Self-described composer, remixer, sound designer, visionary with over 15 years of experience in the music, film, and video game industries, Intel® Software Innovator Justin Lassen, is well versed in all aspects of the creative arts, and his blend of classical technique and modern methodology has defined his success in all manner of genres. Justin is an enthusiastic, networking genius who loves all things tech and tells us a bit more about himself below.
Tell us about your background.
At heart I am an artist. Whether that means visual or audio, I’ve done everything from filmmaking, videography, acting, performance to programming to music composition. What got me into music is that I was always interested in theatre and choir, so growing up those were always my favorite classes. Singing every morning to start my day was the best feeling in the world. Choir and just being around grand pianos were the catalyst for my interest in music composition and theory. I always listened to so many genres of music as case studies, always wondering how they came up with those sounds, those progressions and those ideas.
I was fascinated with Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) technology and how different musical devices, synthesizers communicate with each other. Sampling audio and field recording became an obsession. I wanted to make all kinds of art and music growing up, I started in pop/punk bands, rock/industrial bands, classical composition and string arrangements as well as remixing indie artists and major label artists. I had a lot of amazing mentors over the years that helped introduce me to all the right people in all the right places. It was Robert Miles and Peter Gabriel who initially set me on my path, and I’ll never forget them.
What got you started in technology?
I’ve been into technology since a young age. I started as a programmer as a kid. I got my first corporate sponsorship from Microsoft at the age of 12. I started programming on Apple* IIe and Atari* 800 XL computers. So I’ve seen the industry grow from the early beginning stages to the monster that it is today. I can remember when we got our first Intel’s® 80286 (286) computer; it was a glorious day. As Intel released newer processors and generations of technology we kept up to date (386, 486, Pentium®, Pentium® II, Pentium® III). It was a blur just how fast Intel was quickening technology in those days.
I first started coding in Qbasic, BasicXL, C++, Visual Basic and Visual C++. In high school, Microsoft continued to see potential in me and every time a new version of their programming software was released they would drop a copy of it off at my high school. I was always tinkering with code, hardware and software. I got into web programming since the NCSA Mosaic* browser and kept my skills up to date, until my late teen years when I fell in love with music, another form of programming and language.
How has your interest in sound design brought you to where you are today?
I first started doing music composition when Cakewalk was first starting, and Windows* 3.1 had software like Midisoft* Recording Studio, which was a notation-based music sequencing software. I was using Windows* Sound Recorder and mesmerized by the Echo and Reverb functions built into the software at the time. Many years later, I was one of the original “Fruity Loops” (software) official artists back in the mid 90’s but when I discovered Sonic Foundry’s* ACID technology, I became so inspired by music, sound design and audio technology and naturally became interested in all audio tech.
In those days standards were still kind of all over the place, so creators today have no idea the way audio software was shaped in those days! ACID was later acquired by Sony and then acquired by Intel partner Magix in Germany. “Fruity Loops” was renamed to “FL Studio”, and reimagined as an entire Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Because of seeing all this software grow from these early days, I’m amazed at where we are at. Truly at least in audio technology, we are in the state of the art, the prime. Having witnessed music tech from the 80’s to present, I love seeing the resurgence of sound design from bygone eras brought back to life in new modern ways.
How important of a factor is audio/sound in game development, Virtual Reality, etc.?
Audio is equally as important to the experience of video games, movies and Virtual Reality (VR). George Lucas was right in saying that “audio is 50% of the show”; can you imagine sitting through 3 HOURS of Lord of the Rings without Howard Shore’s score? Would JAWS be as scary today if not for those few notes composed by John Williams? Music and sound design are what make big budget blockbuster films seem “big budget” and “block buster”. Audio is a mild form of hypnosis in many ways. Even in ancient times, music, rhythm and sound were used to inspire armies and intimidate foes. We live in a world where wave frequencies are the secrets to the universe.
So, needless-to-say, in video games, cut scenes, dramatic cues are what made us all fans of so many hit games over the years. VR is even more dependent on audio than any other genre or technology. With normal games, video console games, portable games and mobile games you can put the volume down and play and get the basic experience, but with VR, the audio is integral to the entire experience being felt as “real”. Audio makes the “space” come alive, particularly spatial audio, surround technology. Spatial audio designers are just as important to the entire game as the lead programmer, in virtual reality experiences.
Tell us about Shapesong.
I see Shapesong as an “edutainment” tool, a fun experience and a learning tool. On the surface it’s a wonderland of instruments you can go up to and play! On a deeper level as it evolves, I see it being a more social tool where people can create music together in virtual reality. The social aspect and the multiplayer aspect will be powerful new realms to bring it into. So it’s very Disney inspired in that it has depth but it’s easy to pick up and learn right away.
When Ryan Clark and Justin Link, of Chronosapien, brought me on, they were relying on established found-presets for the tones and multi-samples. They asked me to create a bunch of new specific audio direction and creative presets/instruments for the experience to bring new life into it. We first showcased my contributions at Austin Game Conference (AGC) 2016 - the year we won best of show award! I think the power of collaboration shows itself right there! It was an honor to be part of it and even more exciting that Shapesong started getting more accolades at other shows too, when we put our brain power together. Ryan and Justin are amazing developers and I’m so glad I met them.
