A like-minded collective of Ambisonics enthusiasts, developers, musicians and DJs have embarked on a journey into the realm of 3D sound design with the creation of their much-anticipated ENVELOP project. The concept leaps far beyond multi-channel, into a future-forward, fully immersive audiovisual system that is one-of-a-kind. Soon producers will be able to write and perform spherical sound, using open source ambisonics software that will revolutionize electronic music as we know it.
We recently caught up with producer/technologist Roddy Lindsay, one of the co-founders of ENVELOP, to get the lowdown on the fantastical voyage into Ambisonics that awaits us all.
Interview with Roddy Lindsay
What is ENVELOP?
ENVELOP is several things. It’s a physical venue we’re constructing in San Francisco. It’s a platform for creating immersive sound and visual content. And it’s a community of artists, creative coders, and forward-thinking fans that want to see electronic music take the next step.
How did you get into Ambisonics and how did this project begin?
I got into Ambisonics after attending and throwing parties at Naut Humon’s Com# (Compound) studio back in 2009. The Com# was this incredible intimate venue on the edge of San Francisco that accommodated fewer than 100 people, but it had a 16.8 channel EAW system that absolutely ripped and surround projection visuals. DJs and performers often played “in the round”…centered in the middle of the room and surrounded by sound and the audience.
The Com# changed the way I thought about how electronic music should be experienced. I began to feel that the usual club format was totally incorrect. Compared to being blasted by two or four large stacks that need to push air around a massive room, a well-balanced system in a small room, comprised of many speakers at lower volumes, was acoustically more enjoyable and less fatiguing. The immersive Com# experience fostered a more connected, tribal, stimulating experience than what I had experienced in clubs.
I struck up a friendship with the sound tech at the Com#, Bryan Gibbs, who educated me about the system and how it worked. Through Bryan and other Bay Area sound geeks, I discovered the rich academic history of multi-channel audio and Ambisonics. Two of my close friends simultaneously developed an interest, and we started having regular studio sessions at the Com# to create software and content that took full advantage of the Com#’s resources. I developed a mobile Ambisonic system for one-off events, and also began attending a spatial audio meet-up hosted at Andrew Kimpel’s loft, where I met Christopher Willits and Elan Rosenmann. The four of us hit it off and started talking about the prospect of developing a new, intimate venue built from the ground up for spatial audio. We found kindred spirits in Jeff Whitmore and the Midway SF team, who were working on their own grand vision of a massive creative complex, and the idea of hosting ENVELOP within the Midway was a perfect synergy for both of us.
What is one key hurdle you ran into getting this project off the ground with regards to the speaker or layout design?
One hurdle has been the physical layout of the room. It’s small — less than 1,000 square feet — and its rectangular shape means that it will have a smaller audience in the sweet spot than a more square room would. Luckily we are working with several of the most brilliant Ambisonics researchers in the world (Aaron Heller and Eric Benjamin) who have spent years researching proper tuning for irregular Ambisonics arrays like ours.
Tell us about the Ableton Live + Max tools you’ve been developing. What can DJs and producers expect and explore using this software?
We want to make it easy for producers and performers to utilize ENVELOP to its full capacities, so a big part of this project is creating tools that integrate seamlessly into artists’ existing workflows. Ableton Live is a popular DAW that is frequently used for performance, and we’ve written a set of Max4Live tools that can simply be dropped onto any Live instrument to pan it around the space and apply spatial effects. We also have been developing control software that DJs can use for stereo content.
Were there any big challenges while developing the software?
The software is still very much a work in progress. Our goal is to develop a living instrument…one that improves over time with every additional effect, idea, and piece of content. So we’ve crafted these tools as open-source projects that anyone can use and contribute to. Of course, open-source projects have their own challenges around maintenance and versioning. Max is also a terrible language for distributed development.
How will ENVELOP shape the future of music listening and production?
My hope is that ENVELOP will foster more intentional consumption of electronic music. The economics of electronic music dictate that most people experience the genre during late, loud nights at clubs, usually intoxicated. That in turn puts pressure on artists to create and perform club-friendly music rather than more heady and exploratory stuff. There are precious few venues that consistently support the ambient genre, for instance. Electronic music fans seeking a more diverse palate of sounds and experiences – and to integrate those experiences into an adulthood that may not be compatible with 4 AM nights – are mostly out of luck today.
Most of our events will be held on weeknights or early evenings on weekends. We’ll be experimenting with the jazz club format of multiple intimate performances in a row. Ultimately, we hope to create an environment where people come to genuinely experience art, not to party…although of course we’ll blow it out every now and again!
When do you hope to debut this groundbreaking system?
Installation will begin within a month, and we’ll be open sometime this summer.
If you could choose any performer to play on the ENVELOP system who would it be and why?
Robert Henke. His work with sound, light, and technology is an absolute inspiration.
What are your hopes for the future of sound and how we experience it?
My hope is that in the future, I can have my brain melted at an ENVELOP show and be home and in bed by 9:30 PM.
Written by Jesse Szymanski