In Converstation with Queen's Engineering Alumnus Kevin Doucette

Posted on June 20, 2019


Queen’s alumnus Kevin Doucette has had an amazing career since graduating from the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science in 2002. We caught up with him to talk about how his engineering education has given him the tools to succeed in his career as a film score composer, and how AI is playing a role in exciting new film and music projects, including the development of an artificially intelligent musician.  

With Kevin’s unique background in engineering and music composition, he was able to collaborate with Intel on a very exciting project that involved creating an artificially intelligent musician. They were able to create a musical neural that is able to “listen” and respond in real time to musical phrases and melodies. His work attracted attention from the computer science division at MIT and their Media Lab, and he plans to continue this line of work under his startup QUAIVR.

Alumni Profile Interview: Kevin Doucette

 

Q.
Hello, Kevin, thank you for being with us today.

Kevin:
Hey, great to be here. Thank you. Nanci.

Q.
I'd like to start by asking you a little bit about your background and how you got into engineering. You have a very unique background and, look like you were all set to have this incredible music career. How did you decide to get into engineering? 

Kevin:
Well, super interesting. I think the easiest way to look at it is, you know, a young kid that admires his father who is an engineer, right? And definitely interested in the sciences.

But I was lucky I had a mom that was very interested in the arts, so, she's the one that kind of pushed me into piano, well and she'll say she didn't push me, but I always kind of gravitated to the piano in the house. So I kind of got a bit of both.

But definitely in terms of prospects before you go to university or college, you kind of look at what the careers are and what the prospects are and then how you make a living. And obviously my father did very well as an engineer and it just seemed to make sense.

So I actually started, you know, my secondary education, definitely firmly in the route of, Hey, let me do engineering. I'm good at, you know, math and sciences and it's, it's technical. It's interesting and that's kind of what started me off in that, in that direction.

But as we'll chat, obviously life brings you in many paths and I found my love through the arts and definitely have been able to pave a way that compliments.

I get kind of draw from both and be creative as well as extremely technical at times. And that's kind of what I've found as a niche.

 


I hopefully that answered the question, but music was always part of my life, just through, you know, my family life with mum and dad definitely supporting me the whole way.

Q:
Right. Oh, well that's an interesting upbringing. So what made you choose Queen's and what program did you choose?

Kevin:
Mechanical engineering was the area that I was super interested in. It was at the time what I thought was the most diverse. You kind of got a bit of everything from the Calculus to, you know, working machines.

I was always very good with my hands and Lego and building things. So that's probably what drew me to mechanical engineering.

And the reason, the main reason I went to Queen's is the holistic approach. And let me expand on that.

When I went and interviewed at the English universities and I said, "look, I love my sciences, but I'm also, you know, a big piano player. I want to get involved in the arts community, and I play soccer at a pretty high level and I want to be able to do both."

And every university faculty member I met at in England was like, "oh, no, no, no, there will not be time for these things, blah, blah", you know, or something along those lines.

Whereas at Queens, I remember visiting with my cousin, and that will be important in just a sec, who's the same age as me, and we visited Queen's campus.

It was a gorgeous day. And every faculty member I met, and during the tours that we did, they're "like, yeah, if you want to do music, and you're in engineering, if you've got the time and you fit it in your schedule, by all means." Right.

And same with the sports. They had all these clubs and all of these, like they were embracing, like I said, a holistic approach, which just like it clicked with me cause that's what I grew up with is like if you can fit in your schedule and you can stay on top of everything, then by all means do it. And Queen's gave me that.

Like I played on the varsity soccer team, I was captain for three years. I did my music and I did my engineering and it was just like, wow, that's what I wanted out of secondary education. And I got it at Queen's.

Q:

Wow. That's a cool experience. It's amazing. Any particular memories that stand out for you during your time at Queen's?

Kevin: Oh my gosh. I can give a lot and then you can probably edit those. I mean, you know, I really tried to take advantage of everything queens had to offer.

