Globetrotting DJ/producer/sound designer Tom Middleton has been burning the creative candle at both ends since the late ’80s in Cornwall, England. At the start of his production career he struck up a friendship with a then unknown chap named Richard D. James, whose Aphex Twin project was just getting off the ground. Not too long after Middleton had found his groove, creating genre-defining music with Mark Pritchard in Global Communication. (The duo’s 1994 album, 76:14, is a benchmark of excellence in the field.)
Middleton’s lengthy discography is truly something to behold — countless productions, remixes and a spate of brilliant mix CDs spanning ambient, deep house and downtempo. (2002’s sprawling three-disc opus The Sound Of The Cosmos is as sublime a mix collection as they come.) Factor in a variety of work as a sound designer, sample pack producer and that equals a busy man.
More recently, Middleton has come to learn and better understand the science of sleep, which invigorates the mind, body and soul, reduces stress, energizes, calms and plays an important role in overall wellbeing. If you don’t get enough of it on a consistent basis — a challenge for many of us in our always-on culture — then serious health problems may develop.
The cost of sleep deprivation in the US costs 1.2 million lost working days a year, costing $411bn or 2.28 percent of GDP. Middleton says if we could get just one more hour of quality sleep to make up to 7 hours plus, it would add £24bn back to the UK economy.
Middleton trained to become a sleep coach, learning about sleep architecture, sleep health and hygiene. Before long his two passions converged. It led to Sleep Better (Universal Music), an album of soundscapes designed to help inspire relaxation before bedtime. The tracks he created slow respiration with the goal of reducing blood pressure and stress levels, with the goal of activating the relaxation mechanism.
On the eve of the album’s release on World Sleep Day, Middleton recalls how he became interested in sleep science and why Sleep Better could be the important project of his career.
You cross times zones on a regular basis in lieu of your work. When did you begin to take stock of your sleep hygiene?
Tom Middleton: I ‘woke up’ to the idea of sleep hygiene around 2006 I suppose, bouncing between Australia, Japan and the US. Does this qualify as sleep woke?! But it wasn’t until 2015 that I started researching properly for this YOTEL marketing video for their new smart mattress called Yawn.
DJs and producers are night owls. What’s the longest you’ve gone without sleep?
If I recall I may have pushed on though to around 34 hours. Travel plus an extended DJ set, hanging around then spinning another four or five hours at an after party, easily done once you’re in the zone. I know others have gone way longer. But with the information I know now wouldn’t recommend it!
In the past not sleeping has been a badge of honor for many. To some it illustrates how they’re living their lives to the fullest or working really hard. But now I see more people trying to get at least 8 hours. Would you agree with the assessment that there’s been a slow cultural shift in recent years about the importance of sleep?
Yes, thankfully with ambassadors, leaders and scientists such as Arianna Huffington and Professor Matthew Walker leading the charge the word is spreading. It’s pretty ill-advised to compromise your quality of life, increase disease risk, reduce longevity and lower your performance and productivity with sub-optimal sleep durations.
Phones and social media are ruining many people’s sleep. How do you cope?
- The tech has all but been removed from my bedroom.
- Try to keep it free from electromagnetic radiation. It’s more or less just that — a bedroom.
- I have red LED light and a Himalayan salt crystal with some oxygen producing plants.
- Think about cavemen — they retreated to the back of a cool dark east-facing cave to sleep and be naturally awoken by sunlight. That’s pretty much our starting point for the history of the bedroom!
- So keep your bedroom cool — 65 or so, dark as possible, ventilation is tricky due to outdoor climate and disruption from urban noise.
- Really you want to block outside noise if possible. Yes, I would suggest when you are ready to sleep use soft earplugs (or invest in custom fit 36 dB attenuating silicon ear plugs — best investment I’ve ever made).
Is it at all ironic that there’s a Sleep Better smartphone app?
It’s designed for the hour before bed as a player/streamer and virtual sunset maybe for relaxing in your sitting room. Wouldn’t say use it in the bedroom necessarily. But seems like 70 percent of planet Earth sleep with their phones! It’s a processor to sleep, to help you rethink your bedtime routine. Learn about sleep hygiene. Then when you get sleepy just head to bed. Uses only orange/red spectrum to avoid disrupting melatonin production that you get from blue/white light spectrum associated with most gadget screens. Fades to black and the screen shuts off after 10 minutes.
When did you land on the idea of putting together Sleep Better? Is this the next logical step to the wealth of downtempo/ambient music you’ve produced during your career? And how did you come up with the concepts for these tracks?
The more I researched I realized how important sleep is to every other mind and body function. Having been privileged to tour 49 countries and perform to over a million people, I’ve observed how frequencies affect us physiologically and emotionally. Whether producing music for dancing or listening/relaxing. That research has been invaluable in developing soundscapes with emotional intelligence that can elicit a desirable outcome. In this case, I want to engage you and distract you, capture your imagination with the first track, “Sunset.”
Even the names of the tracks use a psychological priming technique where you’ll be thinking about summer holidays, beautiful sunsets and warm tropical nights based in your experiences or fantasies.
Subsequent tracks deliberately decelerate your mind and body. I start to switch you off and disengage the active listening. It becomes purl passive. Slowing respiration and breathing rate, which may reduce blood pressure and stress levels in turn activating the relaxation mechanism.
Did you collaborate with any sleep experts on the album?
Initially, it was a solo mission. I began my training as a sleep science coach, learning about sleep architecture, sleep health and hygiene. Reading as many research papers as I could find. Developing and refining the soundscapes, testing on friends and family until they where ready for public beta testing. It was at that point I connected with academics and experts for opinions and critical review of the science I’ve been using. All have concurred with the research I’ve done and helped me to refine my core message for accuracy. The conversations have been so inspiring and productive and there will be collaborations on funded research projects in the coming months.
I understand the mastering session was quite challenging. What exactly happened?
Try to imagine, playing back music that is intentionally designed to make you feel relaxed and sleepy on a super high fidelity, clinically detailed and revealing $100k sound system that extends to the full human hearing range with minute accuracy. Wasn’t even particularly loud but the process of critical listening is essential for checking a recording for any errors. Poor Mandy swore at me afterwards, saying it was the most difficult she’d ever had to do.
Do you foresee a follow-up release in the future?
Yes. This spawns many micro niche bioharmonic and psychoacoustic products and is the start of a suite of scientifically designed and tested lifestyle, productivity, focus, health, fitness and well-being soundscapes.
Do you still plan to release music for the dance floor?
Any projects to mention?
There are (at least) five albums and three singles lining up for this year. That’s all I can say right now.
Thanks for your time, Tom. I wish you pleasant dreams tonight.