Closeup of Astrid Bin. Photo retrieved from the Ableton Loop 2018 website.
Closeup of Astrid Bin. Photo retrieved from the Ableton Loop 2018 website.

What is your background?

I played music all my life and was very much going into classical piano career when I was younger. When it was time to commit to music school I hesitated because I already had some significant injuries from playing piano, I had a back injury and then there was something wrong with one of my fingers, and so I realized that a long-term career in classical music wasn’t going to be possible. I was already very disillusioned with the classical music world by that point anyway, so I ended up going to art school focusing on installation and performance because I thought I could go in a lot of directions that way. I spent a lot of years as a working artist doing installations for galleries and some commissions, and later I did a master’s in public art with the idea to use computers for art and sound. Unfortunately I never found the art world receptive to what I wanted to do, and what I was doing was somehow considered more technology than art. After my masters I was trying to figure out how to join up technology and creative practise and got into a PhD program at Queen Mary, were they basically took artists and threw them into engineering school for four years. It was through that that I started doing instrument design because it really spoke to what I did with 3 dimensional art, what I knew about materials and what I knew about music performance.

That almost answers the next question about what brought you into the field of music technology.

Yeah, it was a combination of accident and Andrew McPherson letting me to talk him into being my supervisor. I wasn’t a DSP engineer but I knew I could learn so much from him, and doing hardware was really important to me and I knew he was a really good hardware guy. I just said listen I will learn whatever I have to learn, and I will work harder than anyone. Luckily he let me join the lab, and that was a really good relationship. I was very lucky to have such great PhD advisors. Without that lab I think my career would be quite different right now.

What were you doing in your PhD?

In my PhD I was really interested in errors in art, music and music performance especially. I was very sensitive to the way musical audiences are, and the way people observe art. I had to come up with a whole methodology of studying audiences in a concert setting because I had enough concert experience to know that I wasn’t going to learn what I wanted to learn from lab studies. I wrote software to collect real-time feedback and also had the audience do post hoc surveys, and compared those two sets of data which was fascinating. The instruments that I used for those studies were also my own design and development, which was great because I could control specific variables to compare design factors very precisely. So, it was part audience study, part hard- and software engineering, part instrument design.

How did you approach the hard- and software design?

At the time Andrew had just developed what would later become Bela, which is a platform for audio and sensor processing. It didn’t even have a name yet, it was just something that he used to teach real-time sensor and audio development. My peers and I learned real-time interaction via Bela and in 2016 Andrew and a few of my colleagues in the lab launched Bela as a commercial project, which we still run today. Hardware and electronics have always made always a lot of sense to me, and learning sensor and signal processing really took it to another level. I’m glad I had years of art experience before I came to computer sciences, it made me a different kind of hardware engineer - I’m not afraid to hand build things, to design things, to try totally new approaches and employ unusual materials and methods. As well as PCB design I also did a lot experimenting with ways to make electronics that were better-suited to the instruments I was making, for example I developed a method of cut-n-paste circuitry for a tube-shaped instrument called Keppi. It worked really well, but is also not the kind of thing that a self-respecting engineer would have built.

What are your experiences being a woman in the music technology field?

We all have experiences being condescended to or patronized or being assumed to be incompetent and all of these things we all know. For me I felt like this double imposter because I was also coming into this music tech realm as an artist who has messed with computers all her life, so I had the usual questions of ‘Am I doing this right?’ but also, ‘Should I even be here at all?’. I didn’t do a bachelor’s in computer sciences, and though I did a lot of programming I didn’t get into the C++ properly until I was doing my masters. A lot of it has been a feeling like a fish being out of water on every front and there came a point at which I just decided that I couldn’t be ruled by that and just started to do what I wanted and caring less about what the “real” engineers thought about it. I think that’s the key to doing good work - I realized I’m not going to accomplish anything if I just sat there and worried that I was never doing the right thing. I just committed to being wrong and just doing things wrong sometimes, and not being ashamed of it.

Did you start programming during art school?

I wrote my first program when I was eight years old. My family had a computer that was bought for my two older brothers, it was an Atari 520 ST that had 520k of Ram and it came with a book of programs that you could type into an editor and run. Spending hours typing out those programs was the first programming I ever did. I never have been afraid of programming, and I’ve done a ton of web development. I’ve always thought that no matter what programming language you’re writing, there is a consistent logic that you can learn. When I was doing my art masters in 2013 my tutors were telling me that I wasn’t doing art, because I was using technology. It absolutely outraged me, because I felt that I was finally using technology in this really artful and expressive way. That was why I threw myself into this PhD in engineering – I saw the potential to make radically creative pieces of art by professionalising my technical skills, and that opportunity was really exciting to me.

Please introduce more closely what you are currently working on.

Bela is one of the things that I’m doing. Since we launched it in 2016, I’ve done all the design and branding, I’ve developed all the web properties, and I’ve developed the Bela IDE, which is always under development. I’ve taken on the product design for new products as well, such as Trill, which are a family of six touch sensors. Each one is a different shape and function, offering lots of ways to incorporate touch sensing. As Bela grows I’ve started also focusing on support, like writing the Bela knowledge base and documentation. That’s the thing with hardware – once the engineering is done you’ve got to develop examples and you got to develop documentation and explain it to people.

Where do you want to go with Bela?

We are always trying to respond to changes in technology as well as the needs of music makers, and these don’t always mean the same thing. We do a lot of research in that capacity, trying to figure out what music hardware needs to be not only today, but also tomorrow. It’s in a similar vein to what I do at Ableton, which is like looking at trends in music and technology, trying to understand who is using things, who isn’t, and what might be needed in a year, two or five years.

What advice would you give to women interested in pursuing a career in music technology?

I think that though advice applies to everybody, it is especially relevant for women: the only way to make a place for yourself is to cultivate relationships. That doesn’t mean sleazy networking or being friends with people because you can get something out of them. It is about being interested in people and trying to find out where the communities are and how you can support others. I think that technology is hostile to a lot of people, not only women. It’s become important to me to create the kind of environment that I wanted to find and didn’t, one that’s inclusive and supportive. One of the things I have noticed more and more, especially through teaching, is that women are not afforded the opportunity to be anything less than excellent, to start off not being good at something but allowed to get better. This expectation of perfection is robbing us of a lot of things – learning, making mistakes, taking risks, growing with peers. I try to cultivate these areas of safety and encourage women just to try things out, learn from each other. Everyone is on the way to getting somewhere and this notion that if you don’t show up already excellent you’re never going to be excellent is really unhealthy, and this pressure to arrive perfect means we lose so many important people with experimental, lateral, interesting approaches. Creating that safety for others as well as ourselves is probably the most powerful thing any of us can do.

Thank you!