Sunday, December 10, 2017

Wizard of Ahhs: The Magical Mind of Ben Bloomberg

Those familiar with British wunderkind Jacob Collier will attest to his otherworldly level of musical talent. They will also, no doubt, be familiar with the young American whose technological wizardry allows Jacob to realize his most innovative ideas. In the same manner in which Collier represents, according to guitar legend Steve Vai, a “paradigm shift in music history,” Ben Bloomberg brings a new realm of possibilities to the fields of live and recorded performance. Bloomberg is an MIT graduate student with an impressive CV that reveals an intellect reaching stratospheric heights of insight and application, resulting in a myriad of technological achievements that can only be termed stunning.


Ben Bloomberg in a comfortable environment
image courtesy of Ben Bloomberg

Having seen Jacob Collier in concert several times during the past year, I got to speak with Ben before and after some of the shows. Backstage at The Roof at Output in Brooklyn—the final show of a whirlwind series of performances—I asked him if he would like to arrange a “proper” interview, and he graciously agreed. So, on a Saturday afternoon in early September, while taking a much-needed respite at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we spent the better part of an hour on the phone. What follows is our complete conversation, slightly edited for clarity. Read on and learn more about a true American innovator, one whose path seemed almost preordained from a very early age …

Roy Abrams: So, you actually have a little time off right now, eh? It must be nice to get some down time in! You’re leaving again soon with Jacob, I understand.

Ben Bloomberg: Yeah, we’re actually going to go to London and we’re working on the music room [Jacob’s recording studio, located in his North London home].

RA: Jacob plans to start recording a new album, correct?

BB: I think it’s going to be pretty soon. We’re setting up the music room for the next round of writing and recording. We don’t know exactly what the schedule is yet, but basically the idea is as the solo shows wind down, to keep things low-key for a little bit, so he can write and work on his next album.

RA: The partnership between the two of you can easily be described as a cosmically ordained kind of thing. I spent several hours on your website over the past couple of days and, well, if you remember Jacob’s Bowery Ballroom show back in February when some guy yelled out “Dude, what the hell?!” during his encore performance of “Blackbird,” I can basically say the same thing, and hurl that one at you! You really had your first live sound experience at age 9?

BB: [Laughs] I grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts, which has a lot of music … so there was a band on my street that played Bar Mitzvahs and parties and things like that, and they were around my parents’ age. They were called The Blenders. They needed somebody to set up the speakers and stuff like that. I think they paid me $5 an hour. I would plug in the speakers and microphones and then watch—mix is kind of a strong word—but I would keep an eye on things during the show.

RA: What drew you toward sound in the first place?

BB: To be honest, even when I was really, really little, my Dad taught me how to use the record player, and I used to listen to records, like The Cars and Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Elvis Costello. I had a record player in my room, so from a kind of very young age, I just always enjoyed listening to music, and then in fourth grade, my elementary school got a new sound system and nobody bothered to learn how to use it except me; I was just excited because it was bigger speakers, and I liked electronics and computers a little bit back then as well, so I got to learn how to use it. Then it became my job to set it up every single time the school wanted to use it. I couldn’t really lift anything, so I’d have to tell a custodian what to plug in, where to put things, when I was pretty little, I guess 8 or 9.

RA: I read that by the time you were in high school, you were putting in 12-14 hour days doing musicals, according to one of your teachers.

BB: [Laughs] Yeah, high school … it was kind of an amazing situation because when I arrived they had just renovated the high school and added a beautiful 700-seat theater, but nobody was in charge of it. So me and a bunch of friends started helping both the school and external people who were renting the space to put events on. They had a bunch of equipment which was installed wrong, basically, so my side hobby became fixing up the space [chuckles]. It was a lot of fun! There were like no adults involved, so it was sort of like Lord of the Flies or something!

RA: Referring to those years, you’ve said that “the amount of education that I missed out on is about 1/50th of the education I’ve gotten doing computer stuff.”  As a teacher, that presses a button for me in a good way. In New York State, there has been talk of remodeling our secondary school system to include paths for STEM (Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering) and other vocational choices rather than the straight liberal arts-focused academia. What is your take on that?

