|Birth name||Thomas Morgan Robertson|
|Born||14 October 1958|
Thomas Morgan Robertson (born 14 October 1958), known by the stage name Thomas Dolby, is an English musician, producer, composer, entrepreneur and teacher.
In the 1990s, Dolby founded Beatnik, a Silicon Valley software company whose technology was used to play internet audio and later ringtones, including the Nokia tune. He was also the music director for TED Conferences. On the faculty at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University since 2014, Dolby leads Peabody's Music for New Media program, which enrolled its first students in the fall of 2018.
Dolby was born Thomas Morgan Robertson in London, England, to (Theodosia) Cecil, née Spring Rice (1921–1984) and Martin Robertson (1911–2004), an internationally distinguished professor of classical Greek art and archaeology at the University of London, Oxford University, and Trinity College, Cambridge. In at least one interview in the 1980s, Dolby claimed, "I was born in Cairo, because my father is an archaeologist" — many subsequent articles have republished or reprinted this spurious claim.
Dolby attended Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, England, from 1975 to 1976, where he completed his A Levels. One of his first jobs was a part-time position at a fruit and vegetable shop. In his youth, Dolby lived or worked in France, Italy, and Greece.
Dolby spoke of his early musical experiences in a 2012 interview:
I sang in a choir when I was 10 or 11, and learned to sightread single lines, but other than that I don't have a formal education. I picked up the guitar initially, playing folk tunes—Dylan—then I graduated to piano when I got interested in jazz, listening to people like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and so on. The first electronic instruments started to become accessible in the mid-70s, and I got my hands on a kit built synthesizer and never looked back.
The stage name Thomas Dolby originated from a nickname "Dolby" that he picked up in the early 1970s, when he was "always messing around with keyboards and tapes". The name derives from the name of the audio noise-reduction process of Dolby Laboratories used for audio recording and playback. He adopted the stage name "Thomas Dolby" to avoid confusion with British singer Tom Robinson, who was popular when he began his career. Early publicity implied that "Dolby" was a middle name, and that Dolby's full name was Thomas Morgan Dolby Robertson; this is legally incorrect, but he does sometimes informally go by the initials TMDR.
After Dolby released "She Blinded Me with Science" in 1982, Dolby Laboratories expressed concern regarding the stage name. Dolby's record label refused to make him change his name, and Dolby Labs did not raise the issue again until later. After a lengthy legal battle, the court decided that Dolby Labs had no right to restrict the musician from using the name. It was agreed that he would not release any electronic equipment using the name. Dolby is unrelated to Thomas "Tom" Dolby, the son of the Dolby Laboratories founder Ray Dolby, and who is a novelist and filmmaker.
Solo music career
Dolby is associated with the new wave movement of the early 1980s, a form of pop music incorporating electronic instruments, but Dolby's work covers a wide range of musical styles and moods distinct from the high-energy pop sound of his few, better-known commercial successes.
The Golden Age of Wireless
Originally released in the UK and US including the songs "Europa and the Pirate Twins," "Airwaves," and "Radio Silence," the first releases of Dolby's first solo album, The Golden Age of Wireless (Harvest, 1982) did not include the signature hit, "She Blinded Me with Science." After the five-song EP Blinded by Science introduced the catchy single, The Golden Age of Wireless was re-released with the single that, combined with its accompanying video, became Dolby's most commercially successful single, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album was released a total of five times, each with changes in song order and included songs, or even including a different version of "Radio Silence" or extended remix of "She Blinded Me with Science."
The Golden Age of Wireless reached No. 13 on the Billboard album chart. It juxtaposed themes of radio technology, aircraft, and naval submarines with those of relationships and nostalgia. While much of the album's instrumentation is synthesisers and samplers, the album credits a long list of guest musicians as well, with instruments ranging from harmonica and violin to guitar and percussion.
Beginning in 1983, Dolby collaborated with a number of artists in an occasional studio-bound project called Dolby's Cube. The project had no set line-up, and was essentially a forum for Dolby to release material that was more dance-oriented. Dolby's Cube released a single in 1983 ("Get Out of My Mix"), another in 1985 ("May the Cube Be with You"), and performed soundtrack work for the film Howard the Duck in 1986. Collaborators in Dolby's Cube at various junctures included Lene Lovich, George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic, Francois Kevorkian, and Lea Thompson.
