Already a musician upon entering college, Rob Hamilton knew he really wanted to understand sound. By adding study in cognitive science and stumbling into a hidden electronic music studio, he learned more deeply about what is central to sound and our perception of it. It took a career in technology, though, to launch him into the area where he could pull it all together and make it his own. Find out how interweaving interests and playing by your own rules often leads to the sweetest music.
Guest Rob Hamilton, Dartmouth ’96, was already a musician before entering college and knew he wanted to major in music. But he also wanted to go deeper, understanding how and why sound affects us as humans. So double-majored with cognitive science. He also found his way to the Bregman Electronic Music Studio—not widely known outside of the electronic music scene, but considered a powerhouse by students of the genre due to its development of the Synclavier the first commercially available portable digital synthesizer.
Even though Rob loved writing and playing electronic music it didn’t seem that there was much of a commercial future in that, so he turned to consulting and eventually leaped into the dot-com start-up world, where he was able to pick up coding by doing (despite being a bad computer science student in school). When the boom became a bust, he was actually happy to leave the corporate world and turned back to music.
He jumped into the world of academia to pursue electronic music but it wasn’t the easiest of roads. And in the middle, he got pulled back to the start-up world just as smart phones came on the market and the app scene was blowing up. Developing sound-based apps, he was tapping into the creativity of both his technical and musical sides, but the market-driven lifestyle just didn’t seem to fit.//In this episode, find out from Rob how interweaving interests and playing by your own rules often leads to the sweetest music…on ROADS TAKEN...with Leslie Jennings Rowley.
Bonus from Rob: "Also, thought it would be fun to mention, in the Magic Piano app by Smule, one thing I got to do as the Project Manager/Music Director was to sneak "Dear Old Dartmouth" into the app; you can still go download and play it."
About This Episode's Guest
Rob Hamilton is Associate Professor of Music and Media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), where he’s been since 2015, composing, performing, researching, and designing software for interactive soundscapes. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer-based Music Theory and Acoustics and an M.A. in Music, Science and Technology from Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) in the Department of Music, as well as a M.M. in Computer Music Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
Executive Producer/Host: Leslie Jennings Rowley
Music: Brian Burrows
Find more episodes at https://roadstakenshow.com
Email the show at RoadsTakenShow@gmail.com
Rob Hamilton: Nobody believes me, but it felt so weird for me. And it was just not, it wasn't me. So again, I had this situation where this is as good as it's going to get for me. It's a startup that has huge amounts of funding, millions and millions of users. Products are all well-received and they're all taking off. There's a role for me if I want it. And I just, I couldn't do it.
Leslie Jennings Rowley: Already a musician upon entering college, Rob Hamilton knew he really wanted to understand sound. By adding study in cognitive science and stumbling into a hidden electronic music studio, he learned more deeply about what is central to sound and our perception of it. It took a career in technology, though, to launch him into the area where he could pull it all together and make it his own. Find out how interweaving interests and playing by your own rules often leads to the sweetest music..on today's ROADS TAKEN with me, Leslie Jennings Rowley.
I'm here today with Rob Hamilton and we are going to talk about how we intersect with the things that feed our soul and feed all of our senses and how you put those together. So welcome, Rob.
RH: Thanks. It's great to be here.
LJR: So we start these the same way every time. And I ask the same two questions, which are: When we were in college, who were you? And when we were getting ready to leave, who did you think you would become?
RH: Great questions. In college I was a music and cognitive science, double major.
I spent a lot of time playing music in a band called Fat Dog Fred, which was the name of our band at the time, which was a lot of good fun playing guitars and singing. I did. Let's see, I was also a, I was a member of the squash team. I was a member of the PsiU fraternity. And I guess that defines me as a Dartmouth ’96.
LJR: Yeah. But when, so how did you find that combination? I know it was kind of an official combination, but how did you find that niche combination of cognitive science and music?