BB: That’s always been how I like to do things. I missed a lot of classes when I was in high school—I didn’t go to class very much because I was building things, fixing things, and what was so lucky for me was that my principal and my teachers, for the most part, understood that this was cool, and they let me do it. They let me break all the rules, basically, because they were supporting me. In a lot of places, that doesn’t happen. People get forced to do the usual things. It was nice for me, because I enjoyed helping people. A lot of times, putting on a production, people don’t really know, especially people that are renting a high school theater, they don’t really know the ins and outs of what’s going to feel good, what’s going to work well, the technology logistics, and so I just really enjoyed on that. When I got to college, as an undergrad, I travelled a whole lot. I did a thing called UROP at MIT which is an undergraduate research opportunity program and you can work in a research lab while you’re an undergrad, and you get paid for a campus job, and you actually get research experience as well.  My UROP was working for my current PhD advisor, Tod Machover. Back when I was an undergrad, I would mix all of his shows and then on tour with him. The Computer Science department hated it because I’d miss two weeks of school and come back two weeks before finals and have to get caught up and get through all that stuff, but again, I think wouldn’t trade it for anything, because you learn so much out on the road and, you know … I found myself—and this was at age 18 or 19—in charge of a union crew in France, and I didn’t speak French, and realizing the second day in that “stage left” and “stage right” are backwards! So, all these kinds of life lessons that you don’t get by just sitting in a classroom and doing your homework. I think that’s good, too, but I definitely gained a lot from sort of going out into the world and having some good adventures outside of the classroom.

RA: I learned something about you from someone I was speaking with at the Brooklyn show that you also sang at MIT. Checking your website, I see that you have years of musical experience ranging from classical and jazz piano to vocal jazz, along with guitar, bass, drums, alto and tenor sax. How old were you when you started playing piano?

BB: That was (in) first grade.

RA: From this musician’s point of view, your ability with sound is astounding. Again referring to the Brooklyn show, I noticed you stepping out from behind the board from time to time, and each time you returned it was to tweak the bass.
Working the board for the Jacob Collier Quartet
at The Roof at Output, Brooklyn, NY
September 1, 2017
image by Roy Abrams

BB: Every room has its strengths and its weaknesses. For me the goal is always tonal balance and a lot of times bass can be difficult because it’s either covering things up or it doesn’t feel big enough, and it’s hard to find the line where it fits just right. The other thing is, the bass that Jacob uses is not the best-sounding instrument [chuckles]… it’s one that fits in an overhead bin, so … [laughs] It’s a good one, but it’s always interesting on a big sound system to figure out how to get things to sit nicely.

RA: You’ve previously spoken about how important it is to control what the band hears. Absolutely! Why is it that some soundmen don’t seem to get that one?

BB: Well, I always feel that it’s important to experience it from both sides of the coin, basically. As a musician—again, granted nowhere near Jacob’s abilities—I‘ve been onstage and some of these guys haven’t. It’s just nice to kind of try and keep things in perspective and think, “What would I want if I were up there?” Having all these things going on … (a), you want to be able to know what’s going on but (b) and I think more importantly, you want to feel good. So a lot of mixing, for me, whether it’s in the studio or live, is just about finding something that feels good, that makes you feel good emotionally; good vibes. There are a lot of sound guys out there where, it’s a thing where it’s really easy to get kind of grumpy and jaded and forget why you’re doing it to begin with. I’m lucky, because I get to work with Jacob, and that’s never a problem, because it’s always unbelievably amazing working with him.
Good times working with Jacob Collier
image courtesy of Ben Bloomberg

RA: In your PBS interview, you were talking about how studio and stage production techniques have changed through the years and where you feel this might be heading. You talked about how both artists and fans love the live performance venue, given technological advances, there is something to be said for that multiple-theater concept of which you spoke.

BB: It’s really interesting. Everything’s getting so much smaller. It’s a funny thing about mixer design because you see all these new mixing desks coming out and they have fewer and fewer faders, and smaller and smaller and lighter and lighter. It’s great for saving shipping costs but I think that we’re actually losing quite a bit by not having the sort of physical controls. A lot of people say, “Oh, we replaced it all with touch screens,” but touch screens don’t allow you to have this muscle memory and that physical control that’s always in the same place; even if it’s a motorized fader that may do something different, so I always actually look for the consoles that have the most faders on them; the smallest package with the most faders, or you can add faders somehow. It’s interesting; we’re just trying to keep the costs down as much as we can. It’s unbelievable what $1,000 will do today for audio equipment and music equipment, we have basically a 40-channel console for not much more than $1,000. The challenge is always coming up with the ergonomics that allow you to—I always say that the feedback loop from your ear to your fingers is much faster than touch screen or anything you have to click on or use your mouse, so a lot of times you memorize where the faders are … you’re not looking at the desk when you’re mixing, you’re just sort of looking at the stage, you’re feeling the vibe, and you’re reacting without looking. I think the future of all of these devices … the best devices that technologies will sort of embrace that rather than throw away that style of interaction for something like a touch screen.

