An Interview With David Wiener of Aphex and Respect The Music

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(All photos by David Wiener)

If Henri Matisse was right when he said, “Creativity takes courage,” then David Wiener is one of the bravest guys in the world.

A fearless and tireless creative force, Wiener is one of those people who’s always doing something.

And that something is usually something pretty big.

Not everyone knows what they love to do. Some people find out early on what that thing is, but others spend their whole lives searching–and in many cases not finding–their true calling.

David Wiener is the former.

In fact, Wiener’s origin story began earlier than most.

By nine he was already playing guitar in his first band and less than three years later he had figured out how to tailor his equipment to augment the sheer sonic power.

Before he had entered high school he had already built a gas-powered go-kart and a hydroplane and at the tender age of twenty–in the nascent years of his collegiate career while studying art and aerodynamics–he fashioned a world speed record vehicle.

After Wiener’s tenure working for the Kremer-prize winning aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready came to a close, he founded the design firm that was soon to be known worldwide as David Wiener Ventures. And it was here that Wiener figured out how to creatively incorporate his love of art, aerodynamics, music and engineering into his work, crafting a life and career that helped establish him as a true American visionary. With a range of expertise that covers everything from cars to bikes to audio equipment to electronics, Wiener’s CV has more highlights than a Peyton Manning career retrospective. To name a few, he designed the U.S. Ski Team’s logo, he built the Ferrari Art Engine Audio System, he invented SoundTube speakers and he founded the Respect The Music Foundation, a fully accredited non-profit designed to accrue support and education for art and music programs and to create a compelling ongoing conversation about music and art between teachers and students.

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Keeping that in mind, to talk to Wiener is to realize he’s not the kind of guy who’s content to sit back and rest on his laurels.

In fact, in spite of his enormous list of achievements, he feels he hasn’t scratched the surface of what he wants to accomplish.

“I do sit around very often thinking I’ve barely done anything,” he tells us…

Stereo Embers: Looking ahead to 2015, what’s on the horizon for you?

David Wiener: There’s a lot, actually.

SE: Let’s start with Aphex.

DW: Aphex is a company that has a 40-year history  and a very respected brand and name, but they’re a company that has been highly…painfully mismanaged–prior to our purchasing the company and then after–by the people that I paid to run it. I’m trying to resurrect this company that has great technology and great products and great innovation but just was run terribly. So I’m trying to fix that and that’s taking a lot of work. In the course of that, I’m designing some cool new hardware products that will really relaunch Aphex. But all that takes time and money, so that’s a test that I’m being put through. One of the main reasons why we purchased Aphex was to take the technology and license it into other products–cellphones, computers, cars, guitars, aircrafts, military walkie-talkies; anything where improving sound quality, communication quality and speech recognition is important.  We’re also trying to take the Enhancement app and re-engineer it and rebuild it and get it back out into the marketplace where we can do interesting things with it.

SE: How did your love of music inform your decision to get involved with the audio side of things?

DW: I was a music lover from a very young age and the electric guitar and race cars were all I cared about when I was a little kid. That’s what got me really wound up. So I started playing in second grade and performing a couple of years later. My love of music has been the basis for any of the audio stuff I’ve done. It wasn’t as though I went to school and studied audio engineering or anything like that.

SE: And the Respect The Music Foundation seems to be another natural progression for you. What was the plan from the start?

DW: I created the foundation with the idea of using it to create interesting and inspired programs for youth and adults that has to do with educational aspects of music and getting music into more people’s lives…teaching them how to be more critical listeners so they enjoy more music and understand more of it. Exposing them to different things in the music realm and ultimately putting on events where we bring togehter interesting personalities from the worlds of music and engineering and journalism and art and education and science and medical to talk about aspects of music and hearing in all kinds of interesting ways. The idea is to create TED talks that are really fun and exciting, versus somebody just talking at you. We want to have real personalities, real artists, known entities from various industries and just create very inspiring events and educational talks that people can attend, but do it in a casual setting, so it feels more relaxed, more rock and roll.

SE: It seems to me that a more engaging dialogue can occur in that kind of intimate setting.

