Dance Music for stereo and ambisonics
This project is the realisation of a concept the artist Somatic had, to heighten the experience of dance music both at home and in the club environment. Having been producing and experimenting in dance music for several years, the artist was recently exposed to the world of surround sound installation work and multichannel acousmatic pieces. This prompted the idea of combining the two areas together to create something innovative and experimental that had not been done before.
Surround Sound Context
This project is quite unique because as far as I am aware there have not been any practitioners experimenting in this area of immersive dance music in the same context as me. Of the few that have been experimenting with ambisonic set ups there is very little literature on their compositional process or the problems they have faced when employing a multi-speaker array in a large listening environment.
Robert Henke with his Monolake project is possibly the only person I have come across that has toured various surround sound version of his live show employing different methods such as point-source and ambisonic systems respectively.
Funktion 1 the speaker design and manufacturing company were one of the original teams to work with ambisonics and dance music. Since the 1980’s they have pioneered the combination of loud clean sound and ambisonics at Glastonbury festival as part of their ‘experimental sound field’ until 2019. Within their time at the festival they used to mix both stereo content, mix bands and other live electronic shows into the ambisonic environment.
This area is growing however with more user-friendly ambisonic tools being developed by teams such as Envelop who are based in the USA. They’re suite of 3rd order ambisonic (3OA) tools are built in the max/msp landscape and thus compatible with Ableton, the digital audio workstation favoured by most dance music producers. I predict that the production of multi-channel/ambisonic pieces is likely to increase in the near future.
“Acousmatic music is the only medium that concentrates on space and spatial experience as aesthetically central” (Smalley, 2007). I have therefore turned to this area, for guidance with compositional and spatial mixing strategies. Concepts such as spectral space, gestural space and cause/affect all played their part in the choice of source material and the way it mixed in the space. All of which I feel are evident in the ambisonic versions of the pieces.
The musical aim of this project was to explore new sonic territories, develop my sonic signature and create a multi-layered experience, which is equally at viable on the dancefloor as it is in a more concentrated listening environment such as at home or on the radio.
The project comprises of four tracks, three of which fall into the more traditional scope of Drum and Bass and one that lies in the ‘Breakbeat’ spectrum. To be accessible, all tracks adhere to the mixing standards of dance music. This means they are all mixed with emphasis on the sub-bass and drums.
A concern for this project was loudness. For the tracks to hold their own they need to be ‘as loud’ as other music that is being played at a similar time. Thus the stereo versions of the project sit around -8 to -6 LUFS with a total loudness range of approximately 10LU.
It is not possible to achieve this in the ambisonic environment however as you add more compression/limiting you loose more spatial information. Thus some very gentle compression and limiting has been added at the ‘mastering stage’ to ‘glue’ the tracks together but not much more. All tracks were levelled to peak at ‘0dBLUFs’ according to Reapers multi-mono track meters. Apart from this there are no ambisonic appropriate tools to be able to monitor the over all loudness of a track.
One of the ways this project sits apart from similar pieces of work is the artist’s sonic signature which is summarised by choice of source material and the way it’s processed. The project creator takes influence from his Indian heritage to create new textures and layers that blend in with the more traditional western musical idioms. A good example of this is in the introduction to Deep Water where old Bollywood string samples have been granularly processed to create new brooding dark textures.
Throughout the artist’s work the use of reverb to create atmosphere and textures has been a key tool. What has developed is the artist’s understanding of tools and the material that excites the space. For example a recent development has been the use of re-sampling and parallel processing samples from sample packs or field recordings to create new sonic material, which then excites the reverb space. A good example of this is in the intro to Emerging Fauna where the opening ‘layer’ transitions, from a saturated ‘reverb pad’ version of the sound to clean arpeggiated version.
track by Track
The intentions behind the first track on this EP Out-of-Body were to experiment with a sparse non-traditional DnB drum pattern and see what its impact would be on the rest of the track. Progressive, minimal songs such as Cold Shoulder by Technimatic or Celestial by Pola and Bryson were the starting point with other aesthetic influences coming from Bop’s ‘tech-y’ style DnB like his track Untitled Pattern 48.
