General Electric and agency The Barbarian Group brought the electronic musician and DJ to its Global Research Center (GRC) in Niskayuna, New York, to sample sounds from its many machines in order to create an original track called “Drop Science.”
“My first instinct was to think, ‘Okay, what kind of big commercial thing is this going to be?’ to be honest,” says Dear. “I didn’t know much about GE, apart from the logo on my oven, so I was going in a bit blind. But as soon as I drove up to its facility–it’s like a campus–and then seeing all the research labs, and the pictures of the research directors dating back to early 1900s, it was really inspiring to be there. It’s like a giant science lab.”
Dear spent a day at the GRC, guided by GE sound engineer Andrew Gorton, gathering sounds from a wide variety of whirring, bleeping, and vibrating machinery. He was pretty surprised at the level of access he was afforded–from wandering around on his own to recording the workings of highly sensitive research.
“At one point we went to this underwater, kind of sonic imaging machine, where they’d have different oscillation frequencies and tones generated in a tank of water,” says Dear. “It looked like, in my layman’s science assessment, they were trying to determine what different frequencies did inside and outside a pipe underwater. When I asked what it was for, they said it was top-secret information. Which is cool, because it was actual real things they’re working on, not just a weird bag of toys they put together for the visitor.”
Once he had all the bleeps and bloops he could handle, Dear tinkered away in his studio for about two weeks, sorting through the more than 1,000 sound samples he had collected. His first, most obvious challenge was where to start. “What’s the first thing you do when you have so much data to work with?” he says. “I just had to sit in my chair and start playing with random things. I just kept tweaking and morphing sounds.”
He took the beeping and the whirring of an MRI machine and put it through a granular synth sampling app, stretching it out to make it more of a melodic musical note that sounded more like a synthesizer or organ sound. Dear says he was just trying to let the material point him in the right direction. “I wasn’t even thinking about the finish line or a song, I just immersed myself in the sounds and the data. Slowly but surely, it worked. After two or three days of playing with the sounds I started to see which ones lent themselves best to being in the song. There was a lot of just machine noise that’s almost a bit too offensive to the ears. I didn’t want to just make some metal machine music like Lou Reed that pisses everybody off. So it was a tightrope to walk to make sure it was equal parts experimentation, something that represented GE but also something that was clearly one of my productions. It was an interesting blend to hit all those angles without going too far off in one direction.”
He ended up creating a few percussive sounds himself, but says even those were inspired by his visit to Niskayuna. The track starts off with a conversation Dear had in one of the water tank testing labs with a GE technician who walked him through the various frequencies. “Once I heard that I thought it summed up the whole thing–me and someone from GE talking about sound frequencies and what they’re doing at this very moment. That set the tone and everything went from there.”
The experience has given Dear a new perspective on the potential for sound. Hearing Andrew [Gorton] talk about what he does and the projects they work on was really eye-opening and inspiring,” he says. “What I do for art and creativity, guys like him are doing it to save lives or make peoples’ lives better. For example, MRI machines are really loud and the experience of getting an MRI can be intimidating, so they’re thinking about how to make the machine quieter in order to make the experience less traumatic. It’s a completely different approach to sound than I was familiar with.”