RH: I always wanted to be a music major. I always wanted to study music. I was a musician growing up. I played. Piano since the time I always three and classical piano up until college jazz saxophone know ensembles up through college. And I taught myself how to play guitar like everyone else in high school, and started writing songs. And this was my thing, and I loved it. In retrospect, for some strange reason, I went to Dartmouth. Of course I wanted to study music. I wanted to learn more about it. And music theory and music, you know, what is this thing?
We call music at the same time. I had this longstanding interest in technology, which in the mid nineties, right. Technology was this crazy horrible thing, right? It was no good in a sense that all of us can remember the computers we went to a Hanover with. But I grew up with early computer systems and always wanted to learn how to manipulate them and hack them.
And I wasn't a great. Computer science student at all. My worst grade in college was in computer science, which I tell all my students now, which is hilarious to them. I just didn't get it. What you were supposed to do with these words in these symbols and how they somehow magically became this thing that I don't know, played a game or made sound even. But what I did find a Dartmouth was the Bregman electro-acoustic labs, which many people don't know, but Dartmouth faculty in composition and electronic music were world renowned and have affirm place in history. John Appleton was the co-inventor of the Synclavier this massive computer-driven synthesizer system that, you know, we all could remember people like John Tesh playing and you know, Stevie Wonder would have been the kind of person who had one of these and they're fabulously expensive and incredibly powerful.
And they had one of these there. And, and I S I, I took some classes and started messing around with it, and my head just exploded. Right. This is not the, the little Macintosh computer making bleeps and bloops. This was this giant computer that you could make samples, record samples with and manipulate them in all these crazy ways.
And it was insanely fun. So I was hooked at that point and I wanted to make music. I also wanted to learn about why we listened to music and how we listen to music. And what does it mean for our brains to hear these things and understand patterns from them and feel emotion through this thing. That's just sound that isn't fundamentally, you know, a language, but is so similar in so many ways.
And so at Dartmouth you know, the studies in cognitive science had had begun at that point. You know, cognitive science was still a relatively new field, starting to understand how to make computer models of the brain and really kind of basic ways compared to what we can do now with machine learning and things.
But really, you know, Dartmouth was a great place for this. And so there was at the same time, you know, a burgeoning interest among faculty there in understanding music cognition, so how our brains worked. And so this idea of doing two majors rather than just one. And it really appealed to me. And so that's how I kind of got hooked up in that world.
And really it was fascinating.
And the Synclavier and all of that, that was just a stumble upon, oh my gosh. I'm in this place that wasn't actually what drew you to Dartmouth?
RH: Oh, not at all. I had no idea when I, when I applied to Dartmouth that they had anything like that, which in retrospect I probably should have. Right. You know?
LJR: Well, not really. Cause wasn't it like tucked behind Topliff?
RH: Yeah. It still is a little room, a little building in between the gymnasium and whatever in the Hop (LJR: New Hamp?) I don't even remember what the call, but really just incredible. And the faculty there. Other people, if anyone would remember a composer named Charles Dodge, who was actually a fantastic and incredibly important figure in electronic music and a composer named Larry Polanski, who many of us would have, if you ever took composition lessons or songwriting classes, Larry taught those and Larry's is just a fantastic musician and incredible person who I've had the fortune to run into over the years being my field now. So it's really fun for me.
LJR: That's great. That's great. Well, don't get too far ahead because we have a long way to go. So that leads me to, you have these two branches of the same tree, or at least the tree that you're tending of figuring out what music really is. How do I use this new tech and what are our brains doing with it yet? I'm not really good in computer science. So sticking with this different kinds of science. Where does that leave you at graduation? What are the options for someone with these interest skills and, you know, what's the next step?