The Flat Earth
In 1984, Dolby released his second LP, The Flat Earth (Capitol), which peaked at No. 14 on the UK Albums Chart and at No. 35 on the Billboard album chart in the US. Using a wide range of influences ranging from nostalgic jazz, funk-tinged Motown R&B, and world music along with a strong electronic element and featuring a slew of guest musicians, including longtime Dolby collaborator Matthew Seligman on bass, Kevin Armstrong on guitar, and Clif Brigden on percussion, and guest vocals from Robyn Hitchcock, Bruce Woolley and others, The Flat Earth further established Dolby's wide range of talents as musician, songwriter, and producer. The album included a cover of the Dan Hicks song "I Scare Myself."
Aliens Ate My Buick
In contrast to the overall introverted nature of The Flat Earth, Dolby described his next release, Aliens Ate My Buick (1988):
I think it's very bold. Some people who've known my stuff from the beginning find it a bit hard to stomach. They think it's a bit brash. It's certainly unsubtle in a lot of ways. It goes for the jugular. There was always a side to the stuff that I did that was very extroverted and wacky. The flip side of the coin was the more atmospheric, moody stuff. There was always room for both of them. But this album, with the exception of maybe one song ["Budapest by Blimp"], is all on the extrovert side.
Aliens Ate My Buick was strongly funk and dance influenced. The first single was "Airhead", a satirical song about a stereotypical young-and-rich Californian woman, which peaked at No. 53. The second single, "Hot Sauce", a George Clinton song, peaked at No. 80. Another single, "My Brain Is Like A Sieve," peaked at No. 89 on the UK Singles Chart. The album was co-produced by Bill Bottrell, and featured Terry Jackson on bass guitar.
Astronauts and Heretics
For Astronauts & Heretics (Virgin UK), Dolby expanded even further stylistically, starting the songwriting process at the piano, then again collaborating with a variety of guest musicians. Both Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia played guitar on "The Beauty of a Dream". Eddie Van Halen plays on "Eastern Bloc" and "Close but No Cigar." Other collaborators included Jimmy Z on sax, Budgie on drums and Leland Sklar on bass guitar. Terry Jackson also contributed bass guitar on four songs before his 1991 death in a plane accident with seven other members of Reba McEntire's support band for her "For My Broken Heart" tour.
The highest-charting song off this album was "Close but No Cigar," which reached No. 22 on the UK charts. Two other songs on the album, "I Love You Goodbye," and "Silk Pyjamas" employed Zydeco influences, courtesy of Crowley, Louisiana and guest musicians Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil on violin, Wayne Toups on accordion, and Al Tharp on banjo. Even though some recording for the album was done in remote locations, the bulk of Astronauts & Heretics was recorded at NRG Recording Studios with input from trusted Dolby co-producer Bill Bottrell, and mixed down at Smoke Tree Studios in Chatsworth, California.
The Sole Inhabitant
Following his involvement in Beatnik, Dolby returned to his musical career in 2006. He performed his first solo public show in 15 years at the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco, California, on 21 January 2006, surprising the crowd who were there to see local band Notorious. He then launched an American tour, the Sole Inhabitant Tour, on 12 April, comprising a string of small dates in California, a science education benefit in Boulder, Colorado, and gigs across America before receptive crowds.
The United States leg of the "Sole Inhabitant Tour 2006" was captured on a "live" CD and DVD. The CD represents a recording of two gigs played by Dolby at Martyrs in Chicago, while the DVD was filmed at the Berklee Performance Center at Berklee College of Music. The DVD also includes a 30-minute interview and a lecture by Dolby at the college. Both the CD and DVD were released in November 2006. Dolby autographed and numbered the first 1,000 copies of the CD and DVD.
A show at the 800 capacity Scala club in London was booked for 3 July 2006 as a warm-up for Dolby's Hyde Park set opening for Depeche Mode. The show sold out in a matter of days and prompted Dolby to reprioritise the UK, resulting in him moving with his family from California back to England, and a nine-date Sole Inhabitant tour of the UK in October 2007, coinciding with the release of a lavish box set of the Sole Inhabitant CD and DVD by UK independent label Invisible Hands Music.
Thomas toured throughout the months of November and December 2006 with electronic musician BT. This tour included a version of "Airwaves" that BT added his own technique to, which was the opening song on the UK leg of the Sole Inhabitant tour (sans BT).
Thomas Dolby's performance of 15 March 2007 at the SxSW festival was released as the live EP Thomas Dolby & The Jazz Mafia Horns, Live at SxSW (with musicians from San Francisco's Jazz Mafia collective).
