History of my Fascination with Surround Sound

What is an Ambisonic sonic rig?

Ambisonics have been around for over 20 years.

Back in the late 90’s a friend of mine Joseph Anderson brought an ambisonic mic round to my studio in Victoria. Originally each ambisonic mic had 3 cardioid bidirectional microphones… imagine an infinity symbol in vertical, horizontal and forward backward… this produces 6 outputs as bidirectional mics are stereo.

The original mics had 6 xlr output cables in order to capture all the ‘points of view’ of each microphone. Around this time the LMC (London Music Collective) had built a specialised ambisonic playback room in a building they occupied on Brixton Hill, London. This was only about 5 meters wide, in a hexagonal shape, but was impressive in its playback of ambisonic recordings, because you hear sound coming from not just the outside of the hexagonal space, but also in very close proximity to your ears..

I remember tracking down and having a chat with the inventor of the ambisonic mic at that time (1997ish?).. he had sold the rights to a company called Soundfield and they subsequently were making ambisonic/soundfield mics mainly for recording sports.

Recently the resurgence of the ambisonic set up, due to the gaming industry, has meant that the mics have developed and been optimised and a protocol has emerged when it comes to playback, in which VST plugins can be used to place sound and move it around using LFO’s and automation. The great thing about composing with these plugins, is that when you finalise your project, it can be saved for whatever sound rig you have. Stereo, quadrophonics, octophonics and the full Ambix file (16 seperate channels) with which the Iklectik rig is set up for.

I’ve been interested in surround sound since my Undergraduate in Edinburgh in the early 90’s. It all started with the most intense and incredible concert i have ever attended, and it remains so… nothing has topped it since.
The concert was at the presentation of an Honorary Doctorate at Glasgow University awarded to Iannis Zenakis. I’m not sure if it was before or after this concert that i wrote an essay on his piece ‘Metastasis’, but anyway…. a few of us were cherry picked to go along to the ceremony/concert and this is where i heard his piece “Persephessa”. We also met him personally which was such an honour.

Persephassa is a piece for 6 drum kits. Placed around the audience… One in the middle at the front, 2 at the sides further down the hall, 2 nearer the back at the sides and 1 at the rear.. the audience being surrounded by a hexagon of ‘identical set up’ drum kits.
Being the musician/mathematician/architect (he worked with Le Corbusier for a time) he was, Xenakis created incredibly difficult, demanding, intense music for these 6 drummers who were all connected to the same metronome click… he sculpted sonic textures by getting each drummer to play crescendo and diminuendo on a specific drum, one after another to create the illusion of revolving sound… at some points there was a mass of chaos coming from all the other sounds in the score, but along with it, 3 revolving sounds one faster than the other spinning in one direction and the third revolving the other way… the whole piece was a celebration of unpitched sound and an exploration of composition of ‘sounds in location’.
Xenakis’s work was always littered with ingenious ideas that often originated from the maths of nature… eg his stochastic music, he was the first person to make pieces of music for computers to play, so each performance was different but the composition was the program that used chance operation and other techniques. And much of his instrumental works had themes obviously translated from his work with electronic music, and he invented the UPIC computer.


After Edinburgh (1993) i secured a place on the Composition Summer Programme at the Banff Centre for the Arts… where i wrote a piece for double bass, trumpet, marimba and electronics (Where i met Ben Rubin who was working on maxmsp, creating a pressure pad for Steve Reich to perform) and a scholarship to study an MA in Electro-acoustic music and Aesthetics at Birmingham University, which was, at the time, one of the best centres for research music in the UK. It was there i met Jo Hyde (who we are featuring in this gig)…

