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Composing 4D Sound in Amsterdam

October 20th, 2014

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Performance with spatialization running on screen. Photo courtesy of the awesome Rosa Menkman

Your first question is, very likely, “What is 4D Sound?” So let’s start there. “4DSOUND” is actually the name of a sound system that was built in Amsterdam by a team of four (very cool and helpful) guys. The system consists of a raised floor (containing 9 subwoofers) and 15 pillars (each containing 3 omnidirectional speakers). There’s a ton of code behind the system, too, allowing you to spatially locate each of your sounds (either at the speakers or anywhere else in the room) and control their size and movement. So, three dimensional spatialization (3D) + the ability to control the sounds over time (1D) = 4D.

This past week, as part of Amsterdam Dance Event (a festival monstrous beyond any explanation I could accurately give), a team of musicians/hackers/coders/visualists were invited to a “Hack Lab” to explore new possibilities on the system. The event was hosted at Compagnietheater by a bunch of cool companies: Liine (behind the excellent Lemur software I use constantly), Ableton, FIBER Space, and CDM (my favorite website). Throughout the week there were some excellent performances and workshops from the Raster Noton label, Peter Kirn + Robert Lippok, Stimming, Max Cooper, and Vladislav Delay. On Sunday the Hack Lab gave their performances.

I was lucky enough to be in a trio with Ana Rincon (Hyperaktivist) and Shaun Crook (of Imprints). While we had a ton of ideas for how to use the system, we settled on a creating a spacey, drone-like piece that explored using subtle spatial movements and composition to create a listening experience that people may not have quite had before.

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View to the floor

While the system is pre-loaded with custom movement patterns and live movement controls, we wanted to script some slow and complex movements to fit our music. The piece we made started with “The Onion,” which was a script we made to feed one sound source (Shaun’s custom-built distortion rack/oscillator, played live) into four different spatial objects that expanded from the center of the floor over the listeners. You can visualize it sort of like a pulsing onion—four layers of sound, each effected slightly differently and cascading at different times and rates.

Next we brought in a dark synthesizer sound that originated below the onion (beneath the floor). It expanded slowly into a stereo track that flooded beneath the floor and then rose up over the audience, drowning them in bass sounds. We then launched field recordings of fireworks, programmed to sound very distant in all four directions–it had a cool enveloping effect as if the fireworks were all around the building.

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My Friday workspace

From there, we brought in an ambient piece I wrote on Friday evening with the sound system in mind. I wrote the piece in two octaves and spatially put the higher octave on top of the lower octave (looked like an “=” sign). We then slowly descended the entire thing, so that the music seemingly shifted into a higher octave as it played. After that, we took 8 stereo recordings Shaun made of a pedal steel guitar and placed them through the space, drastically splitting the stereo images. It created some interesting phasing relationships before we slowly pushed the sounds out of the room. Lastly we experimented with two stereo drum tracks playing on each far side of the space while Ana rocked out her Roland TB-03 “in the middle” and Shaun generated some interesting sine waves.

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The descending “=” sign… the white lines are the speakers and the red and green boxes are the two ambient music parts

A bit confusing maybe (sorry!), but unfortunately it’s impossible to accurately document something like this yet. I wish I could share all the performances with you: interesting harmonic fields you had to walk through to hear changes, cool data sonifications, and even sonic Pong. I do believe there may be a recording or two out there of the performances, so I’ll see what I can get my hands on. I’ve been completely immersed in this system for a week, so please let me know if I skipped anything or if you have any questions about it!

A huge thank you to Peter Kirn for organizing the Hack Lab, and also to Nick from Liine, Celine and the rest of the Ableton team, the Fiiber crew, and every single person on the 4DSOUND team for their help in making this happen! As always, the best part of an event like this is meeting so many fantastic people. Now back to mixing in stereo, I suppose. Although this has given me some ideas…

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