RH: I remember having a discussion with my father at the time who was quite the pragmatist and me being less pragmatic. The idea being that cognitive science would give me skills that maybe would make me employable. Right, you know? Looking around nearing graduation, you know, the bulk of my friends. Joining investment banks and being doctors, or, you know, planning to go into medical school or law school. None of those things were appealing to me at all. None of them were interesting to me. I didn't really see a clear path forward in music, which is perhaps not surprising. Right. You know, music is this strange thing. You know, you can study it, you can learn all about it. And. You know, if you want to strike out and become a touring musician, well, you know, you probably shouldn't have gone to Dartmouth in the first place. Maybe, you know, you should have done something else going somewhere. But also for me, my interests in technology with music, if you remember the computers we had at that time, you couldn't just go home with you, your little Mac 5300 laptop with the track wheel on it. Yeah. And record music at home. Like all of us can now on whatever computer or phone or watch we're using. Right. It just wasn't possible at the time. So I kind of thought, well, maybe that's kind of it for now. You know, I can't, I don't have a Synclavier I don't have one of these fantastical setups like they would have there. I can't really do this kind of work anymore. So strangely enough, I did some job interviews. Do you know the, the companies that came through Dartmouth, there was actually a consulting firm called American Management Systems where the principal in this company? Well, he was a Dartmouth alum, very gung-ho Dartmouth guy, and he wanted to hire some good old Dartmouth boys. And. I guess that's what they thought I was. I interviewed, well, I think I had no idea what the consulting firm was. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing and they enthusiastically hired me to Fairfax, Virginia. I went and I put on a suit. I acted as the liaison between software engineers and clients. If any of you have seen the movie Office Space, there's the classic line in there where the person says, you know, what do you do here? Well, I, I take the documents from the engineers and I bring them to the, to the clients, or that maybe you felt like that you felt like they really did. You know, I worked in consulting for government and large financial corporations, managing procurement systems. I mean, I mean really sexy stuff.
LJR: Were you playing music at the time? Like your own?
RH: And what kept me sane during all of this was that I was living in, in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC. Washington is a fantastic city. Every I haven't anyone who knows that, of course with a great music history and yeah, so I started some bands and I would play band music, you know, after work and, you know, gigs and had a great time. I started writing a lot of music. And my poor band mates. I was a tyrant with them probably because that's what I really wanted to do. Right. Our bands weren't any good, but they were super fun and it did keep me kind of involved with music. And after a while, you know, I, I clearly realized that the consulting business wasn't for me.
And at that time I had friends at the company, the Motley Fool. And in the late nineties, they were this, this super hip, you know, post startup in old town, Alexandria, you know, Koosh balls in the office and video games and free coffee and all those things that seem, you know, so startup-y and great at the time. And so I said to myself, well, if there was ever a job like this that I want to do, this would be the place. So I went there and it was super fun. You know, he was all those things. It was the greatest group of people and young and energetic, and we played games and we drank coffee. And, you know, I learned how to write software, which was great. I had transitioned into this more of a technical role. And at that time in the learned on the job. So creatively, the technology for those kinds of jobs was really interesting to me until I learned how to do it.
LJR: So when you, when you were learning how to do it, and it was it, you didn't get it at school, it was like, I just don't get it. Now you get it, and yet, you're not into it.
RH: Well, I get it. And then I realize, okay, I got it. Now what?
RH: So thankfully around this time I, I had a band that was actually pretty good. Did some recording played a lot of shows, really fun. The kind of music I really enjoy kind of is hard rock, you know, loud screaming, almost metal kind of stuff. Really fun. But at the same time, probably not going to continue the, the stars aligned and made my decisions for me, late nineties, the ad market for internet based companies bottomed out and the Motley Fool was one of those companies who went from making, you know, pennies on an ad show to micro pennies on an ad click and their entire economy collapsed. So the company laid off 120 tech people. I think I made it through the first two rounds of layoffs then got laid off, went to the UK visited some family hung out, strangely got a call from the company. They hired me back after three months. Cause they hadn't needed people to run their servers. I came back, worked for another X number of months. And then they laid everybody off, down to a bare bones, I think eight employees at the time. So at that point I said, you know, this was great. I did it. I did the company that was as perfect for me as it could have been. And you know what, I'm glad it's over.
