A conversation with Nicholas Phillips

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May 28, 2024

Nicholas Phillips is a multi-faceted composer and music industry professional respected for his extensive work across film, TV, advertising, art, fashion, science, and technology. Nicholas’ career has seen him continually pushing the boundaries of what he calls “sensory storytelling”, whether it’s composing the music for award-winning documentaries, major studio projects, or designing the audio landscape for the Bentley Bentayga’s 20-speaker surround-sound system. 

In our conversation with Nicholas, we discuss his journey in music, sound design, and technology. We explore how these aspects have transformed his work and led to a diverse range of creative and immersive sound experiences throughout the years. Nicholas also reflects on the evolution of music consumption and the role of new technologies like binaural sound and Dolby Atmos in making high-quality audio experiences widely available. He further emphasises the importance of collaboration and the excitement of working with professionals from various disciplines across projects. Read on to learn more about his innovative approach to sound that has led him to embrace the future of music.

Pushing the boundaries of sensory-storytelling with Nicholas Phillips

Tim Soens: Hey Nick, please tell us a bit about yourself, your work and other areas you’re involved in, particularly for those who might be unfamiliar with these fields.

Nicholas Phillips: Sure. So to briefly go back to the beginning, as a child I learned classical piano, Spanish classical guitar, and played timpani drums in an orchestra. Whether playing music, or listening to music with my friends, it’s always been of major importance in my life. In my late teens/early 20’s, while going out with friends to nightclubs, I was fascinated by the music we were listening to – funk, soul, R&B, hip-hop, electro and early house music. Despite my classical training, I had zero concept or understanding of how to make this music I was hearing, or how to collaborate and ‘jam’ with other musicians. 

I dedicated weekends to studio work, and after a year, a friend and I completed a piece of music that we felt was quite good. We decided to release it, setting up a record label to launch it into the world. That marked my initial steps into making my music publicly available.

One of the defining moments for me came when I first heard my track played on the radio by one of my favourite DJs. It became single of the week in a highly regarded music magazine and a whole host of other press. It was an incredible feeling. This was a pivotal experience in being inquisitive about something, creating it and putting it out into the world without any expectations. It also taught me the importance of pursuing ideas you’re passionate about and to follow them to their logical conclusion. That experience significantly propelled the process forward, and it shaped my perspective on music as a career.

During this time, I started to build up my own home studio and teach myself music production, how to mix and write music, using computers and samplers and outboard equipment. A friend of mine was making short films on his Super 8 camera and I would put music collages together – a mixture of mine and other people’s music – which we would play at small indie film evenings, syncing up the portable DAT player with his Super 8 from opposite ends of the room so the picture and music would match – very high tech!

One particular evening that left an impression on me was a master class with Evan Parker, a British tenor and sax player, who, whilst improvising and circular breathing, would play his sax through a NeXTcube computer system ‘played’ by two sound engineers from IRCAM – the French sound institute. This fascinated me – the mixture of music, live playing, improvisation with the technology being the ‘front end’ of the chain (the games Doom and Quake, plus Tim Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb were developed on NeXTcube). 

I then started to collaborate and produce other artists and musicians, writing music for tv adverts and composing music for scenes in films that friends of mine were writing the scores for. This was the start of my learning in how to commercially write to-picture, both short and long-form, with briefs, deadlines and budgets. 

Tim: Beyond film scoring, your work often merges music with visual or other sensory elements. I think the “Into the Frame” collaboration is a great example of this. Could you describe how you approached this project and how those elements fit together?

Nick: Having been offered an opportunity to pitch a project to the Science and Tech Department at Middlesex University, I brainstormed and collaborated with a multi-disciplined designer on merging the elements of sound, music, design and interactivity into a unique experience.

The idea was to be able to feel and hear in 3D what you can see in front of you in a 2D painting, using haptics/robotics and 3D sound, as if you’re actually in the painting. We used the album cover for MIke Oldfield’s – Tubular Bells as the initial inspiration. At the time there wasn’t anything like this, so we didn’t have any reference points to build on.

The university loved the idea and what proceeded was a 4 year journey of discovery, building a team inside and outside the university, working with professors, neuroscientists, a robotics programmer, bringing in an Artist / Designer to collaborate, and hiring a 3D sound programmer to build our software.

We held usability studies and attempted to create a ‘musical instrument’ you could play in the air via the haptic device; to create the ability to actually ‘push-air’ with your hands, but also using the ‘instrument’ as a tool for mindfulness and meditation.

With the final installation, it was important there were no moving images, just a spotlight on the picture in a dark room, and the only way to decipher your location in the painting was by using 3D sound which you controlled with your hand attached to a haptic arm. There were alot of different perception shifts to get this to work.

We did a controlled usability study with 8 autistic children, who responded exceptionally well to the detail in the 3D sound, and it was so rewarding seeing the children, not only interacting with each other, but also how they were playing with the 3D sound – I’m definitely interested to explore this further.

