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.

Movies & TV

How Avengers: Infinity War’s Oscar-nominated VFX team made Thanos a movie star

The purple-skinned Thanos proved to be a breakout character in Avengers: Infinity War, thanks to the work of actor Josh Brolin and visual effects studios Digital Domain and Weta. Here's how they brought him to life and earned the film an…
Home Theater

Reasons not to mount a TV over your fireplace (and other helpful tips)

Mounting a TV above your fireplace may be popular and it might even seem appealing, but we have some concerns. We've got a list of reasons why placing your digital picture machine over a fire should be avoided, if at all possible.

How you can share your best gaming moments with friends on the PS4

Check out Digital Trends' quick guide to everything you need to know to save your outstanding PlayStation 4 gameplay moments, share them online, and transfer them to your computer.
Emerging Tech

How can digital art created on obsolete platforms be preserved?

As the lines between art and technology continue to blur, digital art experiences become more commonplace. But these developments are raising an important question for art conservationists: How should digital artworks be preserved?

How skillful translations helped these Japanese video games gain global appeal

Thanks to their translators, some Japanese games are seeing greater success abroad than at home, teaching players about Japan and its culture in the process.

The history of Battle Royale: From mod to worldwide phenomenon

Battle royale games like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds’ and Fortnite have become the biggest trend in video games. The genre is also pushing the envelope in Twitch streaming and eSports.

Bringing realism to VR is complex, but these developers found a way in holograms

Making virtual reality feel real is the hardest job of all VR developers. For Awake: Episode One, StartVR used volumetric recording, rather than motion capture, to bring its characters to life like never before.

Mazda Hot Lap Challenge winner to test drive in MX-5 Cup car

Mazda Motorsports and iRacing partnered to find undiscovered talent in the gaming world. Now there’s a winner who has earned a test day in a Global MX-5 Cup car, and a new chance to win in 2019.

Schubert left Symphony No. 8 unfinished. A smartphone’s A.I. just completed it

We all know computers can be used to make music, but can artificial intelligence be used to not only generate music, but complete one of the most famous unfinished symphonies of all time? Huawei has used its A.I. to find out.
Home Theater

From live VR to the stadium beer line, 5G will revolutionize how we watch sports

As 5G prepares to roll out across the U.S., nearly every experience will benefit, including sports. Instant mobile access to blazing-fast internet will change the way we experience our favorite sports, both in the stadium and at home.
Emerging Tech

The next big challenge for Google’s A.I. is a card game you’ve never heard of

DeepMind, the Alphabet-owned deep learning company, thinks the next big challenge in A.I. is mastering a cooperative card game about fireworks, called Hanabi. Here's why it's so tough.
Health & Fitness

My niece lost her hearing. This is a story about how technology brought it back

For people with profound hearing loss, cochlear implants can restore sound. We explore what the procedure entails, how the system works, and take a look at the latest developments from Australian company Cochlear.

The web has grown up, but browsers haven’t. It’s time for a reboot

The web has changed a lot over the years, and so has the way we use it. The thing that hasn’t changed? The web browser, the tool every one of us depends on. Here's why it's well past time for new ideas.
Emerging Tech

Does a steam-powered spacecraft hold the key to exploring the solar system?

A newly developed spacecraft prototype capable of using steam as a propellent may help the first miners survey potential dig sites and identify space rocks best fit for mining missions. Future versions may be fitted with sensors, allowing…