Acoustic Scenography and Interactive Audio: Sound Design for Built Environments
Abstract and Keywords
The chapter discusses the use of interactive audio concepts and sound installations in built environments such as museums, exhibitions, trade fairs, and points of sale. It collects fundamental design approaches as well as technological basics und tries to describe the advantages of the use of nonlinear audio in architectural space. The chapter delivers a practical view on design processes that include the use of interactive audio, generative sound design, and procedural music. It describes diverse applications in the fields of architecture, interior design, and acoustic scenography. While highlighting the general need for the thought-through design of acoustic environments, it tries to encourage professionals to implement interactive audio concepts in the process of creating and shaping the aural architecture of a built environment.
The inclusion of interactive audio concepts, procedural sound and adaptive music is continually gaining importance in new multimedia applications, electronic devices, and the growing game industry. Such technologies create multiple challenges concerning the development of functional and flexible sound concepts, but offer exciting opportunities for design practices.
Some disciplines in which new sound design approaches can be used in a purposeful way are architecture, interior design, and scenography (performance spaces and museography). Even though the emphasis in the general discourse about the design of built environments is mostly focused on visual perception (electro)acoustic design has a deep impact on the individual experience of one’s surroundings. Thus, the implementation of specialized audio concepts can augment the sensory perception of environments where sound is perceived in subtle as well as in deliberately noticeable ways. Additionally, the growing awareness of acoustic ecology evokes the need for a sensitive design approach—especially regarding situations in which visitors and employees are exposed to designed sound for a long period of time (Schafer 1994).
As a result of these technological and aesthetic requirements, an increasing number of design practices focus on the creation of audio applications for built environments. Specialized sound designers and programmers generate acoustic environments, sound sculptures, and sonic interfaces in the realm of architecture, interior and exhibition design, scenography, and contemporary art in public space. There is no clear definition for this field of work, but the term “acoustic scenography” is a term that befits theory and practice.
This chapter presents a brief overview of the technical and theoretical aspects of the design of interactive and reactive sound concepts in a wide range of applications. Furthermore, it will assemble procedures and fundamentals from a practical point of (p. 82) view and bring out specific approaches for the implementation of algorithms, procedural sound processing, and the use of interactive systems. I will connect and consolidate some concepts, while at the same time putting together a “toolbox” that will provide suggestions for researchers and designers with a theoretical or practical interest.
I work actively in the field of acoustic scenography and therefore, logically, the following pages will be biased at certain points. The chapter is not intended to be a universal set of categories and rules, but, rather, a helpful collection of basic approaches and techniques that should encourage further experiments, research, and practical implementations on the intersection of sound design and architecture.
5.1 Acoustic Scenography
5.1.1 Perceiving Sound in Built Environments
When perceiving one’s surroundings, sound is often an undervalued part of the personal experience. While the visual appearance and structure of the space is obvious to the human individual, the acoustic surrounding may appear to play a minor role. The architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen tries to contradict this common view by comparing sound and light:
most people would say that as architecture does not produce sound, it cannot be heard. But neither does it radiate light and yet it can be seen. We see the light it reflects and thereby gain an impression of the form and material. In the same way we hear the sounds it reflects and they, too, give us an impression of form and material. Differently shaped rooms and different materials reverberate differently.
(Rasmussen 1962, 224)
Sound can provide the listener with information about the structure, distance, and shape of their surroundings. The reflected sound of clapping hands can allude to the presence of a wall at close proximity, for instance. Or, the sounds of our footsteps may illustrate the surface of the floor we are walking on. The acoustic properties of a space and the audible feedback to human movement and action influence the listener’s perception in different ways.
Not only do these elemental parameters shape spatial perception; research in the last decades of the twentieth century gave birth to new disciplines that put the listener and their cultural and social environment at the center of attention. Sound Studies, the “world soundscape project” (originally initiated by R. Murray Schafer), Aural Architecture, and other individual research projects started exploring the influence a person’s cultural imprint and social environment have on his or her perception of sound. The individual interpretation of a sonic event and the implications of objects in a room that fulfill a specific task or play a certain role in social life are elemental to the listener’s (p. 83) experience on site. The individual combination of sounds a listener experiences and reacts to in a space consist of more than sensory stimuli and contain a complex framework of influences and parameters. Not only physical phenomena shape the listener’s aesthetic sense of space, but also cultural and social influences, orientation, music, and voice recognition play an important role.
5.1.2 Designing Sound for Built Environments
There has been much research conducted in the fields of room acoustics and sound insulation, as well as on their effects on the broad field of architecture. Parameters such as diffusion, reverberation, and absorption help describe, design, and optimize the acoustic properties of a room. The geometry of a space, its general surfaces and building materials, strongly influence its acoustics and are now increasingly planned intentionally, even in situations where the performance and playback of music (e.g., in concert halls or cinemas) is not the only purpose of a building. Computer simulations make it possible to estimate the impact of constructional changes on the final acoustic “fingerprint” of a building. While these physical and mostly calculable parameters of room acoustics have been part of design processes for some time now, the all-embracing shaping of the aural experience merits further consideration, especially since it often includes the design of artificially generated sounds coexisting with an architectural concept and interior design process (see Blesser and Salter, 2007).
