Angie C on BCI-driven Sound and Her Passion for Blending Music with Neuroscience
Using just the mind to create music? I t might sound a little far-fetched to a lot of people. But, that is precisely the route that musician and popstar Angie C has taken. A lover of music and science — Angie Coombes (aka Angie C) has found the perfect way to merge two of her passions into creating something truly unique. With her latest album “Star Seeds” dropping recently, Angie C spoke with EMOTIV about everything music and using Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) devices to create a really special genre of music and sound that she truly believes could be the future.
Could you tell us that one moment, as a child, when your brain lit up like a Christmas Tree after hearing, what you thought, was perfect music?
Definitely the moment I heard Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I was 8 years old at the time, and I begged my piano teacher to teach me how to play it. That piece of music changed my life. Every time I play it, it takes me to another place entirely.
How does it feel to be one of the pioneers in using BCI devices for creating and playing music?
It feels amazing and exciting! I still remember the day in 2014 when I came across the EMOTIV website. I discovered that the company had developed a portable EEG headset. About 6 months prior, I had become curious about the possibility of using binaural beats to control seizure activity in patients with epilepsy. I realized that the only way to study something like this would be to do a Masters or PhD in order to gain access to EEG equipment in a hospital setting. I was not that interested in going back to university. So, when I found EMOTIV, I was excited about all of the potential applications of this new technology. Although I have not yet experimented with binaural beats for seizure activity, I have really enjoyed taking things in a more creative direction — by using the EMOTIV EEG headsets in the Fashion Tech and Music spaces.
You were the first person to use a BCI device (EMOTIV’s EPOC headset) while using the iconic TONTO synthesizer. How did it feel to be able to control the music that came out of TONTO, using just your mind?
Pop-star Angie C on BCI and Music — EMOTIV’s EPOC headset & the iconic TONTO synthesizer are the perfect match
It was an incredible feeling! To be honest, there was still a degree of uncertainty leading up to our official testing day with TONTO. Our engineer, Mitchell Claxton, had been working on the tech in Vancouver with a small analog synth. My music producer and I were in Calgary putting together the rough demos of the songs. We were discussing the logistics of the recording process with the technicians at Studio Bell where TONTO is housed.
When we finally all met at Studio Bell for our testing day, it was the first time we had all been in the room together with TONTO. We were all kind of holding our breath during setup. But, when those first few brainwave-controlled sounds came out from TONTO. I remember Mitchell threw his hands up in the air and said “It works! It ACTUALLY works!”. That was a pretty proud moment for all of us.
As for the feeling of controlling TONTO with my mind, it was interesting. I had to listen to the changes in the music, and identify the thoughts that I was thinking at the same time. And then, I had to practice focusing on those thoughts in order to elicit a change in the sound. For instance, I was able to control the rate of the low-frequency oscillator (LFO) on TONTO by thinking of a purple flame coming down through my body. Whereas, my friend Jane was able to control things like resonance and cutoff by thinking about flying through the galaxy. The mental cues were unique to each person who tried on the headset. I think it could be very beneficial to the end user since it would allow them to create brainwave-controlled music in their own unique way, based upon their own brainwave patterns.
Quite a bit of coverage was given to your TONTO recording, using a BCI device to create music. What was the reaction to it in the musical inner circles?
So far, the reaction has been very positive, especially in the Maker and Synth communities. It was very well received at the Maker Music Festival this year, and was featured by Maker Faire Shenzhen. I expect that interest will build with the release of my album. It is infused with all of the Brainwave-Controlled TONTO sounds. I hope that it inspires other people and artists across the globe to discover new pathways to creativity and innovation. And, of course, I hope that it highlights Neuroscience and the burgeoning field of Neurotechnology. We are living in very exciting times!
As for merging neurotechnology with music, I think it’s actually a really good thing, especially for someone who has a physical disability and cannot play a traditional instrument. This will most certainly open a lot of doors for them, and will also lead to more joy in their lives as they create and express themselves through this new medium.
I also think this has exciting implications for music producers. About 10 years ago, after attending a rave, I woke up with the most amazing trance track in my head, but I had no way to get it out into physical reality without spending a lot of time and energy producing it. Later that day, I was chatting with a few DJ producer friends of mine and I said “I can’t wait for the day when we can literally think music into existence.” At the time, I was only sort of half-joking, but now that I am making brainwave-controlled music, I do think that “thinking music into existence” does have a high probability of becoming an accepted way of doing things in the future.
Where do you see the future, in correlation to music and neurotechnology?