DW: You’re 100% right…it’s all about a more intimate setting–a more intimate interaction, a more inspired event.  And as silly as it sounds, at these events there will be drinks–you’re not sitting in an auditorium with your hands in your lap being preached at by some self-proclaimed expert.  You’re sitting in a comfortable and casual setting where you’re enjoying yourself….and there is music and demonstrations and performance interspersed through it all.

SE: Give me an example of that.

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DW: Well, I’m making this one up, but if Sting is on stage with a journalist and a doctor and a scientist and an artist and he picks up a guitar and starts playing a piece of a song to illustrate a concept, how cool is that?

SE: Beyond cool! And what I think is so important here is that these events will reach young people. Getting your artistic bell rung at a young age by seeing someone play live or act on stage, is a vital and necessary element to help form an artistic identity. I worry that our culture has forgotten the importance of that.

DW: My father was an artist and I grew up immersed in going to art galleries as a little kid. When we lived in New York, his idea of babysitting was sending me and my brother to the Fillmore East when I was in second grade.  So I’m with you on that–you have to have art. But the most critical thing is how you inspire, because we’ve all had the deadly art teacher or the deadly music teacher who tortured us and all you wanted to do was sleep in class–or in this day, text your friends, instead of listening in class. So that’s why we want to do events that are cool and fun and hip and interesting.

SE: Aside from these events, what else has the foundation been doing?

DW: What we have been doing to date has been a lot of meetings with some music schools and donating gear–various kinds of gear, not just Aphex gear–guitars and other instruments and amplifiers and anything from a guitar stand to a slew of electric and acoustic guitars. We’re also going to be getting more active stuff going on with the website. We’ll be getting the blog going with more useful and interesting stuff. And we’ll be getting more active with sponsorship and donation and being able to pass that along to different schools and programs.

SE: Respect The Music’s events seem like they would really resonate with teenagers and college students who are thinking about starting a band…

DW: Yeah, when they’re that age they’re really trying to make decisions…like, Am I giving up music because my dad wants me to be an accountant? We want to create a program that helps young and struggling artists get out and play more, by making music more accessible to more people in their towns. We have an idea to do that by going around to different stores, restaurants and bar owners and getting them to buy into the idea of having more live music, even if it’s just an hour here and there. And then we want to get local artists to go play at a very reasonable rate. So they’re getting paid a minimal rate, but at least they’re making some money so they can survive and we’re getting music out so people who are dining or drinking are getting exposed to more music. There’s so much we can do with just helping artists in their own territory and local areas to get out and play and expose themselves and do it in way that’s in concert with the local businesses. The business benefits by offering some music and they get some attention by being promoted as being more forward thinking and art-oriented, while the artists get to play, make a little money, get out more often and hopefully get some gigs here and there.

SE: You mentioned being a critical listener earlier. Can you talk a bit about that?

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DW: The idea of critical listening is a really huge part of why I’m doing any of this stuff, including buying Aphex and trying to take that technology to the masses versus just the pro audio engineers. Clearly MP3s and most digital audio…technically it’s wonderful, but the reality is most of the stuff people are listening to these days is terrible, meaning the sound reproduction is terrible. When musicians go to the studio and spend hours, days, months, years even, tweaking an album and all of a sudden someone buys that album–or, more likely doesn’t buy it–and they listen to it on the worst possible earbuds or headphones or computer speakers, they’re getting some tiny portion or percentage of the data–or, as I like to call it detail–that went into that music. So if you imagine the Beatles sitting in the studio for a month at a time, or whatever time it takes, working on an album and then somebody gets it on their cellphone and listens to it through crap, then Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr didn’t even need to show up to the session because they’re not hearing them. But when you use our Aural Exciter app, for example, or our technology which we built into consumer speakers that we make, you turn it on and off and you suddenly hear instruments that you weren’t hearing. Imagine not hearing the kick drum on a drum set–you probably think that’s impossible and that of course you can hear the kick drum, but you don’t because in a lot of cases it fades away.

SE: And it’s not just the kick drum, is it?

