David Brabbins
March 22, 2024

Insights Everywhere #002: Tom Middleton

The Science of Sonic Branding

How sonic branding can positively impact well-being, experience, storytelling, and more

In this conversation, sonic renaissance man, Tom Middleton, discusses his journey from beginnings as an electronic musician (apprentice of Richard D James, aka Aphex Twin) and DJ, to co-founding White Mirror, an audio consultancy and production studio that as well as its commercial work for brands, explores sensory science to enhance well-being: reducing anxiety, improving sleep, and optimising creativity, for a healthy, happy life. Tom explains the new frontiers of sensory experience that can now be created with sound and vibroacoustics, and discusses the role of sound in branding and brand experiences. He shares his excitement for sonic technologies such as AI and spatial audio. Finally, he shares with us his interests in ‘archaeo acoustics’ and the resonant properties of ancient megalithic sites that can tell us a bit more about our history.

Key Takeaways

  • Sonic branding helps communicate a brand identity through sound, enhancing brand experiences and evoking intense, unforgettable emotional connections. Examples include Intel, McDonald’s, Audi, and more.
  • Sonic branding should be more than just a jingle. It can be a functional, useful tool to enhance well-being, evoke health benefits, and boost productivity, as in the case of Otrovin.
  • There have been some amazing advancements in sonic technologies, particularly AI-driven tools like RipX DAW Pro that can break down a music file into it’s instrumental elements to make it easier to remix and tinker with songs, spatial audio, and psychoacoustics - the emerging field of using brainwaves to form new kinds of soundscape.
  • There are ever-increasing opportunities for brands in fields as diverse as insurance, airlines, healthcare, and education to enhance customer experiences and overall well-being with sonic branding and vibroacoustics.

Interview Transcript

Hello and welcome to our latest edition of Insights Everywhere, our regular series of conversations with trailblazers from the brand, design, and wider creative industries. Today, we're really happy to be chatting to none other than Tom Middleton. He's a Sonic Renaissance man, pioneering electronic musician, synth wizard, sound architect, DJ, and more besides.  Here’s the transcript:

Tom, please introduce yourself.

I’m Tom Middleton, co-founder of White Mirror. We're a consultancy and production studio and neuroscience lab based in London, where we have our sensory innovation studio and Lisbon, where we have our neuroscience research testing validation lab.

My journey has been quite an interesting one to get to this point in that I started as a DJ and a musician in the electronic sector. Toured the world played to millions, experienced music in all its shapes and forms and genres and styles. And noticed that there were some quite useful therapeutic properties of music.

So I was observing this benefit that people were deriving from music. Having made ambient music in the early 90s, a lot of people really enjoyed using it for things as diverse as, counselling and therapy sessions, giving birth to their children using it to help,  pain management. It occurred to me that beyond music as entertainment, there was this possibility that music could be leveraged for therapeutic, functional or intentional purposes. So born out of that. And after keeping people up all night raving, I got really burnt out midway through my career and re-skilled, up-skilled, if you want to call it that, as a sleep science coach and stress management coach.

Understanding what was happening to me with the burnout and the circadian disruption, the jet lag, why was that affecting my mood and my productivity? What could I do to biohack myself to be better? And looking at all of the quite extraordinary things that one does with music and sound beyond this lovely thing that happens when a bunch of people go to a festival or a club and dance, the tribal ritual that people use music in other ways. So I started to unpack how we could best utilize music and sound as a therapeutic modality.

White Mirror was born out of this need for me to fix my own sleep, help my friends, and reframe ambient electronica as functional music for wellbeing. And it's expanded beyond that. So White Mirror is now multi-sensory as opposed to uni- sensory. And when we say multi-sensor, we mean using visuals, we use vibroacoustics, which is felt sound haptics. We work with olfactory scents, so that's scent. Even gustatory,  how we taste things. So how we perceive the world through our senses, we can utilize neuroscience and behavioral psychology to create effective experiences and content to help solve human problems.

Can you please tell us about your musical journey, from the very start while being a very memorable DJ to the present day of breathwork and psychoacoustics? What's the north star that guides you?

Well, I think it's this desire to want to help. My dad was a teacher, a professor, and was always looking after the local community, giving his time to help people. And it's built into my DNA. Be useful, help. And noticing that humans are suffering, for the most part. We're all under-slept. We're tired, we're anxious, we're burnt out to varying degrees. And, mental health has been decimated over the last few years and people are suffering. So what can we do with art?

