Careers: Interviews
Internationally-Renowned Authority in Digital Audio, Music, Sound and Sound Design

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Gary Bourgeois, an internationally-renowned authority in digital audio, music, sound and sound design for the film industry. Gary is also an accomplished guitar player and musician for Mind Gallery. He has served in the role as Director of Multimedia at the famous Vancouver Film School (VFS) and is the Head Instructor for Sound Design.

Discussion:

Q: With your busy schedule, it’s a rare pleasure and honour to have you come in and share your valuable insights with the audience. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

A: My pleasure Stephen and thanks for the opportunity to share some of my views.

Q: You have a long career in computing going back to the 70s’—can you detail the many paths that you have taken, and lessons you have learned along the way? What 10 tips can you provide to others that helped you in your path to success? What would you do different looking back in hindsight?

A: I’ve always tried to balance my interest in computing with my passion for music. I was fortunate to get into the computing field at about the same time that micro processors started to revolutionize the industry. Because I didn’t have a formal education in computer science I was pretty lucky to land a job at an accounting firm as a data entry clerk, especially considering that I had just gotten off of a tour with the Payola’s and had green hair. About two weeks after I started, the position of computer operator became vacant and I rose to the occasion. A few months after that, we had gotten a TRS-80, which I really delved into, and began developing a lot of dBase2 software. I spent a lot of my free time getting into assembly coding on the 6502 and Z80 platforms. One of my favourite projects was trying to write optimized versions of Conway’s Life for both platforms.

My next career move was a position in tech support and training with Computerland. One thing I really liked about that job was educating people who were new to computers as well as getting to keep on top of the latest developments in the micro computer world.

During the time that I was gainfully employed working in the computer field; I was actively pursuing my music career on the side. After about five years, I finally decided to try to find work which would combine both of my major interests, so I applied for a sales position at Annex Pro because they were looking for someone with a background in computing and music. This was around the same time that MIDI and the first generation of digital synthesizers like the DX7 were starting to take off. One of things I really gravitated toward was the early development of digital audio recording systems, like digidesign’s Sound Tools, which later became the Pro Tools virtual studio system. By the time that I had left Annex, I had become the resident digidesign product specialist and spent most of my time designing and consulting on Pro Tools systems.

My latest work with the Vancouver Film School began when they hired me to design and implement the digital audio portion of their New Media campus, which launched in 1995. My most recent position with VFS has involved the launch of a new one year program designed to train students for the audio post production and gaming industries.

To answer your question about 10 tips that I could provide, I’m not sure that I can come up with that many. In order of importance I would say that the number one tip I could give would be to pursue something that you really love doing but try and maintain a balance between paying the rent and pursuing your goal. I have seen a lot of burnout in the music industry of people who lost that perspective. On the computer side, I really had a problem dealing with people who chose that career path because they focused on the money. I remember dealing with some folks who had no real interest or passion for computers, but thought that it was the right field to get into because they could get a job.

My second piece of advice is not to be afraid of change. Anyone interested in either music or computers has to be able to adapt quickly to an industry that changes overnight. Sometimes you find out that everything you know is wrong and you have to start from square one. Instead of being overwhelmed, try to look at the challenge as a whole new opportunity for growth.

One final trick that works for me is to always be looking for new horizons. I think one of my best qualities is a strong sense of curiosity. For example, when I started to develop a major interest in the field Artificial Life, I also became really interested in learning about lichens. Since lichens are one of the most primitive life forms, there seemed to be a natural relationship between “real” life and A-life.

In regards to what I would have done differently, the only thing that comes to mind would have been to be enough of a visionary to see that I could have taken CPM, tweaked it a little and renamed it MS-DOS and licensed it to IBM. As they say, the rest is history!

Q: Gary, you have spoken at international conferences such the talk you gave on “Delivering Audio on the Internet” as Program Director for New Media at the Vancouver Film School (VFS). Can you provide an update where this is today and where it will be in two years and five years?

A: I don’t think a lot has changed since I gave that talk, other than the larger market penetration of broadband into the home. The future of audio delivery is probably the convergence of higher bandwidth and better compression. One thing I think is pretty interesting is a component of MPEG-4 called SAOL (Structured Audio Orchestra Language), which is somewhat like Csound embedded into the MPEG standard. Rather than actually streaming audio data, SAOL allows you to specify the synthesis engine, which runs on the client machine, while providing the ability to play that instrument from the server side. If you understand how MIDI works, SAOL is kind of an extension of that concept. Currently, QuickTime 6 doesn’t implement this extension, so I’m hoping to see something in a future release.