So at that time I was living in DC, just up the road from Washington in sunny, Baltimore is this fabulous music, conservatory, the Peabody Institute or Peabody Conservatory, depending on what, which kind of century you're in, is the oldest conservatory in the United States with a fascinating, you know, faculty Leon Fleischer was there for piano, you know, monster of American music, really kind of classical conservatory.
So for me, you know, loving music, I was like, well, this could be interesting. So they actually had a program in electronic music composition. And so at this point, I knew about all this stuff. My legacy from Dartmouth actually made me really interesting to the faculty there, because I had worked with these pioneers in the field and I had used these tools that people had, you know, only read about really like the Synclavier.
And at this point I could program like a beast. Right. And, you know, I, I had, I had chops, which I didn't as a student, I understood how to just take code and do something with it. Now we call that creative coding; in the nineties it was just doing weird stuff with computers that nobody understands. So I actually did a master's degree in music composition, what's called computer music. So, how do we use computers to make music, perform music, write music, analyze music, understand music? Sounds a lot like music and cognitive science and the kinds of, yeah. things that…so I did that. And so with that, I stepped away from or at least, oh, I thought I stepped away from kind of, you know, corporate Americas for almost good, you know.
LJR: Yeah. Okay. Well, you just gave me a tantalizing question or so I thought, so I know where you end up, which is actually, I'm looking at a studio full of some acoustic, but a lot of wires. So tell me: What happens? You get the masters.
RH: I go to the conservatory and I'm surrounded by musicians. Everybody, the halls are literally filled with music. Every student is the best person I've ever heard on an instrument. I instantly realized I'm no longer a pianist, a guitarist, a singer or a saxophone player, because I can't, I'm not anywhere in this league. And for the general public, I am; most people think, oh, well, you're really good. No, I'm not, not compared to these people.
So what I was was I was a composer and I was a composer with, in this kind of area where you write music where performers work with computers, maybe in real time, using programming languages that can take the audio signal that the instruments playing and manipulate it in real time, push it around to speakers around.
You do kind of use these really cool and novel things with sound that were possible when I was an undergraduate, but were definitely possible in 2002, 2003, 2004. So you know, I was a fish in water in a place like this. Like it was the best thing ever for me. And technology had gotten to the point where I could do all this stuff on a laptop in 2000, you know, we had the black Mac you know, OS10 had come out for it from Macintosh, which was this, you know, Linux-based operating system that meant I could get in there and manipulate it in really interesting ways.
And so I learned the specific programming languages and was just off and I was writing music and I was writing software, having a great time from there. You know, I learned about this academic world of music and technology, and I saw these paths forward and I learned about some places that I might want to go in the future.
I really wanted to go to this. PhD program at Stanford is center for computer research in music and acoustics or karma CCRMA. Karma, get it? I knew that was the place for me. And I applied and I got wait-listed and they didn't get in. And I said, oh crap. Hmm. Okay. So what I did was I enrolled in a program in France. I went to Paris for a year. And I worked in a music studio in Alphaville just south of Paris. And I studied electronic music in the studio of a composer named Iannis Xenakis, who's this incredibly famous Greek, French composer who built, again, one of these, you know, novel electronic systems. I studied with composers there. I did a course with students of Nadia Boulanger who's a famous pedagogue who trained composers for years. Passed away, of course, at this point. So I wrote a lot of music and I worked on electronics and I lived in Paris and drank wine and ate bread and cheese. It's great. Of course. And I reapplied to Stanford and I said, you know, I know this is totally going to work this year.
And I got wait-listed again. But what they said was, Hey, we have a master's program here. Do you want to come do that? I said, well, I already have a master's degree. This is strange. But it was different. It was a different degree. And this is really was the place. This is the premier program in the world for this kind of thing. And I said, you know, I can swing this. I can swing. It's just one year, you know, it was, I had money saved up. So I did it. So I moved out to California, sunny Palo Alto, and I, I did this intensive one-year master's degree and got my head blown off again by because these guys are, this was, this was it.
