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Dustin Bates of Starset thinks WAV could become the record player’s replacement

“WAV could become the new record player. And it sure would be cool to make the audiophile way become the new thing, to be honest.”

Starset has always been a band that’s had their collective heads in the clouds — and that’s a good thing.

The Columbus, Ohio-based electro-prog group’s goals are most definitely positioned skyward, as evidenced by the rich sound palette of their cosmic 2014 debut Transmissions, and the full-bore interplanetary outreach on their 2017 release Vessels, available now in multiple formats from Razor & Tie. From the otherworldly assault of Monster to the string-drenched howlings of Ricochet it’s quite clear Starset is headed straight into the sonically rewarding stratosphere.

“We had the same producer, Rob Graves, on both records, but before I even wrote any music for Vessels, I wrote a huge email to Rob and a few other people explaining what I wanted to do, approach-wise,” Starset frontman Dustin Bates told Digital Trends. “The electronics are a little more ethereal and atmospheric on Transmissions, while the electronics on Vessels are more concise, direct, and pointed. I even incorporated more EDM elements in the builds for Vessels.”

Digital Trends sat down with Bates (who also happens to have a degree in electrical engineering) in the green room at the SiriusXM studios in midtown Manhattan to discuss the hi-res leanings of Vessels, how to create a 360-degree mix for maximum VR enjoyment, and whether he’d like to be on the first manned mission to Mars.

Digital Trends: Let’s get right to it. Did you guys cut Vessels in hi-res?

Dustin Bates: That’s exactly what it was. Obviously, it was 24-bit, yeah.

You can definitely tell the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit recordings.

I think so. And it makes sense if you look at the Nyquist Theorem, you know what I mean? [Without getting too uber-technical about it, the Nyquist-Shannon Sampling Theorem is the fundamental bridge between analog signals and digital signals that helps establish sampling rates.] I agree we have to be at 24-bit, but I sometimes wonder if it’s overkill.

Oh, I don’t think so. Those differences are noticeable to the discerning ear. But here’s the other thing — Starset is also huge in the streaming universe. As just one example, My Demons has over 30 million listens on Spotify. Are you, as an artist, cool with that as a way for people to listen to Starset music?

Absolutely, because it’s indefinite access. But I perceive you’re an audiophile like me, and this is something I’ve been discussing with some people over the past few months — the cost of data is shrinking, almost like Moore’s Law [wherein the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit essentially doubles roughly every two years]. It’s a funny thing. And as it does that, the speed is also increasing.

We’ve been downloading MP3s for quite some time, and people have also been streaming MP3s. I do see the streaming of WAVs and FLACs as being the inevitable standard. I know Tidal is doing that now, which is nice.

The major labels have essentially reached a consensus regarding making hi-res streaming options become standard operating procedure, which is something that’s very encouraging to my ears.

I was just thinking about this two months ago. We’re at this moment where it should start coming online as the standard, so that’s good to hear they’re already making those inroads. And when that happens, I’ll feel a little more at ease, because the CD by far is currently the best way to listen.

Well, CDs are at 44.1kHz/16 bit, but we also have some artists releasing material on Blu-ray Audio discs at 96kHz/24 bit, and even 192kHz/24 bit. Since Starset has already laid down a good, high-quality sonic template on these two records, to have you to be at the forefront of the hi-res audio movement would be ideal, in my opinion.

Oh, that’s cool. We have to look into doing that.

Like you were mentioning in regards to Moore’s Law, the cost of storage space is an irrelevant argument at this point in terms of file size.

“I think WAV streaming could be the next record player.”

It is as far as audio goes, definitely. The streaming of video is already ahead of that, and that is basically making it a given that audio has to get to that level. Blu-ray is a different thing, but to get higher quality for streaming may only need a better education of the audience to get it there.

You have people buying albums from bands like us that were recorded digitally, and there is an interesting “loss” there. The audience may not understand what they’re losing by buying an MP3. For a younger kid, that’s just been the standard for so long. But I think WAV could become the new record player. And it sure would be cool to make the audiophile way become the new thing, to be honest.

No argument here. I think of how good songs like Satellite and Ricochet, especially with all those sampled strings, sound in their higher-res forms.

Whenever I go work with Ben [Grosse, noted producer and mixer] while we’re mixing, there have been multiple times when I’ll go, even with the best listening setup, “I wish that sonic landscape had more room for me!” And then we talk about where we could get more room for my vocals. I really hate it when things are compressed, and then it’s gone.

Did you ever have to compromise on any of your mixes when you’re dealing with compression?