And there's this lovely term, neuroesthetics or neuro arts, which is utilizing or leveraging the Trojan horse of arts, which could be any kind of form of artistic expression as a way to improve your overall health and wellbeing.

So I was a designer and then got into music, toured. I discovered Aphex Twin back in the late 90s and that was I suppose my inroads to pivoting from graphic design into music. He invited me to his place and showed me how he was making music. This is the sort of the seminal Selected Ambient Works and Polygon Window era Aphex Twin that you know a lot of people would say is the moment where the world was fully introduced to the mastermind and genius that is Richard D. James. But, he taught me everything - showed me how to sample, to synthesize using analog kit, how to hack synthesizers.

You know, he had this Roland SH-101, you'll know that it's one of the best sort of classic monophonic synths. He'd taken the lid off it and had gone in with a screwdriver to change the potentiometer for the frequency. And what we're talking about is human perception of hearing is about 20 Hertz to 20 kilohertz from low bass to up to high pitch sort of frequencies. What he would he had done is basically changed the factory setting of this keyboard so that we could go sub below human perception of hearing, infrasonics and ultrasonics above human perception. And we obviously joke about him playing around with this and bats are bumping into the windows, we're echolocating with dolphins and dogs are screaming and, we could count the pulses from the speakers that he had suspended from his ceiling doing this.

We were the first, I think, to properly mess around with binaural beats. We didn't even know what we were doing, pulsing two or three hertz. Just, we couldn't hear it. We could just see the speaker cones moving. So we were experimenting and playing around, learning the art and science of sound production. Anything that you could hear had the potential to be music - biggest take home. He'd go into his garage and start making beats using whatever he could find to create rhythms with. Creatively sampling that, turning it into instruments. So throughout my career, I've always thought creative sampling was one of the greatest tools of the trade, being able to turn what you can hear into sound and music.

So my path went from earning in the studio as a protege, if you like, apprentice of Richard to starting to work on my own, meeting Mark Pritchard. And we set up a record label. We've recorded as Jedi Knights, Global Communication, a whole plethora of other styles, chameleon, drum and bass, reload, techno. And we accidentally fell into the world of DJing because people really liked the music and said, would you come and play this? And we DJed for fun. We didn't really DJ professionally at that point, we just put on raves in Cornwall. And to then go from amateur, just, lovers of music to being hired to go and play music was quite an interesting shift. And then,  can we do remixes? Yeah, great. And I sort of fell into this random kind of world of playing at festivals and clubs, remixing and... can't grumble, got to see the world and meet some cool people, hang out with some A-listers and see some things that at that level where you can't imagine what's going on.

But behind all of that was this sort of curiosity. I've always had a scientific kind of curiosity to understand more about sound and music and frequencies and vibration and what can we do with it more than just listening to it and what happens when you do listen to it? So the perception, the cognitive neuroscience of music and how it goes in through here or through our body as we feel it, vibroacoustics and psychoacoustics. Can we do anything useful with it? Can we do anything socially responsible, ethically, in the sense that sound can be used as a weapon. We know that it can be so powerful and potent. It is deployed as a pulse weapon. What can we do that does no harm but does good and that's really the trajectory we are on at White Mirror is unpacking the science around sensory perception and how can we leverage that to deliver social impact at scale.

What role does sound have to play in delivering great brand experiences?

It's been very interesting to observe the ascendance of sound branding and the fact that there are some huge companies now that have been bought by even bigger companies. The power of sound to help tell stories, to deliver emotional connection. Finally, it seems to be valued when it was once not valued at all. It was an afterthought, a bolt on. Oh, we need some music for a transitory campaign, but if you think about the most timeless examples of sound and how it's been utilised. Jing, ding, ding, ding, ding, Intel inside. I mean, everyone knows that,  whether it's the sound of a particular notifications or alarms on your phone, whether it's certain brands that, you know, I'm not even going to say it, you know what it is.

The sound branding that really works stands the test of time. I think THX cinema sound was a classic. Some of the kind of intros and stuff we hear at cinemas have really kind of landed and stood the test of time. That's sound branding. If you can create a timeless, evocative, communicative identity, a mnemonic, something like an earworm, it's a short few notes that can tell you something and remind you of that brand, you're winning because then you can you back up what's visually effective with something that's sonically effective.

