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Book Review: Thomas Dolby’s “The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology”

Thomas Dolby’s new memoir, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology, is pretty unique. After all, we’re talking about a pop star who’s also a top technologist—the kind of guy who can dish about Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie on one hand, and Bill Gates, Ray Dolby and Al Gore on the other.

My wife, the librarian, is in charge of the Book Club at her library, running the monthly meetings where avid readers gather to discuss and dissect a tome they’ve just devoured. At Pro Sound News, we don’t have an in-house book club, but if we did, this month’s pick would surely be Thomas Dolby’s new memoir, because most of us have been tearing through it.

The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology recounts how Dolby rose to fame with early 1980s New Wave hits like “She Blinded Me with Science” and “Hyperactive,” and spent the next decade releasing increasingly ambitious albums. When that career cooled off, he left the music business to found Beatnik, a start-up that pioneered audio for the Web (some readers may recall Dolby demoing the company’s early offerings at the 1994 AES Convention in San Francisco). Throughout the tale, there’s plenty of intriguing cameos, and Dolby’s dual careers mean he can dish about Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie on one hand, and Bill Gates, Ray Dolby and Al Gore on the other.

While Dolby sold out New York’s Radio City Music Hall by the age of 23, it’s fair to note that his journey started the exact opposite to so many audio pros, as he was a live sound engineer who became a working musician instead of the other way around. He happily recounts his days in late-Seventies London when he mixed seminal post-punk acts like XTC, The Fall and Gang of Four—and after one particularly raucous gig by The Members, cleaned squashed birthday cake out of trashed stage monitors.

When he finally started to get his foot in the door musically, Dolby found himself drafted by legendary producer Robert “Mutt” Lange to play keyboards on Foreigner’s multi-platinum album, 4, gracing hits like “Waiting for a Girl like You” and “Juke Box Hero.” The month spent working on the album found him not only experimenting with the Neve 8078 and Studer A80 tape machines at Electric Lady Studios in New York City to bolster the sounds of his keyboards, but also watching Lange’s production style up close.

Some of those lessons would pay off later, such as when Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead played a session for Dolby’s last major label album, Astronauts & Heretics, in the early Nineties. For whatever reason, Garcia’s playing didn’t deliver when they recorded, but between takes, he noodled away on guitar and all of it was captured on a DAT as Dolby used a trick learned from Lange—to always keep a two-track tape running throughout a session to capture asides. Later dumping the DAT recording into one of the earliest DAWs, Opcode’s Studio Vision running on a Mac Plus, Dolby was able to save the song by comping together a stellar Garcia performance.

Not every moment in the book is a highpoint, however—there’s plenty of lows, like the difficult time he had producing Joni Mitchell; dealing with runaway egos in the Nineties tech industry; or the book’s opening scene in 1984, where Dolby had his tour bus pull over in the Nevada desert so that he could futilely try to send songwriting demos to Michael Jackson via an early computer modem and a pay phone.

The missed opportunity serves as both a portent and an ironic counterpoint to the book’s second half, as Dolby and Beatnik endured a endless string of events that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, until finally creating software that, by 2004, was used to bring music to not just Michael Jackson’s phone but two-thirds of all cell phones in the world.

It’s notable that once Dolby finally hit paydirt in the tech industry—surprisingly, it came after leaving Beatnik—the dozen intervening years are covered in about as many pages. That’s ample, however, as his life doesn’t have as much drama in it now, seeing as he teaches at Johns Hopkins University these days. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of lessons to be learned from the professor’s book, whether you’re an audio pro, a struggling entrepreneur or simply a fan.

The Speed of Sound on Amazon

Thomas Dolby