Well, for 5 years i worked on a project called Solidsilence. It was a set of 4 CD of binaurally recorded eco-festivals in the UK. You can hear them all now for free on mixcloud.. Small World Solar Stage vol 2
Originally recorded and released as an hour long show on ResonanceFM i realised i was working with something unique and wonderful in this day and age. Not only was it giving the listener a superstereo sonic landscape, but also it was documenting a very unusual audio experience… originally i thought i was going to play with the recordings i collected, but somehow, the instant i added any effects or treatments to the sounds, the magic and atmosphere of the recordings were somehow diminished…. … the festivals themselves were unique sonic experiences as they were, at the time, the only festivals that had no generators powering them… so we were completely away from sounds of modernity… except for the amplification of the bands performing (and the occasional airplane) .. and capturing the bands from the point of view of the audience meant that you could transport listeners (especially those using headphones) to the festival, with all the sounds of laughing, chatting, kids playing, fires, cheering, heckling, whistling kettles etc…
… and what a lovely thing to do… to allow anyone far flung and near to experience these festivals so intimately. An added advantage of the binaural microphones is that they use your ears as mic stands (this is what creates the superstereo playback as they are placed in the spot where you hear stereophonically… ) and the added advantage to them is that because they are so discreet, people don’t know you are recording so don’t have that fear of the microphone and just carry on as usual.
Ok so moving on….
I started working with looping pedals and my voice after a chance encounter in 2003 at a studio 25 hour recording session where i jammed for the first time with my voice and a delay pedal and effects… this first piece was myself and Steve Finnerty (Alabama 3) called Work4Me. Immediately hooked as i could see this was something that could sustain my interest whilst at home being a single mother, i bought my first DD20 Boss delay pedal. The whole myspace revolution was happening, so i met other loopers on the platform who introduced me to a community of musicians headed up by Rick Walker in Santa Cruz and found myself in the livelooping arena… Started gigging in 2010 in Europe and the States, and over the years have met some truly wonderful and exciting musicians through this circuit including Darkroom (Expert Sleepers)…
I found something curious with looping wordless collages of sound… in that the voice was the ultimate instrument and didn’t have to make sense… and artistically and semantically i enjoyed the sense of a piece being a meditation… total absorption in the past, present and future of the improvisation, as i plan my next note based on what went before… and the element of the primal… . We made noises for a very long time, before we made words… so my fascination with formal and referential music was also involved in the meaning behind what i was doing.. and further to this… the brain has a location for decoding vocals… a place where the meaning of the words is decoded… So what happens if you feed that part of your brain with vocal sounds that don’t make any sense? … well this is the interesting thing for me, when it comes to nonsense vocals… i feel, definitely for myself, that the brain, in recognising that there is no context to the vocal sounds.. stops trying to find the meaning of the words and just enjoys the sound… the brain will still be sending the vocal sounds to the area of the brain that decodes meaning, but how interesting to get the brain to cease with the meaning and, for me, i think there’s a key here… a shortcut to a meditative state.. who cares what it means, it’s a beautiful voice..
So then came the beginning of Tuesdays Post:Live Progressive Ambient, where i immediately invited several far flung musicians to play including Randolf Arriola (Singapore), Rick Walker (USA), Michael Peters (Germany), Fabio Anile (Italy), Per Boysen (Sweden), Leander Reininghaus (Germany) and Darkroom’s Andrew Ostler and Michael Bearpark…
The second series 2014-2015 was where things really got going… Darkroom’s Andrew Ostler and Michael Bearpark approached me to start series 2 and we employed a logo designer, Os bought a fantastic gopro camera and some great lighting units and we were go! During that year we did 2 concerts using 6 speaker array. New River Studios (Thomas Blackburn) venue in Manor House offered to supply a 6 speaker set up so we worked out how to rotate the sound around this space (with the help of Henrique Matias)… we did our first concert there, where we were also performing live…. .. using a program called ‘Soundflower’… problem was that the latency was so bad that your sound appeared in the space half a second after it was played/sung… i did have a go at predicting and singing half a second before in order for it to appear in the spot i wanted in the mix but this was severely limiting..!
… anyway, I was doing a gig at Sonic Imperfections with Ian Farager at The Montague Arms in a trio called JIG (Jude Montague, Iris Garrelfs and me) in South East London and Darkroom’s Os and Mike came down to listen with Paul Chilvers (Brian Eno’s right hand man) and along with this Os said he’d made a custom plugin for me in order to solve the latency issue! Was delighted.. what a gift.. ! I got working straight away and used it at the launch of ‘The Eclipse Collaborations’ at The Others… this time with no latency… we had fantastic artists that night including – Steve Finnerty, Emmanuel Reveneau, Jono Podmore, Henrique Matias, Valentin Carette, Martin Glover, Andy Bole, Darkroom all performing live… and i was spinning us round the room in different ways… was far out! and we had surround visuals too with work from Rucksack Cinema, Billy Rood and Hanzo…
(i can’t not mention the massive illegal rave, organised by Nick Mindscapes this was much earlier i think in around 2004, in the original Rizla factory behind the famous Hells Angel Ace Cafe in Stonebridge park.. I used a matrix mixer to make an octophonic set-up.. Darren Sangita and i provided sonic collages all night using 3 portable cd players and a mini disc player.. a basic set up, but still powerful, each of the 8 inputs could be placed in any of the speakers.! Would love to do that again)
I’d be surprised if you’re still reading but anyway if you are great!! You’ll understand why this gig is so interesting to me and going to be so much fun…
The ability to play with sound ‘in location’, is, for me, another shortcut to a meditative state… a separate area of the brain deals with location in sound… we are constantly, usually without thinking about it.. locating sound. As i sit here at my computer i can hear the whoosh of the motorway and the rustle of the leaves on the tree in my left ear as the balcony door is open.. .. when do we ever get an opportunity to listen to music that plays with the locational properties of having two ears? Stereo of course, but Iklectik’s Ambisonic rig goes way beyond this (as does Martyn Ware’s Illustrious 3D Soundscaping which i’m hoping i will play one day.)
There is plenty of use for directional sound in movies and also the gaming industry.. but when does it get used as a vehicle to just enjoy composition in location/space for the sake of it? What happens to that part of the brain when it’s given the permission to ‘not care’ about location, in terms of what ‘might be there’ and listen to how it’s integrated within the whole piece.. rhythmic placement of sound is very different to rhythmic sound. it’s a completely other compositional tool if you have the sound system to play it on.
Anyway.. It’s along amble and hopefully entertaining. I’m so grateful to all the performers and visual artist we have worked with, its been a wonderful journey of discovery and I’m so looking forward to immersing you in a completely vocal composition… that plays rhythmically with position… If you’re interested in learning how to use the Iklectik rig yourself, they have another day workshop coming up on the 11th September, I attended this course earlier this year, found it really instructive and enabling… https://iklectikartlab.com/immersive-audio-workshop-3/
The artists we are featuring are a big part of Tuesdays Post… it will be wonderful to be performing on the same stage again… and hopefully see some of you again too…