So working with you is really fun. We've scored some some golds and some silvers with Syniti, which was a real pleasure.

So I think what we've noticed in terms of the sound branding toolkit is one you unpack the values and what the brand is trying to deliver in terms of meaning. Is there a palette a sound font that you could create that will help tell that story visually? We use fonts. We use color. We use space. We use images. But If you then add sounds to that, and I think George Lucas famously said 70% of a film experience is the soundtrack. I mean, he's right. If you take away a soundtrack from a film, it has a totally different effect. If you listen to, you know, Hans Zimmer's soundtrack to Dune Two, I mean, it would be a different movie if it had, you know, arbitrary kind of  music underneath it. The fact that it has this sort of nuanced storytelling ability amplifies exponentially the meaning and the communication power.

So with a lot of the kind of sonic branding work we do, the first stage is this unpacking. What does your brand sound like? Can we help you find your brand voice? Is there a human sound? Is there a voice of a person that you identify with a brand? And over time, it sticks. Are there particular tones? Frequencies? Is there a rhythm? Is there a beat? What is it about the brand? Who is your audience? Who are you speaking to? Can you leverage the power of sound in a more sophisticated way? And I think when we talk about sound branding, that to me is level one, that's 1.0. What we do at White Mirror is sound branding 2.0, so it's functional sound branding. Can you not only tell a story, help people to remember who the brand is, but what if with that sound branding, you deliver meaningful longitudinal health benefit. That's super interesting. So the brand theme tune in your assets for what you deliver in sound branding expands to just beyond the sound logo. You have a sonic toolkit, interface sounds, navigation sounds, website sounds, social media sounds, a brand theme, global variations of that theme.

Once you start telling that story and get it amplifying it across the planet on various different touch points, you've got a very sophisticated way of compounding the message of what the brand is trying to deliver. And we get really excited about that because we see the opportunity to not only make a brand theme, but what if that brand theme tune could reduce your stress, could help you breathe better? In the case of one project for Otrivin which is a nasal spray, we found the frequency that bees make. It's the same frequency that yogis use in a particular Pranayama breathing exercise. We did some studies in the lab to basically show that if you exhale, hmm, at the same time as making your nose vibrate, it helps you breathe better. So imagine sound branding for a nasal spray that also helps you to breathe better. Tick, tick, tick.

So this is the kind of thinking at White Mirror. We go beyond just arbitrary what they call bing bongs, bing bong bong bong, into a useful tool. So an identity that we actually did there was a health or well-being or productivity boost or benefit.

Which sonic technologies are you currently most excited about?

Oh, don't get me started on generative AI. I mean this year…wow. Last year and the year before we had text-to-image we were starting to really make headway in text-to-video and it's mind-blowing what's possible text-to-audio has kind of come through in the last year as well and Bbyond text-to-audio machine learning and being able to separate listening content into what we call stems, so individual layers. So imagine you've got a track, it's got bass, drums, vocal, keyboards, and other sounds.

There is an app called RipX DAW Pro at the moment, which is literally blowing my mind. It takes a track that you put in there and it separates it into these individual layers of instruments. So a stereo file is unpacked to its component instrumental paths. Mind-blowing.

You can change the pitch. Let's say there's a vocal in there. One, you could just get rid of the vocal. You could separate it and say, goodbye, I just want an instrumental. You could change drums to other sounds. You could change bass to a different sound. You can change the key and the rhythm of the entire track. It looks like you're in a sort of Photoshop sort of realm here. So imagine Photoshop being able to manipulate sound and frequency, but beyond being able to turn a track into its component parts with RipX DAW Pro and basically not only remix it, but entirely reimagine tracks at a almost like sonic atomic level. And this is AI at play here. You can literally text-to-audio a new section.

You could find inspiration from the built-in sort of tools that are out there at the moment and then take them, separate them and use them again and then replace things. So it's got almost unlimited potential in terms of what you can do with sound right now.

The other technology that we're really excited about and we work a lot with Platoon and the Apple Music platform, which is spatial audio, creating immersive audio environments has been really, really fun.

For the new project, we're looking at spatial focus music. So we went into the lab and looked at what happens when you focus. So using a Muse headset, we were tuning into what is the feeling like when you hyper-focus.

