Michael Baugh: How AI tech is changing the future of music composition and production

Michael Baugh, an up-and-coming British media composer, artist, and music producer discusses his recent composition, Break the Stars, that he created with fellow musicians Tina Guo and Rusanda Panfili, cellist and violinist with Hans Zimmer’s band, and Anna Sentina, a bassist with over 56M views on YouTube.

What made this recording unique is Baugh’s use of new AI-based technology, typically popular with guitarists, which fuses four remote recordings from renowned string musicians.

When did your interest in composing start?

It started with a documentary film, but I've been composing since I was 15. I started writing stuff with a guitar – I just never recorded it. The actual film composing stuff started a few years back with a documentary. 

I remember feeling somewhat out of my depth with it because there's processes to do this, and if you don't know them then you will hit loads of barriers and things that should take three or four minutes can take you days, because you don't know what you're doing.

I ended up doing a master's degree online with ThinkSpace Education, which is run by Disney Marvel DreamWorks composer Guy Michelmore. That taught me music production and how to compose because we were learning from industry professionals. 

You weren't learning the romantic view of how it should be, you're learning how to do it in the real world. Having such high level professional direction at ThinkSpace gave me the jump I wanted in both composing and music production.

If I've subverted expectations, then great because it was purely accidental!

What has been your favourite music composition project of your career so far?

To be honest, my favourite one so far has been the weirdest commission I've ever got, which was the one for Neural DSP. It was the most unusual brief I've ever had. It was writing for electric cello, electric violin, electric guitar, electric bass, drums and piano. 

When you're staring at your studio and you've got an empty DAW in front of you, you think, ‘What do I play for all of these instruments?’ There's so many directions you can go in and every instrument has its own limitations, but as I was going through the process and recording all of the parts, it was just such a joy to do.

Do you relish the variety of work you work across as a composer?

You have to be a chameleon of sorts when you're a composer. This line of work is great for people who don't want to do the same thing, day in, day out. 

Groundhog Day isn't a thing that happens for composers because you're learning new skills every day, you're having to do things in genres that you didn't even play in before or even knew existed in some cases, or you're using instruments that you've never even played before or heard before in certain instances. So it's very much a-learn-as-you-go job, but you build everything on experience with other things. 

It's a never ending layering process of learning new skills and finding yourself in weird, new situations all the time.

Groundhog Day isn't a thing that happens for composers.

Tell me about your recent composition, Break the Stars.

I said to Neural DSP, ‘Why don't we do something to show what the Quad Cortex can do for different genres and different instruments? I'll compose something to show you can plug an electric cello into this electric violin – literally anything you want – and you can get amazing results’. To my shock and surprise, they went, ‘Yep, let's do it!’ There was a moment of, ‘What have I got myself into?’ But the brief was quite open, it was more down to showing how agile Neural DSP is.

I contacted Tina Guo, who is a cellist everyone knows from Dune, James Bond, Interstellar Inception and Pirates of the Caribbean. I really wanted her on it because she's got such an incredible touch.

Rusanda Panfili is Hans Zimmer's violinist – she's an incredible, unbelievable improviser. It was the first time she's ever played in a rock context, because she plays mainly classical stuff.

Her recording on Break the Stars is the first time she's played in that genre, which was mind blowing because when she sent me that recording it it sounded like she'd been doing it for years.

I’ve worked with Anna Sentina a few times before as well, and she's become a great friend. She's more than a great bass player – she has such a good touch – it's very musical. I was really curious about how each of these musicians would use the Quad Cortex.

I was really happy with how everybody created their own sound and nobody sounded remotely similar. I think the results speak for themselves because if you didn't know that we were all using the same unit, you wouldn't know.

You have to be a chameleon of sorts when you're a composer.

Break the Stars is a combination of rock, classical strings and heavy drums; is it important to you in your work to blend genres and subvert expectations of the classical genre?

I grew up listening to Jeff Wayne's The War of The Worlds which breaks the rules and subverts expectations, probably unintentionally. I think I do it unintentionally too, because I love film scores and I love rock guitar so it feels very natural for me to write stuff with those instruments, even though they're normally separated. I like to treat them as the same thing.

That's why we're doing electric cello and electric violin, as opposed to acoustic instruments. For me, it's mainly my love of film score and my love of rock guitar music coming together. If I've subverted expectations, then great because it was purely accidental!

Tell me about how the Quad Cortex is integral to this composition; what have you used this technology to achieve?

Normally a guitar player, or anyone who plays bass or electric cello or electric violin would typically plug into an amp or into pedals, and then that will go into an amplifier. The Quad Cortex is everything in one very small box. 

This unit captures sounds of amplifiers, so it comes with hundreds of amps inside of it, but it's not designed to sound like those amps, it has actually captured those sounds with this AI algorithm.

You can change things and add all sorts of different effects, you can EQ it, you can basically get a perfect mix from this device. It's the one thing you need now – you don't really need amplifiers anymore, or pedals – you can just use this one device. 

The beauty of it is it's an audio interface, so you can have it on your desk and go right into the computer, and you can record directly without any microphones, which means you don't pick up background noise.

The Quad Cortex does all of the things that people have been saying for years that other devices do – they finally cracked it when they created this digital unit.

How are new technologies changing the future of music composition and production?

I think it's made it easier. It saves time. You're not playing around with microphones. You've got more time to play and experiment because everything is in one place, in one box where you can be hands on and creative. You can find things faster and you can create sounds quicker. 

For younger people who are perhaps recording from a laptop in their bedroom, they can get a soundproof room. It's made it more accessible, it's made it more cost effective. 

It saves us time, and the results that you get are unreal – how fast you can go from nothing to this really stunning, finely-tuned sound.

The Genelecs give me the clean, pure truth of the sound that I'm feeding them.

Where is your home studio and what monitors are you using for your composing and production work?

I work from my home studio here in Plymouth in Devon. I pretty much live in this room. My wife has her own studio next door – she's a piano player.

I’m using Genelec 8030As and then under the desk, I have a sub which is a 7040A. These are the first monitors I’ve ever had – this is how good they are. The ones that I have now are the first monitors I ever bought, and before that I was just using headphones. 

I've had these for just over 12 years, while the sub is a relatively new addition. But the two main monitors are just amazing. I love them.

I would say for me, having tested a lot of monitors before committing to any, the Genelecs have this quality of sounding invisible, I guess is the best way to say it. So if you feed them great sound, you get great sound – you're not getting much coloration – if any.

To my ears, I don't hear any coloration from Genelecs. When compared to other monitors, I keep going back to the Genelecs again, because the other monitors just don't feel honest to me.

The Genelecs give me the clean, pure truth of the sound that I'm feeding them. When I'm making music and when I'm mixing stuff, I don't want to hear any coloration, I want to get the sound just right, and then I can take it to the car or to any other place to listen so that I can hear how the device colours it. I want to hear them clean, and I want to hit them unaffected in the studio.

The main reason I wanted a sub is because when when scoring for film, sometimes you want to play it really loud for fun, and also because you're listening to how the bottom end is sounding – the sub bass – and whether or not you need to tighten up the bass or or loosen it up in some cases.

I noticed that with other subs, the sound is a little bit too rounded. Some people feel Genelecs are quite clinical. If they are clinical it’s because the sound that you fed them is clinical. They're not going to soften the edges for you – they're going to give it to you what you fed it.