This was the, I mean, What I thought was blowing my head off before was just kind of that got you in the door. These, this was where the real work was done. The CCRMA lab at Stanford was where FM synthesis was created which is what powered, you know, all the synthesizers in the 1980s. At the time that was the second largest patent that Stanford had ever received.
And it was created by a composer named John Chowning who took that money and founded this lab. So this, this was the place. Had a blast wrote a lot of music wrote a lot of software and applied for the PhD program. And, you know, it would be, it would be nice to say that I just got in, but again, I get wait-listed. [LJR: NO!] It's incredibly a hard program to get into two students a year, fully funded my advisor at the time, who was the director said we really want you in the program.
We, I'm trying to get funding for a third candidate. And, you know, it comes down to the wire last week and he says, you know what, we don't have the funding. And I just said, oh man, I'm in trouble. And you know, I, I, part of this whole thread is I didn't. I applied to other programs and I didn't really get it into them because with a one-year program, I was really applying with all the same materials I had had when I entered; not much had changed at the beginning of the year. But they offered me a job. They offered me a position where I would stay around. I would run a concert series. I would maintain, you know, there some labs; I would do work. Essentially, what I learned later was this is the way they keep people around until they can figure out what to do.
So I spent a year working there. I did also did kind of web contracting on the side because I could, you know, it was way there to pay the bills. And, you know, the next year rolled around and I said, you know, damn it, I'm going to do this again. So I applied to Stanford again, and I applied to a whole bunch of other programs.
At this point, finally, I start getting into places. I'm like, you know, I had done enough work that, you know, in my, I guess my name had had gotten out there and I had known enough people at this point that I got some offers and, and I actually did get an offer to Stanford. And so I stayed there because great. [LJR: Oh good]
So, so yeah, that's the long tease on that. So, so in, in this is at this point I'm, I can't even remember how old I was at that point, but right. You know, I was no spring chicken and that was not a student coming out of college.
LJR: But neither were the other people that were in this program. I mean, they…
RH: Which is actually completely true. Yes. Actually, most of my classmates were pretty much my same age, so it was not as strange as I thought it was, but I, you know, I didn't know. So I was, I became a PhD candidate at Stanford in this lab, in the music department. So it's a PhD in music and I thought that was it. I thought, great. I'm going to do a PhD. I'm in going to be an academia. This will be really smooth, sailing it, be really straightforward. I understand it. Right. I'm going to, I'm going to write music and write software, I'm gonna write papers about it. And I'm gonna, you know, get a Tweed blazer with elbow patches andyou know, smoke a pipe, right?
For awhile that's what seemed like was happening. And so for until about 2000, actually, it wasn't that long, in retrospect, maybe about 2007, you know, it was about 2007. So I guess I started around, just maybe about half a year after I started the PhD, but my good friend and our new assistant professor in that program, the name is Ge Wang—He came from Princeton.
Ge had been messing around with mobile phones. And how do you make music on mobile phones? And we had a mobile phone orchestra. It was, it was fun. And we were using these Nokia N95 phones, which were pre-smart phones. Right? This was the year before the smartphone came out.
And we were writing bad software on these weird little Nokia phones. Cause Nokia just give us boxes of them. Cause it was Stanford. So we did this and it was hilarious. And then Apple came out with this thing called an iPhone, right? And it was this little amazing multitouch computer that you could do the, all this stuff on and it was fast and it could actually compute audio in real time.
Like the Synclavier used to, right. I mean, it's literally what we were talking about. This point on a phone and Ge, to his credit, understood that this was a real opportunity. And he and my colleague of mine and Jeff Smith, who was a serial entrepreneur in Silicon valley, but had he sold a company called Tumbleweed, I believe, which was a some internet security firm or something made lots of money and wanted to be a musician and a PhD candidate.
So he had, you know, enrolled in our program and then got bored and wanted to start a company. So Jeff and Ge decided to start a company on this new platform called mobile, you know, call the iPhone and making mobile music devices, whatever that meant at the time, software for these things. So you know, me being around all the time and working with, with on, on fun projects inevitably I got roped into this, you know, kind of in the pre venture stage, we were working out of the offices at Bessemer Ventures in, kind of a big VC firm, in Silicon valley, in Palo Alto.
