February 3, 2011
Robert Margouleff
's 129th AES Convention Keynote Address “What The Hell Happened?”

By Gary Reber

November 4, 2010
Moscone Center, San Francisco


“What The Hell Happened?”
by Robert Margouleff

    Thinking back over my 40-year career, I’ve been reflecting on all the changes that have happened in our profession.  Audio and film are not new at all. These technologies actually began with the daguerreotype in 1837 and the invention of the cylinder-recording device in 1877. So this was an established business that had already undergone many, many changes when I first got involved.

    I started out as a filmmaker upon my return from serving in the military as a combat photographer stationed in Germany.  In 1967, I settled in the East Village in New York across the street from the Fillmore East, and was active in the underground, off-off-Broadway theatre scene. That’s where I met many of the refugees from Andy Warhol’s Factory, and from those relationships, I ended up making a film called Ciao Manhattan. The verité style of the film was very much like the documentary style of my combat photography, and
was made possible by the new lightweight cameras that had recently become available. While preparing the soundtrack for that film with composer Gino Piserchio, I discovered the Moog synthesizer, and realized this was how to make the soundtrack for the film. It was because that technology had just come into existence, that I was able to apply it. And because I came to love the synthesizer and what it could do, it actually directed the course of my life. 

    After that project, I left filmmaking behind and was consumed by my new passion—making sound and music using the synthesizer. There were no manuals or textbooks or courses for this. But I learned on my own and became a synthesist—eventually both making music and recording it.  At Media Sound, which was founded by the creators of the Woodstock Music Festival, I became the studio synthesist and resident madman in 1971. They made TV commercials there, and I created electronic music and sound for the commercials. The night maintenance man was Malcolm Cecil. We made the commercials during the day, and Malcolm fixed the studio at night, because all the analog equipment started breaking the minute we turned it on. Malcolm was an
excellent jazz musician and we became friends, and in time, we would become collaborators and partners. Malcolm taught me how to be a recording engineer, I taught him how to be a synthesist. And together we created Tonto’s Expanding Headband—a band with one instrument played by several people at the same time. It’s an idea whose time has still not come. Eventually, we made a synthesizer album called Zero Time for Herbie Mann’s label Embryo Records played entirely on this huge synthesizer, which we called Tonto (The Original Neo Timbral Orchestra) played by Malcolm and me simultaneously. 


    So what’s the significance of this story? Well, it’s about how technology makes innovation and creativity possible. If art—to be art—needs an element of originality, new technology can inspire new ideas. My introduction to the brand-new technology of the synthesizer while I was making a movie, was the event that determined what my career would be from that moment on, including the 100s of records and soundtracks I would be part of.   

    The next major
chapter in the story was when Stevie Wonder heard about Tonto through an article in Rolling Stone magazine. He came to the studio one evening to meet with Malcolm and me, and he never left. Stevie wanted what we had.  We would work with him for the next five years.

    After a year or so, Stevie, Malcolm, and I moved to Electric Lady Studios where we completed Innervisions and started our next project together. It was a wonderful collaboration. With our help, Stevie brought synthesized electronic music to rhythm and blues, and we became part of the creative music community. 

    I recently returned to Electric Lady Studios to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the studio. Electric Lady was Jimi Hendrix’ studio—the first studio built by an artist for his own use. Even when I was there a few weeks ago, I felt Jimi’s presence in the studio. This was a creative, artistic, hip environment, and with Jimi gone—he died two months after the studio was completed—Stevie kind of took his place as the artist in residence there. Electric Lady had it all—technology, acoustics, an inspired, totally artistic collaborative space. The studio was an instrument—an extension of the artist’s creativity—as much of an instrument as a guitar or a piano. That’s where I met John Storyk—a friend to this day—who designed Electric Lady and has gone on to build many of the finest studios in the business. 

    Two years later, in 1974, we moved to L.A. because Stevie wanted to be close to Motown Records. The owners of the Record Plant—Gary Kellgren and Chris Stone—offered us a home there, which they would build to our specifications. So, we brought in John Storyk to design it.  API delivered a quad console to the Record Plant, and we built our first studio with quad monitoring. 

    The technology of quad came from film sound. So, once again, a new technology became available and turned out to be at the root of all kinds of creative and business developments for me. (You may know, surround audio is a big part of my business today, but I’ll get to that a little later.  Let’s stay in 1974 for now.)    

    We made Superstition in that quad studio.  And although quad never really flew as a consumer format––because we could never get 4 discrete channels on a 33-1/3 vinyl record, monitoring in quad in the studio changed the sound of my recordings forever. It gave the artist the opportunity to occupy the same space as the music. 

    By monitoring in quad, we created a whole new point of view. We began to answer the question, “How does our brain know where sound comes from?” Because we were able to hear all of the music coming from all around us, we weren’t slaves to equalization and reverb. We created much different, much drier mixes than had been done before. And we won a Grammy for it.

    Every step of the way, our work was full of technological change and collaboration. It was driven by creativity and an unconsciousness about the future. We lived in the “now.” Maybe we were high (and lots of times we were), but we were never afraid of change, we never resisted it, we always embraced it. 