Q: Can you give your views on MPx; where it is now and where is it going?

A: I’m not sure if we will see any ground breaking new developments in MPEG technology. As I mentioned above, the SAOL extension is the one I think is most interesting. There doesn’t seem to be as much of need to develop further compression ratios, since most of the content is now being delivered over cable and ADSL.

Q: Tell us more about your new Sound Design Campus at the Vancouver Film School (VFS).

A: We launched the program just over a year ago. The development of a Sound Design program for VFS was a natural complement to our other programs which focus on visual media. Our curriculum was designed from the ground up to address the needs of the audio post industry, including surround mixing for theatre. Currently VFS is the only authorized digidesign training center in Canada, which allows us to integrate their curriculum directly into ours.

Our approach to designing the program was to focus on the Pro Tools environment. Since digidesign pretty much dominates the entire audio recording industry, it made sense for us to train our students on the gear that they would be using when they graduate. Another interesting facet of the Sound Design program is convergence with our other campuses. For example, our Sound Design students are doing all of the audio post for work for our 3D and 2D animation students.

Q: What more can you tell us about Mind Gallery? It took a while for you to adjust to the constant use of odd time signatures ;-) ?

A: I joined Mind Gallery in 1990 after taking a few years off from live performance. We have already released 3 CDs and are currently in the middle of the 4th one. I think we would have given up years ago if it wasn’t for the Internet, since we are a small independent label with a mainly international market. The genre we work in, instrumental progressive rock, is definitely not on the ‘radar’ in terms of the music industry. Our influences include bands like Yes, King Crimson and early Genesis, which is where the odd time signatures come in. Steve Howe, the guitarist from Yes, was a huge influence when I started playing guitar in the early 70’s, so it wasn’t that difficult adapting to the musical approach Mind Gallery was pursuing. We have found that live performance isn’t really a major goal for us in the Vancouver area, because there isn’t a significant market for us locally. One thing we would like to pursue in the future is a European tour because we definitely sell more CD’s in that part of the world. Considering that most of our promotion has been via our website and newsgroups, I think we have done fairly well. At least we have been able to cover our costs, and build a pretty decent home studio as well.

Q: Can you share stories from your time with The Payolas, “e,” Generators, …?

A: Being in the Payolas was pretty interesting. After we had signed to A&M Records, we did a small tour of eastern Canada. I quickly discovered that being a “rock star” wasn’t quite as glamorous as I had been led to believe. Living out of the back of truck and eating in McDonald’s every day got pretty monotonous fairly quickly. I resigned from the band after we got back and was lucky enough to get a real job as a data entry clerk, as I mentioned above. I also discovered that I was more interested in pursuing a music career on my own terms, which is when I started Vancouver’s first synth pop band, [e?]. I remember rehearsing in a West End apartment with everyone in the band wearing headphones tied into a 24 track mixer. Because everyone was playing synths, including our drummer, Tom Hadju (of tomandandy fame), we were able to get away with practicing without disturbing the neighbours too much. Not an easy task for the average rock band!

Q: Your list of accomplishments is impressive indeed! Which ones standout foremost in your mind and what lessons can you share with our audience? What are your top tips for those newly entering the IT profession?

A: One thing I should mention is that I have been asked a few times about my major accomplishments in the post industry. There happens to be another Gary Bourgeois, who has some major credits in the film industry as an audio post specialist. For the record, he’s the guy whose name comes up in the credits for movies like Charlie’s Angels. In fact, he has close to 150 credits listed on the Internet Movie Database (http://us.imdb.com/).

In regards to my own accomplishments, I’m definitely not at his level in the fame department. Most of the work that I’ve done has been for independent artists like Canadian video pioneer, Paul Wong.

One of the more interesting things that I’ve worked on was the software design for conceptual artist Rodney Graham. One of the projects I worked on was “Parsifal”, an installation for computer and 14 speakers. Rodney’s idea was to take a section of Wagner’s opera and loop the individual orchestral instruments at different rates based upon the series of prime numbers. The software, which I wrote in cycling74’s MAX environment, calculates the number of seconds which have elapsed since the opera’s premier in the late 1800’s and determines where the musician would be in the score today. Rodney’s piece will last for something like 30 billion years before all of the loops are in sync again. The installation is still running on a Mac IIci running two digidesign SampleCell cards hooked up to seven amplifiers and 14 speakers. Each instrument is wired to its own speaker in the gallery space. Another piece I designed for Rodney, called the “School of Velocity”, is based upon one of Czerny’s piano exercises. The main concept in the piece, which lasts for 24 hours, is that the tempo is continuously slowing down by the square of the distance between each notes rhythmic value. The actual implementation consists of a Mac Classic running a Yamaha Diskclavier MIDI grand piano.