So, you know, amazing ups and downs with my, I guess you'd call it a fraternity of soccer players. You know, that that really was my brotherhood while I was at Queens. We literally did everything together.

We trained every day, some of the intense studying for the mechanical engineering program. It was like, honestly, some of the hardest stuff cramming and working with teams to be able to just scrape through at times. But I often, you know, if you put in the hard work, it does pay off in the long run.

So those memories are great. Just how challenging the program was. And we'll talk about this more, but just how it really laid a foundation to everything that I do now, you know, I can always bring it back to engineering, even though I'm in the arts, there is always an aspect and what we'll get into that.

And then the last one that just how lovely the music faculty of the, it's called the Dan school of music now, it's changed. And I saw their new performing arts facility just down by the river now and I'm like "why didn't I have when I was there?"

Q:
So tell me what happened once you graduated. There you are a professional engineer with a music background.

Kevin:
Yes the Canadian education system has got a great system where if you stay another year you can get another degree.

So I actually did my, BSc in mechanical engineering and then stayed a fifth year to play soccer, but also to get a BA in music. So I got a dual degree essentially in five years, which was great, but it's really started having a void where I was like, I need to just do this.


And that's when I realized I did a bit of research. I can do a dual degree and really jump into it again.


And so to to answer your question, I kind of decided before I finished my engineering degree, I'm going to try something else. Okay. I've got my engineering as a background. And in fact I did a couple summer jobs in Toronto. One was kind of designing refrigeration cycles for, ice hockey arenas, like the Air Canada center that's there. It was a consulting firm that helped in that sort of aspect.

And it was great. It was challenging. I learned a lot, but I realized after my third year, my summer job in the third year, I was like, "ah, I need something. I don't know something's missing."

So I did the fifth year, and this all kind of prepared me for like, "okay, if I'm going to do music, what is it going to be and what do I love about music?", and it really was being creative. I love composing and I loved movies. And to be honest, I did not know that you could do a film music career. I didn't know.

And then the more I read, the more excited I got about it. I started researching about schools and there were some good ones, but the one that kept popping up in most of my searches and research and feedback and talking to people was Berklee College of music in Boston.

And so, you know, I didn't miss a beat. I knew once I finished my exams in May at Queens for my, you know, BA music program, I'd have the summer off, but I'm off to Boston and I'm going to start the program and that's what I got accepted into, the film music composition program.

Q:

And so that's taken you quite far. You've managed to, trade, a number of compositions for film. Tell me a little bit about that and some of the ones that are you're, most excited about or proud of.

Kevin:
I went to Berklee thinking, "okay, I'm just going to learn about, you know, paper and Pencil and orchestration" and the real aha moment for me with film music. And a lot of people don't know this is technology and film music is a huge component.

So, what do I mean by that? Everything we do at my little studio that I'm sitting in here has got nine computers in it. Thousands of sample libraries. You know, I've got three keyboard controllers and touch screen. There's technology literally all around me. There's a head mounted VR headset right here.

There's so much technology to be able to deliver a film score these days, if you don't know how to program or set up a computer or just be extremely quick at adapting to new tech that comes, you're left behind. And there are classmates of mine that, honestly, were brilliant.

They were composers and performers. Where they fell short is technology and it's hard, hard to say this. I mean, like, I remember some of my classmates, I was like, wow, they are so, so smart with how their melody creation, all of that stuff, but I knew and they knew too. I, you know, it's sad. Out of the 40 people I graduated with 10 years ago at Berkeley, there's two of us left here and we're both very technology savvy.

So that's where I really started getting ahead is yes, I had the fundamentals. I wasn't, you know, I can compose obviously. I don't want to demean that fact and I learned quickly, but I really think my strength, which kind of opened the door for me was embracing technology in a way that would enable me to help either someone that I'm assisting or make a process just seamless. I was just very detailed in great with the tech and that's, you know, that's how I've succeeded.

Q:
Do you do you attribute some of that to your engineering fundamentals?

