By Jonathan Rowden
Ben Adams is an immersive sound engineer and creative mastermind based in Los Angeles, which has quickly emerged as the national hub for the merger of XR and Music industries. His career is exciting and expansive, with a history that includes serving roles at major festival such as Stageoach, Rolling Loud, SXSW, Lollapalooza, ACL and Coachella. His current work is mainly in 360 VR with some of his first major projects being with U2, Coldplay Live, Major Lazer and Chainsmokers to name a few. He has also been actively involved in projects for Oculus Venues, the world’s leading platform for live streaming music concerts in VR.
J: Ben! It’s so great to finally connect after chatting for quite a while. First off, we are in a crazy time post-pandemic and Im curious how/if this has affected your work. What is it like generally to be a music engineer during the great plague of our time?
B: So good to finally connect. It has been quite the rollercoaster since mid March. I had 2 weeks of work booked at SXSW go away overnight, and the rest of my schedule quickly became open. Luckily a project that I was on set for in early March went into post production and gave me something to do and some income for a couple weeks. After that I linked up with a family friend who has been trying to coordinate time to record his audiobook, and we both had nothing but time now to make it happen. A couple other clients had me consult on building remote packages that could be sent to talent at their homes, and by mid June things were starting to pick up again. We are still not even close to the level of production before Covid, but its encouraging.
J: So, The Audio Prophet is a series in which we talk about the future of music. I’ve named a few things above that you’ve been involved in, and you’re obviously an engineering rockstar in this emerging realm. When did you first learn about the power of spatial audio/immersive tech and what spurred you towards wanting to pursue this field as a career?
B: My first experience with spatial audio was by total dumb luck. Someone I went to Citrus Recording with recommended me for a job and I don’t even remember if he said it was VR or not. At that time I had no idea what VR was or spatial audio was. Turns out it’s a shoot with music artist Bjork and music video director Chris Cunningham, so I realized the creative stakes were pretty high. I recorded mono and stereo sources, as well as impulse responses to measure the room. I knew how to record but no idea what was done with my recordings, so I had to ask dumb questions and scour the internet to learn. For me it was a crash course into the medium and sparked my interest in spatial audio to advance my career in audio.
J: What was it like working with U2 and Coldplay in VR? (Feel free to tell any story that might be relevant). Were they receptive? Skeptical? What was the feeling in the air and tell us a little about the production process (we’ll elaborate in our in-person interview later)
B: Working with major music artists is always a blast but at the same times the stakes are super high. I didn’t have any direct contact with the band and worked mostly with the bands tech crews. Coldplay and U2 are big enough bands that they are always looking to expand how they interact with their fans and VR is a great tool for this.
Coldplay was a live broadcast from Soldier Field in Chicago in 2017. Im not 100 percent sure but I think this was the first big livestream concert or event in VR. We brought in Music Mix Mobile to handle the mixing, and Flightline Films was the 4k broadcast truck on site. Both trucks were parked under the stadium, and outside the trucks a massive server farm was built to handle the immense networking. There were 18 360 cameras, 3 ST450 ambisonic mics, and countless mono and stereo mics. My role was VR Audio Supervisor, so I was managing the setup, signal flow, and encoding while M3 did the mix. Our delivery platform was Samsung VR (RIP) and we ended up making a 5.1 mix and dropping the C and LFE to fit into distribution pipeline which was 4ch quad.
U2 had already created a VR music video so going into that project in 2018 I knew we would have the bands blessing to do whatever was needed to create a great experience. This project was in Newark,NJ and was recorded instead of streamed which makes things a lot easier. I still needed to set up ambisonics, stereo and mono microphones through out to capture the space and audience response. This was my first project using the Hear360 quad binaural mic, and first time using the Core Sound Octomic which is an 8 channel second order microphone. This show ended up being particularly fun because I set up all my mics and runs to my recording station which was under the stage extension( there was a main stage, runway, which led to a small circular stage at the end) so I was able to watch the show from the best seat in the house while working. Similarly in 2019 I went to Madrid with the band Muse and improved upon the U2 show by adding a Hear360 mic at most of the camera positions, more mono mics, and added a Schoeps 3D array in the sweet spot of the arena.
J: What do you think are some of the most exciting trends we are seeing in adoption of immersive tech? How about in spatial audio? What excites you about these?
B: need to research this more.
J: I strongly believe that we create the future through dialogue and practice. In your personal world, what developments in spatial audio, 360 VR and live music would you LIKE to see the most in 2021? Also, what do you THINK is going to happen?
B: I would love to see more livestreaming concerts with spatial audio. You would think that without being able to attend live events that VR would boom, but I haven’t seen that yet. I miss live music so much that at home I run Spotify through my DAW and spatialize the music, add some PA distortion, ambisonic reverb, and even some crowd walla to replicate the feeling. I even sit in a chair with a SubPac to feel the bass. Unfortunately I don’t think major tours or festivals will happen in 2021, so I’m hoping something new and suprising happens to create immersive music experiences. Companies like Fortnite and WaveXR are creating virtual concerts and get lots of views and its very promising. But to me, there is nothing like going to a live show, and what I try to do in my work is replicate the auditory scene with some sonic enhancements for a natural experience by the viewer. Outside of music I have recently worked on livestreaming sports, notably with the NBA in the bubble restart in Orlando. Sports can happen without a live crowd and televised worldwide, while live music doesn’t really exist without people. It always comes down to money. So I see live broadcasts for sports in VR taking off in 2021, and hopefully we can get into music studios, artists homes or unique locations to make some VR music content. Seems like this is happening all the time with traditional media, but since VR is more technically difficult its harder to pull off and will probably not have the same reach.
J: Finally, I’d love if you shared some links that we can use to get people to your content. List as many as you’d like below.
I don’t have a website and most of my work is livestreamed so doesn’t live anywhere. Obviously I should promote myself more, but the best promotion I do is good work with a good personality. On Oculus you can check out Slo Mo Guys VR, which I did production and post production audio, and you can also tune in to shows on Oculus Venues to see some of my work.
Thanks again for this quick interview and I’m looking forward to talking soon!