Any Sound from Anywhere – Experiencing Spatial Audio at EMPAC

Sounds are always immersive, enveloping listeners. The design of EMPAC’s building, acoustics, and technical infrastructure provides an optimal environment for developing and experiencing spatial audio at the highest level of quality.

EMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

From the very beginning of the design and development of the building in 2001, the acoustic properties of EMPAC’s main venues were designed to enable “any sound from anywhere.” The room acoustics were to accommodate a balanced and equally exceptional response to sounds coming from anywhere in the space, be they produced with acoustic instruments or with loudspeakers.

The Concert Hall, the two studios and the Theater are not only equipped with a technical infrastructure to distribute sounds to any point in each space, but equally to place an almost arbitrary number of loudspeakers anywhere in its volume.

The Concert Hall is particularly exceptional; it is the first large hall specifically designed to integrate the staging of acoustic instruments and ensembles throughout — around and among the audience — while reaching the listeners with the same sonic quality as when played on the main stage with loudspeakers suspended above, around, throughout, and sometimes below the audience.

Concert Hall (2008) by Paúl RiveraEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

It is EMPAC’s philosophy that each venue can be set up in a highly flexible way for any time-based media and arts project. Very few key elements are installed in permanent locations — each space is equipped for a specific project’s needs and when it is finished, the installation is struck again. This requires a flexible physical environment (to fly or hang “anything anywhere”) as well as a diversity of network infrastructures (to send audio, video, or control signals in analog or digital format to any spot inside a venue or around the building).

Concert Hall, set-up for Lars Jan, ABACUS. (2010) by Lars JanEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Six projection screens surrounded by loudspeakers are flown over the main seating area. The actor and dancers perform on the stage. The audience is seated in the balcony only, looking down into Concert Hall. (Lars Jan/Early Morning Opera, Abacus, 2010)

Concert Hall, set-up for Francisco López, Hyper-Rainforest. (2011) by Brian ChitesterEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The audience is seated on a platform, listening blindfolded to the performance with loudspeakers around and above in Hyper-Rainforest by Francisco Lòpez, 2011.

We prefer the more general term “spatial audio” to “3D audio” since it encompasses stereo, quadrophonic, multi-channel, surround sound, ambisonics, wave field synthesis, and other technical formats. The term “3D audio” or “3D sound” has made a resurgence in recent years, especially in the video gaming industry and with interactive panoramic online videos, which strive to provide users listening with headphones with a sonic equivalent to the rendered 3D visual environments.

Spatial audio is a more general term. It encompasses the simulated (“virtual”) positioning of sound with two or more loudspeakers, the placement of actual physical loudspeakers in a space, as well as musicians with acoustic instruments placed throughout a venue.


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Concert Hall, Inaugural concert. (2008) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

EMPAC’s Concert Hall was expressly designed for spatial audio and its potential was first explored during the building’s opening festival in 2008. The acoustic inaugural concert flowed from composition to composition without pauses between pieces. Among others, the Albany Symphony Orchestra performed Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question from the stage, while the solo trumpet played from above the fabric ceiling; the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performed Grabstein für Stephan by Györgi Kurtag from the stage and around the audience (shown in picture, with the conductor in the middle of the audience); and the Vox Vocal Ensemble performed Spem in Allium by Thomas Tallis in its original 16th century set-up with eight choirs around the audience.

In another concert during the opening festival, Canadian composer Robert Normandeau set up and performed his electroacoustic works through a 40-speaker dome, placed above and around the Concert Hall’s center seating. The following video shows the installation of the loudspeaker dome.

Concert Hall, Robert Normandeau, Cinema for the Ear. (2008) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

 

Loudspeaker setup for performances by Chris Watson and Tony Myatt. (2019) by Michael ValiquetteEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Loudspeaker installation for the performance of Sanctuary by filmmaker Carlos Casas with music performed live by Chris Watson and Tony Myatt. The audience is surrounded by an ambisonic loudspeaker dome with 68 speakers and two rows of the EMPAC Wave Field Synthesis Array flown lengthwise overhead, which projects sounds down right over the heads of audience members.