The 2007 UK Sole Inhabitant tour included three new songs previously played on the US tour, one called "Your Karma Hit My Dogma" another called "Jealous Thing" and a cover version of the Special AKA's "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend." "Your Karma Hit My Dogma" was inspired by Kevin Federline's unauthorised use of a sample from Mobb Deep's "Got It Twisted," which in turn had used an authorised sample of "She Blinded Me with Science." The tag line from that story became the title of the song. The wording was lifted by Thomas from a bumper sticker on a car that he saw whilst living in the San Francisco Bay area. In a move close to performance art, Dolby tried to post a 'cease and desist' legal letter on Kevin Federline's MySpace page when other attempts to contact him proved fruitless. The song is on the Live at SxSW EP.
The second new song, "Jealous Thing" was performed at least at The Graduate in Cambridge and London's Islington Academy on the UK tour in Summer 2007 and features a Bossa-Nova type rhythm.
A CD + DVD set entitled The Singular Thomas Dolby was released by EMI on 18 May 2009. As the name suggests it is a digitally remastered compilation of previously released singles. The DVD contains all the video singles which were available on the original VHS/BETA/LASERDISC release of The Golden Age of Video, as well as the videos for the songs "Silk Pyjamas", "I Love You Goodbye", and "Close but No Cigar". These three missing videos are for the singles taken from the 1992 album Astronauts & Heretics, which received critical acclaim but garnered unimpressive sales.
The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth were reissued and remastered later that year with numerous previously unreleased bonus tracks. The former was a two disc set including a DVD of the complete "Live Wireless" video.
A Map of the Floating City
In 2010 Dolby began work on a new studio album entitled A Map of the Floating City. The album is divided into three parts, with the first two parts initially made available to members of The Flat Earth Community Forum, Dolby's online community. Each of the three digital EPs takes its name from one of the three sections of the full-length album that later followed. The first EP, Amerikana, was released digitally on 16 June 2010. The second EP is entitled Oceanea, and was released on 29 November 2010. Due to favourable reviews and radio airplay, Oceanea was released commercially on 28 March 2011. The third section of the album, entitled Urbanoia, was not released as a download or physical CD, but the songs were premiered online as part of the Floating City game (see below).
Contributors to the album include Kevin Armstrong, Matthew Seligman (both had played together with him on The Flat Earth and as part of David Bowie's Live Aid appearance), Bruce Woolley, drummer Liam Genockey, guitarist Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Regina Spektor, Natalie MacMaster, Eddi Reader and Imogen Heap.
In a 2010 press release he was quoted as saying:
I marvel at the new landscape of the music business – distribution via the Internet and recording technologies I barely dreamed of when I started out," he continues. "But this album does not sound electronic at all. I have zero desire to add to the myriad of machine-based, synth-driven grooves out there. The Net has made a music career approachable for thousands of bands – but I hear too few single-minded voices among them. What I do best is write songs, tell stories." "The new songs are organic and very personal. This album is a travelogue across three imaginary continents. In Amerikana I'm reflecting with affection on the years I spent living in the USA, and my fascination with its roots music. Urbanoia is a dark place, a little unsettling ... I'm not a city person. And in Oceanea I return to my natural home on the windswept coastline.
A Map of the Floating City was recorded in the "Nutmeg of Consolation", Dolby's recording studio built within a 1930s lifeboat and powered entirely by renewable energy, which is located in the garden of Dolby's beach house on England's North Sea coast.
A Map of the Floating City game
In June 2011 Dolby announced the game A Map of the Floating City, a multiplayer online game that shares a title with the full-length album release planned to follow after the game's conclusion. In Dolby's own words, "The Floating City is set against a dystopian vision of the 1940s that might have existed had WWII turned out a lot differently." Survivors explore a fictional Google map, forming tribes and trading relics amidst a bizarre sea-going barter society. As they struggle to unravel the enigma that is The Floating City, players can haggle over merchandise and music downloads, including brand new songs from A Map of the Floating City, Dolby's first album in 20 years, scheduled to be released following the climax of the game. The game was played from June through August 2011, and included elements of trading, mystery, competition, and co-operation. Players earned free song downloads, and the winning team or "tribe" was awarded a private performance from Dolby.
Session and production work
Early in his career, Dolby played keyboards with Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club and is credited on their debut album. The instrumental track "WW9" in the album English Garden is the first recorded example of Thomas' writing. He also wrote Lene Lovich's hit single "New Toy" and played keyboard as part of the backing band for her tour. Dolby played some synthesizer parts on the Thompson Twins album Set and co-wrote "Magic's Wand" with Whodini, and played keyboards on one track ("Love") on Robyn Hitchcock's first solo album, 1981's Black Snake Diamond Role. Dolby played synthesizer on two tracks on the album Pleasure by the band Girls at Our Best! Around this time, he also formed a short-lived band called the Fallout Club.