No, because the best thing works, and we do it right for CD. But I’ll hear what it sounds like on YouTube, and I’ll go, “Ahhh, I can’t believe how many people are listening to it like this!”

I love the space-exploration angle on Vessels. You must have seen the Nat Geo Mars series by now, right?

I’m literally saving it. I downloaded the Nat Geo app to my Roku, and I’m just waiting to get it going, but I keep getting sidetracked. I can’t wait to watch it. It’s definitely on my list.

I love how they blend fact and fiction on Mars. Whenever they were talking to Elon Musk, I kept thinking, “Dustin needs to be on that first manned flight … ”

Actually, I’m this close to having a meeting with him. My friend is a director over there at SpaceX.

“I’m too much of a pragmatist to want to go on the first manned flight to Mars”

Would you go to Mars right away if Elon said, “Hey, I’ve got a spot for you?”

No. Not initially. I’m too much of a pragmatist and a realist. It’s just too dangerous (laughs). It’s too early on. I’ll leave that to the super-crazy guys.

I’d rather be involved in many other ways first, like helping create the tech. Eventually, it would be fun to go — just not at first.

Fair enough. I’ve seen a few clips online of Starset covering David Bowie’s Space Oddity live. Would covering Bowie’s Life on Mars be a logical follow-up? 

I’ve already put some thought into that. I think the next time we cover something, it’s going to be a little less obvious — like maybe we do something by Type O Negative, because they’re so cinematic.

Oh man, I’d love to hear you tackle a Type O track — in hi-res, of course.

We’ll have to talk about it some more internally. (laughs)

You know, after WAVs become the standard for streaming, I have to think, “Then what?” It would be amazing to incorporate mixing with 360 and VR. When I’m listening to that 360 mix, I could look over here [points left], and I could bring in the guitar. Or it could be a virtual sphere where everything is already mixed so, if you’re standing or sitting at the center, you could literally walk over to where the strings are mixed over here [points left] or there [points right]. And the closer I get to it, the louder the string piece gets. A cello will be over here and a synth will be over there, in the space I mixed it in. That’s how you’d really experience it on the next level.

I love that idea. Is there one Starset track you could cite as your optimal 360-degree listening experience in VR?

Hmmm. Good question. It would have to be something with high dynamics. Vessels has more of that with more orchestration, whereas Transmissions had more of a quartet feel to it.

I’d vote for either Ricochet or Satellite.

Satellite is definitely one. Into the Unknown has a lot of crazy layers, and so does Starlight. Hmm. We’d have to use accelerometers and location-based time shifts to do it right. We’re all about technology as a band, so why not do a little of the work on the audio technology side as well? Right now, I’m pretty ramped up about the VR experience that you can mix yourself.

I’m totally down with that. I saw how you used VR headsets in the Monster video, and you also had the 360-degree user option in the Ricochet video, the one that’s set in the hospital room.

Yeah, and there will be a lot more forthcoming from all that. We’re always experimenting with the positives and negatives of future technology. There’s a lot of negative stuff coming from many corners, so we’ll have a lot of our own positive hands-on stuff forthcoming too.

Even the concept of binaural listening isn’t used enough. Many stereo headphones just don’t cut it because what you’re hearing still comes from a single source. You need to record things using two microphones, set the same distance apart.

Years ago, a guy named Hugo Zuccarelli tried to popularize binaural tech with a recording system called Holophonics, but it never really took off. And more recently, DTS has experimented with 3D listening options with their own Headphone:X technology.

I’m glad you told me about all that, because I didn’t realize how much work was already being done in that universe. I want to see how far along they are in the VR listening experience — like if the virtual listening speakers are where you feel like the cellists are in the room with you. In fact, you could actually do that live. Hmm. Maybe that’s what we do with VR. You put the speakers in the room, you walk around them, and that actually mixes the record for you.

In Starset, we’ve been talking about doing a lot of “audio nerd” kind of stuff for the actual live show. Part of the show could be accessed on headphones with Bluetooth, which would augment the show. It’s something we’ve been actively discussing.

I’d love to dial right into your board mix during a show, either via headphones or ear monitors through an app on my phone. That’s something I’ve done at some live shows over the past year by using Here One’s wireless in-ear monitors.

Oh, wow. It’s all mathematical anyway. It knows where you’re at, so it’s calculating reverbs and things to give you a greater spatial experience. I’ve been nerd-talking with my audio engineer about it. We’re still a bit away from doing that ourselves live, but we’re always thinking about the future.