And we just were hacking around on these things, trying to figure out what you would do. And we made a bunch of weird little apps. I mean, this is when the app store had, you know, a couple hundred apps in it, not a billion. We, we made the, the greatest lighter that was out there, supposedly the, you know, a lighter app, right.
That you would hold up your phone, but you could blow it out. I had it called Sonic Lighter. You know, we will, we won an award for being the best lighter we beat Zippo. I remember that that was an amazing feature, but this was, this was actually kind of a subversive plot. It was if this application was super cool, because when you lit it, you could see everyone else in the world who was lighting their phone at the same time, on a global map.
And it used sound to let you light someone else's phone with yours was like a modem it's called the Sonic modem. And this was actually just kind of a Trojan horse in a sense, this app for what came a few apps later, which was an app called Ocharina, which was this instrument you blew into your phone and played it like an ocharina.
And that took off like gangbusters. It became the number one app in the store, you know, millions and millions. This is when we still sold apps for a dollar. And it you know, it entered Apple's hall of fame apps, you know, best apps and. That was actually what the company was founded to, you know, not these kinds of funny little apps or did first, it was, that was it. And my role there was, you know, like any startup, just you do everything, you know, whether it's software design or marketing or filming videos or making demos. But actually what I did was I started writing these software systems that let the users make music and let them write music and share it. I wrote a score format. So you could write ocharina scores and share the online and that blew up. And so it started bringing people into the site and more people, you know, they'd take Lady Gaga songs and put them on the website. And since the users did it, the company wasn't like, right?
LJR: This is like the Napster age, right?
RH: Yeah, it was, it was definitely related to that idea. You know, things took off that company got big, is big. I stayed there for about five years, all the while I was still a PhD candidate. Stanford's very lax about these things. As you can imagine apps like I am T-Pain where you would sing using tune like T-Pain. And we did that with T-Pain and his crew. That was super fun. App called magic piano, a Glee karaoke app. We used to work with Fox every week and get new stems from the from the TV show and put them in real funds and all along my role became, I wrote all of them, use it for these. And so for the piano app, if you played that in the first eight years, I wrote all the music for it, so all the scores of it, I did transcriptions. Eventually I became, you know, a manager hiring people. And so I then became kind of mid-level management in this startup and, lo and behold, I was pretty much back where I had been. Right. I was back in this kind of corporate game, you know, having lunches with, with strange VC dudes and you know, not wearing ties cause it's Silicon Valley, but wearing hoodies and jeans and flip-flops, which was the suit and tie of Silicon Valley.
And, you know, nobody believes me, but it, it felt so weird for me. And it was just not, it wasn't me. It wasn't. So again, I had this situation where this is as good as it's going to get for me. It's a startup that has huge amounts of funding, millions in funding, millions of users. You know, the products are all well received and are all taking off. There's a role for me, if I want it, I would be comfortable in a place like Palo Alto, which is frightfully expensive. And I just couldn't, I couldn't do it. So I, I do what any good artist would do and I quit and I finished my PhD and then, you know, turned my back, knock on wood, turned my back on non-academic pursuits forever. We'll see.
LJR: Yeah. Yeah, because you have found yourself. That is a crazy road for, for so many reasons, because there's the tenacity issue. Like I'm going to do this. I'm not exactly even sure why I need to do this, but I need to do it. And I'm going to keep knocking on the door and get in the back door and stay with the door open and get to it.
And then there's: Okay. Now that I'm here, I have this breathing room to be able to try out these really cool things, but then to have the self knowledge that this looks like success from every other angle. And why doesn't it feel like that? That's a true testament to you know who you are when you can do that.