Kevin:
Yeah, definitely, that's kind of what makes it full circle is, you know, the, the way you think as an engineer, the way you kind of come up with processes to either refine, iterate, and you know, have it be more productive or cut out steps that are unnecessary. So efficiency is key, right?

We're we're dealing with deadlines, you know, you've got to write 90 minutes of music in two weeks. That's insane. And deliver it, mix it. There's so many steps.

If you don't have a process where you've refined through templates, through workflows that you know, are very engineering sort of like mentality based, you don't succeed and it goes back to that thing.

So definitely everything I learned in energy, how to tackle a problem, you know, that initially seems overwhelming and it often really is breaking it down into pieces. And as simple as that sounds, a lot of creative people that I work with in LA, they run away. They're like, "I can't do this". Like, and then they call Kev, you know. 

And my mentor, we'll also get into this, he's an Indian superstar he's, you know, is the most famous singer and performer in India as well as the most famous film composer, A.R. Rahman, has used me in that capacity over the last 10 years on many, many occasions, like, we need to get something done.

For example, we did a performance at a very elaborate wedding, the Ambani wedding. So they spent 100 million on this wedding and I get a phone call two weeks before "Kev, they want a private performance with the London Symphony Orchestra for three hours of music. Um, we haven't started putting it together. Uh, we need to record everything and then have it ready in two weeks."

And it's like, that's insane. Not a note is written. So three hours of music for full orchestra, you know, you're talking about thousands, literally thousands of individual parts and notes all orchestrated, ready to go in two weeks and rehearse. And we pulled it off. It's just, you know, those are the sorts of things that I get on my plate in terms of here's a daunting task, let's break it down.

And that's what I do, you know, I call in members and I project manage, which obviously engineering has helped a whole bunch as well. So kind of went off topic there a little bit, but that's know, gives you a little bit of an idea of how engineering, breaking problems down into pieces. I'm very good at that and I'm hopefully getting better. And, you know, there'll be more to come.

Q :
Yeah. That sounds like the, you know, those critical thinking skills that, you know, the engineering program really focuses on that ability to problem solve but also to collaborate. You mentioned you got team members that you work with.

Kevin:
I don't know what it is. I've been blessed with being able to get along with people. I deal with enormous personalities both in fame and in ego, and you have to be cognizant of those things when you're trying to execute on a vision.

As I grow now with people I collaborate with. Being able to work with people is so key and Queen's definitely laid a foundation there. We were always, I still remember, "okay guys, look next to you and those are going to be your group members.", and I was like, "what's this group member thing?" You know, I was always good with teams from soccer and stuff, but like, you know, working on something or on a project with people you don't even know, you know, Queen's just throws you right in and it's great.

And that's same with, with frosh week. I remember that too. Showing up and for frosh week, you know, they kind of gave you a number. "All the number threes go over here" and it's like "now introduce yourself." Right.

And that's so important! It's, you know, being out of your comfort zone and being able to just, okay, pick up and let's execute. And, you know, hopefully I'm getting better and better at that.

Q:
Well, and speaking of collaboration, I know that you're collaborating with Intel to develop an artificially intelligent Musician. That sounds very intriguing.

Kevin:
Yeah, so that's really a fantastic opportunity that has evolved over the last three years.

So a little bit of background: Intel obviously chip makers, huge company, they approached my mentor A.R. Rahman about three and a half years ago about doing a performance for one of the, the big trade shows here in the US this consumer electronic show happens every year in Vegas in January, and they kind of kick off their year of, "Hey, look at what we're going to do, blah, blah, blah."

So, I met their R&D team in 2015 I think it was. And they showed up at the studio at the house and we had a really nice meeting. But essentially at that time they were, they were trying to promote a chip that had, you know, accelerometers six gyroscopes. It essentially tracked motion very accurately and they had a division that was using it for sports.

That's a no brainer. Obviously if you can put it, put it on an athlete and give them metrics while they're training, that would be really helpful. And they had a, another division that was using it for, for vehicles, things in motion, right. It's super easy.

