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Scene, not heard: tweaking my own sound at Coachella

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Not Here, my dear

The pitch on Doppler Labs' Here Active Listening is pretty simple: what if you could customize your listening experience — of the entire world? This seemed especially appealing at Coachella, where I was surrounded by 90,000 people. Wouldn't it be nice to sit on the lawn, tune out the conversation, and tune in the main stage act?

The demo focuses on gimmicksTo this end, I waltz into the VIP section of Coachella — don’t be fooled, VIP is business class, the real important people have wristbands you didn’t know existed — where Doppler Labs have set up shop. They are hosting a "happy hour," and offer a beer; all I want is water. (It’s hot.) This slightly dismays my hosts and it is when I first understand that I am going to be profoundly disappointing to the very enthusiastic people who are showing me the earbuds.

The demo focuses on gimmicks. For instance: you can put a "hallway" or "echo" effect on what you hear. I am asked if this is cool. I guess it’s a nifty technological trick, that you can add effects to voices, but… why would I? These settings feel like things that were added because the engineers knew how to produce them, not because they were meant to be seriously used. I thought the point was making my own individual sound mix for Coachella, not adding echo effects to speaker’s voices, you know? This is kind of like getting a demo for a camera, but one where only the sepia filter works.

What I really am looking for is a way of dealing with the bass pouring out of the Sahara tent. I am about to go see DJ Mustard, and I know the bass is going to be way too much for me. A lot of modern sound mixes prioritize bass in a way I don’t like, particularly since the mid-bass is sometimes boosted inappropriately high. This is actually pretty normal: most headphones boost bass because most people prefer a slightly higher bass mix to a "flat" one. I don’t really listen to bass-boosted music, and I buy headphones and speakers accordingly, so the most-popular sound mix isn’t going to be the one made for my tastes. Here promises that I can, using the app, tinker with specific frequencies, to tailor the mix to my preferences.

Also, there's my hearing: I would prefer not to damage it furtherAnd also, there’s my hearing. I have probably already damaged my hearing — from listening to music over headphones for years, from other concerts, from the jackhammer that is currently running outside my apartment (and all the other jackhammers that have preceded it). I would prefer not to damage it further. So I buy orange earplugs in bulk and wear them to shows. One of the perks that Here offers is noise cancelling, to -22 decibels. This promised to be a lot better than my cheapo earplugs, with a bonus of better fidelity to the actual sounds I’d hear. Kind of perfect for a concert.

In the Rose Garden, I run into Doppler Labs’ CEO and co-founder Noah Kraft. I do have some questions for him. For instance, the wind has kicked up and it’s messing with the earbuds and making the general listening experience extremely unpleasant. Is there a wind filter? There is not. I consider asking him about the effects, and who would ever want or use them, but before I can get there he asks me if anyone has shown me the effects. He is very proud of them and is prepared to demo them himself. I quickly interrupt and say I have to be going — DJ set!

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Inside the Sahara tent. (Michael Tullberg / Getty Images)

DJ Mustard’s set was not, like, overwhelmingly new or original. Did you know that lots of people like "Hotline Bling" and Fetty Wap? What’s fun about it, though, is that the crowd is having the best time, like, ever, man. What’s less fun is that though Doppler Labs had optimized its app for the festival, there was still the occasionally fzzzt noise of a speaker coming in and out. I consider opening the app on my phone to tinker, but in the crush of people this proves to be impossible. I do the next-best thing: I take the earbuds out and replace them with my cheapo earplugs.

I take the earbuds out and replace them with my cheapo earplugsRemoving the Here earbuds is, in fact, a recurring theme. After the set, I put the earbuds back in and walk over to a stand selling iced coffee, for which I will pay an obscene amount of money ($8). While I'm standing in line for coffee, three friendly girls dressed in black crocheted dresses ask me a question. In order to hear them, I have to remove the Here buds, which aren't really optimized for human interaction. They want to know if I have a lighter, which I do. I pass it to them, they light their cigarettes, and we wave before going our separate ways.

