Using Surround Sound Systems for Public Performances & Installations

[The Klangdom Dome in Germany.]

Imagine a wide, twisting column of bass in the center of a room with percussive moons spinning around in its orbit. A beat would smash in one corner, and then echo away in a spiral around the room before the pattern continues with the next beat in the following corner. That was a portion of Zemi 17‘s recent surround sound installation in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Listeners lay strewn about the carpeted, dark room taking in the aural tale through a multi-channel sound system that he built.

“I think that with the decline in ‘record sales,’ or the idea that music is a product you pay for, it becomes more and more important to have sound be an experience that can’t be a low quality MP3 on ear buds,” reasons Zemi, who is also an Electronic Music Instructor at Dubspot, teaching production and performance with Ableton Live. He has been working with various numbers of speakers and channels at parties around New York, and these installations are great examples of the possibilities and challenges of working with surround sound in public places.

Surround sound is more common in the film and gaming worlds, and that’s where much of its advancements have taken place. But there are a number of people using the concept in music, sound, and art. The way the sound interacts with its environment can be affected by echos, technology, and placement of speakers. Many prefer to work in prepared environments with sounds created beforehand specifically for multiple channels, often exclusively for the individual spaces. The spaces themselves can even become spectacles. And sometimes visual and physical elements are used in tandem with the sounds.

A surround sound system is defined by the number of individual channels of sound the system can project. So a 5.1 system, the most common and which is standard in many movie theaters, would have five channels of separate tracks working in concert with an additional sub woofer, defined by the decimal point. There can be more than five speakers in that setup, but the additional ones would be emitting the same noise as the others on the same channel. All the channels work together to make sound travel around the room or even appear in a particular space in the room, like the upper right area for example. When positioned correctly in a room with proper acoustics, the higher the number of channels, the more precise and accurate one can get when directing a sound and making it move. A number of formats can deliver the sound, like DVDs, Super Audio CDs, MP3 Surround, and WAVs.

[The CineChamber by Recombinant Media Labs.]

Artists like Plaid, whose Greedy Baby album included a 5.1 DVD, say that the only way to hear that work properly is on a home system. They’ve said that listeners have to be standing directly in the center “sweet spot” in a public place to really understand what they did, and acoustics often make even that difficult. Because of these challenges, a lot of installations have work made specifically for a particular space, such as Jan St Werner from Mouse on Mars and his Noise Room listening sites.

The New York City-based ((audience)) project solicits works specifically for its controlled environments as well. They take advantage of the standardization of technology and the acoustic platform of the movie theater and apply it to sound art. The project brings in multiple artists to create works for these spaces, which are then taken on a tour of darkened cinemas around the world. “Surround sound works are typically played in an installation setting in a gallery or ‘performed’ live as multi-channel works in a concert setting,” explains Lauren Rosati, who runs the project along with Alexis Bhagat. “((audience)) considers the cinema as an untapped platform for the distribution of multi-channel sound.”

Their most recent show was a one-off event as part of the Unsound Festival here in New York where listeners could hear works by electronic music producers Demdike Stare and Raime, as well as sound art by Pamela Z and more. ((audience)) previewed the works sent to them on the 7.1 studio at Harvestworks, a non-profit sound organization in New York that acts as their fiscal sponsor. A DVD of those works was played for festival-goers at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Cinema. “It was really an eye and ear-opening experience for us to utilize the dynamics available in a 5.1 studio,” Raime told Urb. “We approached it in a very similar way to how we do our recorded work, but with more freedom, trying to create a visceral experience rather than a meditative one.”

[Stephen Moore below the surround sound system he created at Issue Project Room.]

Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room uses a 15 channel system of Hemisphere speakers that are designed to address the “sweet spot” issue. Each Hemisphere is hung from the ceiling and has one speaker pointing down towards the audience and five pointing sideways in a circular range. Performances on this system are generally either site-specific or are chosen because they benefit from the multi-channel system, which was created by Stephen Moore. The performances range from sound art to concerts. One artist placed 15 microphones in a coffin and then buried it, playing the recording on the system so that the sounds of dirt rained over the audience. Another played a custom guitar where each string was directed to a separate channel. An upcoming show will feature the compositions of Larry Austin, many of which were written for eight channels, like his remix of John Cage, called “Williams [re]Mix[ed]“.

Surround sound spaces can get pretty intense. The Klangdom Sound Dome at the Center for Art and Media in Germany features 47 speaks in a half sphere all pointed towards the center. Then there’s the ‘audio battlefield‘ at the Missouri University of Science and Technology that uses 64 speakers and four subwoofers to prepare unexperienced troops for the aural environment of a warzone. But the Allosphere at the University of California, Santa Barbara, tops all that by far. It’s a three story sphere where users walk onto a catwalk suspended in its center to be immersed inside 500 speakers. It also features projectors that display a 360 environment around them. Artists work there, but it’s also used by scientists and engineers.

The Allosphere is an extreme example of an immersive environment, but artists are definitely working to combine musical compositions for multi channel systems with synchronized visuals. Robert Henke, otherwise known as Monolake, is one. He has a show called Atom in collaboration with visual artist Christopher Bauder. Atom uses a four channel system and the music is matched to the movement of 64 glowing orbs, which the audience is seated around. It will next be in Norway and Mexico later this coming fall. Another show is the CineChamber, which was developed by Recombinant Media Labs. It’s a mobile environment that is set up in different locations where viewers are wrapped in projections and surrounded by sound. Different artists are chosen to create the content for each showing.

[The Atom Installation by Monolake and Christopher Bauder.]