But one of the, the gentleman in that R&D team at Intel was like, "why don't we try and use it in the arts creatively?" Like what, you know, let's think outside the box a little bit. And that's why they showed up at the house. And I remember A.R. Rahman saying, "uh, I don't know what's going on here. Here. Work with Kev. He's got a mechanical engineering background. See if you can come up with something."

And literally that's where it began. Intel's big on machine learning, you know, autonomous vehicles, those kinds of pair together cause you need machine learning to really get a, an autonomous system to work efficiently.

But again, I'm coming at it from a creative, you know, outside the box sort of persona. I was like, "well, why can't we try and create a musician, you know, and what does that entail and how would we do that?"

So I laid a foundation with a team of about 20 engineers there that created a neural net with some of the tools that are available there, and we did a very early version of a jazz guitarist and a Jazz bass player that would listen to what I play in real time and respond.

And it's just, taken off. It's been, you know, people are like, how did you do this? It's just so, you know, it was just an experiment that's now growing into an opportunity that we're capitalizing on and we're looking at other ventures are the avenues that this could apply to and, and see where it goes, right?

So, it's super interesting and I'm really thrilled to be kind of at the nexus of having a team that's supporting what I'm asking them to do and, integrate the technical and the creative that I love.

 

Q:
And you're not putting musicians out of work, are you?

Kevin:
Hahaha, I get that question a lot. We're so far from that. I think the most cases that I see sort of intriguing and really helpful is a collaborator, so to speak.

You know, we're far from this yet, but you know, we're in the process of thinking in the direction of, "hey, wouldn't it be cool if I'm in my studio, I've got writer's block and, I just want to play with someone that sounds like Stevie Wonder" for example. Right. And the beautiful voicings that Stevie Wonder kind of uses with this chord structures and all of that.

Well, there's nothing to stop us from taking the breadth of work that Stevie Wonder's done. Create a Stevie Wonder neural net, so to speak. And there you go. You've got a representation. It's still not Stevie, but it could help kind of inspire you and that's the whole point.

You know, I had a great expression from the director of the NAMM society, which is the National Association of Music Merchants here in the US and thery're a nonprofit organization, but they're like, "our hardest job is to get more people to start playing music because everybody wants to be like, how many times have you heard, Oh man, I wish I started playing piano or I wish I played guitar".

That's the first thing. And then the second comment that is often said is, "oh, I wish I had kept playing piano or kept playing guitar". Right. So I'm going to say it wrong, but it's something like more to start, fewer to quit is kind of like their unofficial mandate.

We want more people to start music and few people to quit, fewer people to quit. And if AI or you know, through learning or through having someone you can play with at your home can enable or help the fewer to quit portion of music, I'm all for it.

I'm not looking to replace anything. I think it'd be silly cause that'd be replacing myself. But I definitely see a really interesting, fruitful, fun, actually fun area of music discovery thatn I want to be a part of.

Q:
And it's interesting because one would think, you know, music is such an emotional career really. It's, you know, when you, when you look at performers, they're really putting a lot of what I would call the human side of themselves into it, along with the technical expertise. And how do you replicate that artificially?

Kevin:
You're basically answering the initial question, "are you going to put people out of work?", and I don't think we can replicate that.

That's so at another level of what a musician brings to their performance, which, you know, very primitively summed up would be, you know, I'm taking their life experience. Everything they've gone through. And in that particular moment they're playing, you know, let's say Fur Elise or something that's been played a million times, but they're playing, it's slightly different because of the audience, the time of day, how they feel in that week. We're not going to get that.

That's the special humanistic touch that art has. And I don't think we'll ever get to.

Q:
But maybe that the AI would be the teacher.

Kevin:
Yeah. And, and that's where AI, a lot of the use cases we've been kind of strategizing over. AI can be an amazing teacher, right?

So, I use case would be I'm learning a melody with my right hand or a guitar chords and you know, through a series of a camera watching you either on your guitar or on your keyboard, it can advise you, you know, through some sort of Alexa or any sort of device that can give you some sort of feedback will be able to tell you, "nope, move your index finger this way. Try it like that."

