A bespoke soundsystem makes music move in ways club systems never could. Jordan Rothlein traveled to Amsterdam to hear it.
Earlier this year, I traveled to Amsterdam to attend a unique listening party for one. Paul Oomen, the 31-year-old head of a project called 4DSOUND, picked me up at Amsterdam Centraal, where we hopped in a taxi and headed east. The quaint houses and canals of the city center gave way to newer apartment blocks and offices and, eventually, low-slung warehouses. The taxi dropped us off, and Oomen led me around the side of a warehouse through waist-high weeds growing by the water. At some point the brush got too thick, and we had to turn back and wind through the parking lot; the route had been for dramatic effect, Oomen admitted with a wry smile.
Eventually we reached a building at the back of the complex, where Oomen slid a key into a nondescript door and led me up a flight of stairs to 4DSOUND, his brainchild and current devotion. Once it came into view, I felt like I'd walked into the scene in a science-fiction film where the crazed physicist shows you the thing he's really been working on all this time. In a word, it's a soundsystem, but that doesn't really do it justice: it's also an art installation, a site-specific performance space and, for the producers who have been invited to make music for it, an instrument unlike any they've encountered.
Even before you've heard 4DSOUND, it's kind of awesome. Oomen said it was designed primarily for function, though its imposing and very-techno presence hardly detracts from the experience. Built from rough industrial metal, it's comprised of 16 cylinders with the height and girth of young palm trees. These house arrays of speakers, which are nested in three clusters: below waist, at head height and well overhead. The speaker stacks sit in a four-by-four grid on a grated platform that houses low-frequency drivers and generally defines the space. It's about the size of a medium-to-large club dance floor—similar to Berghain, Oomen and I agreed—and I guessed a few hundred people could wind through it without bumping into one another. In its current home, there's also ample space beyond the platform to mill about. Off to the side of the room is a larger workstation, with a souped-up Macintosh and banks of speaker amplifiers. Oomen invited me to start exploring the space while he loaded up some music at the workstation.
The desire to break out of mono and, later, stereo mixing and truly set sound in motion is a longstanding ideal in electronic music. If synthesizers let us compose not just for specific instruments but for the fabric of sound itself, should we not also have the freedom to put sound where we want it, in space and in time? Early pioneers like Edgar Varèse imagined manipulating sound as a physical entity—his piece Poème électroniquewas played through a dispersion system utilizing something like 450 speakers in Iannis Xenakis's famous sound installation at the Philips Pavillion at the Expo '58 in Brussels. In the '70s, François Bayle placed 80 loudspeakers on a stage at the Maison de Radio France to create an immersive system for tape-music playback called the Acousmonium. Morton Subotnick has long favored performing with discrete outputs to back-of-house speakers and subwoofers, creating another variable in his Buchla manipulations. And more recently, artists like Richie Hawtin and Robert Henke have utilized similar surround techniques for live and studio projects. As computers have become more powerful, methods like wave field synthesis and Ambisonics have sprung up, utilizing complex physics to create more realistic immersive sound environments, though their use has mostly been confined to academic and research contexts.
4DSOUND is of a piece with those endeavors, though it comes into the fray from the outside. Oomen has a conservatory background in classical composition and a longstanding fascination with theater. His work in both, though, bridges the gulf between performer and audience. "I made quite a number of music theater pieces that were site-specific," he said. "The whole performance was really created for a specific site, and as part of that I really got into spatial soundsystems and the way I could apply those to really sculpt the space that the audience and performers would be in. They would watch the performance, but they would be immersed in the space, and the whole space would be the stage where the story was happening."