But perhaps I could make better use of Here as a reporting tool. After DJ Mustard, I head off to make notes on what I've seen and heard so far. As I'm walking across the lawn, I note the fashion. Most of the men are dressed in a super-boring way, but one guy is wearing a thong, and his ass cheeks are visible to all the world. (I hope he used sunscreen!) Women, who appear to have gotten some memo I missed regarding rhinestones above the eyebrows, pose for selfies in their crocheted flowing dresses. I hear snippets of conversation — which band to see, who's wearing what, what looks good on Instagram. It occurs to me that the idea of personalized listening kind of flows against what a festival is about, which is being part of a group, observing other people, listening to their conversations, maybe learning something.

These earbuds are bullshit for eavesdropping I settle down in the VIP area, near a group of four boys who do not appear to be of drinking age. This is exciting, since I almost never see teenagers in the wild. There is probably some new slang now that I haven't heard of, and so I put the Here earbuds in, hoping they'll aid in eavesdropping. This experience, sad to say, is not "lit." These earbuds are bullshit for eavesdropping and I do not learn any new slang from the #teens. Maybe there is a way to amplify nearby conversations — this is a gimmick I would get excited about — but I can’t figure it out.

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Inside Do Lab. (Matt Cowan / Getty Images)

I'm hungry, and so I head over to get ramen — that’s back in the Rose Garden, on the other side of the festival. Halfway over, I stop by Do Lab, which is like a little haven of Burning Man in the middle of Coachella. (What I mean to say is that it smells like feet inside the tent.) I don’t recognize the music or the artist. I’m not really sure how it should sound. I do have the bass dialed down, but this doesn’t ameliorate the thudding I feel directly in my chest. Weird; I can feel the vibrations but don’t hear them. This is probably the first time I experience the earbuds working the way I want them to. After a few songs, I duck out again, one mission on my mind: ramen.

A bro is bored and looking for attention There are a dearth of tables, so I am sitting on a bench with my ramen next to a bunch of total strangers; three bros — white shirts, red caps, cargo shorts — and a woman (crocheted dress, in white). One of the bros, who appears to be in his mid-20s, is standing while his friends eat ramen. He is bored and looking for attention. When the dude who's shouting the names for ramen orders gets a second, the bro asks him, "Is your name Jeff?" The ramen guy says no, it's John. "I was close," the bro says, happily. "Do you spell it with an h?" Yes, says John the ramen guy. "I'm Jon, no H," says the bro. "Shut up," hisses the girl, who looks kind of mortified. Jon the bro ignores her. "No H is Biblical, you know, Jonathan. Though," he says, thinking, "John is Biblical, too. You're John the Baptist!" John the ramen guy calls someone's name, as their order is up.

This absurd little scene isn't much to write home about — admittedly — but it charmed me all the same. I'd have missed it if the Here earbuds were in, since they’re not very good at picking up nearby chatter, especially in the wind. I’m not totally sure what the algorithms are optimizing for, but my brain is better at it, whatever it is.

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Jehnny Beth of Savages at Coachella. (Emma McIntyre / Getty Images)

After dinner, I make my way over to the Savages set. Jehnny Beth is strutting like an angry peacock onstage. The earbuds are not keeping up — I think they’re losing their charge. I pull them out, which is when I hear the middle-aged woman next to me rocking out to "Husbands." She knows all the words, and she is feeling them.

The problem with an individualized listening experience is that it leaves you all alone The selling point on Here Active Listening, if I understood the Doppler Labs CEO right, is that you can’t control your hearing. Either you hear everything around you, constantly, or you’re wearing earplugs (and you still hear a lot). I don’t need to control my surroundings constantly, and I don’t find it particularly useful or interesting to do so. I was told several times that Here didn’t want to be Google Glass, reviled by the masses; that they wanted feedback so they could keep tweaking the product. Here is my feedback: I think the product is probably not right for festivals (and definitely not right for me). Bringing their product to the festival shows that the device makers probably do not understand the point of a festival.

All these girls in crocheted dresses, the man who was gracing us with a full moon — they came here to see and be seen. Part of the fun of events like this, whether it’s Coachella or the Iowa State Fair, is the spectacle. You want to see and hear the ridiculous people around you because they make for good stories; they’re part of the reason you came. Asking for my own separate audio system felt like missing out on the spectacle. The problem with an individualized listening experience is that it leaves you all alone. But if you wanted to be all alone, why did you come to the festival in the first place?