And you know, it's all happening through repetitive looped based systems where the feedback is instantaneous and it's correct. And then once you've got it, you've got it move on to the next part of the song.

Q:
And does that maybe open up, the ability for anybody, regardless of their financial situation, say to learn, you know, we talk a lot about kids not really having the opportunity to take music lessons in school as much as they used to, so would this open up a new area for you?

Kevin:
Sure, sure. And in fact, I mean, I think Youtube has done an amazing job at democratizing a lot of teaching, right?

You know, you can go on Youtube right now and learn any song, and I think that's great. You know, there's thousands it's inundated with stuff like that. But yeah, AI would definitely add another layer or another, you know, AI will be able to adapt to you, right?

If you're doing a play along thing, it'll realize, oh, this is a little bit too hard. So it'll slow down the playback and then you can play along until you get faster. So there's so many great, you know, teaching tools that I think will come up in the next five years, if not less actually.

Q:
Wow. That's exciting!

Kevin:
Yeah!

Q :
So I understand you also have a new startup, Quaiver? I'm just wondering if you can tell me a little bit about that.

Kevin:
Yeah, no, thank you for asking. And you said it perfectly. So, that was my intent. A lot of folks don't know how to say it, but quaver is a play on words. A quaver, the way that I was brought up with music, is actually an eighth note. You know, we have quavers, crotchets, semiquavers, all of that.

But, I thought that was a nice way to kind of keep my music kind of hidden within the technology.

But essentially it's Q U AI for artificial intelligence and VR virtual reality. It spawned from, the opportunities that I'm seeing and getting exposed to having now worked with Intel for three and a half years. And some of the stuff I'm doing with A. R. Rahman in terms of the virtual reality area that we're doing movies and sound.

But essentially Quaiver is a company that's going to be at the forefront of all things arts and AI and virtual reality and bringing, you know, those unique experiences that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get, so that's what we're aiming for, and what I started.

And I hope to, I've been talking with the Dean, Dean Deluzio, for some interns at some point when we're ready. So, I want to be able to bring some people to LA and use the computer science division.

That's why I was there for Mitchell Hall is to see the new facilities, which are amazing as well as draw from some of my Berklee connections there. And I really want to create a melting pot of like, you know, art and technology and really push the boundaries of where, what that means and where that's going. So that's the hope.

Q:
That's fabulous, well speaking of your visit, I know that you were recently recipient of one of the Queen's engineering excellence 125th awards.

Kevin:
Yes!

Q:
Tell me about that experience.

Kevin:
Well, I mean it was, it was amazing. It was very humbling to be in a room with all of those recipients. It actually just shows, it's a testament to the Queen's diversity and you looked at all the areas of business in the booklet that we got and we touch on so many things from non-profits to, you know, startups like myself to bankers that are doing things for folks that wouldn't be able to, you know, industries, you name it.

A Queen's alumni is at a pivotal position in whatever company it is or leading the way in that company. And it was humbling. I was one of the, the younger folks there, but just to be in a room with, you know, the first female engineer. I mean, that was awesome to be able to meet her and see her and just like, at least try and put myself in her shoes. Like wow. She was a pioneer. Right.

And I felt like the through message for everyone that I met was like, they weren't afraid to fail. And in doing so they, I mean obviously you failed a bunch of times. I've, you know, that wasn't the right decision. But in doing so, not like having that resilience to like keep going in something you believe in, just like yielded these amazing visionaries. Right.

And I was like, she is special and just, it made me feel really good and kind of like, "Why haven't I been back to Queens more recently?" Right. And so that's something I'm changing in my life. But it was just amazing to be there and be back and be part of that evening. So big thanks to everyone involved that put it together.

Q:
Oh, that's wonderful. So what's the exciting thing that's coming up in the near future that you're most excited about? You mentioned virtual reality and

Kevin:
Yeah. So, that's one of the things we've been working on for a while. So a bit of background on that.

