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Rockin’ the Zoom room

The MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center finds camaraderie at a colleague’s virtual rock concert.
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Facilities and operations administrator Matt Fulton found a new audience for his classic rock in a virtual concert for his Plasma Science and Fusion Center colleagues.
Facilities and operations administrator Matt Fulton found a new audience for his classic rock in a virtual concert for his Plasma Science and Fusion Center colleagues.
Photo: Paul Rivenberg; Background art: Sara Ferry '11, PhD '18

Matt Fulton is not used to “rocking out” alone on his sunporch. The MIT facilities and operations administrator usually sings and plays guitar before a full room at Boston’s Green Dragon on Thursday nights. At least, he did until bars closed and physical distancing increased in response to Covid-19. Recently he found himself playing for a new audience, his Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) colleagues, welcoming them to an end-of-the-week Zoom concert of “pub tunes” with Elton John’s “Your Song.”

The virtual get-together was inspired by a conversation Fulton had with PSFC Director Dennis Whyte.

“He was talking to me one day and said, ‘Well, obviously you can’t be playing any gigs right now.’ I said, ‘Right, I can’t be. All the bars and restaurants are closed!’ And he said, ‘Then you should play a concert for the PSFC.’”

Matt credits Whyte’s enthusiasm and can-do attitude for persuading him it could work, despite his own doubts about the technical issues involved. Although he owns a significant amount of music equipment, including a mixing board and a recording interface on his computer, Fulton was not certain how to get the sound into Zoom, or how it would sound to anyone listening. He and Whyte figured it out together ahead of showtime.

“Originally we didn’t realize Zoom could take only one mono input,” says Fulton. “I was trying to use the recording interface as a mixer, and I had the guitar and the voice and the drum tracks all going into different channels on my interface. The only thing Dennis could hear was the microphone in channel one.”

At performance time, with technical issues resolved, Whyte welcomed colleagues from what looked like an empty pub — in actuality, a Zoom background. Filling in for Fulton’s sun porch was a virtual poster designed by postdoc Sara Ferry. With lettering and graphics reminiscent of psychedelic posters from the 1960s, it announced the Hearts and Minds Tour of “Plasma Miasma with opening act SPARC” — referencing the fusion experiment the PSFC is working on with Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

Fulton defines his playlist for the afternoon as “classic rock,” including songs by Goo Goo Dolls, MatchBox 20, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pink Floyd, Warren Zevon, America, and Jackson Browne, among others. Between songs Whyte was a relaxed emcee, engaging with the audience and suggesting playful contests, like “What song title best describes the current moment?”

Fulton notes that, singing alone on his porch, it was impossible for him to “read the room.”

“Not everybody likes rock music,” he grants. “Or rap, or classical. Music is like opinions. You can’t please everybody. Given our diversity of ages at the center, and the diversity of our musical tastes … you had to like classical rock to enjoy the music I was performing. I was more nervous doing this than I would be playing at the Green Dragon in front of 40 or 50 strangers.”

Based on chat room comments, and dozens of emails sent after the event, the participants loved the chance to relax with coworkers listening to Fulton’s music. There is a push to make it a regular hangout. Fulton sees potential for others at the center to be involved, possibly creating a virtual PSFC band.

“There’s a lot of talent within the 200-plus people at the center,” he says. “Dennis on keyboards! We have a saxophonist, drummers, singers. We’d probably need a bass player.”

Again, he’s concerned about the technical challenges involved in synching multiple performers into one virtual venue.

“It requires a level of complexity we haven’t wrapped our minds around. It could be a mess,” he says. “Or it could be great.”

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