This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Pro Sound News. Innovations is a monthly column in which different pro audio manufacturers are invited to discuss the thought process behind creating their products of note.
When we listen to spatially orchestrated music, elements such as delicate dancing synths, thunderous rolling percussion or floating voices can fully engage us. Unfortunately, in our current environment, social distancing is the norm and venues are for the most part in a state of sonic hibernation. We can only imagine the performances and shared experiences that we miss so much. Perhaps now we can take time to consider how technology can help inspire the artists who in turn inspire us.
Spatial audio technology has undergone a renaissance of late, as tools for both live and cinematic multichannel sound design have been elevated. Building on this, Meyer Sound will introduce Spacemap Go spatial sound design and mixing control software for our GALAXY Network Platform later this year. Spacemap Go provides an easy-to-use interface for multichannel panning using one or more iPads connected to systems comprising multiple GALAXY processors. We have explored how to build a spatial audio performance instrument by turning our primarily theatrical sound design tool upside down.
The roots of this exploration extend back to 2016 when I participated in the North American Theater Engineering and Architecture Conference in New York. There, I met multimedia artist Dave Rife at an intriguing session entitled “Immersive Environments and the 21st Century Audience.” Months later, Dave introduced me to the organizers of Moogfest, a “synthesis of music, art, and technology” in Durham, NC, which I attended the following year. In addition to the music and inspirational setting, I was particularly taken by the already-vital Spatial Sound education track led by Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (ICAT). Together, we realized we had a great opportunity at Moogfest to help artists use their existing content to explore spatial sound in their performances.
Since 1993, Meyer Sound has developed multichannel sound technology leveraging the Spacemap multi-panner. Spacemap uses a graphical control interface to provide seamless panning over any number of loudspeakers in any arrangement. Multiple Spacemaps are typically used to address a complex system to provide a wide range of spatial mixing strategies. Sometimes all the loudspeakers are used, and sometimes just a few. This flexibility has made it a staple for architecturally-driven sound design. Sound designers and sound artists have used Spacemap in spectacle productions, live theater and sound art installations around the world.
Adding a New Dimension to Live Performance, by Anthony Savona, Aug. 23, 2018: Meyer Sound demos its musical Spatial Sound capabilities at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In the theatrical world, a production period of days or weeks allows time for the sound design team to mix and automate one section of a show at a time, with ample opportunity to make adjustments during rehearsals and previews.
But Moogfest provided new challenges. For the most part, none of the spatial mixes would be automated, and there was no time to rehearse. The interface needed to be responsive enough to be played as a spatial audio instrument.
Meyer Sound returned as the Official Sound Parter of Moogfest in 2018. This video from Meyer Sound details the company’s expanded presence at Moogfest 2018, including providing multichannel systems for concerts, workshops, and technology demos at the festival’s anchor performance spaces, including the Durham Armory, the 21c Museum Hotel, and Fletcher Hall at The Carolina Theatre as well as two installations at the Durham Fruit and Produce Company. Many of the events in these venues showcased Meyer Sound’s Spacemap, which provides spatial mixing for any loudspeaker configuration. New user interfaces were developed for Moogfest to provide simple, real-time, spatial audio control.
We agreed to focus on the “Armory” venue, which has a standing capacity of 600. Three artists used this venue each night during the four-day event. Each was afforded 90 minutes to set up and soundcheck. Some brought their mix engineer, and some didn’t. The system provided 51 loudspeakers, including main L/R LEOPARD arrays, 22 surround and overhead positions and quad stage monitoring, and was driven by a D-Mitri digital audio system. Our user interface required a fresh approach, as the primary workflow would be interactive rather than automated. We settled on a design that employed three iPad Pro multitouch surfaces for direct spatial manipulation of 32 independent sound sources.
This interface included dedicated pages for groups of channels as well as a page to focus on a single channel. Any page could be selected on any iPad. The operator could position sound statically or start one or more movements. The three iPads were configured as a spatial audio console alongside the FOH console.
Spatializing ‘Primal Energies’ with Meyer Sound, July 7, 2020: Sound artist Bill Fontana’s latest installation, Primal Energies, opened July 1, using the spatialization abilities of Meyer’s Spacemap Go to envelop visitors in audio.
After developing the prototype, we met with some of the artists scheduled to perform in the venue to discuss spatial mix strategies, approaches and the new user interface. Electronic musician Suzanne Ciani and educator/electronic cellist Margaret Schedel developed an ensemble piece led by Ciani’s Buchla synthesizer work, performed as a live score for the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This piece was spatially mixed by student and faculty collaborators from the Berklee School of Music. The student operating the spatial mix took to the interface instinctively. The performance was mesmerizing.
Shabazz Palaces at Moogfest 2018: In this video from Meyer Sound, Ishmael Butler and Tendai “Baba” Maraire of hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces describe the “future of music” and spatial sound, as well as their experience in the A3, an advanced spatial sound environment inside the Durham Armory created as a collaborative effort by Moogfest, Meyer Sound and Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (ICAT).
The electronic hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces also performed a set, mixed by their engineer, Alejandro Iragorri, with my assistance on the spatial mix. During soundcheck, we strategized on how and when to pull the percussion, voice and synths out into the room. This enveloping experience followed the dynamics of the music and energized the audience.
With this foundational experience under our belt, over the following months, we continued one-on-one sessions with artists, previewed the fledgling interface at trade shows and semi-private sessions, and outfitted a few installations such as National Sawdust in Brooklyn, Seattle Symphony’s Octave 9 and Monash University in Melbourne with this prototype. In 2019, we gave it a second go at Moogfest and focused on spatially mixing artists on-the-fly. We collaborated with synth luminary Patrick Gleeson in a spatial presentation of his work. After this event, he told me his music was “made for this.”
Suzanne Ciani at Moogfest 2018: In this video from Meyer Sound, electronic music pioneer and Moogfest veteran Suzanne Ciani discusses her electronic live score of German silent film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and experience in the A3, an advanced spatial sound environment inside the Durham Armory created as a collaborative effort by Moogfest, Meyer Sound and Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (ICAT).
Related Stories about Suzanne Ciani:
• Suzanne Ciani Gets Loud at the Library, by Steve Harvey, July 1, 2019
• The Unlikely Return of Quadraphonic Vinyl, by Steve Harvey, April 24, 2018
• Suzanne Ciani Masters “LIVE Quadraphonic” Vinyl at Bernie’s, Mix, June 4, 2018
Shortly thereafter, we began work to bring this technology to our GALAXY audio processor using new native iOS control software for iPad, which we look forward to launching in Q3 2020 as Spacemap Go. Spacemap Go will bring spatial mixing to the entire installed user base of our GALAXY processors, supporting workflows including live mixing, theatrical automation and installed sonic art.
Spatial audio technology can provide opportunities for gatherings to safely experience music together in new ways. Music may be presented that is developed for spatial playback, or perhaps a musician accompanied with playback. These could be performed at regular intervals for smaller audiences who are encouraged to explore the music in space. We hope that the re-emerging music performance landscape will be spatial.
Steve Ellison is Meyer Sound director, Spatial Sound.
Meyer Sound • www.meyersound.com
Related stores from Meyer Sound:
• Meyer Sound Brings Spatial Technology to Moogfest, May 14, 2019
• Moogfest Selects Meyer Sound as Official Sound Partner for 2018 and 2019, May 7, 2018