Digi 001 Goes to Mars!

By Randy Alberts

 

 

Your name is Dr. Penelope J. Boston from the Department of Earth and Environmental Science. You're on the research mission of your life, and you've just shut the external airlock hatch on the Mars Society Desert Research Station. Your EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) spacesuit feels like an air-conditioned gorilla on your back as you depart Mars Base One and board one of three all-terrain vehicles headed for Factory Butte. On the way you stop to take some surface samples; and later, while crossing an ancient, rusted red alluvial plain on the way back to Base, your ATV hits a dust hole, turns over, injures your pelvis, and cracks a number of ribs in the process.

   
   

Immediately secured by your Extremophile teammates and now back in the safety and comfort of "the habitat," you somehow cope with the pain in simply knowing that your team just overcame one of the biggest emergencies a manned mission to Mars can ever face. You're feeling better after some macrobiotic sushi and refocused on the mission at hand, so what are you going do next, Dr. Boston? Well, of course, you fire up the Digi 001 all night and write lyrics for the house band.

Somewhere Near Huntsville, Utah
"Penny was upstairs that night actually dropping pages to us as we all played and recorded downstairs," recalls National Geographic correspondent, filmmaker, musician, and habitat roommate, Sam Burbank. Boston, Burbank, and their four co-crew members spent two weeks together this past spring in a pressurized Mars simulation habitat in the Utah desert. They carried out NASA-approved tests and recorded with Pro Tools, and what they unearthed about music's vital role in future Mars missions is fascinating to some really, really important people.

   

Sam Burbank and Kelly Snook
 

"She's [Dr. Boston] perhaps the top Extremophile biologist in the world and it turns out she's a great lyricist, too — just awesome," remarks Burbank, noting that though NASA can't officially talk about manned Mars trips, four of the six Utah crew members are associated with NASA and two are employees.

Kelly [Snook, NASA Planetary Scientist] is a talented classical pianist, Steve [Dr. McDaniel, biologist & NASA patent attorney] sang us a 20-year old song about his son's birth that we ended up recording, and Effy [M. Ephimia Morphew, Ph.D., NASA psychologist], who interviews NASA's International Space Station crews, can really sing. In terms of the role music may play on future Mars missions, the Utah habitat was a total success, but the music was also just inspiring to live with. There's nothing that more binds a crew together on a long trip than music, which should be of great interest to NASA for maintaining crew harmony on a Mars mission."

Burbank filmed an up-close, three-segment special about the Utah experience for the National Geographic Channel's "Today" show, another "weird assignment" he's done for NG that includes shots of the group collaborating on songs with "Earth" studios via Digidesign's DigiStudio Pro Tools Internet collaboration technology which used satellite-to-server feeds. Many of the Pro Tools tracks sourced in the habitat are being finished up at Burbank's Submarine Studios in San Francisco with other crewmembers. Sam's been to the North Pole twice and has reported from atop a 400-foot windmill this year alone and is heading to Antarctica soon, but he'd rather tell you about the cramped, occasionally stinky "hab" he lived in this past April.

Congress, Mars, Devo, and Kashmir
The crew's science, music, and behavioral research officially benefits The Mars Society, a private group advancing the exploration of Mars. Unofficially, this third in a series of planned habitat experiments is exactly what NASA's manned Mars research is all about. But, due to funding restraints, it would literally take an act of Congress before NASA could sound off about what they've been learning sharing celery, bunk beds, and gravity toilets with the Mars Society in the middle of nowhere. That's all barely a speed bump to sixth crewmember, habitat builder, and renewed musician, Frank Schubert.

Schubert, who works closely with NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Mars Society, is the kind of person you'd appreciate meeting before hearing that he builds Mars habitats for a living and used to play with Devo who now collaborates with Mark Mothersbaugh. But his old Devo days, his story of writing "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" as a young hard rocker when pressured by an urban club owner, or the fact he's the great-great nephew of composer Franz Schubert won't come up unless you want it to. I did.

   
   

"I was paid $150 for that song," laughs Schubert between post sessions at Submarine for an Extremophiles CD by the Utah hab group. "I'm working now on the Iceland habitat planned for next year, and there's another that a group of scientists and business people want to make happen at the border in Kashmir that will bring Indian and Pakistani scientists together in a habitat. And I know that NASA is planning something way up in the Andes, as well."

A bass, some guitars, a drum machine, two mics, and a handful of laptops loaded with Pro Tools LE and DigiStudio dotted the Utah "studio" of the crew's two-story habitat. Right in the middle of the kitchen and exactly 1.876 meters from a bank of vital engineering testing utensils sat a Digi 001 and a Magma 1 Slot CardBus-to-PCI Expansion Chassis. Both are vital conduits and hubs for an orbiting recording studio that just might make it to Mars by NASA Director Dan Goldin's estimate of 2020.

Digi 001 and Mbox: Where You Want to Go
"One of the most important challenges for us was to prove this experiment could be carried out without adding much weight," says Burbank. "You already have your laptop on the mission, so your only added weight is a couple of mics, the 001, the Magma chassis, and whatever instruments you bring. There have been guitars on Mir and ISS, so that kind of stuff is already accepted as far as space travel cargo goes."