    So, what’s happened since 1974, or as I say, What the Hell Happened?  The art and craft of film, TV, and music have continued to evolve. 

    Faster and faster—exponentially faster. Just look at the timeline: 
    It took over 50 years to get from the cylinder recorder in 1877 to the LP in 1930-31. Another 50 years to get to the CD in 1982.  But just 10 more years to the .mp3 in 1993, which I believe was the beginning of the end of the record business as we knew it. 

    Now it speeds up even more:  the DVD (with 5.1 audio encoded) four years later in 1997, the iPod in 2001, Blu-ray™ in 2006, and now 7.1, 3-D for the home, streaming 1080p picture with 5.1 discrete audio. We are now officially in the process of leaving the physical media behind. 

    Along the way, personal computers and other desktop technology led to an explosion of home studios. (The laptop has become the new folk instrument—much as the Clavinet Rhodes piano and acoustic guitar were in the 70s.)  The home studio built around PC or Mac is really the beginning of the democratization of content creation, and has changed our world forever. It’s like everyone was out of the bleachers and into the playing field. It sure is democratic. And it’s quite noisy out there.  

    The last 10 years alone have proven that without a doubt we’re in the midst of a genuine revolution in music, film, and television. 

    This revolution is not just the media business, but in a more profound way, our entire culture has been in transition on many levels; primarily, in how the role of technology continues to affect our lives—socially, personally, and especially in business.

    Not only was the way we listen to music revolutionized by the creation and launch of devices such as the iPod in October of 2001 (and iTunes as well in 2003), but technology continued to fundamentally reinvent the very nature of personal, business, and social communication in our culture. This happened via what’s known as “new media,” such as e-mail, Peer-2-Peer, blogs, Websites, social media such as MySpace (2003), Facebook (2003), YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006), Wikipedia (2001), Netflix, Hulu, text messaging, viral and guerilla marketing. And now we have all things 'indie', 'Long-Tail', and DIY (Do it yourself). While many of these phenomena are still trying to figure out ways to monetize, what they all have in common is that they have been game-changers. They’ve not only changed the way we think about and experience entertainment—especially music—but they’ve changed our behavior and relationship to the content and the artists who created it. 

    No interlocutors, no screening structure. It’s democratic, it’s on demand, and it’s one-to-one-to-one…

    THAT’s What the Hell Happened.  And THAT’s What the Hell is Happening!

    And What’s Happening is good and bad… but mostly good.

    Here’s just some of What the Hell is Happening –– 

    Web Personalization. The Web site knows who you are and presents content and commercial messages based on your interests. One-to-one. Your friends and fans are there, too, as part of a vast, yet still very personal, word-of-mouth network.  

    On Demand. We’ve gone from a push business (broadcasting) to a pull business (on demand). People get what they want when they want it—and it’s all inside the computer and their set-top boxes and handheld devices (which by the way, can all share the same subscriptions, playlists, and content).  

    Instant Gratification. We’ve been trending away from quality toward incredible convenience. Consumers want content NOW, so on-demand, streaming, and downloading are their convenient choice, even at the expense of quality. But this will be temporary. Improved bandwidth and compression are enabling better and faster delivery. As I mentioned before, for example, Netflix 1080p/5.1 is now a reality. This is just today—and there’s even more quality in the future of convenience.  

    Niche Marketing. It’s no longer a captive mass market.  It’s a lot of different markets. Narrowcasting, collectively, is bigger than broadcasting.  

    Community. Worldwide communication advances allow ideas to mingle across distances. Social networking brings people together and allows them to create or join communities. When these advances happen, they happen to many people simultaneously; so many people tend to see the next step forward at the same time. Through social media people find each other, and work with each other using file transfer and Skype. Unfortunately, one thing they can’t do is touch one another. Let’s face it, we can’t do everything in the bedroom or the garage. We need to make sure artists have a place to collaborate in—and that place is the recording studio.

    Digital Marketing. iTunes has turned dollars into dimes by selling singles instead of albums. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you only have one great song on your album, that’s the song you’re going to sell. The consumer will buy 10 songs from 10 different artists instead of 10 songs from one artist. GREAT! But if you have a whole album’s worth of wonderful songs, maybe you’ll sell the whole album. 


    Some essential things have not changed.

    Music or film—the song or the story—will never be the same as entries on Facebook or Twitter, because they are not created by the public. They depend on the artist. Content is king and never forget it. Because content is king in our world, our job is either to be an artist or to support the artist. There’s a lot to be done by media professionals.

    For the singer, songwriter, filmmaker, do what your heart tells you. You don’t need anyone’s permission. You can create and publish in one stroke. That’s a good thing.

    For the engineer, quality counts. We need to strive for the highest possible quality of creation—so that every bandwidth can be served. (Even though many people are listening on ear buds, others are listening in 7.1 home theatres.) The ability to stream high quality is only going to get better. Many people don’t even know what high quality is. They’ve never heard it. The reason that “good enough” is acceptable to the majority is that they’ve never heard what “great” sounds like. The perception of what the high-resolution surround sound experience offers is that it isn’t worth the expense or the inconvenience of making room for more loudspeakers. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. There will be a convergence of convenience and high resolution in the future, with more and more people able to access quality. 

