Interview with Spencer Critchley, Part 1

by Alexander Brandon

Let's get right to it... Spencer Critchley is a developer who's been involved heavily both with interactive audio and linear audio, so he can speak from both sides of the fence... we speak with him on the future of audio on the web and enough general subjects to keep just about anyone in the SIG interested. Read on! Check out his website as well. Alex's questions are in italics and Spencer is in regular type.

What's your background?

You might want to have a look at another website that has just gone up. I’ll end up taking the bio from that site and putting it up on my site. I’ve since shaved off the goatee, but otherwise its accurate. <laughs>

As it says there in a nutshell I’ve got a background as a producer and creative director, and I started out in the music industry in the 80s in Canada, and I was a songwriter and producer signed with Warner Chappell music. I also was a writer / broadcaster with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In the beginning of the 90s I moved to California, and I think in a nutshell I spent most of the 90s working in interactive media starting with CDROMs, then I went on to do interactive television, computer games, the web, and then most recently telecom consulting with this company called BeVocal.

It says in your bio that at Beatnik, you “directed production of web content for MTV, Yahoo!, David Bowie, Moby, Britney Spears, Thomas Dolby and others.”  How did that work, and how did it work out? Was it popular?

"...the adoption of audio on the web has been growing, but its been happening a lot more slowly than we thought, which is sort of typical of the web in general..."

Actually, I was at Beatnik in 99 and 2000, and Thomas (Dolby) hired me to set up their creative production department. We were working on products to demonstrate the potential of Beatnik’s web technology, so we would do things like sonify pages for Yahoo, for example. One of the first big projects we did was Yahoo Digital, which was Yahoo’s first step into a rich media site, so we sonified the interface and developed these things called ‘quick clips’ which allows you to quickly browse music for download where you hear these little 5 second samples when you rolled over a link with your mouse. For MTV and a bunch of recording artists we developed these web based remixers, in which you can remix their songs. There were contests where you could go see Britney Spears play live if you did the best Britney Spears remix and similar kinds of things for all the other artists we did, and this was based on an idea Thomas came up with. He happened to have the multitrack master for “Fame” by David Bowie, because he did some work with Bowie in the past, and he realized that using Beatnik it’d be possible to make this remix interface on a web page and he did it himself using Dreamweaver, the prototype, and that was the first one that Beatnik did was the remix of Fame and that proved really popular. So the engineers at Beatnik then took that idea and developed a more robust version and made it so you can remix songs and store the data representing your remix, and email the URL to all your friends so that when they click on the URL and go back to that page and hear the remix that you did. We also advised some of these people like MTV and David Bowie for example on other applications of beatnik to sonify the interfaces for their sites, when Bowie relaunched they used beatnik to sonify the interface, so I advised his company on how to do that.

I haven’t been in close touch with Beatnik since the fall of 2000, so I’m not a really super reliable source on what they’re doing right now, but I do know that they’ve moved their focus away from concentrating on web sonification towards licensing this technology to be used in things like cell phones and PDAs, so I don’t think they’re doing much of that right now, it seemed to be very popular at the time but is not a core focus at this point, and I would say that my observation is that it has taken people longer for people to adopt interactive audio on the web than any of us thought it would. Thomas and the original members of Beatnik started the company in 1996 and I joined in the spring of 99’ and we all fully expected that by sometime in 2000 it would all be taking off like wildfire <laughs>, and the adoption of audio on the web has been growing but its been happening a lot more slowly than we thought, which is sort of typical of the web in general in a lot of ways. Rich media on the web and broadband is just taking off slowly as a whole.

"In a well designed site it will be silent where it needs to be, but where sound is justified it will be woven together with something approaching the sophistication of a film or TV soundtrack, with one important difference: its not a linear presentation the way video and film is. "

What is your forward thinking for what will happen in web audio that will be advanced? Right now we have sites on the web that play background music and make sounds when you click / mouse over links or garphics, and that’s pretty much it for the most part. So what ideas do you have or that your colleagues had that could be an advanced way to sonify?

I think things are happening now, but they’re happening slowly. This is something I used to tell people when I was working at Beatnik, but when you think about movie and TV soundtracks, essentially you’re just playing sounds in sync with the picture so at the top level that doesn’t seem really complicated... and in the early days it wasn’t, you have a mono soundtrack that lined up with the picture, and any mix would be rudimentary, you know... a few actors talking and background sound effects with maybe some music playing, but in a modern movie you have potentially hundreds of separate tracks of dialogue, music, and sfx, with a great deal of expertise going into creating that soundtrack. Similarly on the web, initially if there was any sound at all on a website there might be an introductory thing or cute sfx when you do a mouse over, and that would be it... the rest of the site would be silent. What you’re seeing now is more layering and people applying more of the skills that they would put into a movie or TV soundtrack. So that if you go to a well developed Flash site there might be background music, ambient sound, dialogue, rollover sfx, and you won’t get these awkward silences that last through whole areas of the site for no apparent reason.

In a well designed site it will be silent where it needs to be, but where sound is justified it will be woven together with something approaching the sophistication of a film or TV soundtrack, with one important difference: its not a linear presentation the way video and film is. You are taking into account the fact that you’re not sure where the user is gonna go at any given moment, and so you are designing a layered interactive soundtrack, and I don’t think that’s the only thing that’s gonna happen with audio on the web, but I think that it’s a big enough thing, that people will be mastering that for years to come, just like it took them years to master doing a well developed film or TV soundtrack. I think that people who are doing computer games will be familiar with this, because as they know as when you sit down to create music and sound from computer games its great if you’re a good composer or sound designer from the traditional world, but you then need to develop these extra skills of anticipating what the flow will be like when you can’t be sure what the user is going to do from one moment to the next.  You’re designing dynamic edits and crossfades that will work at any moment, so its designing for the 4th dimension and I think that’s an important area in development that will continue to keep people busy for awhile, partly because of the design skills that are involved. Again, computer game people will know that this is a whole extra way of thinking that gets to be like 3 dimensional chess. So partly because of the design skills and partly because of the technical skills. People from the linear media world may very well be experts on Pro Tools and recording studios and post facilities and so on, but in order to work on the web they have to get familiar with things like HTML and Javascript and Flash, and they have to start to absorb programming concepts like objects and instances of objects so I think there’s still a fair bit of development that can happen there.

In our next installment, Spencer discusses WebTV and mobile technologies.

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