Recently a good friend, Henri Williams, put me in touch with superbrain-entrepreneur-inventor-artist Ed Cooke who has been working for a while on a re-imagining of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s and Fritz Bornemann’s 1970 Kugel-Auditorium. For more on the history of the original and seminal KA, do check out: www.kugelauditorium.com, and for more on the first iterations of Ed’s 21st century recreation, great blog by Ed here: https://ed.blog
We very recently showcased the most recent KA3 prototype at the open City Documentary Festival in London and I thought it might be helpful to try and articulate where we are, what needs to be addressed and developed, and where we want to go next.
When Ed asked me to collaborate on the KA project, I was more than a little excited at the prospect of constructing sonic landscapes in 360 degrees where it would be possible to fully experiment with one of my favourite concepts, hyper-realities.
Henri and I have been working collaboratively on essay films for a couple of years now, and through my forays into sound design for film, the idea of hyper-realities has become ever more central to my practice..
Somewhat different from its often used definition as the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, to me, the hyper-real is where one sense, is overloaded to the point where it touches the other senses, but from the inside out; where sound conjures a sense of seeing, of touch etc.
Might it be that through sound alone, (in 360 degrees, moving around, and through you), a sense of space, and even place could be communicated to an audience?
But, perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of things and myself here, as there were, and are, a number of challenges to overcome, technical, experiential and practical, which we’re hoping to partly resolve by writing these blog updates.
Our first concern was the hardware and software required to make this work. Ed’s experience with the construction of the KA2 made the dome construction a labour intensive, but progressively efficient pole-cut-athon, using the geodesic dome construction kit by HUBS.
To accommodate a semi-permanent set up of the KA in Ed’s spare room (my studio in the crypt of a church in Highbury proved too low and narrow), Ed had calculated a maximum size of 2.8m-ish diameter, large enough to get a good separation between loudspeakers on each node, but a minor challenge to squeeze in and out of.
Screenshot of XY automation of some tracks in Reaper. It is quite easy to become a mega collection of automation tracks for a given project, but Reaper handles these without a glitch.
And finally, Sound Particles. This is part of SP's GUI, with the custom KA3 speaker set up in white arrows, and the automated sound particles in colour. Looks much better than Reaper, but heavy on CPU power.
A more advanced looking software solution we tried was Sound Particles, which is a stand alone application that does have a 3-D GUI, and has a number of inbuilt complex automation presets that can be customized. However, for our 32 channel output set up, the render times would sometimes run into many hours, and even with content fully rendered the saving of projects would often take hundreds of gigabytes. My 2018 Macbook Pro could simply not handle the CPU and memory load required by Sound Particles, so in its current state, this software solution is sadly not viable.
A perfect solution would be the flexibility of Reasurround with the GUI and automation capabilities of Sound Particles, but this will require someone with who understands DAWs and crucially, can code!
With projects created in Reaper, another challenge will be how to share content between people, and between future KA’s. While Reaper is very affordable and super easy to run on any platform, we would ideally want to be able to share content as WAV’s, AIFF’s, FLAC’s etc. While Quicktime 7 had a 24 channel playback capacity of these file types, it is now an unsupported version, only the PRO version would allow you to assign channels, and it is still unclear to me if the current Quicktime X has retained the 24 channel count.
The bare KA..
A few words about audience feedback on our KA3 install. I was worried the somewhat awkward way of even getting inside the dome would put people off, but it really didn’t, and it seems there’s something irresistible about the object; it’s a head-turner and people want to experience it. Part of our remit is to try and get artists and producers involved to write content for future KA’s, and we had some interest from practitioners, without any prompt from us, which is great. The size of the KA3 makes it hard to generate a collective experience, it simply won’t hold much more than 2 or 3 people at a time, and that’s something we feel needs addressing. Central to the KA concept is very much a collective experience, and for that we need to scale up. Even though the work created for the KA3 was not meant as a showcase of what’s possible in terms of dynamic and radical sound movement, I was a little disappointed that the elements of the sound design that did very much move around you, or had a distinct spatial placement, were lost on some of the audience. This is possibly a function of both the narrow sweet spot inside the KA, and the actual setting; a rather ‘live’ room with lots of chatter around the KA, but it’s something to be developed and solved.
For the KA4, I will create a dedicated work, based on the KA3 sound design, which used ambisonic recordings of nightclubs’ empty spaces during lockdown, and those spaces as we re-entered them, to try and create a hyper-real sonic journey. We also have been thinking about asking people to write content for the KA, and it looks as if a first iteration of that might in fact be happening in Oxford, with interest from the Oxford music department to be involved, but more on that in a future blog post.
