself inspired an enhanced form of creative expression, which is an extremely powerful result. Test it for yourself Daisy and The Dark’s Red Planet EP was officially released in July 2015 on CD, download and iPhone/iPad album app formats. The album app is available to download free of charge to encourage listeners to evaluate the app format and the interactive music features for themselves. Search for ‘Red Planet EP’ in the iPhone App store or visit www.daisyandthedark.com for a free download link and more information.

The music industry is currently failing to generate a financial return for many music artists. We hope this can be a platform to offer something different one fans would be more willing to pay for

Did you enjoy reading this article? If so, why not read our research article, ‘Understanding the unwritten rules of the office’

If you're interested in collaborating with us on a new research project or one of our existing initiatives, please get in touch with Research Highlights.