Zero System Makes Space for Creative Music in VR/AR


Los Angeles producer Daedelus is among a handful of artists, along with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s Layzie Bone and Kneebody drummer Nate Wood, who have expressed interest in working with Zero System Immersive Music. The California label is at the vanguard of finding a space for creative music in virtual reality and immersive technology.

(Photo: Jonathan Rowden)

Ryan Pryor, a jazz keyboardist and co-founder of Zero System Immersive Music, taps a few commands on his computer and announces, “This song is called ‘Whispers.’ Actually, it has a really long name, but we’ll just call it ‘Whispers.’”

What followed was decidedly not a whisper, but a sonic explosion of metallic drum beats, fusion-era electric piano and a winding ribbon of synth melodies originating from eight monitors placed all around the room, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. The sensation felt similar to being attacked by a swarm of bees—just without the unfortunate stinging.

Welcome to the world of ambisonics, a term that literally means “everywhere sound.”

Pryor, along with the company’s co-founder, jazz saxophonist Jonathan Rowden, boldly have declared Zero System “the world’s first spatial music label,” and hope to find fertile and unexplored opportunities for success by linking music to the rapidly growing fields of virtual reality and immersive technology.

Thus far, the label has received a healthy dose of interest from musicians tied to a diversity of genres, securing a performance agreement with electronic music producer Daedelus, and setting up talks with composer and virtuoso bassist Evan Marien. Future artist collaborations are set to include Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s Layzie Bone and Kneebody drummer Nate Wood.

At Zero System’s Orange County, California, studio, the self-professed “burned-out jazz musicians” explained their path forward in creative instrumental music.

“We’re building partnerships in the immersive industry, so we can function as a pipeline to bring artists from the creative side of things,” said Rowden, who’s made it his mission to find ways to make life as a jazz musician better for himself—and for his friends and colleagues. Pryor is both: a college buddy and a collaborator who’s contributed to the new label’s first album, a duo recording aptly titled Zero System.

In 2017, The Jonathan Rowden Group released Skyward Eye, an audio homage to Anime and epic fantasy, complete with original illustrations by graphic novelist Kazu Kibuishi. It was shortly after that when the bandleader began exploring immersive tech in music making.

“We were trying to be more immersive with what we were doing in creating the audio itself for the album,” Rowden recalled. “It felt like we were going in the direction of [thinking] the format of creation has to change in order for us to keep innovating with what we want to do with music.”

The new technology seemed to go hand-in-hand with Rowden and Pryor’s shift from acoustic jazz into more of an improvised electronica. And with Zero System, the duo remade its identity, as well as a strategy for moving forward.

“All this technology has been developed by sound engineers,” Pryor said. “But we’re not sound engineers, we’re musicians. We’re interested in telling musical stories, leveraging this technology to do it, instead of just geeking out on the technology itself.”

Pryor continued: “What if you recorded some little cell ideas on the piano, and then, in an [augmented reality] app, you place them randomly throughout the city? The users, almost like in Pokémon Go, could find your musical cells and build their own compositions, using a visual representation of your musical ideas.”

Pryor and Rowden also are looking to develop an app that utilizes the GPS and gravimeter technology on smartphones to simulate the spatializing of audio, usually heard through a pair of 3D headphones with sound localization and head-tracking technology. This is essential if spatial audio is to be heard by a larger audience of listeners who can’t afford those expensive headphones or an eight-channel audiophile sound system.

While those concepts have yet to be realized, one thing Zero System already is doing is designing spatial music libraries of unique sounds, available for use in sound design for game developers and other creators in the VR/AR field. The opportunity to make these sample packs helped to sway keyboardist Tim Johnson, founder of punk-jazz trio Gestalt, to sign on to the Zero System label.

“I don’t really want to do a crazy VR project right now,” said Johnson, a former jazz piano student of Fred Hersch, who describes himself as trying to move forward after being disillusioned with jazz, but someone who’s still skeptical about the near-term impact of spatial audio.

Yet, Johnson sees potential for his particular style of polyrhythmic piano-trio music in the Zero System sound library.

“We’re doing rhythmic cycles, the exact same thing a producer in Abelton or Logic might be doing,” he noted, hoping to portray Gestalt as an example of how an acoustic jazz group can exist in the Zero System universe. “It doesn’t have to be futuristic, cyberpunk stuff.”

He added: “I think that everything else has moved forward, and music really hasn’t.”

After all, the advent of jazz in the early 20th century coincided with the proliferation of a new technology—the phonograph—placing jazz at the vanguard of recorded music. A few decades later, the LP would spur a sea change in how jazz was captured, ultimately ushering in the golden era of Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and other labels that documented a fertile time in the music. So, is another revolution going to be crucial to moving jazz forward?

The response from the VR/AR industry has been overwhelmingly positive, a welcomed indicator for Rowden, who’s been frustrated with music industry machinations.

“For every ‘no’ I’ve gotten in the music industry,” he noted, “I’ve gotten three ‘yesses’ in immersive tech.”

The conversations he’s had with VR corporation CEOs are turning into more realistic prospects, with Rowden beginning this fall to lead spatial audio workshops in his new role as education director for the VR/AR Association, an international organization aiming to foster collaboration between the virtual and augmented reality fields. Zero System, too, is exploring partnerships with companies like Endel—a personal soundscape app that generates sounds based on the body’s circadian rhythms and forged a relationship with Warner Music earlier in 2019.

In September, Pryor and Rowden are set to provide spatial audio for on-site augmented reality experiences during Warren Holden’s celebrity charity project Rock for Kindness. Both Holden and Layzie Bone (who’s scheduled to headline the September event in New York) are partners in Zero System’s move into web-based spatial audio. That development, called WebXR, aims to give artists the ability to present full 3D, spatial audio productions along with virtual or mixed-reality visuals from anywhere, using only a smartphone or computer. In essence, Zero System is looking to do something of an end-run around the music industry—which in Pryor and Rowden’s view has shown little patience for creative experimentation—by latching on to another industry that appears to have a voracious appetite for innovation.

“We’re kind of going through the video game route right now,” Pryor said, discussing how the pair has turned to VR/AR as a vehicle to introduce a whole new community of young minds to creative music.

“What we’re trying to do is to build a new music industry inside of immersive technology,” Rowden explained. “The industry is embracing us, and it embraces jazz and creative music. So, it’s really a perfect fit.” DB

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