Interview with Rob Toulson, Professor of Creative Industries – Commercial Music

WIAS director Christian Fuchs interviews Rob Toulson, Professor of Creative Industries – Commercial Music, University of Westminster, to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of conducting interdisciplinary research, the repercussions of Brexit, and the contemporary academic landscape.

Rob Toulson researches the intersection of the arts and technology fields. He has invented the iDrumTune iPhone App, which assists percussionists with drum tuning and has been downloaded over 30,000 times since its launch in 2012. He has a substantial track record of successful collaborations with industry and has led a number of Knowledge Transfer Partnership projects. With sustained research interests in music production and sound engineering, mobile applications and user experience design, as well as in embedded electronics and digital signal processing, he is ideally placed to advance and lead research, knowledge transfer and academic programme developments in music and sound at the intersection of art, science and engineering.

CF: What are your main research interests?

RT: My research interests revolve around sound and music and their relationships with science and technology. My research background was initially in vibration and acoustics analysis, which led me to develop digital analysis systems and novel signal processing algorithms. I then moved into electronic embedded systems design; simulating and developing electro-mechanical control systems for the automotive industry. As a musician and music producer, I found that the technologies and algorithms I was developing professionally were entirely relevant in the context of sound and audio technology. I now combine these creative and technical areas in my research and extrapolate knowledge into other artistic fields such as film, video games and fine art.

CF: Your research transcends the boundaries between computing, art, and cultural studies. Terms such as interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, cross-disciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, mode 2-research, etc. are used for boundary-transcending research. What is your understanding of this kind of research? And what are possible advantages and disadvantages of doing interdisciplinary research? Can you also speak about your own experiences in this respect?

RT: I think the relationship between art and technology is fascinating and challenging. I’m very interested in the cycle of innovation that is pushed and pulled through creativity and technological advance. New technologies empower the creative industries and offer new forms of artistic expression. However, in my experience, creativity then generally pushes the new technologies to their limits through artistic use and abuse, justifying new innovations and ongoing opportunities for technology developers.

My iDrumTune drum tuning app is a great example, which started out as an artistic study into how percussionists tune their instruments and what genres of music suit different tunings. It became apparent that percussionists actually found drum tuning very difficult to master, and there was an opportunity to develop new technology to assist. Now the technology exists it is possible to perform even more detailed artistic and cultural analysis looking at the tuning data and creative choices of percussionists of many genres and in locations all around the world. Once that study is complete there will be a new opportunity to incorporate the knowledge into further technology improvements in the app. The cycle goes on.

A main challenge with cross-disciplinary research is often the communication barrier between the creative and technical industries. They can sometimes speak different languages and have very different cultural approaches to design and project management. As cross-disciplinary experts, we have an opportunity to assist and improve those communication channels and ensure that the cycle of creative and technical innovation is accelerated and yields impactful results.

CF: Philosophy is the oldest transdiscipline and meta-science. It has influenced the very concept of theory. What is the role of theory and philosophy in your field of studies? What is your understanding of the relevance of theory and philosophy in interdisciplinarity in general and your field of studies in particular?

RT: Essentially I’m an engineer operating in a creative environment. There are many scientific theories that hold true in the sound and music fields, but others that are based on empirical analyses rather than core rules of physics. Human perception of hearing is a huge and continuously growing field of investigation, which can only be contributed to effectively through conducting listening tests and practical experiments with cohorts of test subjects. Many of the early experiments that defined our core knowledge of hearing was conducted long before audio technology was sufficiently reliable, meaning that results and theories on listening perception are still subjective and argued between experts in the field. Nowadays it is possible to develop advanced digital algorithms for manipulating sound, yet we find it extremely hard to predict or even measure how listeners respond to subtle changes in sound. The MP3 data compression algorithm is a good example of a development that some people can hear artefacts within, whereas others cannot. Culture plays a role here – a teenager nowadays may not have ever experienced recorded music that hasn’t been data compressed! Moving forwards we are developing audio algorithms that enhance recorded sounds for video games, virtual environments, high resolution playback and for storing invisible or inaudible metadata within the sound itself, so the philosophy and development of critical theory is constantly evolving.

CF: In contemporary academia, there is lots of talk about open access publishing, open data and open science/research. What is the role of these developments in your field of study? And how do you assess them?

RT: One of my main fields of study, music production, is – like many interdisciplinary fields – relatively new in an academic context. It’s therefore refreshing that it doesn’t need to follow any particular model of knowledge-gathering and dissemination. New fields can write their own rules. In such an artistic field there is rarely a race to discover something new; each investigation in music production is unique in its own right, bringing subjective and tacit learning that contributes to the body of academic knowledge. In this context, open access publishing makes the most sense and even non-peer reviewed articles can still be of great value to the community if they are describing unique and personal approaches to research and knowledge gathering. This is particularly valid with respect to the cross-disciplinary nature of contemporary sound and music research; drawing on artistic practice alongside physics, electronics, mathematics and physiology, there is a need for open access systems to enable an investigator to evaluate all of the existing knowledge that relates to their research.

CF: The EU Referendum and “Brexit” may be one of the most wide-ranging developments European politics has seen in many decades. And at the moment probably the most talked-about topic in British academia is the question what impacts Brexit may have on universities, academia, research and teaching. How do you assess the situation and what possible impacts do you see?

RT: Knowledge has no language or geography and experts will always find ways to inspire each other and collaborate. It is of course important to build frameworks to enable those connections and collaborations to take place, and it is essential that those connections are not bound within a single country or region. The value of European Commission research funding has been hugely significant to UK academia and a post-Brexit Britain will need to create it’s own mechanisms for ensuring that academic collaboration across Europe – and worldwide – is maintained and supported.


Books by Rob Toulson:
Hepworth-Sawyer, R., Hodgson, J., Paterson, J. and Toulson, E. R. (editors) (2016). Innovation In Music II, Future Technology Press.

Hepworth-Sawyer, R., Hodgson, J., Paterson, J. and Toulson, E. R. (editors) (2014). Innovation In Music 2013, Future Technology Press.

Toulson, E. R. & Wilmshurst, T. (2016). Fast and Effective Embedded Systems Design: Applying the ARM mbed, 2nd Edition, Elsevier Publishing.

Toulson, E. R. & Wilmshurst, T. (2012). Fast and Effective Embedded Systems Design: Applying the ARM mbed, Elsevier Publishing.

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