When Hans Scharoun set out to design a new home for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1960s, he was inspired by his observation that people listening to street performances naturally arrange themselves in a circle. Scharoun went on to develop a concert hall with seating patterns that surround the stage, giving the audience unprecedented clarity to hear every pluck of a violin string, every bellow of a horn, and every boom of a bass drum. Decades later, researchers at Virginia Tech and Meyer Sound are exploring ways to bring immersive audio engineering into the twenty-first century with a novel spatial audio system that makes its debut at Moogfest.
The immersive sound design system—called Audio Cubed, or A3—will be employed for nine sets at The Armory. The setup, which uses twenty-four independent speakers to create a multi-dimensional sound, is the culmination of a partnership between Virginia Tech's Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), and Meyer Sound, an innovative audio-engineering company in Berkeley, California. Preliminary research for the A3 system took place in Virginia Tech's Cube, a multidisciplinary facility used for sound experiments and cutting-edge art installations. The Cube can utilize up to one hundred-fifty speakers, leading Virginia Tech to claim that it's "home to one of the largest multichannel audio systems in the world."
Ryan McHugh, a graduate student at Virginia Tech who serves as a marketing and publicity coordinator for the A3 program, says those speakers can be arranged in nearly limitless combinations in order to closely mimic sounds in the natural environment.
"You hear in spatial audio all the time. There's sound above you, beneath you, around you," McHugh explains. But it's difficult for performers to replicate that sensation in real time, especially since most venues traditionally place outward-facing speakers only at the front of the stage. A3 is different in that its speaker arrangement allows the audience to experience a 360-degree field of audio.
That wider range of immersion and flexibility is useful across genres, from the aggressive industrial doom metal of Author & Punisher to lush classical compositions from Valgeir Siguðsson. Both artists worked with audio engineers Tanner Upthegrove and Mike Roan to rehearse songs that they created specifically for their sets at The Armory. Meanwhile, the German electronic duo Mouse on Mars and the experimental hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces traveled to Berkeley to practice with Meyer Sound in preparation for their A3 performances.
McHugh explains that the field of spatial audio engineering is still in its early stages—most spatial audio work has been experimental and research-oriented, and it's especially rare for these types of systems to be employed at such a large scale for popular performances. A3 also represents a new nexus between art and science, a kind of avant-garde approach to a scientific inquiry about how to best replicate sounds in a controlled environment. McHugh thinks these experiments can scale up, too.
"They're looking at putting [A3] in bigger halls, coliseums, huge venues, with hundreds and thousands of speakers that would all be specifically designed for an acoustic, sonic, 360-degree experience," McHugh says. "We feel that we're kind of on the cusp of what the next step is in concert experience."