Studio 1, Studio 2, and the Theater offer equally ideal environments for "any sound from anywhere." The acoustics in each venue are of the same quality as the Concert Hall. They are all exceptionally quiet with no noise from air handling or equipment (noise floor of RC 8), and variable acoustics to tune reverberation time. Any object, including loudspeakers or cameras, can be positioned on the walls or flown throughout the space, with network and audio connectivity extending building wide.

Studio 1, Hans Tutschku working with loudspeaker dome. (2010) by Natt PhenjatiEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Studio 1, composer Hans Tutschku works with a loudspeaker dome installed for his residency.

Studio 1, High-order ambisonic system. (2019) by Michael ValiquetteEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Studio 1,installation of  a 5th-order ambisonic system with 41 loudspeakers on the floor and walls and above the listeners.

To see the whole space, click on the "i" information button in the top left corner.

Studio 1, Wave Field Synthesis installation for Rob Hamilton, 108 Troubles. (2016) by Eileen BaumgartnerEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Studio 1, EMPAC High-Resolution Modular Loudspeaker Array for Wave
Field Synthesis – Installation for Rob Hamilton, 108 Troubles.

Studio 1, panoramic screen with acoustical transparent screen. (2012) by Johannes GoebelEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

360-degree panoramic screen with acoustically transparent microperforated screen and three rings of loudspeakers at different heights to allow spatial positioning of sound.


The screen is portable and can be set up in Studio 1, Studio 2, or on the Theater stage.

Studio 2, Laura Luna developing an audio-visual performance inside the panoramic screen. (2017) by Mick BelloEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Studio 2, Laura Luna develops an audio-visual performance inside the panoramic screen.

Many artists, musicians, and composers have utilized the flexible conditions for spatial audio at EMPAC to develop new work. The EMPAC team also developed a set of tools and new implementations to support the application of spatial audio, which the dedicated story Spatial Audio – Instruments, Technology, and Environments at EMPAC describes in more technical detail.

The following residencies and performances are provided as a few examples to give a sense of the diversity of projects and concerts that use extended spatial audio at EMPAC.

The Akousma Festival from Montreal performed three programs between 2011-14 at EMPAC. The first performance in 2011 used a multi-channel loudspeaker setup in smaller Studio 2. Shown on the following plan, the 2012 performance inverted the Theater, with the audience sitting on the stage facing the fixed audience seating in the house. The following plan gives an idea of the loudspeaker environment and the video gives an impression of the music played during the concert.

Theater Loudspeaker distribution for acousmatic performance. (2014) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Any Loudspeaker Anywhere

Independent of any specific audio processing format, artists have created very distinct sound projection and listening environments by placing loudspeakers throughout the venue and/or building. This plan for loudspeaker positions was developed for the 2012 Akousma Concert in the Theater. The audience was seated on the stage, facing the regular audience seating in the house. Speakers were flown in the stage tower around and above the audience, extending throughout the empty auditorium. The musician distributing and moving the sounds through the space stood at the front of the stage, also facing the auditorium.

AKOUSMA 2012 (2012) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

For the Akousma concert in 2014, dozens of loudspeakers were placed throughout the building’s lobby and along the public hallways spanning six floors. The audience and performers were seated at the top lobby level, facing the Concert Hall exterior extending down the hill. The musicians placed and moved the piece’s pre-produced tracks in real-time through the building, creating an all-encompassing auditory stage.

AKOUSMA 2014 layout (2021) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

For the Akousma concert in 2014, dozens of loudspeakers were placed throughout the building’s lobby and along the public hallways spanning six floors, surrounding the Concert Hall. The audience was seated at the top lobby level, facing the Concert Hall exterior extending down the hill.

Composers and performers performed the pieces from the lobby, placing and moving the sounds in real-time, creating an all-encompassing aura.

AKOUSMA 2014 (2014) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Francisco López was commissioned in the fall of 2011 to develop a new work for the EMPAC Concert Hall. Hyper-Rainforest was composed for 80+ loudspeakers placed around and above a platform for the audience. Once the audience was seated, they put on blindfolds and were transported to a sonic hyper-reality of sounds and music.