Tim: Where has your interest in 3D and Spatial sound come from?

Nick: I don’t know exactly where my interest in 3D sound has come from, but it’s always there, bubbling in the background. Early in my career I did spend some time in Ghana, West Africa (with my field recorder), and specifically went to find the drumming village of master drummer Mustapha Tettey Addy. I didn’t find his drumming village until the final day, but I did stay in another drumming village along the Accra coast, where I learnt alot about West African rhythms, and the way drums are used as a communication method to send messages from village to village, using the wind to transport the sound – I suppose in a way this is 3D sound.

Also, for a short while I studied Civil and Structural Engineering, and for a summer worked for an architect firm building the 3D architectural models they had designed. I love going to see the architectural models at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition – especially from companies like Zaha Hadid. So it was a pleasure to design the spatial sound for a Zaha Hadid building a few years later as part of a design exhibition – which then led onto being asked to talk at RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects). For the exhibition, I created sound from marble, and also incorporated the design ethos of Zaha Hadid into my creation process.

Making music and working in sound has allowed me to collaborate with a diverse group of professionals—not just musicians but also other creative and technical specialists. Because of that, and being inquisitive, everything naturally leads to new projects.

Tim: How has technology changed the way you work on projects or collaborate with people from different industries and backgrounds?

Nick: So there’s a project I’m working on now, which I can get into more later, which was actually developed a while ago. The initial concept involves using 3D sound to present music in a spherical sound dome, complemented by holograms as a storytelling tool. This idea of spatialisation and 3D sound has been a long-standing interest of mine, and now, with technological advancements, it’s finally feasible. This project reflects the current state of the world, where the possibilities for creation are nearly limitless, allowing anyone to bring their ideas to life.

Tim: It sounds like the project you’re working on aims to create an immersive experience that goes beyond just listening to sound. It seems you’re integrating various elements like holograms and spatial audio to elevate the sensory experience. How have you observed the evolution of music consumption with the introduction of new technologies?

Nick: Indeed, the development of binaural sound and technologies like Dolby Atmos has been pivotal. From a cinematic perspective, the use of Dolby Atmos alongside IMAX and surround sound formats like 7.1 and 5.1 has been well-established and hasn’t really changed over the years. However, what’s changed is the ability to create the 3D sound experience; you don’t need an extensive setup or listening room anymore. You can just buy some Apple headphones or any equivalent and experience spatial sound as easily as that. It has become more accessible for everyone to create, consume, and listen to high-quality audio.

Tim: With your extensive experience experimenting with “sensory storytelling” across various domains, including art, design, and technology, where do you see the future of music experiences heading?

Nick: That’s a big question. It ties into the broader industry trends, particularly how we are experiencing music and the rapid advancements in AI, which are greatly impacting certain aspects of music creation. On one hand, I believe community and human interaction will become more vital as technology advances. Smaller scenes, more intimate gigs, and tight communities will thrive, even as digital and VR experiences grow.

Just yesterday, I was discussing with Katy (from the Web3 Music Association), about the challenges faced by Gen Z, who are growing up in a digital world but are missing out on in-person community interactions. This gap is partially being bridged by virtual reality and mixed reality, which are reintegrating these communal experiences in new, innovative ways. Music is likely to play a central role in these developments, not just as an isolated art form but as an integrated sensory experience.

On the other hand, what I’m really interested in is the creation of music, alongside film, animation and gaming, built around the Unreal Engine or equivalent games engine, to create story worlds, live or static, which can then easily be delivered to different mediums.

I like the idea of being able to bridge the gap between physical and digital worlds, and also seeing how this can be monetised in a fair and equitable way, integrating Web3 solutions.

Tim: When we talk about immersive and interactive experiences, gaming has set the precedent for more immersive digital experiences such as the Metaverse. Have you done any gaming collaborations or projects in the past?

Nick: Actually, my experience with the gaming space is somewhat limited, but I am currently speaking to a studio about writing for a new game. The first game I contributed to was “LA Noire”. I was assisting Andrew Hale, the composer for the game, (who introduced me to Katy from the W3M Association). My role involved developing additional in-game music based on Andrew’s themes and co-writing one of the pieces for the soundtrack. We recorded the score at Abbey Road Studios with a 43 piece jazz-classical orchestra. This experience was amazing and was my first taste in composing a piece of music and having it brought to life with a full orchestra. I was fortunate to revisit Abbey Road late last year to mix a feature film I’ve just been working on at their relatively new dubstage.

That was my first touchpoint with developing music for games. However, my work with Dynamo the magician has many similarities in the composition process to that of a game score. This collaboration stemmed from film scores I had written, and also the ‘Into the Frame’ project.

The initial goal was to create an illusion where the Fiat 500x would appear from a light source, levitate and then transform into a real car on the ground. It then culminated into a major branding event.

