As a boy, what Thomas Dolby loved most about synthesizers was that (quote) “they did things I didn’t expect.” Just from fooling around with synths and samplers, never reading the owner’s manual (there was none!), he learned all that he knows about ‘real’ music and musical instruments. But his frustration today is that electronic music has not embraced the advances in AI and deep learning that are now become infused in filmmaking, videogames and virtual reality. Loops and samples, he says, are like “dumb Lego blocks that have no knowledge of each other”; yet schools of fish, murmurations of sparrows, and even world-class orchestral players watch and listen intently and make microsecond-grain, synaptic decisions, enabling them to think like a collective hive mind. Why then do synthesizers still have to behave like typewriters?
Biography: Perhaps best known for blinding us with science, TED Music Director Thomas Dolby has always blurred the lines between composition and invention. As a London teenager, Tom Robertson was fascinated with the convergence of music and technology. His experiments with an assortment of keyboards, synthesizers and cassette players led his friends to dub him “Dolby.”
That same fascination later drove him to become an electronic musician and multimedia artist whose groundbreaking work fused music with computer technology and video. Two decades, several film scores, five Grammy nominations and countless live-layered sound loops later, it’s clear Dolby’s innovations have changed the sound of popular music.
In the 1990s, Dolby re-created himself as a digital-musical entrepreneur, founding Beatnik, which developed the polyphonic ringtone software used in more than half a billion cell phones. Now back to touring and recording (after a 15-year hiatus), he’s using seriously retro technology — ’40s-era oscilloscopes and Royal Navy field-test equipment — to control his modern synthesizers, in shows that are at once nostalgic and cutting edge.
From 2001 to 2012, Dolby served as TED’s Music Director, programming great music for the TED stage, assembling a wide variety of house bands and collaborations to play between speakers. In 2014, Dolby took on a new name: professor. He was named the Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University, teaching the course “Sound on Film.”