The following video is a time-lapse video of the installation in the Concert Hall, in which the composer developed and performed the work.

Concert Hall, Francisco López, Hyper-Rainforest. (2011) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Technical drawing for placements of loudspeakers for Francisco López, Hyper-Rainforest. (2011) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Technical drawing loudspeaker placement for Francisco López, Hyper-Rainforest

Concert Hall, set-up for Francisco López, Hyper-Rainforest. (2011) by Brian ChitesterEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Loudspeaker setup for Francisco López, Hyper-Rainforest.

Francisco López, Hyper-Rainforest. (2011)EMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The audience took their seats on the platform, put on blindfolds, the lights went out and the piece started. This video is from the infrared monitoring of the event for safety reasons.

Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016) was an American composer, accordionist, and a central figure in the development of post-war experimental and electronic music. She joined the faculty of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2001 and worked at EMPAC on several of her music and research projects.

In honor of her 80th birthday in 2012, a special concert was developed for in the Concert Hall featuring the Deep Listening Band with Pauline, Stuart Dempster, and David Gemper. In 1988, the Deep Listening Band recorded a seminal album in the Fort Worden Cistern, Washington State — a two-million-gallon underground water tank with 45 seconds of reverberation. Jonas Braasch, professor at Rensselaer and a long-time collaborator with Pauline, developed a simulation of the acoustics of the cistern. By placing loudspeakers above the fabric ceiling of the Concert Hall and around the audience, the acoustics of the cistern were recreated for the live performance of the musicians.

Rehearsal for Oliveros At 80. (2012) by Kevin Yiming ChenEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Oliveros at 80
Dress rehearsal

The following video is an excerpt from the concert on May 10, 2012.
Watch and listen to the full concert.

Oliveros at 80: Deep Listening Band, excerpt. (2012) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Maryanne Amacher at EMPAC (2009) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

When composer Maryanne Amacher passed away October 2009, she had been working for two years on an EMPAC-commissioned piece eventually to be realized in the EMPAC Theater. Over this time she experimented with loudspeakers, many of them positioned outside of the actual theater space. Over 30 loudspeakers were placed in hidden rooms and support spaces surrounding the theater, with doors open to the performance space and the sounds coming from afar. 

Maryanne Amacher at EMPAC (2009) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Maryanne Amacher meticulously documented with photographs the location and positioning of each speaker throughout the building as well as the settings on the mixing board, so the setup could be recreated for her next residency. 

Maryanne Amacher at EMPAC (2009) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The mixer as her composition and performance instrument.

Theater, air ventilation under each seat. (2020) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

A major interest of Maryanne Amacher's was to put loudspeakers underneath the audience seating. The Theater has so-called displacement ventilation, where the air is not provided from up above, rather from a large space below the audience seating with openings under each seat through which the air slowly and quietly rises. Placing speakers in that void with its opening to the audience allowed her to produce sounds from below.

The Star Room (2011) by Kri QuaEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

When in this void and dark space, the light coming through the opening under each seat creates a firmament with stars. Maryanne called it The Star Room, and it was so named in her honor after her passing.


Amacher was not able to finish the piece. Sergei Tcherepnin and Micah Silver, who worked closely with her on the project over the course of her residencies, collaborated on an interpretation of this unfinished work with the hope of sharing a glimpse of what this work was to become.

Their rendering was performed in October 2010 in the Theater using the wealth of audio material Maryanne had created in her development of the work, along with the loudspeaker configuration she so carefully documented during her residencies.

The following video is a recording of the performance at full length (25 minutes). It is more for listening than for watching.

The volume of the piece has a wide range, from barely audible to extremely loud. Certainly, this mix to just two channels can only give a slight impression of the full spatial rendering of sound, an element that is central to Maryanne Amacher's music.

Maryanne Amamcher, The Star Room, interpreted by Sergei Tcherepnin and Micah Silver. (2010) by EMPACEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Credits: Story

Johannes Goebel
Curatorial team

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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