Massive Attack's New App Generates Unique Remixes Based on Your Environment
Robert Del Naja, aka 3D. Image: Massive Attack

Massive Attack's New App Generates Unique Remixes Based on Your Environment

Robert Del Naja, aka 3D, tells us about the band's new app 'Fantom'.
January 21, 2016, 10:30am

Bristolian music pioneers Massive Attack were formed at the dawn of the digital age. With six years of relative silence since their last release, they're unveiling new material today, via an app called "Fantom."

The app, described as a "sensory music player," provides us with four new Massive Attack tracks. Each is a totally unique remix for every user, created by an algorithm in the app that collates data from sensors in your phone to create one-off remixes you can then record and share.

I catch-up with Robert Del Naja (aka Massive Attack's 3D) over the phone from Dublin the day after the group kick off their European tour, and he explains with great enthusiasm where the idea for the app came from. "I'd been looking back at some files the [British producer] Mad Professor had remixed but had never been released, and was thinking about what we should do with them and I thought, 'Why would we put a premixed album out when there's algorithms that'll mix this for you?'" he says. "It was around that time that a mutual friend introduced me to Rob Thomas."

An example clip from the Fantom app, recorded by Robert Del Naja

Rob Thomas, an adaptive audio composer, developed the app in conjunction with Del Naja. Thomas has been working for over a decade in programming software that will intelligently drive soundtracks in relation to the user, be that for art installations, videogames, or apps like Fantom. "I think of it as quantum composing," he explains from his studio in Hackney. "You're thinking about all of these different universes the music could exist in and have to design for every eventuality."

Much of Del Naja's work outside of Massive Attack has been on soundtracks, which seems apt: Fantom effectively creates a personal soundtrack for the user. But despite the parallels, he sees a key distinction. "Working on soundtracks, you start out as a willing slave to the director's vision, but soon more people get involved and it becomes—dare I say it—a total clusterfuck of ideas," he says. "In this case, we might be making the music available, but people are composing their own score. No one is telling anyone what to do."

"Why would we put a premixed album out when there's algorithms that'll mix this for you?"

The limitless potential of a project like this seems to fuel Del Naja's creativity. "I keep thinking about what we could do next; for example, if you aggregated the personal data of everyone at a concert who had the app then you might be able to remix the music we're playing in real-time," he imagines. "So you could create a sort of group sensory experience. It changes the way you think about performance, because while one might see apps like this as an escapist experience, it might be more pervasive. I think there's potential for it to affect the way we go out and how we share music with the people around us."

An example clip from the Fantom app, recorded by Robert Del Naja

To create the experience, Thomas and Del Naja used studio masters of the new Massive Attack tracks and broke them down into minimalist fragments. In the app, these tracks evolve in accordance with personal and environmental factors picked up from the user's movement, camera images, times of day and location—as well as biometric signals such as your heartbeat—in the iPhone and Apple Watch. "I think people understand now that devices can use a lot of our personal data for useless stuff like targeted advertising," says Thomas. "But what we're producing is almost the complete opposite of that. It takes your data and creates a really great experience for you, without storing it or trying to sell you something. It's creation in the moment and a logical avenue for artists to explore."

What's most interesting is how Thomas and Del Naja maintain any kind of structural integrity to the sound; none of the remixes I created while using the app sounded anything less than brooding and brilliant (if I do say so myself).

According to Thomas, it's all about striking a balance between "nonlinear" composition and the formality of conventional music. "I think the mistake that people make when they think about this kind of work is that it's all randomly thrown together, but the way to make this stuff well is to build rules into the system," he says. "We have to make sure it makes sense melodically: so a piece from the chorus will never appear alongside a verse, which means the behavior of the system can change, but it will always change in a musical way."

"We have to make sure it's rewarding for the user and interesting artistically, never working against the musical intentions of the material."

Thomas is cautious about how the musical interaction with the user happens. "It's very curatorial" he tells me. "We have to make sure it's rewarding for the user and interesting artistically, never working against the musical intentions of the material. But in the future we're looking towards AI taking over some aspects of that curation, so it would be possible for a meta-reworking, where multiple remixes are possible."

Obviously Fantom and the the technology behind it has certain constraints, but Del Naja is philosophical about the restrictions of this current tech. "You encounter some limits at the front end, when you imagine where you could go next with software like this, so while it's good to have your eyes on the horizon, you've got to remember to keep looking down at your feet," he says.

At times, it feels like there is a separation between art and technology, as though the pair coexist in an uneasy double act. Fantom attempts to bridge this disconnect.

The tension brings to mind British philosopher Gilbert Ryle's rejection of Descartes' concepts of mind-body dualism, in which he famously argued that it was a category mistake to say mental states differed from physical states; he described the inaccuracy as "the dogma of the ghost in the machine."

Technologies like the Fantom app offer a glimpse of a new, more personal way of consuming music that crosses the line of any modern "dogma" of art and technology, instead presenting an intrinsic link between the two. The altered recordings on your phone leave an intangible spectre of their original form—a phantom in the machine that marries art and technology to the individual.