3D Sound and the Live Sound Experience
Moogfest (pronounced Mogue-fest) is a three-day arts, music, and technology festival that brings creative and tech enthusiasts together in Durham, North Carolina each year. Attendees experience daytime sessions, installations, and workshops centered around themes including instrument design, the future of creativity, and spatial sound. At night, shows feature cutting-edge electronic music, pop, and avant-garde experimentalist music in venues throughout the city. Meyer Sound served as the Official Sound Partner of the 2018 conference and will be back again in 2019 for their second year of the partnership.
As the 2019 festival nears, I’ve been reflecting on my experience in 2018. I decided to sit down with Meyer Sound’s Steve Ellison to chat about the innovative creations that came out of the last year’s event, and what these innovations mean for the future of sound design and the audience experience.
Murphy Arts District in El Dorado, Arkansas by DLR Group. Photo by Kevin G Reeves.
The first topic I really want to dig into is the A3 venue. Tell me more about this space – how it came about, what makes it so unique, and the sound experience it provided attendees.
A3 is an advanced spatial sound environment created inside the Durham Armory that is the result of a collaboration between our firm, Moogfest, and Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT). ICAT had helped Moogfest create spatial sound educational sessions over the last couple years, and this year they wanted to expand spatial sound into a venue for some of their acts. As our group began brainstorming about the possibility of creating a new venue, we were struck by an overarching question: how can we put creative control in the hands of the artists and designers? What resulted from our collaboration was a wholly unique performance venue that utilized spatial sound to allow the audience to participate in the performance like never before. In a traditional live sound experience, audiences engage with the performance from the sound coming in front of them, so there’s a separation between artist and audience. The 3D sound experience we created in the A3, however, allowed the audience to be surrounded by sound. They become enveloped in the music, and were able to experience the performance on an intensely visceral level. Everybody on the floor could hear and feel the movement of the music.
Oberlin College Apollo Theater in Oberlin, Ohio. Photo by Kevin G Reeves.
As an AV/Theatrical Systems Designer, I’m always thinking about the experience of creating a space, and how each space has its own individual needs, requiring a different set of solutions. I imagine that designing for a space like the A3 was quite different than working on other performance spaces.
Absolutely. For one thing, we needed to create a solution for the unique challenge of working within an abbreviated production period. In typical theater performance spaces, you usually have production periods that allow you to hone and perfect what will become pre-programmed sound. In live sound, which is what we were working with in the A3, we supported 10 artists in three nights and were spatially mixing on the fly, reacting to the performance in the moment. We utilized the same kinds of technology as we might in other venues, but also relied on iPads that allowed us listen from different areas of the room – say, the middle of the room to gauge the sound experience – and then make adjustments as needed. Overall we worked to develop a true collaboration between systems designers, technology providers, and the artists themselves. Together, we realized what’s possible. It has been interesting to watch how the “video game” generation of mixers interact with the systems we’re using. Even though there are a lot moving parts and pieces they have to learn and pay attention to, they pick it up incredibly quickly. The technology we’re using to create these sound designs translates well with the kinds of technology they have grown up using, and as result, we find they are incredibly engaged in the craft.
Onondaga Lakeview Amphitheater in Geddes, New York by DLR Group. Photo by Ravette Studio Photography.
Having experienced a performance in the A3 myself, I can attest to the unique feel of that performance. What has been your experience with how audiences react to shows in 3D sound venues?
A lot of music experiences are set up in such a way that there can be something of a disconnect between performers and audience. When you put the music around the audience – at the front, the back, in the middle, overhead – that disconnect melts away, and it becomes a community experience. As an example, Shabazz Palaces, one of the performers at Moogfest, produces music that is incredibly textural and rhythmic. At one point during their performance, as people were dancing, we spatialized some of the percussion so it was behind the audience and then played it as one of the performers was playing percussion physically, which led to a drum circle feeling. In some ways this is not unlike experiencing music in a reverberant environment like pipe organ in a church, or orchestra in a concert hall, where everyone is experiencing the sound together, immersed by the architecture and the acoustics it produces. It’s no longer just a performer and an audience; it helps to break down the barriers between the two groups, encouraging a communal experience.
Sacramento Community Center Theater in Sacramento, California by DLR Group. Rendering © DLR Group.
I remember feeling that way – being there, in the middle of the performance, I felt like I was a part of it, rather than just a bystander. It’s an incredibly exciting experience! As I and my colleagues work on performance and visual arts spaces, we are continuously looking for opportunities to employ these innovative sound design technologies. Most recently, we’ve been able to incorporate the Constellation System into our designs for the Sacramento Community Center Theater. Do you see the kind of 3D sound you created for the A3 permeating other avenues of live entertainment?
I definitely do. We have to give audiences something that captures and, more importantly, keeps their attention – we need to give them a reason to want to come to and stay at these live performances and events. My hope is that this technology will be incorporated into any architectural design for all sorts of spaces that host theater performances, art installations, and even retail environments. In life, we hear sound all around us all the time, and so creating spaces that can draw from our spatial sonic experiences in the natural world only enhances the experience. Ultimately for me, the best possible outcome of our designs is that audiences will feel more like a community – that the innovative and exciting things we are creating bring people together.
Steve Ellison is Meyer Sound’s Director, Spatial Sound. Ellison designed both the automation structure and the unique SpaceMap algorithm that have been incorporated into four product series – including Meyer Sound’s Matrix3 and D-Mitri – to allow multi-channel panning of simultaneous sound sources to arbitrary loudspeaker arrangements. He was also instrumental in the development of Meyer Sound’s Constellation Acoustic System. Ellison has worked with numerous design teams to help integrate large-scale immersive sound systems into their facilities that incorporate both multi-channel sound diffusion and active acoustics. Notable projects include King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), UC San Diego, Louisiana State University, Northwestern University and facilities for the San Luis Obispo, Newport, and San Francisco Symphony orchestras.
Ellison has published articles and presented papers about multi-channel sound and active acoustics with organizations including the Acoustical Society of America, International Congress on Acoustics, International Symposium on Musical and Room Acoustics, Audio Engineering Society, and Reproduced Sound.
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