He blinded me with non-​​linear music theory

First of all, just take a look at this and then we’ll talk some more:

Okay, now you have the back­ground around which this post revolves.

I some­times play trivia at a restau­rant near my house and every time the cat­e­gory hap­pens to be sci­ence, the whole room erupts with the dis­tinc­tive tone of Thomas Dolby’s voice reit­er­ating the word in his epi­cally fab­u­lous early 80s hit. 

It was a flip­pant song that I wrote,” Dolby told me standing in the middle of Snell Library a couple weeks ago. He was on campus to give a lec­ture on Monday morning, but that Sunday he was touring the library as groups of sleep-​​deprived gamers vaguely reeled after a weekend of intense coding and cre­ating for Global Game Jam.

Dolby had the honor of intro­ducing the final prod­ucts to the gamers them­selves as they wildly munched through the largest buffet of Chi­nese food take-​​out I’ve ever seen. But before that, I and a couple of stu­dents from NUTV cor­nered the one-​​time pop star for an impromptu interview.

Dolby told us that in addi­tion to his forays into music video stardom, he is also an elec­tronic music com­poser, pro­ducer, and pro­grammer. Actu­ally, it’s all these things that he’s much more inter­ested in and more accu­rately define him. She Blinded Me With Sci­ence was just a kind of acci­dent, he said.

MTV was the new big thing and it had become common knowl­edge that get­ting a song on screen pretty much sealed the deal for top Bill­board rating and a spot on the radio. So he drew up a story board and pre­sented it to his pro­ducers. They approved it and then, unsur­pris­ingly, asked for the song. He wrote it over the fol­lowing weekend and the rest is history.

But while SBWS may be Dolby’s claim to main­stream fame, it’s his intel­lec­tual interest in music that I found more com­pelling when we talked. “Music had been so linear for decades,” he told us. “But new envi­ron­ments were starting to appear that were much more in-​​the-​​moment, with less of a story arc…and it seemed to me that to enhance that music required some­thing more than a linear use of music. You needed some way to do it interactively.”

So he and some col­lab­o­ra­tors devel­oped a new file format called “Rich Music Format” that could play small chunks of music with high fidelity. He also devel­oped a “mini-​​synthesizer” called Beatnik to play those files. And as I said in a quick post on Friday, that syn­the­sizer is installed in almost all of our mobile phones these days and is respon­sible for the impossible-​​to-​​forget Nokia ring tone.

This tiny file type could now be stored in var­ious places around a vir­tual envi­ron­ment and called up at what­ever point a user hap­pened to encounter it. So, imagine you’re playing an internet based game. It’s one of those exploratory games where you wander around a world and basi­cally create the sto­ry­line as you go. The game doesn’t know when you’ll get where so it needs to be at the ready to play any asso­ci­ated music or sound as soon as you encounter it. Enter Beatnik and RMF files.

Dolby has dab­bled in a bit of game-​​making of his own. In the most notable case, he devel­oped a game to pro­mote an album he released in 2011. Both are called “A Map of the Floating City” and the game’s objec­tive is to suc­cess­fully steer one­self to the North Pole, which is the only hab­it­able place left on earth after cli­mate change has wreaked its awful havoc. Players are invited to interact with each other and form tribes, as they do, they earn the ability to down­load music sam­ples from Dolby’s album.

Lucky for Dolby, people took kindly to the game and started talking about it and its out­comes in online cha­t­rooms before he even fin­ished making it. “They had con­spiracy the­o­ries about the game and I would lurk around the cha­t­rooms and if some­thing was a cool idea I would just print it and it became the truth,” he said. In this way the players defined their own des­tiny. Pretty cool.