Um, obviously virtual reality's been around for I think a good 10 years, but it's only now where, you know, compute power and, actually the, the HMDs which stands for Head Mounted Devices have been able to catch up and actually do the processing within the devices themselves to not give you that sick feeling.

So a lot of people, when they watch VR for the first time a couple of years ago, they put the headset on and they would get this nauseous feeling, it has to do with the frame rates not being able to keep up with the processing power of your brain and your eye, et cetera.


But now, because the quality is so much better, computers are so much faster, when you put on a headset that one of the better headsets these days, you are immersed.


So, the notion of, you know, movie making's never gonna go away, but what can we do with this technology to make it more immersive, make you feel things more intensely, right?

So we've embarked on a project we started three years ago, again with my mentor from India A.R. Rahman, who's also a tech visionary by the way. He's kind of, I think that's where we've just always connected on another level other than crazy deadlines and passion for work and music. But we're, both very big techies.

And he decided, "you know what, I'm just going to do a movie in virtual reality. And everyone told them, no, you can't do it. That's not possible. We can't, there's no way a camera can do x, y, and Z, blah, blah, blah." But he just funded it himself. He wrote a script, directed it, and we just went in with, jumped in and we've created our own algorithms we've pushed all the tech to the limits.

But what we've come up with, and most recently, just answer your question, what's exciting, what's coming out is we were recently at the Cannes film festival where we debuted a very short snippet of our feature film which you know, is atypical anyway. No one's ever done a feature film that's 60 minutes long in virtual reality, normally experiences are 15 minute Max.

Our's was 60 minutes. We're going to split it up in three episodes, but we showcased this snippet of Le musk. It's called L E, M, U S, K, and it's a multisensory VR experience. So let me just break that down a little bit.

So, multisensory in that we have haptics for sound. It'll kind of enable or make you more immersed. So there's haptics, there's scent, we've got timed triggered scent pods that fire a certain scent depending on what you're seeing at various parts of the movie. Very subtle. It's not like, you know, overwhelming.

It has a big impact because smell is one of the strongest, you know, sense of triggers, memories, you know, this whole thesis' is on just smell alone.

And then we are using the best headsets shot with the best cameras. So we've got incredible quality and visual quality that you have. And then obviously I'm the music supervisor for the project. So my attention to detail is all with ambi-sonic audio.

So a good way to explain that is, you know, I'm dealing with the whole spacial audio aspect of the film, not only the music in the film, which is second nature. We do that all the time, but you know, can we use sound and melody to be able to enhance the narrative so you can make music move.

And it really, sometimes, you know, we've been experimenting, it can get overwhelming, but it can get very interesting in terms of leading the narrative through sound. And so what you get is kind of how I pointed at the beginning, a multisensory virtual reality experience.

And everyone that has seen it thus far, and especially at Cannes, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, which is good cause we're like, we don't know if we're doing this right, but, we're getting good feedback and we hope to finish it by November, December this year. And we're working on a, premiere space to host the premiere of the whole piece.

And, that's what I'm excited about right now is finishing that.

Q:
Oh, that's wonderful.

Kevin:
Yeah.

Q:

And last question for you: what's your favorite part of the day?

Kevin:
Hahaha, yeah. I love that question.

So I'm quite an active, I try to be active, as best I can, and obviously with work deadlines, the most annoying part of my job is we are quite stationary in a studio.

So anytime I can go out and be active, I'm still playing soccer with, there's amazing leagues out here. So I would say sport, obviously playing piano. Definitely try and keep up with that. I love just playing for the sake of playing it here at home. And listening to audio books.

I've recently discovered Audible, which has been amazing. And for some reason I have a knack with audio and listening and I'm not a very quick reader. And the fact that I can finish books now in two days, like big novels with audio at three times speed. It just kind of, it's honestly, it's like a data download and I love it. I've become obsessed with it. So, thank you, Audible.

Q:
That's wonderful. Well, thank you, Kevin, so much for speaking with us today.

Kevin:
My pleasure. Lovely to speak with you. Thanks.