Synesthesia Live founder and CEO Theron Pray transforms sound into color in the Live Music Capital of the World

We’ve all been mesmerized by a piece of artwork at one point or another. The way an artist starts out with something so seemingly chaotic, just scraps of colors and textures, unfocused ideas, shaky notes and muddled rhythms, and then have it turned into a masterpiece is truly mind boggling to me.

I’ve always been fascinated with the fluctuating properties of color–the way it seems to effortlessly lift, shape, fuse and transform a canvas speaks volumes. It’s similar to the way music can lift, shake, rile and transform a person. What if that same canvas could extend beyond the visual, merging sound and color?

Imagine that kind of impact.

Theron Pray, founder and CEO of Synesthesia Live,  has created a product that expands the musical realm in a way that keeps in tune with the inevitability of tech advancements. It’s an audio-reactive concert visualizer which creates coinciding visuals for garage bands and amphitheater artists alike.

Here’s a snippet of what these visuals can really do:

 

The growth and development of technology in the music industry is unstoppable. It’s not difficult to recognize these changes, or even in what direction they’re heading. The hard part, then, is being able to infuse technology with music in a way that doesn’t have such an overpowering effect.

It’s obviously a relevant, if not controversial, topic in Austin today. Many Austinites find the need to pit techies versus musicians, claiming the ever-expanding tech industry squashes the local music scene. However, Pray talks about a way the two worlds can be happily, and beautifully, synced. Instead of building barriers between music and technology, Pray’s start-up lets the natural progression of technological advancements take effect in a way that benefits all.

On Vinyl: You’ve stated that “those in the world of music tech have immense power over what happens next in music” and are responsible to make sure “music’s soul doesn’t get crushed under the endless wave of technology”. In Austin especially, how have you seen technology have a disruptive effect on the live music scene?

Pray: I think Austin musicians are suffering from a bit of tech paranoia. They think tech is out to replace artists. They refuse to embrace new tools, from having a computer on-stage, to using social media, to refusing to incorporate electronic sounds, etc. You aren’t selling your soul to some technological devil by using these tools. And by ignoring them you are missing out on the newest creative tools and fan outreach. You aren’t going to pull in younger audiences unless you’re competing with what is coming out of NY and LA. You can’t sit here and complain about “kids these days” while hoping they come out to your show. Get with the times.

To answer your question specifically, I don’t know. All I do know is that at some point in the past there was a “golden era” of Austin Music where it could be called the “Live Music Capital of the World” without any question. And these days it is having to really fight for that identity. Why did things change? I don’t know. I haven’t lived in Austin long enough to place blame in any one particular spot. But I do know if you don’t look at technology as a culprit, you’re ignoring the biggest agent of change in society.

OV: What is the primary goal of Synesthesia Live?

P: The primary goal of Synesthesia is to take the stagnant world of music visuals to a new level. Right now we see a lot of visual production that falls flat because it is simply “something to fill up the screen”. We want to amplify the live music experience, and to do that you need visuals that are artistic, visceral, and tied to the music in a fundamental way. They need to be LIVE, and that’s the principle our software is built around. Then you’ve got visuals that become a part of the musician’s performance and really add to the experience, rather than distract.

OV: You moved to Austin relatively recently. Did you come up with the idea for Synesthesia Live upon moving here or is this project something that’s been in the works for a while?

P: I was in a band in college with one of my co-founders. It was an experimental electronic band, and we performed with all instruments that were homemade and high-tech. My co-founder made a voice-to-anything synthesizer. My other bandmate made a punching bag drum kit. I played keys, but I made custom visuals that reacted to each key I pressed. So in college we performed a few times with this setup and we realized the power of having visuals that actually responded to musical actions. After college, two years ago, we moved to Austin to start this company. And we’ve gone through a lot of different directions over the last two years. Now we’ve finally got an awesome product built, art from some of the best creative coders on the planet, and our first paying customers.

OV:  How do these visuals add to the music experience?

P: In our company in particular, we definitely sit in the world of visuals. And live music and spectacle have always been intimately tied together. Its something that’s core to human culture. It goes back to playing drums and dancing around a fire. Musicals. Amphitheater Rock. Epic Cathedrals. Obviously, the music is always the main focus, but the spectacle, the setting, the visual aspects are all incredibly important pieces that all come together to define the “experience”. Visuals alone don’t make a show. But if you take an artist who is already kicking ass and give them visuals that respond to every musical action they take, you’ll have an audience that is completely captivated, because all of their senses are engaged. The beauty of our software is that it really melds the audio and visual components into one visceral experience.

OV: How do you think technology can help boost audiences for emerging acts?

P: For Synesthesia in particular, we’ve made sure to keep it affordable for up-and-coming musicians. Because if you can offer your audience a complete show, you’ll sell more tickets and gain a following. In this modern era of social media things have to be “shareable”. If you’ve got dope visuals that’s huge.

But there are so many other realms of music technology that can help here. Stuff like Spotcaller, that can help fans find music they’d be interested in, stuff like Solstice, that helps bands get booked and bring out larger audiences. And then there are all the other quality of life fixes for musicians. Clyp, that lets you share audio easier than ever before, stuff like Being There Records, that makes it easy to get a record pressed. Labels aren’t required any more. Mosaic Sound Collective, when it comes online, will be huge for educating musicians about all the tools that can help them “professionalize”, use the latest tools, and bring out the biggest audiences.

OV: What venues in Austin can viewers enjoy these visuals as a part of the show?

P: We had a residency for a long time over at Empire Control Room, and while I don’t think we have any shows lined up there for the immediate future, the work they do over there is excellent. That is the best venue in town for visuals, hands down. But some next runners up would be Vulcan Gas Company and Cheer Up Charlies, who actually does some really great stuff indoors if a band has their own visuals to bring.

OV: How do you think Mayor Alder’s plan to strengthen the city’s music industry has been going?

P: How has it been going? Its hard to say. I think these things take time. So while I haven’t seen any huge increase in audiences, number of shows, or quality of life for the musicians I know, I have seen a lot of the right conversations. It has been really encouraging hearing the venues, the musicians, the politicians, and the music tech community come together and share their voice. So we’re definitely on the right track. But these things take time. Come back in two years and we’ll see how everything worked out. For now, lets keep this going and recognize that the correct first steps have been taken: we recognized the problem, got the right people involved, and we’re collaborating on a solution. Big props to Jennifer Houlihan, and to Mayor Adler for calling this what it is: a real problem.

OV:  What can the public do to help improve the current music landscape here in Austin?

P: Go out and see live music. Pay the covers. Skip 6th Street for Red River. There is a huge push right now to “eat local”. I think it is even more important to support local musicians and venues. These are part of your creative ecosystem. Everyone wants to live in the “Live Music Capital of the World”, but no one gets to if they don’t do their part.

 

(Photo courtesy of Synesthesia Live’s Facebook.)