The Amen break was introduced in the later part of the track to add some more pace and as a reference to the original pioneers of the Jungle genre such as Ganja Kru (Zinc, Hype, Pascal) with Super Sharp Shooter and LTJ Bukem with Atlantis
The darker minimalist side of Drum and Bass (DnB) has recently really blossomed with some innovative development in the sound design and compositional strategies. It’s been an area that I think is particularly interesting and interesting to experiment with, in this project. One of the main sonic signatures of this area is the clean minimal snappy drums which cut through the mix. My version of these can be heard in the piece Deep Water along with elements of gestural foley represent the ghost snares and percussion elements.
Bass tone is another key area of the subgenre and with figureheads such as Alix Perez tending to go for ‘thin’ tones built with odd harmonics that are prevalent in the 180-350Hz range. Tracks such as The Raven are a really good example of this. These basslines are sometime punctuated but very controlled distorted versions of the same or similar tones such as in Spatia by Monty. When paired with natural gestural filter movement these become really effective as a cadence to a musical phrase.
My version of this in the track Deep Water consists of a bass-line initially built around the 3rd harmonic and is first heard at 0.40 into the track. This then develops into animal like distorted version of its self at 1.22. The ‘Natural’ sounding gestural filter movement really plays into the acousmatic concepts and really gives it a lovely growl like texture which is really effective in the ambisonic version.
Part of this project’s aim was to push my self to experiment and develop my sound. Having been n listening to lots of breakbeat-lead techno and other experimental genres in the 125-135bpm range I was interested to push myself to experiment in this bpm range for this project which is where the track Emerging Fauna was born from. Tracks such as Twlight by Om Unit, and Bone Sucka by Pangea we’re influential on the selection and processing of the breakbeats while Bonobo with recent track ‘Ibrik’ and Rival Consoles’ 2017 album Persona were influential aesthetically and for melodic and textural concepts.
The Calling was the last track to be created (chronologically speaking) which is evident in its use of granular textures and exploration of gestural basslines. Sonically this track references the early 2000’s era of DnB with Songs like Nitrous by Bad Company UK, Age of Empires by Photek and Signal by Fresh all having a major influence on the creation of this track. What modernises the piece is the warm ambient mellow intro/breakdown of the track, which is synonymous with the projects sonic signature. There’s also some references to the influence of the sound system culture on the artist. From the use of Jungle style 808 kick-sub (4.09) to the use of the (reversed) ‘terrorist’ dub siren sample (1.40-42).
The project realised all of the main aims set out in the proposal. The final product has been packaged in more formats that initially anticipated from 4x 3OA tracks to 5OA transformed versions and binaural versions alongside the standard stereo. The only way I would heighten the ambisonic mixing in the future would be by adding in natural acoustic phenomena such as the Doppler effect into the mixing process.
Aesthetically I felt it was well developed. The project’s aim was to explore new sonic territories within the musical genres I as an artist am interested in and to then find where my sonic identity lies. Each track reflects this with a new area of my artistic personality coming through. The area I want to delve into and develop further is granular synthesis and I believe this can create some very unique sounds that could help define my sonic identity further.
One of the main areas of the project was to see whether the ambisonic versions of the project heightened the listening experience of the music. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to test this theory ‘in a club/dancefloor’ setting as the timescale and equipment didn’t allow me to do. Of the few friends and family who did experience the 8 speaker set up all said it was “really amazing” and heightened the sense of movement and energy of the pieces.
Therefore I see this project as prototype for a larger scale project, the next steps of which are to get these tracks released on a credible record label. This would allow me to gain some traction as an artist and will enable me to, put together a concept 360º dance music night. I imagine this event would take place in the round, with the artists in the centre of the space surrounded by a ring of loudspeakers and projection screens/video wall. This would give the audience a fully immersive experience.