RH: That's a really interesting point. And it's kind of something I talked to students about these days in that it’s really important to know what you don't like. Right. You know, we all know that kind of truism, but for me, I'm super stubborn. Right. You know, it's just part of who I am and I want to experience the thing and grow to hate it, to know that I'll hate it, even though I might hate it, then I'm going to hate it.But yeah. You know, there's something about it. So let's go, let's go and see. But for me, sometimes I do that for years. And I don't know if it may not, it may not work for everybody, but then when I'm done with it, I know I'm done with it. Like I knew what I knew I was done with that.
LJR: But there were, I mean, it's not just finding something I know I'm going to hate later, later, it's like, there are elements of it that did feed your soul and were really interesting to figure out because no one's ever done this. And not only is it really using that technical skill that you developed, the musical skill that you already had, but this idea that you started with, which is what is music and what is it about music that does so many other things from the emotion to the sharing, the cultural thing of it?
Like there were elements of it that really spoke to who you were, but it's, it's finding that moment—You are the one that said it first not me that, ever the artists to say I'm done with this, you know, often. We think of these artists like shooting themselves in the foot because it's not true to my art. Well, that's not what it is, because you had these moments of the art the whole time, but there was something that didn't feel true once you've done it. And I think that's, that's pretty remarkable.
RH: That's a nice way to put it. The, for me, I think about there are these restrictions and for art has always in art and music, you know, as my art has always been this thing that is, is sacred to me. And I grew up on these stories of artists who lost control of their music. Right. And you know, people like John Foggerty from Creedence Clearwater Revival who famously lost control of his catalog. And he just never played these songs again. And now for anyone who writes music, these songs are your children, right?
This is, this is really important stuff that always stuck with me from a young age. You know, if I ever did something, I always wanted to be able…it was mine. You know, I didn't want someone else to be able to do something with it that I couldn't. And it's not that anything I was doing was going to make money. It was, it's not about someone else, you know, getting all the money from my music. It's just fundamentally, I don't want to restriction. That's important. And with the, you know, the working for a company that has to make money, you can be creative and Smule was this great, you know, experience in creating things and seeing what happens when millions of people use the thing you do. That's priceless. You can't buy that. But there's a cost to that, which is the next thing has to now reach 2 million people. And if there's this other thing that you really want to do, if some people determined that that won't make as much money, you're not going to be allowed to do it. And that's the thing that fundamentally, I just looked at it and I say, I know this is really, this might be a terrible decision, but I can't, I can't do that. I want to do this stupid, weird thing. I don't want anyone to tell me I can't. So that's kind of what led me out of that area.
LJR: And led you to academic freedom, where you have, you know, at some level you get to call a lot of your own shots and the things that you create are yours.
RH: That it's exactly right. So then I did what every good newly minted PhD does is: I applied for about 400 jobs and luckily Rensselaer Polytech in Troy, New York was hiring for an avant garde music technologist who also specializes in gaming. Because a lot of my research had to do with game engines. And how do we make sound and control sound in virtual spaces, whether it's VR or kind of in a regular video games.
And I'm a long time gamer as well. This is a world that had become part of my technology repertoire. So hacking old video games and using the control, you know, Modern technology, music, technology systems, driving lots of speakers with Quake2. You know, these things like that. And it turned out that I had made a place for myself in academia doing that as kind of the guy who does that stuff. Hilariously the job posting for RPI was essentially, they took my bio and wrote a job position. And I mean, that's what it seemed like. Right. You know, I got calls from all around the world from people saying, from people who, you know, ran programs in universities I've respected my whole career, and said, Hey, have you heard of this job? You should apply. So it almost was kind of a fait accompli that I would get this job and I went and interviewed for it. It was great. It's a program run by kind of, you know, bizarre techno hippies that who make insane art and music and social commentary and all within, you know, an engineering school. So, you know, in some ways it’s perfect.
LJR: Yeah, I mean so much more perfect than Koosh balls and free coffee, right? That really speaks to your soul. Of who you are and who you've become, I would say.
RH: It's been great. So I've been here for six years now. I just got tenure. So I, now I'm now an associate professor of music and media [LJR: Yay!] But it's exactly what you said. I have almost complete freedom over what I do. I'm supposed to research. I'm supposed to write music. I'm supposed to travel the world and have performances I'm supposed to record. I'm simple. I, the classes I teach are all things that I choose. I teach classes in music and technology. I teach classes in music and games.