Explaining the finer points
image courtesy of Ben Bloomberg

RA: You’ve spoken a lot about the challenges and opportunities presented by working with Jacob. What were some of the challenges and opportunities presented by others with whom you’ve worked, such as Bjork and Imogen Heap?

BB: It’s always different. I know Imogen fairly well now. With Bjork, it’s mostly working with her team and it was sort of a consulting thing where they were asking me specifically about 360-dome kind of projection and surround sound technology. A lot of the challenges working with anybody is just getting on the same page and getting to the point where you trust each other about where the priorities are and what’s important. With Bjork, it was consulting for this Museum of Modern Art exhibit, and they ultimately ended up not having the funding to do what we wanted to do. I wrote all these briefs and all kinds of things, sort of trying to show that this is the way, the specific method of high-order ambisonics, would be a great way to do the exhibit, and they ended up not being able to do it, and … a lot of all these collaborations are just trust. For me, it always takes me a long time to get to know people, and then when I do know them, then we can say, “Okay, what are we really trying to do here? What’s really important?” Imogen, she uses a lot of technology—and actually it’s true of Jacob—everybody has sort of very grand dreams and the question is how to make people feel like we’re not neutering the entire idea but also achieve something that is realistically reliable and making a commitment that you can keep. There are a lot of tech people, especially in the live (arena), where somebody says, “I want this crazy thing!” and people say, oh yes, oh yes, they’ll do it, and they can’t do it or it doesn’t come through, so I think being able to communicate effectively what is possible and what’s important; those are always the challenges with everybody.

RA: There was only a 48-hour lead time before the first live show you did with Jacob?

Jacob Collier's "One-Man Show Creature"
image courtesy of Ben Bloomberg

BB: You mean in Montreux? Yeah! [Laughs] We had about 48 hours in Montreux. We had been working together previously; we did sort of a warm-up, late night thing at Ronnie Scott’s and actually before that, we rented out a space for four days in London, where we set the whole thing up. But the first iteration of the Harmoniser was also another 48-hour thing, and that was in Boston.

RA: Do you have any plans at some point to take these prototypes and make them publically available?

BB: I want to, but it’s a little bit of a challenge, because so many of these things are very highly tailored to Jacob, so I think the question is, which elements of it are important to get out there, and which elements are like, “Well, he usually plays “Close to You” after “Don’t You Worry” so we need this pitch shift to be 157 cents because that’s the difference between the last note of “Don’t You Worry” and the first note of “Close to You.” We’re also trying to push things so they’re continually sort of on the edge of stable, basically. [Laughs] We want to put something out there that people could use without getting frustrated. It wouldn’t be so bad to (offer) the essence of everything we’ve made. It’s just a matter of having the time to figure out exactly what that is and the best way to do it, but it is something to think about.

The "One-Man Live Show Creature"
image by Betsy Newman
RA: I see that you’ve been involved in many experimental projects. What have been some of your favorites?

BB: This robot opera that we did at MIT was an absolutely incredible project. It went on tour briefly; we did it as a live satellite broadcast that went to nine cities internationally as well as the stage production that was happening. That, to me, is the ultimate example of a performance—this was back in 2009, so it was really groundbreaking when we did it. It’s an example of a performance where the production infrastructure is completely interlinked; everything is connected to everything else, and everything can affect everything else. You might have a sensor that’s on the performer, and it’s affecting the robots that are driving around, and the lighting, and the sound, and the video, and the moving sets; everything, basically. That’s a really special one. I think that one will go down in history; that was a Pulitzer finalist. That was a really unique one in the history of our research group. I don’t know if we will do a bigger project than that! Other cool projects? We’ve done some stuff with stadium wireless communications. Imogen has these gloves and she gave a pair to Ariana Grande. They needed to figure out how to make these things work on a stadium tour where it was going to be 30,000 seats and we actually—it was me and a very close friend, Brian Mayton, worked with Shure to do some custom firmware, to basically turn this glove into a wireless microphone, and then that went out on tour for a whole year and a half. There have been a lot of interesting surround sound experiments; that’s another passion.