This led him to explore all sorts of surround- and three-dimensional soundsystems, which he occasionally found impressive but not quite immersive and interactive in the way he'd dreamed of. In 2006, the Institute Of Sonology in The Hague premiered a high-profile, 192-speaker wave field synthesis system at a festival where Oomen was also presenting music. Though he was impressed by the quality of the system, he wanted more. "For me, the idea of experiencing sound in space was very much about not only hearing something that can be around you, but obviously it has to be above you and beneath you. And maybe even more importantly, it has to include the actual space that you are sitting in yourself." The wave field system provided wonderfully detailed surround-sound, but Oomen felt that "the virtual space that I could experience was not going further than the horizontal array surrounding me. I couldn't experience sounds flying through the room or being right there on my lap or inside my head."
Around the same time, Oomen became enamored with the writings of Nikola Tesla, the flamboyant Serbian-American physicist. "He was a brilliant inventor, but also a strange visionary, and he was also connecting his technical inventions to larger metaphysical ideas of society and space and spirit," Oomen said. "I got very much into his ideas of movement and energy, and I tried to formulate certain rules of movement and energy as I understood them from Tesla's ideas and inventions, and what that would mean if you would start to think about sound and making music. Like, if we start to think about physical movement in space as a parameter in music, what kind of variables do we get?" Oomen produced a sketch for a speaker array that closely resembled the current iteration of the system—and started planning an opera about Tesla that could be staged within it.
There were challenges from the off. For one, Oomen didn't have the sort of coding experience necessary to handle all the technical considerations of the project—easily solved, though, by bringing on board a team of programmers (creative developer Salvador Breed, chief engineer Poul Hollerman and software engineer Luc van Weelden) who have been with the project since the beginning. (The release of Max For Live at the end of the decade, which brought custom coding directly into Ableton's familiar DAW environment, was a lucky break that also pushed things forward from the tech side.) There was also the issue of finding the right components for the speaker arrays. An initial test in 2008 used standard PA speakers, and though Oomen described it as an overwhelming success, he knew they'd need something more specialized to achieve the kind of immersion he was after. "PA speakers are built to point at the listener, therefore they are directional," he explained. "So the angle of their projection is very narrow." To make sound feel like it was coming from everywhere, the system would need speakers that projected as widely as possible. And since Oomen wanted to be able to use the system for electroacoustic performances, with live singers and instruments accompanying whatever was taped, the speakers would need to give a minimum of coloration. He found an audio engineer in the south of Holland who'd been tinkering with omnidirectional speakers—a driver type that disperses sound equally over 180 degrees—with a flat frequency response, and they brought Ooman as close as anything they tested to the system he'd hoped for. They weren't loud, but they were about as perfect as it would get.
After some hard-coded test pieces that helped Oomen and his engineers get a sense of the system's capabilities, the first work composed for the system was the Tesla piece,Nikola, a five-hour "experience where opera and techno encounter," as he describes it in a recording of the performance. "I come from composition," Ooman told me, "so I was always interested in developing technology, working with engineers to build custom software for specific ideas, specific pieces. So the 4DSOUND system, I worked on it because I needed it for this opera. That's why I started it. But as it developed, it became clear that it would be something that has the potential to stand on its own and be a project that existed outside of just that one piece."
The system entered the more conventional electronic music world in 2012 at ADE, where it featured with music composed by Peter Van Hoesen. Oomen had spoken with the Belgian techno artist over Skype about the system's capabilities. "He already did some surround stuff," Oomen remembered. "He could very well conceptualize what he wanted from the system." Still, Oomen says, he found the effect of the system surprising, impressive and deliciously challenging. For the team behind 4DSOUND, the event itself provided a test of how it might function in a nightclub context. "I'm a supporter of not guiding the audience too much," Oomen said, but after the composer Marko Ciciliani performed on the system to 200 talkative festival attendees, Van Hoesen felt compelled to politely ask his audience to remain silent throughout the show, which made for a more immersive and subsequently better experience. Other than staying silent, audiences are more or less left to form their own behavior in the space as they explore the composer's music.