By far the most significant session relationship for Thomas in the early days was when he contributed the signature synthesizer sound on the track "Urgent" on Foreigner's 1981 album 4. On the same album he played the atmospheric synthesizer intro to the mega-hit "Waiting for a Girl Like You." The fees from this work, including tour dates, bankrolled the studio time for the recording of the 1980s benchmark album The Golden Age of Wireless from which his solo career began.
In October 1981 Dolby made an appearance in the video for the Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin British number one cover of "It's My Party," playing the part of Johnny in the "Judy and Johnny just walked through the door" section of the song. The video made its first Top of the Pops appearance on 29 October 1981.
Dolby also worked as session keyboard player on Def Leppard's 1983 Pyromania album. Dolby appeared on Pyromania using the alias Booker T. Boffin, as his affiliation with another record label restricted the use of his real name.
In 1985, Dolby was a member of David Bowie's band for his performance at Live Aid. He also provided production on Joni Mitchell's album Dog Eat Dog. He had previously covered the Mitchell song "The Jungle Line" in 1981 after being inspired by her 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. He and Mitchell clashed in the studio, with Dolby's precise working methods proving incompatible with Mitchell's more freeform approach. Dolby wrote in his memoir that he was "probably too much of a brat, with my own blinkered way of working".
Dolby produced two albums for the English sophisti-pop band Prefab Sprout: 1985's Steve McQueen and 1990's Jordan: The Comeback. He also produced four tracks from 1988's From Langley Park to Memphis, including the hit single "The King of Rock 'n' Roll".
Film and video games
Dolby has composed for a handful of films and video games. He also played the role of Stanley in the 1990 film Rockula.
Scores for film and video games
|1986||Howard the Duck||songs|
|1990||Rockula||"Stanley's Death Park" and "Budapest by Blimp"|
|1992||FernGully: The Last Rainforest||three songs|
|Toys||vocals ("The Mirror Song"; with Robin Williams and Joan Cusack)|
|1993||We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story||"Roll Back The Rock" (with James Horner)|
|1994||The Gate to the Mind's Eye|
|Wolpodzilla||with Peter Horn and Tobias Neumann|
|1994||Cyberia||with Mike Kapitan|
|1995||The Dark Eye||with Chuck Mitchell and Blake Leyh|
|1997||Obsidian||with Blake Leyh, Kim Cascone, and Paul Sebastien|
The Invisible Lighthouse
In 2012, Dolby learned of the decommissioning of the Orfordness Lighthouse near his Suffolk home, and proceeded to film a documentary, The Invisible Lighthouse, to chronicle the shutdown of the lighthouse as well as his childhood growing up in the area. Dolby took this film on the road through the US and UK in the Autumn of 2013, accompanying the film with live music, narration, and sound effects by Blake Leyh. The film won the DIY Film Festival award for Best Picture.
Headspace and Beatnik
In 1993, Dolby established the Headspace company. This was intended to provide tools for interactive audio, as at the time Dolby was frustrated about the lack of interactive audio tools. During this period, Dolby worked on a number of video game soundtracks through his company. The company was later approached to create MIDI-based music for WebTV, leading to Dolby composing several key music tracks that were bundled with the devices.
Following the acquisition of the company Igor's Software Laboratories in 1996, which was also involved with creating audio for WebTV, Headspace developed a new downloadable file format designed specifically for Internet usage called Rich Music Format with the RMF file extension. It had the advantage of small file size like MIDI but allowed recorded sampled sounds to be included at a higher bitrate for better overall reproduction. RMF music files could be played in a browser using the free Beatnik Player plug-in, and were also encrypted to prevent unauthorised duplication, while info such as the composer and copyright information could also be embedded within the files. In 1999, Headspace, Inc. was renamed Beatnik, Inc., and later shifted its focus towards software synthesizers for mobile phones, which it licensed to mobile phone manufacturers including Nokia. As truetone ringtones eventually overtook polyphonic ringtones in popularity, Beatnik went defunct in 2011.
Dolby stepped down from his position as CEO in 2002, feeling that the business was no longer interesting to him, although he remained on the board. This subsequently led to him founding Retro Ringtones LLC, which produced the RetroFolio ringtone asset management software suite for companies involved in the mobile phone ringtone business, as well as offering ringtones that could be purchased by businesses. These ringtones largely consisted of sound clips such as animal sounds, celebrity quotes and sci-fi sound effects, as well as polyphonic covers of popular theme songs. At the second annual Mobile Music Awards, Miami, Florida, in 2004 RetroFolio won "Best of Show" and "Best New Technology" awards. The company ended business in 2005 and has since been suspended by Secretary of State of California.