Q: What do you see on the horizon that digital audio professionals “must” be aware of to be competitive?

A: There is still a lot of argument in the industry around whether host based systems or proprietary DSP hardware are the way to go. Personally, I think we are still a few years away from having host based systems that can directly compete against a hardware solution like Pro Tools, especially if you are looking at doing large multi-track projects like sound design for film. The whole trend toward a complete ‘virtual’ studio is still going very strong and the ability of digital systems to algorithmically model older analog equipment is progressing very rapidly. I often get into arguments with ‘old school’ engineers, who feel that there are some aspects of analog that cannot be modeled, to which I strongly disagree. I think it’s merely a matter of throwing enough processing power with the right software at the problem. So much of the current hardware we already use is capable of exceeding the ability of human beings to discern the differences between analog and digital methods that I think we have almost captured a true sense of virtual reality when it comes to audio. I’m definitely firmly in the digital camp when it comes to that issue!

In the realm of synthesis, the current hot technology is physical modeling. In some ways, PM is the holy grail of sound synthesis because you are actually running real time models of ‘real’ instruments, which respond in a very organic fashion, just like the real thing. One of the reasons that I think SAOL is cool is because there are PM opcodes, probably inherited from Csound, built into the language.

Q: Your work is well known as the creative genius behind the cellMachine project. Describe your work in this area? How has your initial work expanded outside of music and where do you see it evolving in two years and five years?

A: I believe the cellMachine project is still a fairly well kept secret ;-) as I haven’t done too much in terms of promotion yet. Essentially the cellMachine is a specific application of some software technology I have been developing since 1998. The cellMachine itself is designed to be a real time generative music system, which relies on some primitive a-Life techniques. One of the offshoots of the project has been a generic tool-kit I’ve been working on that can apply these processes to a wider variety of simulation scenarios, like modeling traffic flow or high level of control of CG characters. Our company, Condition30, is actively pursuing a number of potential applications for the technology, and I believe that we will be doing some major growth over the next two years. We think that the technology provides some very strong advantages in terms of memory constraints and CPU load.

Q: From a context of past, present and future, what drives you to do what you do?

A: In the past I was mainly motivated by the whole rock stardom myth until I actually experienced the reality of that world for most ‘working’ musicians, as opposed to the mega-stars. I think my current viewpoint is a much more balanced view, which has allowed me to develop in areas that I’m interested in and still be able to make a living doing what I like. One of the things I really like about my VFS position is being able to teach the next generation of audio professionals and share my enthusiasm for synthesis and sound design. I also really enjoy playing music in a context which very different than the mainstream. One passion I have been pursuing for a number of years is flamenco guitar. After spending all day using extreme high tech toys, it’s great to be able to sit down with a piece of wood and strings and no need for electricity. I hope I can continue to have this attitude in the future, because I’ve been very fortunate so far.

Q: What do you feel are top hot topics of interest to both businesses and IT professionals today?

A: I’ll have to pick just one topic, which does have the potential to completely change everything we know right now. The technology I’m referring to is direct neural interfacing--the basic concept behind the Matrix. I’ve always said I’ll be the second guy to try it out ;-) There is a lot of controversy around the possibility, but we’re starting to see some of the underlying research become more mature and eventually we may have the ability to do this. I wouldn’t invest in a good audio system if this comes to pass; you won’t need speakers anymore, or film, TV and virtually every other entertainment media currently being used.

Q: Who/what do you think are the winners and losers in IT in next five years? [This could be companies, technologies, and so on.]

A: I’m obviously hoping that Condition30 is a winner, I’m sure my partners would also agree. Rather than addressing the wider range of the IT industry, I think my focus on audio production would be more relevant. In our industry, I think digidesign will continue to be the most widely used platform in all aspects of audio production. There are some newer systems that are quite interesting, but the market share digidesign already has, will be difficult to challenge without some very compelling reason to switch platforms. The already established Pro Tools DSP developers, like Waves, will continue to incrementally improve their products. I also think that Apple’s purchase of Emagic was pretty significant in that the message I got was that Apple takes the audio production market seriously. I’m looking forward to migrating to OSX in the near future, because I feel that Apple has addressed the major issues involving the integration of audio and MIDI functionality directly into the OS. I suspect the next year will see a lot of refinement in this area as companies work out the bugs and develop more stable applications. Another interesting acquisition was Sony’s purchase of Sonic Foundry, the guys that make “Acid”, for 18 million US. Since Acid is really a content production tool, as opposed to a content ‘playback’ tool, I guess that Sony thinks this will be a developing market in the future.