One of the prizes for winning best of show was one of us got to go to DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) 2017 this year. Justin and Ryan were super busy on new code and getting the new “2.0” build ready for Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2017, and sent me to learn at DICE instead. So that was really cool of them and one of the pivotal moments where I felt like I was truly part of the Chronosapien family.
Tell us about your experience at NAMM.
National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) is a special show to me. I’ve been going to NAMM for so many years, that at this point the entire conference feels like a HUGE family reunion. Once you go for a few years you start to see the way things work at NAMM. It’s basically the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) of audio, if I had to define it in parallel. Only industry people, audio developers and celebrity endorsed artists can attend NAMM, so it’s high quality people all around. No public allowed. So, you get truly awesome conversations with the brilliant minds who help shape the audio industry. I’m so grateful for my time at NAMM each year and even more grateful for my partnerships with so many audio hardware and software manufacturers.
I never thought I was going to be an industry preset designer (the sounds and preferences that ship with products), and now it’s kind of amazing that I started on Windows* 3.1 and today I can walk into a Guitar Center store and know that I’m in a ton of the products and boxes! That’s surreal! If it wasn’t for NAMM giving me the opportunity to meet all these amazing developers, I wouldn’t get access to some of the coolest audio technology before the public and before they become standards. Academically that’s also very interesting to me, I love when I give talks or keynotes at other shows, I can showcase technology that isn’t released yet, and I have a hand in crafting how they phase from alpha to beta to release candidates. I’m one of many industry preset designers, but we all flock to each other in social media and at shows, so it’s cool to walk the floor at the show and have so many people recognize me! Audio nerds unite!
What are your thoughts on virtual reality and the future of audio?
My first experience with “Virtual Reality” was in the early 90’s with this giant contraption/headset thing and a trigger controller they gave you. You were on this atrociously ugly looking chessboard and you had to shoot others. You could look around just like today, but it was like DOS-era graphics! So today it’s amazing to me that we’re still using the same concept, but just with better technology, and that it didn’t just sprout out from nowhere, but lots of brilliant minds have helped shape it to where it is today.
I’ve been working in VR for the last 4 years mostly on behind-the-scenes and secret projects for various big companies, a lot of them shelved and a lot of them just never released or used purely for pitch purposes. I remember when todays’ headsets were just taped together with Velcro and glued together for behind-door demos. So I’m very glad that now anyone has the ability to bring VR technology to their homes. There are still VR arcades but I think the at-home experiences will continue to get better and better.
There are no clear winners in VR still, there’s no “coke” and “pepsi” of VR standards yet. While we all love our HTC* Vive’s and Oculus* Rifts, each Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) has their own proprietary headsets in the works, and I think it’s just going to get more interesting! Just like there are laptops from Dell, HP, Toshiba, Microsoft, etc. I think the future will have a standard software with different headsets from Dell, HP, Intel, Lenovo, etc. I think that’s in the not-so-distant-future.
As for the future of audio, that’s another story all together. In many ways I feel like we’re further in audio technology than we are in graphics technology if you were to compare them side-by-side. Although graphics is finally catching up. Little things like snapchat filters which are supposed to be fun little experiences for average people, visually, I think audio has been there a long time, but it’s getting more equal these days. I’ve been working on the “future of audio” since the early 2000’s, so I’ve seen everything that is out today when it was just a flicker in some programmer’s eye. As a factory preset designer, I get involved in audio technology pretty early on with manufacturers, so I get to see all kinds of neat audio stuff, released, and unreleased.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing a lot of behind-the-scenes consulting work right now, with a lot of high profile companies. Most of it is under NDA still. I’m working with some big film companies, agencies and technology firms. The stuff is really cool, and I can’t wait for the world to see it, but sometimes you just have to shut your mouth and respect the projects.
However, I still do plenty of travel, demos, shows and trips and I share quite often on my blog! I recently helped launch a payload to space with another Intel® Software Innovator, Moheeb Zara! That was an awesome learning experience. I also mentored students at the Intel® Software sponsored event Emergentech: Hack ASU event, which helped students brush up on their pitching skills as well as innovations. I have blog entries about both of these events up. I’ve got Virtual Reality LA (VRLA), Silicon Valley Comic Con (SVCC), Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and many other events coming up!
I am still working with several innovators in the Intel program and everyday we’re always talking about new hardware and software projects, honestly I feel so honored that I get to work with that caliber of people and that they want to work with me. I’m also working on the follow-up to my White Rabbit Asylum library release I did with Sony a few years ago. I’m working on a new album of music, I’m scoring a few documentaries and working with some audio manufacturers on some new audio plugins and preset designs. One thing is for certain, I’m always working on something and I’m always doing conference calls, brainstorm sessions and thinking of the future. Life is so short and I want to be as involved as I can for as long as I can be involved. I love life.
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