RA: I was looking at a video of the light show you were involved with at the CN Tower in Toronto—

BB: Yeah, that was another fun one! That was part of the Collaborative City Symphonies. This is another project with my advisor Tod Machover. He’ll work with an entire city—as many people as we could get involved, basically—to compose an entire symphony, and then it’s premiered in the city. For Toronto, what we did, we actually hooked the orchestra up to all the lighting on the CN Tower. You could stream the performance on your phone anywhere in the city and the CN Tower was lighting up in time to the music.

RA: That’s crazy—

BB: Yeah, that was one of those things where we were up all night the night before. There was a bug in the system that was running the tower lighting and they had never tried to do an animation of the magnitude we were trying to do on the tower before. We would load it in, and the whole thing would freeze. I actually had to take the whole lighting controller out of the tower and run in back to the hotel and we had to stay up all night trying to figure out a way to get the lighting system to behave with the amount of content that we had to put in there. We figured it out, and that was a really special one.

RA: One of the areas on your website discusses Multiplexed Performance. There was some fascinating material in there. I love the concept of using colored hats that the performers used to let the mixing engineers know what they wanted to hear. Did that idea come from you?

BB: Yeah.

RA: That’s great!

BB: That was for a project where we had a silent band; a band playing all silent instruments. We would basically have multiple sets of sounds coming out of these instruments so it could be an acoustic ensemble, it could be a lot of synthesized sounds, it could be something in the middle. The question was whether we could create multiple genres or how flexible you could be with these players playing the same physical thing but having it interpreted and mixed differently afterward. The way they would communicate what they wanted to hear was, we bought them a bunch of colored baseball hats … that was really cool. I’d like to try that again sometime; we didn’t really get to finish it. The final experiment was right during the Marathon bombing in Boston, so the whole thing was kind of cut short, but it was a really fun experiment.

RA: Death and the Powers was commissioned by Prince Albert of Monaco. How did that come about?

BB: That was the big robot opera, where everything was connected; it was a ten-year-long project, the Pulitzer finalist. This is what happens at the Media Lab, in our research group. We sort of attract the craziest people who have the biggest ideas, and so this one woman, she was very well-connected in the Monte Carlo opera, and she wanted to commission this present for the Prince, sort of as a birthday present, and so she asked around, and everybody said, “Go to Tod Machover,” who’s my advisor, and he’s the one that’s doing the craziest stuff out there. So she came to him; it was way before I was at MIT; it was probably about 2000, and the project’s premiere was in 2010, so I was lucky to come in. I started MIT in ’07, and I came in the last three years of the production on that project where I actually got to do it and I got to mix it, which was totally amazing.

RA: Let’s talk a bit about the venue versus “multiple-theater” concept. Do you see over time any kind of drop off in the actual face-to-face performance, or will it remain the current mix that we have today?

BB: It’s hard—I think that the makeup will slightly shift, but a lot of people that I work with now, in music, in theater, all of these different sorts of disciplines. When you design a live event, a big part of the creative process is, what makes this special because you’re here in the room right now with a certain group of people? Because people are thinking about that, it’s not going to be (that) these devices completely take over and we’re just going to sit at home in our VR headsets. I think there are still things that are special about real, live experiences, and we will continue to find them. It might be different, but I don’t see it going away.

RA: I found this statement from your website really interesting: “From a compositional perspective we know that pop music is relatively formulaic and many of the chords and progressions are following a trend of growing similarity. In fact this is happening to such a degree that very narrow technical differences (like a 7 BPM tempo shift in the case of EDM and trance) can define entire genres (each) with a separate fan-base and listenership.”  Is this really the case? I had no idea …

BB: Well, dance music is 128, and if it’s not 128—of course, there are exceptions—it’s very interesting to watch the trends in the Top 40. That was sort of the whole point of this multiplex project , was to see … these things are actually so close, can we make these subtle shifts to allow people to personalize. Maybe you write a piece of music that is more than something fixed; it can be molded or crafted a little bit by the person listening, depending on anything; it could be your mood, it could just be for fun. A lot of these things are growing in very clear trends and are similar in very certain ways and different in other ways.

RA: Do you have a favorite console?