DW: It could be a cymbal or a guitar riff and you think, How is that possible? And the answer is, because you’re listening to a crummy file, you’re not hearing the detail and the artist is getting ripped off–forget the fact that you probably didn’t pay for the music–the artist worked so hard and you’re not hearing half of what he did. And he sat there in the studio tweaking and tweaking and tweaking and for what? So that you can hear none of it? My most dramatic example of this is when I was working on the Aural processing app and I was meeting with Pat Metheny in New York. I wanted him to have a real experience, so I bought and downloaded three of his songs from iTunes and I went in and I had him put on headphones and I played him one of his songs. Then I played it with the Aphex processing app. Then I turned it off and he was shocked. He’s a technical guy, he’s very into tech and he was like, This is what my fans are hearing? And what they were hearing was limited Pat Metheny…it’s shocking what gets lost.  And this is an illustration of how poor the quality is in what people are listening to.

SE: And isn’t the real struggle making them understand what they’re missing?

DW: Yes, because people don’t know what they’re missing. So they don’t hear it unless you demonstrate it and even if you demonstrate it they are still going to say that it’s good enough.

SE: What’s your response to that?

DW: Good enough isn’t.

SE: I like that.

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DW: I always want to ask if “good enough” is what people want for their Thanksgiving dinner.  Or their diamond ring for their wedding. If a mechanic is working on the motor of your BMW, is “good enough” really what people want him to tell them when he gets done? So the struggle is how to teach people to respect themselves enough to say, I want to hear the whole band.  And to say, Fuck good enough, I want great.  For example, I love Led Zeppelin and I want to hear all of it. I want to hear every detail–I don’t want that guitar solo disappearing…I don’t want half the drums gone. And it’s really interesting when you have people listening with our technology if you have them listen to a song they love because they’re invested in that song and suddenly they hear the whole song come alive and they can hear that it’s detailed and rich and colorful and it’s amazing. And then you turn off the Aphex processing–and it’s more shocking to turn it off than turning it on. It’s like somebody just threw a blanket over your speakers.

SE: And the fact remains that some people are so used to MP3s, they don’t feel they even need to make a change.

DW: I’ve heard that there are kids out there who actually like the sound of MP3s better–and to go back to the Thanksgiving analogy, if I put dry white meat on your plate and that’s all I give you, are you going to be happy? Are you telling me you really like that better than the full serving with all the details?

SE: What’s your take on the Neil Young PonoMusic concept?

DW: That’s another joke that’s going on…it’s such a phony-baloney concept and I can’t believe that people are dumb enough to buy into that and are willing to spend a lot of money, buy a whole new player, carry another device in their pocket, buy more music that’s just for that one device and it’s going to be blow-me-away-better. It’s just  high resolution files–big deal. I guarantee you if you play a Pomo player through an Aphex circuit, it’ll sound way better. He’s been railing against digital music and CDs for a long time and then finally he comes out with this thing and he’s got all these marketing people and the Dave Grohls of the world doing a signature model so he can sell more crap. He had a brilliant Kickstarter campaign with all these artists stupidly saying how much better it sounds.

SE: And does it?

DW: Of course it does, but you’re sitting in his car, where he’s got everything manipulated, even though a car is not a typically great setting. It’s so easy, I could put you in a car and have you walk out of that car going, Oh my god. When I push that Aphex button it’s incredible. The whole thing is just a scam.  Here he is one minute saying CDs and digital music suck and then he’s selling you digital music that’s just a high res file.

SE: And that’s just a better version of a faultier thing.

DW: Right. Put it this way, if you take an Aphex processor and hook it up to a CD player, that CD is going to sound way better. You’ve got people out there who think CD is the best thing you can do because it has all the data and blah, blah, blah, but we make CDs sound a lot better, so tell me what’s going on. The fact is, the recording process inherhetnly loses detail–you lose harmonics, you lose detail, you lose data–it’s just a fact of life. And that’s why they used Aphex 40 years ago in mastering albums–to bring them back to life by restoring missing harmonics. It wasn’t and it isn’t an equalizer–anyone can do that.  Our technology is a real time analyzer tool that’s analyzing the file in real time and it’s restoring the harmonics in real time based on the quality of what its analayzing. So it’s not doing the same thing to every file–it’s not even doing the same thing throughout one song.  And that’s what you need.