"I now have a Mbox and Pro Tools LE in my house, and it's the coolest thing," stokes Schubert. He stopped playing and producing music about the time digital audio began to emerge; but now, thanks to the positive experience he had with the crew's Digi rig in the habitat, he's already moving around easily in Pro Tools. "Bob and Mark [Mothersbaugh] have been using Pro Tools, but for me it wasn't until I got in the hab and saw how easy and surprisingly powerful it was to record with it that I got interested in music all over again. I've been doing nothing but architecture the last ten years." He turns back into the Submarine "sound hole," beneath a WWII-era danger sign, to rework a bridge, get more accustomed to using the edit window, and drop in some tasty POD tones.

   

Sam Burbank, Frank Schubert, and Steve McDaniel recording a vocal session in the Mars habitat.

 

The habitat crew was able to get 24 Pro Tools tracks [now, 32 available with new Magma drivers] on an Apple G4 laptop with 512 MB RAM after easily hooking up the Magma's PCI-to-PCMCIA SCSI converter card to the laptop's PCMCIA slot. Both Burbank and Schubert report being able to run full-blown Pro Tools sessions in a day or two in keeping up with the group's prodigious eventual output of 24 songs. Crewmember Snook, an already seasoned Pro Tools user, quickly brought the rest of the hab team up to speed.

"It costs $10,000 per pound to put something aboard the ISS, which is something like $300,000 just to take an electric guitar into space," Schubert points out. "The Digi 001 and Magma weigh so little, yet do so much on missions like this."

Hunter's Point: No Place Like Home
During a coffee pause at Submarine Studios' one-of-a-kind naval base home, Schubert and Burbank credit their Pro Tools-in-the-hab experience for reviving both of their long-dormant music crafts. The latter's studio at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard, where Polaris missiles used to be test-fired into "a large catcher's mitt" and studied on ultra-slow motion film, is in a decommissioned naval base located about one Mays', one McCovey's, and a couple of Bonds' home runs across the water from Candlestick Park.

Housing a beehive of top-secret military protocol six decades ago, today "The Point" is home to a dynamically odd collection of scientists, artists, impounded Ferraris, rare wine collectors, SWAT trainees, sculptors, musicians, and movie stages (James and the Giant Peach, The Rock) who are surrounded by the roughest Blade Runner 'hood this side of Pac Bell Park. There's even a little-known train museum and a major rail network that criss-crosses the base, a government loophole-created paradise that allows a group of engineheads residing on the base to buy old rail cars and coaches for $100 apiece and bring them to the base to joyride well into their golden-year sunsets.

Schubert, Burbank, and Digi: In Orbit by 2007
All fun given its due, there's no mistaking the focused intent of everyone's mission amid the inter-disciplinary soup at Hunter's Point. Utah Base One's Digi/Magma recordings are playing a big role in the Interplanetary Collaborative Music Project, an ongoing cooperative effort between NASA, the European Space Agency, and The Mars Society and its habitat crews. Far from being a rock 'n roll space camp for grown-up rich kids, the good-sounding music tracks recorded in these Mars habitats are in reality serious scientific experiments with direct implications on the future of life on Mars, and ultimately on Earth.

"The music experiment's aim is to see how remote collaboration works in the hab with music as the analog for communication," says Burbank, who also notes that staging a habitat experience in Earth orbit may be less than five years away. "There's also a very big question of crew sanity on a three-year NASA mission and we're curious about how music might be used to help keep people happy and sane."

One such question was answered by Utah crewmember Kelly Snook. She stayed up all night once collaborating via DigiStudio with an "Earth"-based songwriter and was questioned by her crewmates the next morning in the hab when she had that certain "glaze of glory" on her face. The crew had added some parts to a San Francisco writer's tune the evening before, but Snook just hadn't had enough.

   
   

"Her response was that this was like having another friend aboard the mission," concludes Burbank. "This was spending time with someone other than us and it seemed to be a very positive experience for Kelly. Receiving a song transmitted to our 'Martians' server is like getting a Care package from home. And music provides such a great way to stay in touch with Earth, helping to make the 40-minute satellite time delay between Earth and Mars much less of a communication issue. A normal two-way conversation is impossible from out there, but send me a Pro Tools session via DigiStudio with an e-mail about what you think you might want me to add to it, and I'm set for the evening."

Don't miss the great interactive online tour of the Mars habitat at www.exploremarsnow.org. For more, go to www.marssociety.org.

Miss You (MP3)
This is one of Frank's songs, something he had been sitting on for nearly 20 years. It was written to a person, but to the rest of the crew the song seemed more a love letter to the Earth; we miss you. We did! Kelly's synth sound on this one was a crew favorite, haunting sounds to accompany the surreal environment. Sam and Frank recorded the main vocals from about 3 AM to 6 AM on one of the last nights in the hab (and wish to thank the rest of the crew yet again for showing incredible patience with such behavior).

Frank Schubert: Guitars, Percussion, Piano, Voice
Kelly Snook: Synths, Voice
Sam Burbank: Lead Vocal, Bass, Percussion
Steve McDaniels: Voice

Mr. Robinson (MP3)
One of Sam's songs, written about writer Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Mars. Green Mars, Blue Mars), Sam favorite on any planet. Mr Robinson's books have been the inspiration for countless people becoming involved with the Mars movement. This song tipifies the kind of back and forth collaboration the Extremophiles had with musicians on earth.

Frank Schubert: Bass, Harmonica
Kelly Snook: Piano, Bells, Vocals
Sam Burbank: Guitars, Vocals

Collaborators on Earth:
Scott Myers: Violins
Joshua Burbank: Drums, Percussion
Andy Moraga: Misc Samples

Photos for the Mars story courtesy of Kelly Snook. Cover photo courtesy of Charles Cockell.
MDRS-6 Mission patch design by R.D."Gus" Frederick.