CNBC Upstart 100

How David Bowie’s former sidekick joined forces with upstart for Oscar victory

Imagine being discovered by Frank Zappa, touring with David Bowie and performing alongside Paul Simon and Nine Inch Nails. What could possibly come close to topping that?

Lifelong singer-songwriter and music producer Adrian Belew has performed around the world, and now his work with LANDR Audio, a five-year-old Montreal-based start-up bringing the power of audio mastering to music and sound enthusiasts worldwide at a low cost, has sent his more than 40-year career to new heights.

How does LANDR do it? The company (No. 18 on the CNBC Upstart 25 list) has created an algorithm that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to replicate the processes of human engineers who provide equivalent, if not inferior, services.

Musician Adrian Belew performs at Celebrating David Bowie at the Wiltern Theatre on January 24, 2017 in Los Angeles.
Getty Images

Belew has been experimenting with music and new technologies for decades. Described on his website as a stunt guitarist extraordinaire, he has released more than 15 solo albums, including "Young Lions," which features the sounds of music legends and rock-and-roll hall of famers David Bowie, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and George Harrison.

Last week Belew achieved one of his most profound career milestones when Piper, Pixar's short film that preceded last year's box-office hit Finding Dory, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

"Scoring this Oscar-winning film has been one of the greatest honors of my life," Belew says.

Piper is about a baby bird's relentless fight to overcome its unnerving fear of the ocean's waves as they come violently crashing into the shore. Despite its short five-and-a-half-minute score composed and produced by Belew, the film packs a powerful blend of both virtual and live instruments, including strings, woodwinds, guitars and synthesizers.

A still from the movie "Piper."
Source: Pixar

The process of scoring an Oscar-winning film takes patience, persistence and requires a team of talented professionals and, in Piper's case, groundbreaking technologies.

For Adrian Belew this process began in 2010 when Daniel Rowland, five years before joining LANDR Audio as head of production, began working at Belew's studio in Mount Juliet, Tennessee. The duo worked tirelessly to design Belew's new guitar systems and construct the eponymous StudioBelew, a world-class production facility where the score of Piper was later born. The two men developed a strong rapport that led Belew to hire Rowland to be his audio engineer and co-producer for several world tours and major music releases.

Technology behind the music

While the pair spent the next few years globetrotting and creating music, they tapped into their inner entrepreneurial spirits and designed two iOS apps for audio connoisseurs around the world. The first was FLUX:fx, an audio-effects processor that enhances both studio and live performances for professionals and amateurs alike. The second app, FLUX by belew, is an innovative audiovisual experience that uses data and algorithms to create a unique blend of music, sounds and visual arts.

In 2014, Belew was tapped by Pixar to produce the score for Piper. The process was exciting for Belew and co-producer Rowland but proved to be a challenge for the Tennessee-based tandem as they kept an open line of communication with the film's director in California throughout the ideation process.

"We started out working to hand-draw pencil sketches, the rudimentary wire frames, and eventually rendered animation," Rowland says. "It was a process of throwing out a bunch of ideas and seeking what worked and what didn't."

In the two years spent on the Piper project, Belew wrote at least three different scores for the film as animators at Pixar's West Coast headquarters continuously worked to perfect the film's story. As the film's look, feel and pacing continued to swiftly evolve, Belew and Rowland were on the lookout for a way to simplify the composition stage of this dynamic project. That's when Rowland discovered the Canadian start-up that suddenly enhanced their workflow and productivity.

Adrian Belew, left, and Daniel Rowland, LANDR Audio Head of Production.
Source: LANDR Audio

"I really discovered (LANDR Audio) at the perfect time," Rowland recalls. "We were moving heavily into delivering content at a rapid pace as the animation escalated."

LANDR Audio's platform gave Belew and Rowland the tool they needed to seamlessly pass off each other's work, something that's been a challenge to music collaborators for decades.

It seems to just keep getting bigger and bigger, which in turn makes our hurdles lower and lower.
Daniel Rowland
head of production, LANDR Audio

The way it works is when a user uploads a raw, unmastered song onto LANDR's cloud platform, it is able to make subtle changes and adjustments based on the needs of the individual track. It then delivers the song track back to the customer quickly.

In the case of producing Piper, it was essential for the mastered track to be heard consistently by both collaborators during all stages of production in order to meet Pixar's deadline.

Mastering happens in the final stages of producing a track when it is tweaked and adjusted so that all the little blips are erased and it sounds polished and richer.

"LANDR Audio removed a step of the process, speeding things up dramatically in regards to delivering a consistent product," Rowland explains.

Once Pixar approved Belew's score, it was off to the final stage at Skywalker Sound in California, a studio that traces its lineage back to the 1977 film Star Wars. It was at Skywalker Sound where award-winning composer Jake Monaco took Belew and Rowland's finished demo from LANDR Audio's platform and transformed it into the fully-orchestrated masterpiece heard on silver screens around the globe.

Source: Kristen Loken

While LANDR Audio was not used by Monaco to craft the final mix of the film, Belew's original track of guitars and synthesizers that were mastered using LANDR Audio at StudioBelew in Tennessee did, in fact, make their way into the film's final mix.

Rowland was so impressed with LANDR Audio's capabilities that he began working for the company as Head of Production in 2015, midway through Piper's production. He saw LANDR Audio as a powerful tool that was superior to its competitors, yet nowhere near reaching its full potential.

The differentiator

"LANDR is different from its competitors," Rowland explains. "It's more about the world of machine learning and big data and not about using the presets the industry has long relied upon."

Even established professionals like Belew have been steering clear of expensive mastering services for years.

"I got to a point in my life where I thought 'I don't know if I can do mastering of every little thing I do' because it's too expensive." Belew told LANDR Audio for an upcoming company blog post. "I'm glad it's available for everyone at a reasonable price."

The start-up's web-based platform now has easy-to-use sharing tools that allow collaborators to comment in real-time, something that did not exist before Belew began using the platform for Piper.

LANDR’s web application
Source: LANDR

"Adrian was definitely involved in shaping LANDR Audio throughout the process of (Piper)," Rowland says. "But LANDR is super open to their entire user base for feedback."

In its early stages of operation LANDR is mainly focused on music, but employees are constantly hearing success stories from professionals of all walks of life – from the bedroom producers all the way to major record labels like Disney Music Group.

"The cool part about LANDR is that we don't know what it's being used on," Rowland says. "Piper is the first big film project that I can point to, but the reality is that we're constantly shocked at who is using it and how."

Mastering more than 200,000 tracks monthly — and approaching 4 million in total — LANDR has embraced its place as an upstart in a music industry that has a long trepidation toward adopting technologies that bring the power of major studios to consumers and professionals at a low-cost.

"I find (LANDR Audio's) disruption to be like a snowball rolling down a steep hill," Rowland says metaphorically. "It seems to just keep getting bigger and bigger which in turn makes our hurdles lower and lower."