Interview | Envelop
Grammy-nominated guitarist and producer, Christopher Willits, occupies a unique corner of the musical universe, hovering somewhere above the intersection of electronic production’s nuts and bolts and a wide-open creative mind. He focuses on three-dimensional ambient electronic music created with processed guitar and voice. His tireless activity has produced over 25 albums in the last 15 years—both solo and in collaboration with artists including Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tycho, and Taylor Deupree. His music, complemented by his earth-inspired photos and videos, has forged a world-wide audience that listens intently.
Willits always dreamed of listening to music in the same way that he experiences sound in the world, all around him. He wanted others to also be inside the music he was creating so that they too could experience the benefits he was feeling from the sound. Four years ago, mutual friends introduced him to an avenue to pursue that dream through the creation of Envelop. After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015, his team realized that they were beginning to operate more than a singular tech project, and that a non-profit organization would best serve the mission to amplify the physical, emotional and social benefits of music.
Q: Can you tell me more about the 3D spatial audio tools that you are creating at Envelop?
We’ve created a spatial audio toolset that works natively with Ableton Live 10 Suite, called Envelop for Live. This allows anyone to create 3D experiences of music with multiple speakers or simply using normal headphones.
Q: What inspired you to work on Envelop? Tell me about how it came to be and how it got started.
I’ve been dreaming about sharing my music as a completely immersive experience since I began creating music as a kid. There’s never been a cohesive and creative solution that’s easy to work with, and even if you could make spatial music, there was no place to listen to it.
Envelop grew out of a passion to amplify the power of music and the listening experience, not just for my audience, but for many other creators and their audiences as well. We knew that we needed to make the tools and methods to create spatial music accessible, and we also needed to create listening venues to serve that music.
The whole Envelop team has put so much love and attention into this whole movement, and we’re really grateful that people are seeing, and most importantly hearing, the value with us.
Q: Who is the software platform designed for? What kind of equipment(s) is recommended with the software? For example, is this software something bedroom producers/ live sound engineers or venue owners could use today?
It’s designed for anyone who wants to create and design sound and music experiences in 3D. Stereo music is just fine, but music designed to be all around you, in three dimensions, is amplified emotionally on a whole other level.
Q: Stereo mixing is largely the standard these days for music production and mixing. How does society catch up to these emerging trends?
Stereo is the standard, it has been for many years, and will continue to be the standard for years to come. But we’re finally seeing a new opening, with many different companies, and use cases, understanding the value of an industry standard for spatial audio. Envelop is helping to create this industry handshake. It’s also important to understand that traditional stereo production techniques all apply to spatial audio production as well. You can create stereo stems, or layers of a composition, and then mix it in 3D using Envelop for Live. That’s actually one of the best ways to get into producing spatial music.
With that said, the technical solution we have created for 3D sound is not our main target. Our mission is a social one, to amplify the connective power of music. When people have an incredible experience of music together, when people are literally within the music, another level of listening emerges. I feel it’s similar to what happens in meditation or when someone is on psychedelics. Micheal Pollan goes into detail about this in his book How to Change Your Mind. The analytical mind relaxes, and the entire brain becomes more cohesive. We believe that these experiences of being “inside the music”, together, have great social-emotional benefit for society.
In the end, we are society and everyone in society is capable of listening, so there’s not much “catch up” that is needed. I’d say society as a whole has generated this possibility of a 3D sound field that can be scaled and reproduced. It sounds like completely futuristic stuff, but it’s here and now, and people are listening.
Spatial audio in the form of MS recording and mastering techniques have already been used for years in popular music. In addition, a lot of people listen to music on headphones and spatial audio is going to continue to sound more “real” and 3D on normal headphones or ear buds.
I was asked to work with St. Vincent to create the spatial mix for a huge geodesic dome film experience at Coachella. It was a massive production and a great opportunity to show people how much high-quality immersive sound matters in domes and that Envelop for Live can be used outside of Envelop listening spaces.
Q: Do you have plans to create additional sound spaces in other locations?
Q: Are there any challenges you have needed to overcome while working on the Envelop project?
Absolutely. Envelop has been so fun to grow and work on because of the vast number of challenges and creative solutions we’ve had to come up with. Everything from telling the story without confusing people, to creating an official non-profit with hard expenses, to running a couple Envelop events per week, all of these things have a lot of moving parts.
In the big picture, we’re just getting things started. We’ve made it past some of our biggest challenges, with many more to come as we continue to scale, and as more people begin to share the vision of public immersive listening. Envelop challenges us on all levels of design. From the ground up we have designed the physical experience of 3D sound in our listening spaces. We’ve designed the technical process or creating spatial music, educating about the process, promoting events, developing experience products, and creating spatial content. Now we’re designing an affiliate network of business partners and creative partners world-wide.
Q: Where do you see 3D immersive sound technologies in the next five to ten years?
In five years a lot more people are going to be making spatial music, it’s starting to happen as we speak. In ten years we’re going to have a network of listening venues around the world. In the future I’d love to have a world tour where I only perform in Envelop venues.