As Rosati noted, a gallery setting is one of the most common settings to experience surround sound art. Kaffe Matthews‘s Sonic Bed is a unique one. It’s a sunken bed with a 12 channel system hidden within it which attendees lay on. They don’t just hear the music, they feel it. On Friday Matthews led a workshop at Eyebeam in New York where she taught participants to create a track for the installation using its custom software interface.)

Zemi’s surround sound installations are more free-spirited than most of those highlighted here. He builds his own systems in various locations and uses automation for much of the multi channel effects. In that spirit of experimentation, he’s co-founded a new series called Auditorium which brings a different collection of artists in to play on a bass-minded 8.4 channel system. The next event will be on June 25th in Manhattan. He aims to make it the best place to hear surround sound in New York City. - MS


[Zemi17 and David Last at the first 8.4 channel Auditorium show in Williamsburg.]


How did you write the tracks you used for last the Greenpoint installation?

It was mostly modified, sample-based material that I have collected for well over a decade. I record sounds like a tourist does photos and then modify those sounds to play different roles inherent in contemporary electronic music by cutting them into loops or triggering them with sampler devices into undulating, densely woven fabrics of sounds. Most of the original material was either mono or stereo, but then I created sets of automations for the samples to be distributed across a multipoint sound layout (in this case 4.2) as syncopated pulses moving in clockwise and counter clockwise directions from speaker to speaker every 1/32 note up to 12 measures.

What did the sound system consist of?

I set up a small surround system using 4 EVsx300 12” drivers and 1” horn tops low cut at 90hz, one in each corner of a 25’ x 25’ room about 4′ high with two custom made 36” tall trapezoid bass bins loaded with 1200w B&C 18” drivers in the north and south corners of the room on the ground.

What file type did you bounce the music you were playing to?

I play it directly from the Ableton .als file from the arrangement view. Sometimes if I am using one of my old, slower machines I will just record the output for each speaker into a mono WAV file and then line all the mono files up and assign them to the speaker and do playback directly from Ableton so that I am not taxing the cpu of the machine trying to perform all the automations.

Have you ever used MP3 Surround?

Never – not even sure I know what it is.

Is your primary focus for surround sound on spaces like those at The Danger and other warehouse parties?

No not at all, but it can work well in those settings. It can be set up as a chill space and intimate space to counter balance some of the madness of the event. It works well as an installation at multi-day festivals, as well as a fine art piece. I installed a piece with a 10.4 surround sound set up buried under 3 huge mounds of sod and grass with PCV pipes brining the sounds to the surface at the entrance to the Scope Art Fair in Miami last December.

[Footage from Zemi's Yellowman project, which paired surround sound with multiple angles of video footage.]

What are the challenges and benefits of the setup in these spaces?

Challenges can be lack of set up time, legality, power restrictions, lack of security etc etc… Most of these events are not legal so you often have to create your own infrastructure for them to exist, which means a lot of self-sufficiency. The benefits are that you usually have somewhat of clean slate to work with and little content restrictions and oversight. The Greenpoint event was a pretty controlled environment that I had prepared for, so nothing really came up that was a “learning experience”.

Do you ever take other peoples music and reinterpret them for multi channel?

Yes. I have built a template in Ableton to take mono or stereo inputs, separate them by different frequency bands and route them out to the same set of automations I use for my samples. This allows me to take something like all the sound about 2.5khz and dynamically pan them in a clockwise fashion every 1/8 note from one speaker to another while isolating 800hz to 2khz and have it move in a counter clockwise fashion every ½ measure. I basically can improvise the specialization of another artists work (or live performance) in real time. I do this at Auditorium, a new music series for lovers of ambient, experimental and slow electroacoustic sounds. We present in 8.4 surround-sound.

What was your best public surround sound experience?

It was the first edition of Auditorium just a couple weeks ago. We had Cosmo D, Lesley Flannigan, Dok Gregory, David Last, and myself all performing on an 8.4 surround sound system. We were placed in the center of the room inside of a circle of 4 big bass bins with a parameter of 8 600w speakers on stands facing in on us in a circle. We were literally performing directly in the sweet spot of the mega surround. I can’t wait to top that in a few weeks when we do edition 2 at Safe Harbor Studios in Soho (446 Broadway 3rd Floor between Grand St & Howard St) on June 25th.

Where is the best place to listen to surround sound in New York?

I would like to think that the Auditorium series is going to be that. I have not been to it yet, but I have heard good things about ((audience)). Some of the best-equipped spaces are deluxe movie theaters and planetariums. Also I love the Lamont Young’s dream house.

[A multi channel installation of Zemi17's at Scope Miami 2010. The system is buried within.]

What other electronic music producers are doing creative things in this field?

I should know more about this, but truth be told I don’t – part of the reason why Auditorium is a multipoint music series is that I want to encourage more people to do it. I think that with the decline in “record sales,” or the idea that music is a product you pay for it becomes more and more important to have sound be an experience that can’t be a 128k MP3 on ear buds. But with that said – I heard Amon Tobin set up a 7.1 surround system in the hull of a boat a couple years ago that toured around Manhattan… it was pretty great.

Is there any benefit to writing music for 5.1 or 10.2 (since many surround sound setups use this as a standard)?

Sure why not – it is true that these standards are becoming very common even in peoples home entertainment systems. The advantage is that it is becoming more supported. For me I don’t care so much, I write for 5.1 when I compose for DVD for some different artists, but I am approaching sound from more of a sculptural and experiential point of view – so available conventions don’t mean so much – I would prefer to create my own system.

  • trek
  • 6/7/2011

very cool. I’m definitely gonna take some of these ideas and try to incorporate them into my own live performances.

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  • 6/7/2011

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