The technical and creative team assembled at Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden—where they filmed the Harry Potter films—in a vast aircraft hangar that was converted into our stage. The project was intensely technical, involving choreographers, creative lighting, and projection mapping. The narrative and the spectacle, including the car’s transformation, were all synchronised with the music and sound effects to the millisecond for a single live performance. It felt like launching a spaceship due to the high probability of technical issues, but fortunately, everything went smoothly.

Following this project, Dynamo’s manager approached me to become the music director for his live show, “Seeing Is Believing”, which turned out to be one of the largest magic shows globally. This experience, although not exactly the same, resembles creating a game score. Like in gaming, the music for the magic show had to be highly adaptable, adjusting to the duration of the illusions depending on Dynamo’s physical condition each night. The entire show was controlled by a sophisticated console that managed music, video, and all technical elements in real-time, much like how a video game score dynamically adapts to gameplay. This required a blend of mathematical precision and creativity to ensure seamless integration of all these elements.

Tim: Considering this magic show was an adaptive and reactive experience between the performance and the sound, do you think this dynamic could translate to the digital environment? With the massive adoption of gaming and the metaverse, do you see a future where technology increasingly offers similar adaptive experiences but then tailored to a digitally native audience?

Nick: Absolutely. This is definitely an avenue I’m eager to explore with various projects I’m currently developing.

Tim: Can you share any details about these upcoming projects or collaborations that excite you? Only what you’re able to share at this moment, of course.

Nick: Certainly. I’m involved in several projects right now, in no particular order.

I’ve just received a script to work on a film score, which is exciting since I haven’t composed for film in some time. This project is not so much about leveraging new technologies but about crafting the music itself – helping tell the story and collaborating closely with the director.

Additionally, I’m finishing writing a few pieces of music for a modern classical EP release of mine, a genre I haven’t explored in my personal work for a while. This upcoming release will include recording with a choir and orchestra, which I’m currently prepping for.

Another project, which I mentioned earlier, which is quite far ahead in its development and relates more to your previous questions, is an evolving story about a girl who used to be human and turned ex-human. It’s also a metaphor for life and the juxtaposition of the world around us and the human condition. Since my partner on the project and I initially wrote the songs and formulated the concept a while ago, technology has caught up and advanced so much that it’s now feasible for us to realise our ideas – which is very exciting. The project incorporates an immersive live show, graphic novel, art installation and other multi-faceted strands – utilising mixed and virtual reality, gaming and 3D sound. It’s incredibly rich and layered – mixing innovative storytelling, music, and cutting-edge technology to create a deep, immersive experience. We’re aiming to offer a unique way to enrich the narrative experience and deepen user/fan engagement across different platforms.

I’m also developing a music therapy initiative. I prefer not to label it strictly as a music therapy project, but it incorporates many foundational ideas from that field. 

Tim: Your projects seem so diverse and interesting!

Nick: Yes, juggling these projects can sometimes be a challenge, however I am currently expanding my team so the process is smoother running. In fact, I took a brief hiatus to regroup after a particularly intense period. I was composing the music for a BBC/PBS America documentary titled “54 Days – China and the Pandemic“, which explores the origins and global impact of Covid. It was a significant undertaking, but thankfully the documentary was well-received internationally. 8 weeks before delivery of the score I contracted Covid which was a bit surreal – this definitely was a way of ‘getting into character!’. 

I then went straight onto scoring another documentary about the political situation in Eritrea for Channel 4/PBS America. I had the opportunity to collaborate with some exceptionally talented African musicians, which was a highlight for me. 

I’ve recently moved into a new resident studio at Qube East in Canary Wharf and I’ve just become a professional voting member of the Ivor’s Academy. I’m looking to deepen my engagement with various communities, where I plan to give some talks, mentor and participate more actively. It’s crucial for me to feel excited about the projects I’m involved in. I thrive on collaborating with teams from various disciplines, not just in music but across multiple creative and technical fields. This interplay of talents and perspectives is what drives me. Having these conversations with Katy, yourself, and meeting Sergio through Andrew Hale’s introduction has been truly inspiring. It’s invigorating.

Tim: I agree! Well, I’m glad to hear you’re excited for what lies ahead. I want to thank you for your time and for such an interesting conversation. Wishing you all the best in your endeavours Nick! 

To learn more about Nick’s projects, head over to his website.


Brought to you by the Web3 Music Association (“W3M”) – a non-profit entity with the goal of orchestrating innovation in the music industry. Its mission is to educate music industry professionals, support their digital transformation, and bring them together to collaboratively develop innovative use cases. Created from an extensive three-year collaboration, the association is a lead contributor to the Music Protocol – a dedicated blockchain for intellectual property registration, management and monetisation.

Contributor

Tim Soens – Web3 Music Association Analyst

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