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A NASA Scientist Told Us Why People Love Bass So Much

Robert Alexander talks us through what low frequency does to us physically and psychologically.

by Josh Baines
Oct 11 2016, 2:10pm

Robert Alexander (photo by author). This article appeared originally on THUMP UK.

I'd never been to Las Vegas before, so I wasn't sure how often you got to meet former NASA scientists by the swimming pool of a swanky hotel. Is that what people do in Vegas? Gamble, drink, and let a very nice composer and sound designer talk you through the physical and psychological implications of the bass drop? I wasn't sure, but that's what I got up to. Though, for clarity, when I say "gamble" I actually mean "spend exactly one dollar on a slot machine five minutes before leaving for the flight home." Oh, and much of my drinking consisted of chugging down water after an ill-advised six mile walk in the midday heat. But still, this was Vegas and when you're in town you've just gotta sit back and take it all in.

As the sun beat down on the art deco blue of the pool's shimmer, and my mind wandered to thoughts of an endless stream of cold beers and a bucket of pulled pork, I found myself chatting to Robert Alexander, a man who knows more about the science of bass than I ever thought it was possible to know. Our good friends at Motherboard even made a documentary about him!

Alexander, who was in town to teach the participants of Desperados Bass Drop about the effects that bass has on us, is an incredibly enthusiastic teacher, a man for whom music is clearly a lifelong love. As he told me about the relationships between anticipation and dopamine, sinusoidal subwoofers and ultrasonics, I nearly considered sacking my job off and asking Robert if I could hang around in his lab all day. Sadly, I had to hop on a plane home the day after, leaving him in the sun, daydreaming of what could have been.

THUMP: Can you talk us through your backstory?
Robert Alexander: My work and educational careers very go very much hand in hand. I did an MA in media arts, and a PHD in design science. I worked at NASA, taking satellite data and turning it into sound. For me the NASA data archive was like a crate of records. I could dip in and pick out what was effectively The Greatest Hits of the Sun and listen to a coronal mass ejection. Then I worked in Hong Kong at the polytechnic university out there, teaching sound design and sound psychology.

You say you were taking data and turning it into sound. What are we actually talking about there?
It all comes back to what we call multi-sensory data. When you say the word "data" we start thinking about graphs, right? Charts, plots, objective truth! In reality, you can create a sound which represents that data, and it is just as effective as any visual form of representation. In the work that I do, I can pull out a whole load of solar data, maybe a solar flare, and you hear this kind of roaring lion, which is "really" an explosion, so it makes sense to mutate it into an aural thing. You can turn it into music. You can listen to something that's aesthetically pleasing but absolutely true to the data. We create things which are intuitive. You press play on the data, and have a visceral reaction.

The visceral is an interesting idea. Let's think about how the very idea of the bass drop fits into our notions of the visceral, the pleasurable. Is there something pre-cognitive, pre-linguistic about it?
If we're talking about pre-cognition in a purely intellectual sense then, yeah. Bass is raw, bass shakes the floor, it is something you feel through your feet. If you've ever been anywhere near a subwoofer you've felt that sense of power. In fact, there are raves for deaf and hard of hearing people where balloons are held up to the speakers, and recent technological advancements mean what the deaf can hear as a result is incredible. The notion that our hearing is one of the first senses to develop is so interesting to me. For nine months we're bathed in sound. Our mother's heartbeat is one of our first experiences as a human being. So the evolution of rhythm, of drumming, of music, is all from that.

You can't avoid those pre-birth experiences. So do you think that's why producers chase the biggest drop they can formulate?
Producers are composers. We're not only playing around with "How deep can I push this bass?" but "How can we build up anticipation? How can we master your expectation?"—and so much of that has to do with subtlety and repetition. When you build expectation you're creating potential. With the project we're working on this week—the world's first zero gravity DJ set—you're bringing people up in a plane and raising their potential energy higher and higher, up to the apex of this flight. Then, the gravitational potential energy of the plane turns into kinetic energy and all of a sudden you're in free fall. When it comes to a track you will, again, have things that lift you. Frequency sweeps are a way of lifting the listener psychologically. You'll hear a moment of silence before a drop, maybe a vocal sample, and then you're released.

I think this'll evolve over the next few years. A few years back you didn't have to formulate the kind of "fake drop" which you hear today, because people were so ready for that drop. Ultimately in that moment it's not just the low frequency that causes the reaction. What people might think of as one solid bass sound is actually the combination of four or five synths. You've obviously got the really low sinusoidal subwoofer punch or rumble, then another to provide harmonic presence, another few that are there for a sense of chorus and space. We perceive them, though, as one universal bass sound.

Is there a fundamental difference in how we react to music alone as compared to in a social context, i.e a club?
We are social creatures. Being in a nightclub brings up all the relational memories of every time we've ever been to a club. Specific records will do that too, you'll have these relational memories of whoever it was who introduced you to that track. You are primed in those moments to bring up all those positive associations you've attached to that track and that environment. Sat at home alone, you might not like a track. Then you have a good social interaction involving it, and our brain rewires itself and we now only have a positive reaction to it. In addition to that, that's why so many tracks that are popular get played so often, we're awash in them. It's constant. So when you hear a track over and over, through familiarity, it builds a really positive association. It might take five or six listens but you get there.

At a very young age we establish a musical taste. Between the ages of 10 and 14 is really what sets us up for what we like for our entire lives. There are times when you hear a certain sound that gives you goosebumps and you might not be consciously sure of why it's happening. What's going on is that you're being brought back to that childhood moment, that developmental stage. It's the time in life when you start to consider independence.

Does having a job that involves listening to and using sound so analytically impact negatively on your ability to listen to music purely for pleasure?
I do a fair amount of film editing, and right after finishing an editing session I have a very critical eye when it comes to cinema. But with music i'm still able to lose myself completely. Especially in a club, and that's because clubs are such multi-sensory spaces: it's the music and the lights and the bass in your legs and the sweat. It's all of that. So what I've begun experimenting with is biofeedback, which is turning your own breath into music. We can do amazing things with music, using our vesticular system, with gravity. This stuff is incredible. It's a whole new form of experience.

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Robert Alexander