Also for a future update is the question of how to incorporate light in the KA. Our strong feeling is that initially it ought to be light that follows the trajectory and movement of sound, but exactly how is part of our current experimentation. To be continued..
Schoeps Double M/S decorder plug-in
My mobile Double M/S rig, the night before the recording session of Repercussion at The Warehouse Project..can't wait to capture what promises to be an amazing day and night. And then feed the recordings back to our KA4!
This rig is made with a Mixpre 3 II, Sennheiser MKH30 Figure of 8 for the sides channel, and OC818 for back and front cardiods.
The Kugel Auditorium/ KA3
Ed and Henri in the KA3
On the sound hardware side, we decided to use low cost active studio monitors by Presonus, (Eris 3.5) which I had experience with and knew sounded more than acceptable, especially when paired with a powered subwoofer (also Presonus, Eris Sub8).
While the KA could in principle hold 41 speakers, we decided to start with a 32-channel set up. To be able to drive 32 discrete channels of sound, a suitable soundcard/ audio interface was required. Soundcards with this many outputs are expensive, and the most cost effective solution we found was to use two soundcards with 16 outputs each, the LP-16 by Cymatic. However after ordering all the kit, we discovered that two LP-16’s could not be used as an aggregate device (a virtual tethering of 2 soundcards which can be done in MacOS) as the manufacturer hadn’t bothered to hardcode distinct ID’s for each device. Instead, we had to order another, more expensive, Cymatic soundcard, the Urack24, which did allow us to build an aggregate device with, and also added another 8 possible channels.
On the software side, to be able to create content which could be dynamically distributed across our 32 channels, we used the digital audio workstation (DAW) Reaper whose native plug-in Reasurround is a very capable and flexible surround panner. In Reasurround, a maximum of 64 tracks can be positioned and moved around any point in an XYZ environment, and an unlimited number of output channels can be assigned and positioned within the same XYZ geometry. The graphical user interface (GUI) is 2-D however, and automation is not easily done for more than one spatial or other parameter at a time.
Reaper's native Reasurround, Kugel speakers in yellow, and moving sound sources in colour; cirles are the diffusion levels.
All packed up it's actually rather compact
Setting uo my double mid/side rig at The Warehouse Project. Few weeks before its re-opening on the 18th of September, which will be in-cre-dible, and we will do another recording session then, to be included in the KA4 install at the Art of Noises event at Oxford Modern Art.
See right side for diagram of the double mid/side technique, perfect for spatial sound recordings, though without a dedicated vertical capture
The first issue can only be found out through experiment, which is why for the KA4, to be set up at Oxford Modern Art’s Art of Noises event in November, we will aim for a 24 channel set up in a slightly enlarged sphere, and with a dedicated entrance. If this works, we will have only partially solved the format problem. The largest surround format currently used is NHK 22.2, which uses 22 discrete channels and 2 subs, and Dolby Atmos’s largest described set up is 11.1.8, so 19 speakers and a sub. So we’re still slightly above these two formats, but at least within Quicktime 7’s maximum channel count.
On the topic of channel count, 24 is of course still less than our 32 set up, but after the KA3’s appearance at Open City Doc Fest, the exponentially time consuming and laborious set up process has made us reassess the ideal size and hardware requirements.
Do we really need 32, or even more speakers, and wouldn’t it be great if the entire KA could be constructed in an hour or 2?
With 2 pairs of hands, the actual dome is set-up-able in just under an hour, especially if poles are clearly labelled and marked. The speakers are a different matter though. At present we use straps to hold the speakers up, and with all the cabling being at the speakers’ rear, that means cables have to go in before we secure them. The length of the audio cables, and more importantly, the power requirement of one per two speakers (we use active monitors with an amp in one speaker to drive a pair) means only the passive side of speaker pairs can be used for the upper half of the KA. That in turn means speaker pairs do not always follow a straightforward, 1/2, 3/4 etc, which makes the working out what to plug in where a bit of a head scratcher.
However, the output assignment is done in Reaper, and could be done more thoughtfully to create a template that makes the set up process a lot less painful, and crucially, a lot more efficient and speedy.
Another way to speed things up would be to reduce the number of speakers used. There are 2 distinct things to consider here; first of all, what is the ultimate number that would not compromise on sound movement resolution and spatial perception of sound objects? And secondly, would it be helpful in the long run to limit the number of discrete channels to follow established systems such as Dolby Atmos, and other surround formats?