It's me in the lab, basically. With a headset on. Looking like I'm a Jedi making sound from my brain waves in focus state. So while wearing the Muse headset, what I do is I train using this sort of biofeedback process. I train myself to hyper focus. And when I'm in a focus state, you hear melodies happening. When I'm not focusing, you don't hear any music. So the music and the melody comes when you are focusing.

We've created an album of content for focusing based on my brain waves when I'm in a focused state, which is kind of fun. And we've looked at the right sort of tempo to help you to concentrate. So wherever there's an opportunity for me to get into the lab in Lisbon and work with our neuroscientist on kind of mad, wacky ideas like this, I'm in.

We unpacked the power of presence working with the Spatial Sound Institute, looking at what is it about spatial audio? So for those of you that have experienced it, particularly with Apple's ear pods, you know the difference between stereo and spatial and this sort of head tracking technology. Let's imagine, I've got headphones on now, without head tracking, let's say in front of me and you're listening to it, here is a vocal. When I move my head, the vocal moves with you. So it's not really authentic. If I was in a room and I did that, the vocal shouldn't move. With the head tracking technology, this is what happens. The vocal stays here. So you move your head and what you're listening to stays still. That makes it more believable. So the power of presence can be leveraged to create more effective musical kind of content.

We're using it in an intentional way, as in we want to make things that help people, so help you focus. Last time it was spatial sleep music. So I created music to help you deeply relax before you go to sleep using this spatial audio environment. And then a lot of artists are taking the spatial music technology into physical real world experiences. The Polygon guys are doing phenomenal stuff with that. And I think we're just at the beginning of immersive audio and audio visual experiences that really take you beyond the current kind of standards that we've got. We don't need to be limited anymore to stereo, that's the point.

Who's been inspiring you most musically inside and outside the world of commerce?

I'm a big fan of another Nottingham lad, Lone, Matt. He creates some really beautiful music. To me, it sort of ticks a lot of the boxes because it's not only future-facing, but it's also reverential and respectful of the early 90s sound. So imagine somewhere between Future Sound of London and The Orb meets kind of early 90s sort of proto-jungle rave. For me, it's fantastic. It's very melodic. The sound design is extraordinary. So between him and I really like Max Cooper. I think what he's doing is pretty stunning.

And then other are composers for me. It’s because of the work that I'm doing - I'm really interested in the sort of the film and soundtrack space. There's one composer called August Wilhelmsen. I think it creates really, really beautiful music.

We're also working at White Mirror with a bunch of very, very talented female composers. Ellen Peel from Sweden, she makes beautiful ambient music. Francesca Pavese, AKA Idra, Idra Sound, based in Milan. She has a modular setup and makes incredible sort of ambient drone, beautiful ambient music. Michelle Cade based in the UK. Her normal work is the world of sort sound therapy and healing using traditional kind of instruments, but the music she makes is incredible. She’s telling stories using ancient instrumentsm - like native American Indian flutes to Nepalese bowls to gongs to ocean drums. It's amazing. You're starting to connect back to your original sonic DNA. The tribes of 10,000 years before.

I think a lot of the sort of stuff that I hear in clubs perhaps doesn't impact me as much as it used to, because I'm seeking perhaps more than I used to. There's good groove, but there's also a beautiful piece of music. And I think we know the difference, we feel it, and it's something we keep going back to. So I want anthems, I'm looking for anthems, and that's why I think musicality, like John Hopkins, for example, pieces of music that have that layer of not only sound design but storytelling and emotionality for me is what I seek.

With the launch of Dune 2 recently, I've been reading about how Hans Zimmer came up with the sonic universe the film inhabits. There's very much which comes first, the chicken or the egg. So, on that note, tell us a bit more about your working process. How would you bring a brief or a visual world to life sonically?

It's really interesting because I think the two things work really well together. And that's why there needs to be more round tables with different disciplines, the interdisciplinary of some of the works in visuals, motion graphics, and then sound.

I often storyboard when I'm creating a piece of music. So for my album, E2XXO as G-Com, I'd already imagined this story of traveling to exoplanets - I created visuals that helped me to then imagine them in the sound realm.