    So the question becomes, how do we bring the “great” experience to the masses? Certainly not by catering to the low-end and outputting source material that caters to those low expectations. This is a Top-Down industry, not Bottom-Up!  We must continue creating high-quality content offered through high-quality delivery formats or everyone loses. This convenience trend has the potential to promote a downward spiral if we let it.  But we’re not going to let it, are we?


    For the past 12 years, at my company Mi Casa Multimedia, my partner Brant Biles and I have been making surround for DVD and Blu-ray. Mi Casa has been, in a way, a media-based business. We made contributions to those media, including 5.1 and 7.1 surround. Our work has included: restoration of audio for film, creating surround soundtracks where none existed, and recently the restoration of The Sound of Music in 7.1 surround for 20th Century Fox. We have many major credits, which we’re proud of.  Check out www.micasamm.com.

    We do complete audio post production from locked picture for all media—theatrical, DVD, Blu-ray, digital delivery and streaming. In a way, Mi Casa has become the place for indie filmmakers to come and get it all under one roof—at the highest quality. 

    As progress leaves the physical media behind, we too have had to adapt. Mi Casa creates content, including 3D audio for 3D video. More and more we create audio that can be delivered through any medium.   

    And I’ve moved into the pure content business, with my high-definition filmmaking. I’ve returned to my roots as filmmaker, and just completed my first film since Ciao ManhattanTall Ships: The Privateer Lynx. Needless to say, the sound for this film is pretty sophisticated for a documentary, because everything was done at Mi Casa. I’ve launched Safe Harbor Pictures, which is developing all kinds of family-friendly maritime-themed programming. Sailing ships were one of my boyhood passions.  


    Here’s the lesson I’ve learned from my own story—you know, the story about how a Moog Synthesizer changed my life. You need to look around at all the newest technology available to you and do something great with it! That’s what Mark Zuckerberg did when he created Facebook at the first moment in time that the technology enabled him to do so. That’s why Blockbuster gave way to Netflix, and Netflix has been smart enough to start figuring how to stream movies in high definition.     

    4G is replacing 3G and what that will make possible remains to be seen. I, for one, believe that surround audio will be everywhere—in homes, cars, and headphones. And what that means for music creation and production in the near future will be revolutionary.

    It’s not just going to be streaming audio, but streaming discrete and encoded surround audio. With spatialization programs like DTS Neural, Dolby, and Gen audio, surround on earphones will be a reality. Maybe it’s time to try surround music again. 

    Artists, do it for yourself. Create check-in points from your history, allow people to see your roots. Don't depend on the fat cats; they don't seem to get it.  Build your fan base.  Now you've got to get people to stick to you and slowly grow your key tribe.  It's not only music and tickets, but so much more. You're creating a club. Don’t worry so much about getting paid. Build a sticky platform and grow your tribe. 

    Even though they took most of the money, the record companies of old did something of value. The A&R guys were fans and mentors for the artists, the producers were collaborators, the engineers and high-priced studios ensured that the product was good for now and good for the ages. The promo guys cut through the noise and got your single on the radio. The execs wrote checks. Artists today could use more those kinds of collaborators. 

    Some of the record companies are succeeding—like the small company within a big company called Interscope. They understand the artist, the studio, narrowcasting, and social media.

    I want see more humanity back in the business. Not everyone in the world has an iPad—not everyone in the world has a computer. Music has changed the way we live our lives. It can’t just be about profit.  The good news is that the revolution has freed it from a purely profit-making business and has allowed the artist to say what he wants and make the music and film he wants.

    I think there is a trend beginning, of people getting out of their home studio micro environments and heading back into a more collaborative environment. After all, music is the tribal beat of our culture. There is no substitute for people playing together in the same space. It goes hand in hand with musicians realizing that they need good-sounding rooms. Everything can’t be done in a converted bedroom or closet, and who wants to work isolated and alone with no feedback? I think we will see recording co-op’s where individuals share good-sounding spaces.

    The entertainment business today is healthy. People are building studios and buying musical instruments. Bands are playing in clubs. People are selling their music and films online, and shooting viral videos on You Tube. People are spending half of their waking hours with media.

    Yes, we’re supposedly coming out of a deep recession. Unemployment is high and consumer spending is down.  People aren’t building home theatres like they did during the real estate boom. The highest-end equipment may be only for that small slice of upper crust that worries about the death tax. And electronics are increasingly being manufactured in China.  

    But everything good we have done and what we do going forward can still capture peoples’ imaginations. 3-D home theatres will happen, and it won’t be long before they are reasonably priced and out of the box. The kids who listen on ear buds today will have homes and families to entertain and educate tomorrow.  

    Keep working to perfect your craft. Keep supporting the artist.

    And  just remember that content is king. 

    Thank you.

Robert Margouleff’s AES Keynote Address was co-written and edited by Dan Kavanaugh. Photos by Mark Sandstorm of Storm Multimedia.

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