Surf music for cyber-jammers

The drums are in San Francisco, keyboards in Notting Hill. Andrew North listens to a band that plays on the Internet
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Ooh, someone's added a bass drum now, here we go," says Tim Bran excitedly, as a deep bass sound begins to pump out of the studio speakers. He peers at the large screen in front of him. "And it says `Erik picks up the snare'." Bran starts to experiment with a tune on the keyboards. Just to his right, fellow band member Willy Henshall is typing in commands on the computer. Res Rocket Surfer is limbering up for another jam.

Res Rocket who? Never heard of them, you're saying. And it's true, you won't have heard them on the radio, picked up their CD, or even caught them by accident in a small-town pub. Surprising, really, for a band that can claim a global reach and whose potential audience is more than 30 million. More surprising still, most of the band's members have never met.

They don't need to meet because Res Rocket Surfer is an Internet band, specialising in "intelligent jungle" music. Scattered around the world, its members use a piece of software they have nicknamed "the Dragon" to link up via the World Wide Web and jam with each other in real time, as if they were in the same studio. "It's a cyber band, so it doesn't really exist anywhere," Henshall says.

Yet anywhere is good enough for jamming, as long as there is a connection to the Net. Henshall has joined in a jam while flying across the United States, using his Powerbook and the plane's on-board phone to link up to the Net. But on this jam, as on most regular sessions, Henshall and Bran, the joint-founders of Res Rocket, are in their studio in Notting Hill, west London.

This is a "real" music studio, and it istheir success as "real" musicians that has allowed them to invest time and money in Res Rocket. Henshall is the guitarist with London Beat, which has had a string of big hits outside the UK. Bran plays keyboards with Dread Zone and has produced and played with several major artists.

Joining them in the virtual studio tonight are Erik in San Francisco, Matt in Chicago, Raphael in Paris and someone logged on as Chardonnay. "Oh, and there's someone in Acton," says Henshall, peering at the dialogue window on the screen, which they use to communicate while jamming.

Meanwhile, Tim has perfected his tune on the keyboards and is using Dragon to add it to the main track. Dragon is actually DRGN, or Distributed Realtime Groove Network. In layman's speak, it works by converting musical sounds into codes that are circulated round a network and then translated back into sounds.

When they want to jam, Res Rocket musicians hook up to the band's Notting Hill servers, which are permanently connected to the Net, and then run DRGN. Strictly speaking, it does not operate in real time. DRGN plays back any tune or beat before translating it into code and adding it to the main track, which means that there is a delay of at least a few seconds between a player creating something and the other cyber-jammers hearing it. It will, however, handle any instrument, as well as vocals.

Dragon was written by Matt Moller and Canton Becker, two US programming whizzes who are now full-time members of the band. Henshall reckons it is the only such system on the Net. From this week they will be running a Web site giving details on how to join Res Rocket. If you are accepted, you will be given a pass to the "backstage" area and the "dressing-room".

Res Rocket started surfing last November, when Bran and Henshall were searching for sounds on the Internet one night. "And we both thought, why not start a cyber band?" They posted a message on eight newsgroups calling for anyone who is "hip to this technology" to send in sound files and ideas. Within two weeks they had 250 responses. Their e-mail boxes have been full ever since. Res Rocket claims more than 1,000 contributing members, sending in everything from multitrack compositions to simple LA street sounds. Many of them are not even musicians. What this would sound like all mixed together hardly bears thinking about.

Eventually Res Rocket will have to dip into people's wallets, because it has cost more than pounds 250,000 since it began. Before that, the band will be appearing in the real world for the first time this week when it plays at the Live '95 technology show at Earl's Court in London. Only then will we be able to judge whether Res Rocket's Internet music is hip or hype.

Res Rocket Surfer web site is at: http:/www.resrocket.com; e-mail: info@ resrocket.com

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