In the future, I envision people sitting down at their computers with a brainwave headset/ BCI devices and using it as a tool for making music. I think as the fields of neurotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI) continue to evolve, I do see them continuing to merge together to create predictive algorithms for musical sounds.
What are the advantages of using a BCI device to create music? How does it differ from the more traditional methods?
I think the real advantage of creating music with a BCI device is that it removes the need to play a physical instrument. The brain is a vastly glorious thing, and there are so many places we can travel in our mind. I truly feel that BCI technology will be the key to unlocking new frontiers in music. Both my producer, Trey Mills, and I agreed that we have experienced some of the most magical moments in music thus far by using a BCI headset.
You made waves (pun intended) when your brainwave-controlled LED dress was showcased at the MakeFashion Wearable Technology Gala in 2016. In the five years since, how far do you think neurotechnology has come? And what do you believe are the future possibilities for this crucial branch of science? Both in aspects of music and a larger sense?
Haha great pun 🙂 I have to say I am very impressed with how far neurotechnology has come in the past 5 years. I originally began working with the EMOTIV EPOC+ brainwave headset in 2016. At the time, some of EMOTIV’s software platform integrations were more fully developed than others. One of the design aspects we had to consider for the brainwave-controlled LED dress was that we needed a computer processing system that would be portable.
EMOTIV’s desktop software program was quite comprehensive, but clearly carrying a laptop in a backpack down a runway was not exactly fashion friendly. So, instead, our engineer developed an app for an Android phone that was able to process the data from the EPOC+ headset and send it to a microcontroller that connected to the LED lights on the dress. Both the microcontroller and Android phone were easily hide-able inside a pocket on the back of the garment.
Flash forward to today — EMOTIV’s suite of products and software has positioned the company as the market leader in the Neurotechnology space. I actually recently ordered the new EPOC X headset, and I can’t wait to start playing around with it!
As for future possibilities for this crucial branch of science, I believe we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what will be possible in the future. When I first started taking Neuroscience classes at Dalhousie University in 2002, I was amazed at how young and relatively unexplored the field of neuroscience actually was. It was a shock to me really, because we had made so many great strides in other areas of science and medicine. Why had we not yet invested the same energy and curiosity into studying the human brain?
Your thoughts on companies like EMOTIV and the work they are doing to bring neurotechnology and neuro research into a much broader landscape and demography?
I think companies like EMOTIV are doing amazing things to further the area of brain and neuro research. Aside from the applications of neurotechnology in the music and creative spaces, I am equally excited about the advances that will be made with respect to crowd-sourced neurological research. One thing I found during my university days was that traditional research moves very slowly, and participant pools are limited by location and accessibility. The research-grade headsets that EMOTIV has created truly do remove a lot of the barriers associated with traditional EEG research. Rather than participants having to drive to something like a local hospital setting, they can now simply put on their brainwave headset and connect to the internet in order to participate in a brain research study. It’s a remarkable reality, in my opinion.
You’ve used EMOTIV’s ground-breaking headsets, and created some truly memorable music with it. A word on the technology and what it means to artists like yourself?
EMOTIV’s BCI headsets open the door to a whole new way of being creative. There is so much that we will be able to explore as artists, and I do encourage other artists to experiment with this new way of making music and art. Have some fun with it!
I am super excited for my album to have made “landfall” on November 26th. The album is designed to take the listener on a journey from dark and moody, to emancipation and freedom of the mind. I like to use double entendres in my lyrical writing. So there are lots of hidden messages and meaning within the words themselves. I am a huge fan of writers and philosophers like Rumi, where you can read only a few words, but gain so much wisdom out of it, if you let your mind wander, reflect, and contemplate. That’s something that I tried to capture with this album.
Sonically, I would categorize this album as being Electro-Pop, but we did include some fun things like brainwave-controlled piano. There was a 1900 John Broadwood Acoustic Grand Piano in the same room as TONTO, so we decided to record the piano. And then route the sound through the filters on TONTO and manipulate the sound with our brainwaves. It was super experimental, but resulted in a really cool recording, not to mention an amazing story.
Have you stayed true to your normal genre and style of music? Or is there more experimentation and surprises involved in “Star Seeds”?
You know, I feel that I finally “found” my artistic sound with the creation of my “Star Seeds” album. For a number of years, I had been writing and recording either singer-songwriter style music, or doing top-line vocals for electronic dance music. I think creating this album allowed me to merge those two styles of music to find something in between that sonically feels really good, and for this, I have to thank my producer, Trey Mills. He is great when it comes to helping artists find their sound. It’s not only based on their musical styling, but also on who they are as a person.