LONG BEACH, CA--For one amazing night in September, the Long Beach artist group, FLOOD, dedicates four square blocks of indoor and outdoor space in the East Village Arts District to dozens of sound art installations. Now in its fifth year, "SoundWalk" bills itself as "an audio tour for people who don't normally take audio tours" and has gained international acclaim. This year, seasoned theater sound designer and UC Irvine Professor Vincent Olivieri presented "Sound Ceiling" using four ultra-directional Sennheiser AudioBeam loudspeakers to deliver four unique aural environments within one undivided space.
To realize his installation, Olivieri spaced the four Sennheiser AudioBeam loudspeakers three feet from one another and lined them up against one wall in a room that was about 20' by 10'. He covered the opposite wall in absorbent material to minimize reflections. The extraordinarily narrow beamwidth of the AudioBeam made the distinct program material emanating from each speaker seem like an aural spotlight. A participant walked into one of the four "spotlights" and experienced one soundtrack while someone else a few feet away and standing in a different "spotlight" experienced something completely different. Participants could walk from "spotlight" to "spotlight" and radically alter their aural environment in just a few paces. Program material included the sounds of machinery, forest animals, a train, the New York City subway, an art gallery, and water dropping.
Nothing in everyday life can compare to the "Sound Ceiling" experience, according to Olivieri. "By delivering a variety of aural environments to different ultra-directional loudspeakers, I hoped to raise questions about how we define our environment," he explained. "How do our ears determine where we are? How do our bodies navigate the disparity that arises when different senses perceive wholly different environmental cues? What happens when people in the same physical space receive different environmental cues? "Sound Ceiling" caused each listener to challenge their preconception of how sound affects perception of the physical environment. By passing through the "Sound Ceiling," a variety of aural cues caused the listener to reevaluate their surroundings."
"Suffice it to say, 'Sound Ceiling' could not have happened without Sennheiser's new AudioBeam technology," he continued. "They have a reputation for creating high-quality products that are innovative and reliable. Audio Beam is no exception."
The Sennheiser AudioBeam is much more than a variation on standard loudspeaker technology, for which only high-frequency content is directional. Instead, AudioBeam uses 150 piezoelectric transducers to transmit an ultrasonic signal that demodulates at a short distance in front of the speaker. As a consequence, even low-frequency content retains tremendous directionality.
By all accounts, "Sound Ceiling" was a smashing success -- a steady stream of participants filled the room throughout the evening and appeared equally puzzled and delighted by the experience. Olivieri will certainly elaborate on "Sound Ceiling" at next year's SoundWalk. But Olivieri is already contemplating other creative uses for UC Irvine's new AudioBeams.
"Most of my professional work has been as a theatrical sound designer," he said. "Part of designing sound is determining how best to deliver that sound to the audience. Standard practice is to divide the audience into subsections and design delivery systems for each subsection. In theatrical environments, the goal is usually to create a uniform aural experience for every member of the audience, but I have long been interested in breaking that rule.
"The Sennheiser AudioBeam now makes it possible to break that rule," he continued. "More importantly, it raises a host of interesting philosophical questions that both me and my masters students are excited to tackle. For example, what is the role of audio if not every member of the audience hears it? How does changing the aural environment for different members of the audience alter their experience of the event?"