BB: It really depends on the price bracket! [laughs] With a console, it can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $1,000,000! The system that we use right now is something that is found all over. Midas has this, and Behringer has this incredibly inexpensive (system). It’s called the X32 and for the money it’s unbeatable. As you start to go up in price, I’m a big fan of mixing desks which allow you to modify the actual underlying architecture of the mixer. A lot of mixers that you can buy have a fixed number of channels; you have 16 channels, and you get this many mix busses, and that’s that. But there are some really interesting mixers. Digico is one company, SSL is another company, even Roland has made mixers where you could say, well, I don’t need that many channels, but I need a whole lot of mix bussers, so let me trade some channels for some mix bussers, and so they have a set amount of processing power that you can decide what that power is used for. I tend to like those mixers because they allow me to better tailor the console for what’s it’s being used for.

RA: Any preferred microphones?

BB: It depends on the instrument and the specific person. I have a handful of (mics) that I have a good idea (of) how they sound, what their strengths are, and it really depends on what we’re doing. If you want something very bright, Mojave makes relatively inexpensive microphones, and they’re amazing. If you need some really smooth high end, you might be looking at a Neumann U87, if you’re looking for something warm and thick, something like a 47 might be better. There are crazy insanely expensive mics like the Sony C800G; it’s shiny pop high end is a classic. Sennheiser MKH800s are amazing for orchestral, incredibly detailed, incredibly low-noise but not necessarily as warm. The choice of preamp, too, makes a big difference, whether you’re doing something more Neve-like, which has transformers that behave a certain way, or something very transparent like a Grace or a Millennia-style preamp. These things have an effect; you can sort of use them like paintbrushes. On stage, a lot of what we do is try to connect feedback, it’s especially difficult when there’s a lot of looping going on. We usually use DPA 4099s on the piano, and those are great because they’re very natural and tonally balanced, but they have a very narrow pickup pattern. They’re really nice microphones (for) where you need a lot of gain where the instrument may be acoustic and may be quieter, but you want to be able to get it really loud and you want it to still feel natural.

RA: What advice would you have for students who are focusing on an audio engineering program? What would you advise them to really soak in and master?
Talking sound with Eric Gordon
at the Blue Note, NYC
June 20, 2017
image by Roy Abrams

BB: That’s a tough one. I think, for live sound, more than anything else, more than anything technical, it’s about your interactions with people onstage, and helping people feel comfortable and feel like they’re in an environment where the show can be the best it can be. A happy artist matters way more than any specific technical skill that you can have. You need to have skills to make people feel comfortable; you don’t want to seem like you don’t know what you’re doing, and therefore causing a lot of stress. For me it’s about finding common ground and feeling like we’re in it together and we’re going to treat this thing so we feel good about it and we feel good together. To me, that’s the most important thing. You can make most things sound good some way or another, and as long as everybody’s on the same page about expectations and these kinds of things, the tech stuff to me—I’m very excited by it and I love to play around with these things, but when you’re trying to make something musical and emotional, it’s more about choosing the vibe than it is about anything specific thing. A lot of people are afraid to break rules, especially in audio engineering school, they teach you all these rules: never do this; never do that. This results in some bad thing happening. I don’t think the rules are so hard and fast, especially in audio. It’s one thing if you’re a surgeon, in this world of sound, if somebody wants to try something, yeah—give it a shot! It’s all about experimentation. I never really learned anything formally with audio; it was just sort of trial and error. I think a lot of times, people get stuck in their ways, and they say, no, we’re only going to do it this one way, and this is definitely the best way … but no, try it! We do all kinds of really weird stuff sometimes [laughs] and some of it works and some of it doesn’t.

RA: So, you really approach everything that you do with the heart and mindset of a musician.

BB: Yeah, I would say so.
Ben Bloomberg
image courtesy of Ben Bloomberg

RA: I have previously spoken with Jacob about the stunning similarity in effect his music has upon me compared with the wonder of listening to early Beatles music when I was four … well, if I may be so bold, in your collaboration with Jacob, you bring a George Martin-like element to the mix.

BB: Oh, man. Yeah, actually I read Geoff Emerick’s book [the Beatles’ recording engineer]. I read his book and I guess I relate to a lot of the things they were doing. You know, back then when they started recording, you couldn’t put the mic closer than a foot to the kick drum. That just wasn’t done. The engineer couldn’t even touch the microphone! You had to make a diagram, and then they had guys in white lab coats that would come and put them in the right place. [laughs] So yeah, Geoff and George broke all these rules at Abbey Road, and I really respect that. And that’s one reason, on the album, we used this old Abbey Road term called “balance engineer” … we decided on that term rather than just mixing or something sort of more modern just as kind of an homage to them. We like their ideas and their philosophy.

© Roy Abrams 2017

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