I have an ensemble of electronic musicians who writes and plays music in VR. Using Raspberry Pi micro microcomputers and lots of speakers. And we just have a blast. My job is to do all these things and then think about them and write about them and, you know, writing journals and written books and, and, and give talks about them. So it's all the things that you said.
LJR: Right. And so when we were, when you were talking about that PhD right program and how people were your age, and that was surprising to you, we hadn't talked about that. I, I just assumed because it sounded like you would, it would take so long to amass, the knowledge that you would need and the different skill set that you would need to even start that pursuit. But now that I'm thinking, have you seen a shift though? Because the kids that are growing up now did not grow up with those clunky Macs with the little handle at the back. And you know, they, they grew up after I phones. So, so what are, what's the skill level that you're seeing coming in, or even not just skill level, but kind of approach to life that's different from ours?
RH: It's so different. I mean, you know, the, the age of my students now, my undergraduates right. 18-year-olds is, you know, w we're at that, that perfect age, right? They, there are many of us who have children at that age or approaching that age. They have grown up immersed in technology. That's a good thing and a bad thing. You know, the way they approach information in what you learn and what you just look up is really different than what we had to. So the things that you know, versus the things that you can Google, right? The one thing that I found fascinating is not all kids are good programmers. I just assumed they were. I showed up at an engineering school and I beat the hell out of my kids with programming assignments for the first year, until I realized not all of them were coder. I just assumed, right, you know? And part of that is generational in that, you know, I assumed they had this great understanding of computers. Well, they're all great users of tech, right? Definitely. They know how to open a browser and find something, you know, they're not like, you know, our parents' generation who literally can't type on the keyboard maybe, but they don't necessarily have a deep understanding of these issues yet.
It's not at all the world. We came from, you know, our generation crossed over the digital divide. We came from analog and have, you know, now found ourselves in digital and we're, we're pretty well situated on that, that split. So about half of our lives has been digital and about half of it was analog. And for this generation, that's purely digital. It's really different.
LJR: So going back to the other 18-year-old, the you 18-year-old. You knew you were already a musician. You knew you thought tech was cool, but we didn't really know what tech meant. If you could go back to him with kind of a word from the future, what would you say and what would his response be?
RH: If I thought that where I ended up is where he should end up, I definitely would tell him that he could shave a decade off of that search if you just went and actually, you know, learned how to compile code in the C++ class at Dartmouth instead of just, you know, failing miserably. I've always enjoyed taking my time to learn things. And sometimes that has worked and sometimes that stretches things, right? And it took me a really long time to gain some of the skills that, in retrospect, I probably could have gained much more quickly. And then I think I would tell that kid to kind of open his eyes a little bit more, think about what you want to do and think about how you could take this thing that you know, that you know you love music. I've always known I love music. And there had to be something there had to be a way forward and spend more time actively thinking about it rather than just kind of passively or wondering what could you maybe do with this? Maybe that's what I would tell him.
LJR: Yeah, but I think you even said you like to take time learning those things and what might have you lost if you didn't take the time and some of those byways where you had to just. Okay. Now's the time I'm going to learn this. Maybe that was the right time to learn it. I was just thrilled that you shared that story with us and it seems like exactly where you're supposed to be.
RH: Hopefully we'll see. We'll see what the next 10 years, right?
LJR: That's right. That's right. Well, thanks so much, Rob, for being with us.
RH: Thank you. This was great.
LJR: That was Rob Hamilton, Associate Professor of Music and Media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he's been since 2015, composing, performing, researching, and designing software for interactive soundscapes. We are so pleased he joined us to kick off this second year of the podcast. If you haven't already, please follow us at RoadsTakenShow.com or wherever you get your podcasts so you can access our episode catalog and can join me, Leslie Jennings Rowley, for upcoming episodes of ROADS TAKEN.