I asked Oomen if he could cue up Van Hoesen's piece, and I chose a spot more or less in the middle of the system to take in the early moments. The music I heard wasn't all that different on paper from what you'd hear in a standard Van Hoesen set. What popped was how immersed in the textures I felt—something like the difference between watching a Pixar film on an iPad and watching it at a movie theater in 3D. Rather than just focusing on a particular sound, I could locate it in space and walk over to it. In nightclubs, where systems achieve immersion through sheer volume of sound, the whole dance floor (theoretically) hears the music the same way, which helps create a shared experience. Here, though, I was bound to miss something. I could have had Oomen play the piece three times and heard it three different ways depending on where I'd chosen to stand, but I kind of liked that. The system also wasn't loud in a typical way, sounding large or small, stable or in motion rather than high or low in volume. I stepped off the platform a few times and noticed that the level of the system dropped off precipitously; one of the far walls has a window that looks into the office next door, where a handful of staffers were tapping away at their computers undisturbed.
Oomen plugged his laptop into the standing desk within 4DSOUND, where producers usually set up, and opened an Ableton session. The routing looked complicated, and the Max For Live patches running in the background were likely more complicated still. But the front-end for panning—a custom iPad Lemur controller—and 3D visualizations of where all of the channels were ending up looked like they'd make things easier. Oomen showed me how this worked, panning, modulating and expanding a simple sound around the space with the app. The movement was notably natural—the software accounts for things like the Doppler effect and phasing, turning artificial sounds into highly believable ones.
I could see the benefit of having a familiar front-end in Ableton Live and intuitive custom controls: even highly skilled producers will need something to ease them into the system. 4DSOUND currently operates on a residency system, where invitees have a week to experiment at the space before they play a concert. And because the system is so specialized, there's not much a resident can prepare in advance beyond some vague idea of what they'd like to accomplish.
"I wasted almost two days trying to adapt one of my existing pieces to the system only to discard it completely and restart from scratch," recalled Fernando Corona, AKA Murcof, who participated in the residency this May. "The system really demands to be heard before writing down any ideas for it, and it also pushes you to change your approach to the whole composition process. It's quite a unique environment to make music in."
"On 4DSOUND, very basic mixing things like panning or loudness/volume don't count anymore," said Stimming, who presented a piece for the system as part of a residency earlier this year. He emphasized that the challenges aren't only technical. "The excitement even a very simple sound produces is huge, so stripping everything down to basic sounds was something very important. Our ears are not used to hearing artificial sounds as real sounds, so our senses are overexcited." I could feel Stimming harnessing that joy in his piece, which Oomen also played as an example of what the system is capable of: a 4/4 pulse seemed to be buoying his more expressive percussion and melodic elements, deepening the musical connections that tie dance floor tracks together.
4DSOUND is privately funded, and though Oomen has presented at an Audio Engineering Society conference, it exists fully outside of academia. "In the beginning, we did look into state funding," Oomen explained, "but it looked like this wasn't even going to cover one-tenth of what we imagined we would need. It was also coinciding with a time where subsidies—I think everywhere in Europe, but especially in Holland—were cut down drastically." He said sometimes the lack of institutional connections has been a disadvantage—earlier this year, 4DSOUND lost its studio space and had to scramble to secure a new one, which you'd imagine wouldn't be a problem were they tied to a larger university or arts organization. But that independence has likely made it more accessible to a wider audience as well, turning it into something of a techno research project.
The system will take a road trip to Germany this summer, where it will be installed as part of the Berlin Atonal festival, and when I contacted Oomen after my trip, he wrote that he was currently in Munich building a new system. They've also found that the system can shrink or expand by adding or subtracting columns of speakers, which should allow 4DSOUND to work in any number of environments. (There's a four-column version installed at Chanel's studios in Paris, for example.)
"By now we are at a 1.2 version," Oomen said, when I asked him what was next for the system. "At the end of 2012, we basically had the 1.0 version completely stable. 80 percent of what we had in mind was working really well. I think in the past one and a half years we have worked on that 20 percent. It's near to flawless, so now we are thinking about what the future brings, and we have a lot of ideas on what would be the next major expansion of possibilities for this system." He looked excited, if a little coy. "But I am not allowed to talk too much on that."