Interview: Paul Sebastien (2021-10-18) by fusoxide

From Legacy Portable Computing Wiki

An interview with Beatnik composer Paul Sebastien by researcher fusoxide, posted on October 18, 2021 on the Ringtone Bangers Twitter account.

Source: [1]

I have just interviewed composer @paulsebastien, who worked at Beatnik during the 90s (the company behind WebTV's music and the audio engine Nokia used, founded by Thomas Dolby), and was also the frontman of 90s techno group Psykosonik. Enjoy. 

Q: How was each track composed?
A: It was a process whereby I wrote the core tracks using a MIDI sequencer connected directly to the Beatnik sound engine on my Mac (for all of the parts), much like one would use a software synthesizer or sampler these days to trigger the various samples. So pretty straightforward as far as creation, and then once the tracks were created, I converted the tracks to digital audio versions as well so that there were both RMF versions that could play directly on an RMF-supported mobile phone as well as a digital audio version for other mediums…

Q: How did you feel about writing music under the limits of sound banks and file sizes? 
A: This was one of the key constraints that forced both sonic production creativity as well as technical creativity, as we had to find all kinds of hacks to make the music tracks sound impressive under such small bank and file size constraints. 

I recall some of the techniques that I came up with which really served as game changers there, including using MIDI-based dynamic panning (via programming MIDI parameters in the sequencer) in the stereo field to create the kinds of spatial field and overall sonic qualities people are used to in pop music, and using fake digital delay techniques on parts by also programming repeating patterns with descending volume and changes in panning all via MIDI. 

The combination of such techniques really set some of the tracks apart from what most others were doing, and that was pretty satisfying. Many of those tracks actually sound quite close to proper studio songs -- yet the file sizes were microscopic.

Q: How was each collection produced?
A: The tracks I wrote were literally just me trying to create a variety of pieces of music that people might want to use for websites, cell phones, etc....many of them rather close to the Psykosonik genre of course, but it was really just me trying to crank out music as fast as I could to create a library ;)

Q: It must be funny for you to see a sudden surge of interest in this stuff. How do you feel about it?
A: It sure is! I find that fascinating...as of course I had my music career as the singer/songwriter/producer of Psykosonik and Basic Pleasure Model, but my work with Thomas at Headspace was a very special time in my life…

Q: Have you ever heard your Beatnik work (music, soundbanks or otherwise) out in the wild? If so, how did it feel?
A: Yes many times, but in my case, given my music career as Psykosonik previously, I was fortunate to have two Top 10 singles and won a Platinum Record Award for music on the Mortal Kombat movie soundtrack so those achieved much higher reach. But even today, I still have people reach out to me about not only Psykosonik (and my later band Basic Pleasure Model, and my solo work as well) but also the Beatnik work, and as that whole time period in the mid to late 90's was so formative and magical for me, it takes me right back to literally the day when I created those pieces. It feels like yesterday, and I remember everything, which is quite surreal. :)

Q: Where did the sounds from the Beatnik sound banks come from?
A: The synths weren’t hardware - the sounds were all in the software sound bank and I believe the actual source samples came from a mix of hardware synths...likely too many to count and many mixed together. Likely a mix of mid-to-late 80’s and early 90’s synths and samplers from Roland, Yamaha but not just stock sounds...there were some original creations/patches and combinations, all designed to adhere to the General MIDI spec.

Q: Did you work on any mobile sound banks?
A: I sure did - I was involved with making and optimizing all of those banks; the smaller banks were incredibly hard to do because we had to downsample and further shorten the various already small, lo-fi samples to try to fit into the memory space...yet still sound “not horrible”! 

Q: What was it like to work under Thomas Dolby’s leadership?
A: Working with and under Thomas was nothing less than a dream, on several levels, as I was both a longtime rabid fan of his music since my teenage years and we shared so many of the same interests -- both work and personal, including windsurfing, the ocean in general, tennis, and taking interactive media to the next level. He was a friend, mentor and boss, and I was honored to serve as his "right hand man" in the founding and creating of what became Beatnik. 

It all started with some interactive multimedia and web demos that he and I created together, after our first project as Headspace with Paul Allen's think tank Interval Research ended, and one of the key web-based demos that I authored enabled us to attract venture investment and start to hire more people -- ultimately resulting in a small team that became Beatnik Inc. once we acquired Steve Hales' company and shifted to adapting Steve's audio engine as the Beatnik Audio Engine. Before that, it was literally just me, Thomas, and his business manager Mary (after the Interval project ended) and it was an incredibly creative time period, and a bit scary in that we were trying to raise funding so we could turn the demos into reality. 

Brian Salter, a brilliant composer and all-around wonderful human, joined us shortly after the funding to help us build out a world class music library, so the majority of the library was created by the combination of myself, Brian, Thomas and a couple others on the team who created Beatnik tracks. I can’t emphasize enough what a profoundly exciting, wild-eyed creative Renaissance of a time period this was for me...and for all of us. I found myself one day sitting in meetings with Marc Andreessen and Jim Clarke (then Netscape co-founders), then working late into the night learning how to code interactive audio functionality into websites while also composing the Beatnik-based interactive music components for them, doing 3D graphics for the visuals, wearing a ton of hats. Then another day, meeting with Jerry Yang of Yahoo or other early Web visionary people, after which Thomas and I would indulge in going windsurfing on the San Francisco Bay. It was a time during which the future seemed truly limitless, there was a strong feeling of possibility in the air, and all without the taint of today’s tech bro and well-trodden VC tropes. It was all about pure creativity, innovation and possibility.