So typically with a, say, commercial brief, there may well be some clues already. So for example, with a recent hospitality brand launching in London in Mayfair in April, we were working with the agency. We knew what their visual direction was, what they were aiming for. This sort of otherworldly deep relaxation environment. How do we then sound scape that or we have to take the visual cues that we've been given from the branding pack and then work with them and the client to unpack? How can we amplify the feeling? You defined it with visuals, you defined it with even a scent, branded sense and colors and the look and feel of the space. But how do we then tell that story using sound? And building this sound font, the palette of colors, is a really fun process because you can kind of just create endless Spotify playlists with the client and whittle it down to here is a mood board. In the same way that you have a visual mood board, you have a sonic mood board. And with that, you can really kind of lock in the nuance of what is it that this brand sounds like.

So typically that's the first step. It's the sound branding, unpacking of creating your palette of sonic colours to play with. And then what is the purpose of using that? Is it an identity? Is it a signal? Is it way finding? Is it informative? Or is it to soundtrack a piece of content? Is it a 90 second or one minute bit of social media marketing that you need to augment? And because you've already defined, if you like, the tone and the palette, it's much easier to then iterate different versions of this. So remixing and reiterating out of the sonic sound pack.

Who's your dream client?

Well, we're really lucky we work with some of the biggest brands on earth at the moment I think it would be nice to work with more healthcare and education, I wouldn't call them brands, I'd just say institutions. At that level to me is where the real impact can come in. It'd be good to work with governments, you know, can we help at just a regulatory level to improve the quality of life for people.

So yes, you could have targets if I want to work with the biggest brands on earth. There are definitely others where I think there's opportunities to scale impact and to deliver more value than just arbitrary, “here's some sound and some visuals”.

Can we work with an agency like yours and the people that you work with to build better kind of value proposition where a brand can actually prescriptively enhance someone's health and wellbeing? I mean, isn't that, that's a big strong look there for CSR. If you think about it, you're not only delivering a look and a feel, but wellness. So our biggest sector is the wellness sector, and all the touch points within that.

Maybe working with some of the biggest health insurance brands would be interesting. How could they deliver more value to their customers? That could be a conversation. Quite keen on areas that I'm passionate about and interested in based on my experience.

So more airlines where we've got some things lined up at the moment - that could be really interesting. But would be good to work with some of the big airlines - the innovative ones. The ones that really want to take customer well-being to the next level using visuals and sound and light in their experiences.

There's a lot of work to be done, David. There's plenty of sectors. It's never-ending.

Final question, non-work related - the King's Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Tell me more about that experience.

Oh my goodness so my other hat is as an archaeo acoustics archivist. What the hell does that mean? I'm fascinated by the acoustic resonant properties of ancient megalithic sites.

I’m fortunate to get some personal time with a small cohort inside the King's chamber at the Great Pyramid in Giza. And that is a very interesting space and started a whole rabbit hole of research. We discovered through me lying down inside this, you could call it a sarcophagus, but my theory is, and my hypothesis is it was never a sarcophagus. It was a resonant tool for either transmutation, religious or spiritual ascension. It was a device for transcending, for coming out of your body.

I lay down in the sarcophagus. The room by the way is quartz, so it's already a resonant material. And I was just toning, ooh, to find the resonant frequency. You may have done it, the best way of doing this is if you're in the bathroom and you kind of tune up and down. Bathrooms are great for finding resonant frequency and you find this note.

I found this particular frequency just through toning. We captured it, recorded it. When I came back from the first expedition, if you want to call it that, I found that this particular resonant frequency seems to exist in other megalithic sites. So Chichen Itza and also these main pyramid structures. The space between these sites and the years between them makes you think - what technology or what guiding principles are being used to build these spaces? If they have the same resonant frequencies, that means that there are some, sacred geometrical pre-Pythagorean arithmetic being used to intentionally create spaces that resonate a specific frequency in order to deliver this effect. So I've gone off on a mad kind of hunt for mystical frequencies.

There's a hypogeum in Malta, there's a place in the Shetland Islands, there's lots of sites. India has one where these spaces have been intentionally built with vibrates and resonate at very, very specific frequencies. And the question is, why? And the guess is that they were using frequency and vibration as a healing modality or maybe a psychedelic assistance.

I mean, think about Blue Lotus and its use in Egyptian  history. There's no reason to think that perhaps this was a ceremony to have a psychedelic experience. So lots more to unpack on that.