Q: What are your current vision, mission and roles, strategies and values and how will they evolve over the next ten years?

A: My current vision is to continue to develop our software technology and explore new ways of applying what we learn. Our ultimate mission is to make simulation environments more realistic and immersive. I’m also looking forward to using our technology in the content creation arena. Of course there are some potential issues with copyright due to the nature of the process involved in creating music, for example. The thing I’m really anticipating is the impact we could have on current production practices.

Q: Where is the industry heading in the short, medium and long-term?

A: One thing I’m very interested in Stephen Wolfram’s new book, “A New Kind of Science”. I was very inspired by the work he did in the mid 80’s with cellular automata and complexity. I really think he is onto something in the sense of a whole new way of looking at how the universe actually works. One of his main conclusions in his new work is that a number of aspects of physics can be explained by simple computer programs, like CA, being able to model the large scale behaviours of various real world phenomenon like turbulence. He has extended his basic model to cover a wide range of different domains, from quantum physics to biological systems. As to the impact his work will have on the industry, it remains to be seen how much of his approach can be developed into real world products that perform useful functions. Since his underlying model is based upon computation, his work could have a significant impact on computing in the next few years. Another person working in a similar vein is Edward Fredkin, who has developed a whole new field called “digital physics.”

Another interesting development in the industry is the increasing sophistication of the titles being developed in the video game market. As game consoles get more powerful, a lot of the production techniques used in film and TV are directly applicable to developing richer, more immersive experiences for the player.

In terms of the music industry in particular, I would like to see a major overhaul of the entire system, starting with the complete re-evaluation of the current state of the industry. The issue of DRM is especially problematic in the music industry, as we have all seen over the last few years with the rise of Napster, broadband and MP3. I personally don’t believe there is such a thing as an ‘uncrackable’ DRM scheme, so I think the industry has to radically alter their future direction. This entire issue is actually less likely to impact small independent labels such as mind Gallery’s because we specifically cater to a niche market, which does tend to value the artist’s contribution. We actually encourage people to copy our stuff and share it with friends in the hope that we may develop a wider audience by doing so. One of the things I’ve been thinking about developing is a virtual label, where the bands on the label don’t actually exist in the traditional sense. Some of the players would be human, while others may be computer based. Each band would create a handful of songs, which would then be marketed purely in the virtual sense, in that you won’t find CD’s for sale at your local record store. All of the material would be delivered via the Internet. Based upon the success of any one band, we would develop new material in response to the demand. The hard part of this equation would be the music videos! I’m not sure if CG generated characters are convincing enough at this point to fool anyone into thinking that they were real people.

One final thought on the future of the industry relates to the increasing sophistication of the end user. In this case I’m specifically referring to the idea that the end user becomes an active participant in the content development, rather than being a passive audience member. For example, one potential market for my cellMachine system would be musically ‘na├»ve’ users, who could use the system to create meaningful musical experiences in which they are taking the active role in determining the outcome of a particular “piece” of music. The nature of the system is such that a composer develops a ‘process’ rather than a set piece, in the traditional sense of music. When the end user starts the cellMachine, they have control of various parameters which will determine how the music will change over time. This is also one of the aspects of the technology which we think has some applications in the gaming market. Instead of hearing repetitive ‘loops’, (which most games use), our system will provide a different experience every time.

Q: Considering recent news events, the state of global affairs, and our current economic situation, if you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

A: I tend to be an optimist when it comes to the state of things today. I think the other option is just too depressing. I think we can count on a pretty amazing next ten years if the current technology trends continue. I’m a big fan of Raymond Kurzweil’s work, “The Age of Spiritual Machines”, where he outlines the next 100 years of computing technology. If his predictions are correct, we will see silicon based AI surpass human intelligence, in which case it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens next. I hope these AI entities are benevolent; otherwise we have some major worries ahead. Perhaps they’ll decide to turn the planet into a giant airless desert, which might make things a little difficult for us carbon based life forms.

Q: Thank you for taking time out of your demanding schedule to spend time with us sharing your valuable insights.

A: Thanks for the chance to rant, Stephen. I hope I’ve been able to share some useful knowledge with your audience.


Copyright Network Professional Association® 1994-2017. All Rights Reserved.
NPA Privacy Statement