1985 Grammy Awards
In 1985, Dolby appeared at the Grammy Awards, which were televised, along with Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Howard Jones. All four musicians were successful in the mid-1980s music scene, and they were also all keyboard and synthesizer experts.
Dolby's first experiment with virtual reality took place in the fall of 1992, when he was invited by the Guggenheim Museum, New York to design and install a sonic VR experience. This led to The Virtual String Quartet programmed by Eric Gullichsen, and sponsored by Intel Corp. The experience ran on an IBM 386 processor with a Convolvatron 4-channel audio card. Users wore a head-mounted display and found themselves in the midst of a computer-generated string quartet playing Mozart. The sound was fully spatialized as the user moved around the physical space. Tickling a player with the joystick resulted in that musician switching to improvisation in a 'hot jazz' or Appalachian bluegrass style.
In the Fall of 2018, Dolby created a New Media workshop at The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University with VR equipment donated by HTC Vive. Students in his course are learning to compose music for VR and AR.
On 4 October 2018 Dolby performed a live score for the High Fidelity VR event 'Escape from Zombie Island.' He appeared 'in-world' as his own avatar, where he triggered and played real-time horror film music. He also performed his first ever full VR concert at the Futvrelands Festival on 17 November 2018, in front of over 250 other avatars.
From 2001 to 2012, Dolby was musical director of the TED Conference, an annual event held, first, in Monterey, California, and subsequently in Long Beach, California. He provided live musical introductions to sessions, sometimes with a TED house band, and helped secure guest musicians and entertainers. Onstage, he played with singers and performers such as Eddi Reader, Natalie MacMaster, Rachelle Garniez and David Byrne, and premiered his own song "Love Is a Loaded Pistol" onstage at TEDGlobal 2010. He stood down from the position in September 2012 to pursue music.
In March 2012, Dolby spoke at the DESIGN West conference in San Jose, California at the McEnery Convention Center, produced by UBM Electronics.
In March 2014, Dolby was named Homewood Professor of the Arts at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. In March 2017, the Peabody Institute announced that Dolby would lead a new four-year undergraduate degree program, Music for New Media, and the first cohort would commence in the fall of 2018.
Dolby said he became interested in electronic music because "I'm not a very proficient keyboard player, so the computer became my musical instrument ... None of the equipment is essential, though. In a way, I was happier when I just had one monophonic synthesizer and a two-track tape deck". His first instrument, found in EMS's garbage dumpster at 277 Putney Bridge Road, was the Powertran Transcendent 2000 synthesiser
The following is a list of notable instruments and the electronic equipment that Dolby has used on his recordings:
- PPG 360–380 Wave Computer & Sequencer
- PPG Wave 2.2 synthesizer
- Fairlight CMI Series III sampler
- Moog Micromoog synthesizer
- Roland D-50 synthesizer
- Roland MKS-20 digital piano rack
- Roland MKS-70 Super JX rackmount synthesizer
- Opcode Studio Vision sequencing software
- Apple Macintosh Quadra 840AV computer
- Roland Jupiter-4
- Roland Jupiter-8
- Korg M1 rackmount synthesizer
- E-MU SP-12 sampling drum sequencer
- Linn 9000 sampling drum sequencer
- Simmons electronic drums
- Yamaha DX7
- Yamaha REV-1 digital reverb processor
Awards and nominations
In July 1998, Dolby received a "Lifetime Achievement in Internet Music" award from Yahoo! Internet Life. In 2012 he performed at Moogfest and was the recipient of The Moog Innovation Award, which celebrates "pioneering artists whose genre-defying work exemplifies the bold, innovative spirit of Bob Moog". In February 2018, Dolby was awarded the Roland Lifetime Achievement Award. Dolby has received four Grammy nominations, two each in 1984 and 1988.
- The Golden Age of Wireless (1982)
- The Flat Earth (1984)
- Aliens Ate My Buick (1988)
- Astronauts & Heretics (1992)
- A Map of the Floating City (2011)
The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology (2016)
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On the way home I took a shortcut along the river and swung by the back of the EMS shop. There was a garbage dumpster outside in the street. No one was around, so I heaved myself up and had a gander inside. A bunch of flattened cardboard boxes, an old fridge, and ... hold on: a black metal box with lots of knobs. The guts were hanging out of it, but I could see the words TRANSCENDENT 2000 printed on the front.
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