The growing number of multimedia applications in everyday life—in spaces independent from their function and original purpose—have led toward the need of a steady and distinguished confrontation with acoustic environments. The number of media messages consistently grows and sound gets intentionally designed in so many ways—though the architecture one lives and works in has to be regarded in a sensitive way.
Music that has been composed specifically for a certain space has a somewhat strange reputation and is often misunderstood. Satie’s musique d’ameublement was one historic attempt to compose music specifically designed to be subtle and subconscious while being stimulating and comfortable at the same time. Eno’s “Music for Airports” followed a comparable approach, and “ambient music” is now considered a distinct musical genre. Entire business models have grown on the idea that music played back at points of sale increase sales and change customer behavior (Behne 1999).
In contrast to the subconscious manipulation of visitors in environments primarily conceived for sales, there are other applications that demand an immersive and active experience, and thus include something other than comforting and soothing music. Interactive exhibits, the playback of movies, and complex projection mapping, as well as media art and sculptures often generate the need for specialized sound design. These developments and upcoming challenges have lead to the emergence of new professional disciplines in which acoustic and aural architects, acoustical consultants, and sound designers are jointly concerned with the process of the intentional design of aural experiences.
(p. 84) 5.1.3 A Concept of Acoustic Scenography
Scenography teaches how to design and enrich spaces and experiences through an integrative design process that combines creative, artistic and technological parameters (Bohn and Heiner 2009, 9). While architecture as an artistic language with spatial design elements includes multiple creative aspects that are concerned with the whole shape of a built environment, scenography more strongly focuses on the individual experience in connection with actively generated experiences and artificial settings, including stage design for theaters and operas. As in architecture, the range of purposes a design concept is meant to fulfill varies widely. Spaces in which scenographic concepts are implemented may reach from urban and public space and traffic areas to rooms for living, work, entertainment, performance, and education. In many cases the concepts include multiple fields, such as corporate architecture, interior design, visual arts, light, sound, and scent design. Special emphasis on scenography can be found in spaces that are meant to communicate greater ideas like educational topics or brands. While for example the design of office spaces will primarily be subject to practical considerations, museums, science centers, and spaces of corporate communication (e.g., retail stores) often offer more creative freedom in the process. In these cases a purely functional and practical design is not substituted, but gets strongly influenced by narrative, experience-oriented, and artistic approaches and thus the possibilities of designed aural experiences are immense.
Acoustic scenography, a specialized variant of scenography, connects designers and engineers who contribute to applications in scenography with applications that involve sound. These applications cover a wide range, from small objects and interfaces to complex multichannel systems used in big exhibitions. Acoustic scenography draws its fundamental techniques from conditioning, musical socialization and dramaturgy. Music, sound, and voice can trigger and influence emotions on a personal or bioacoustic level, and designers can use this knowledge to create exciting and highly immersive sound environments. As in interface design and film music, the creation of aural experiences is enhanced by using the fact that sound and music easily evoke and communicate functions and thus support functions of objects and architectural spaces as well. By using sound, a designer can both communicate about processes and point out facts, while relying on known musical figures, clichés, and conditioned functions of sounds. Even the guidance of visitors and the accentuation of specific purposes of a space are possible, and simplified, through modern technology. Bearing that in mind, special applications like the sonification of touch-screen commands or acoustic feedback in home-automation technology can be used purposefully and not only as a “gadget.” Additionally, the use of sound differs from other disciplines in architecture and interior design because of the simple fact that, in contradiction to furniture, architectural figures, and light, sound can easily be altered over time. Thus, sound can indicate highlights and focus points while constantly varying the audio content.
(p. 85) 5.2 Interactive Audio in Built Environments
As described above, acoustic scenography involves multiple fields of work and touches many different technological and conceptual applications. The implementation of complex multimedia systems and sophisticated technology for the playback of both acoustic and visual content became easier and more common in the last decade and created a “playground” for designers of diverse multimedia applications, including highly specialized audio programming and interface situations using sound. Even working and living spaces are increasingly furnished with a technological backbone that allows wireless communication, interaction, and automation in the course of a growing market for ambient intelligence and smart homes. This steady technological evolution, awareness, and acceptance in media, as well as the availability of infrastructure and suppliers for hard- and software, has enabled designers, engineers, and artists to create highly specialized and complex installations, environments, and interfaces. In terms of acoustic scenography, this evolution particularly has an impact on interactive and nonlinear applications.
This text uses the term “interactive audio” as a description for a larger scope of techniques concerning interactive, adaptive, and reactive audio and music in different multimedia formats. The variable interpretation of the term shows both the newness of the topic and the broad spectrum of techniques, abstract concepts, and ideas associated with interactive audio. As with the terminology, research in the field of interactive audio is dominated by professionals and scholars whose activities are mainly rooted in videogame audio. This field has brought to life publications and online resources, and it shares a lot of insight and ideas that the area of scenography lacks when it comes to practical and pragmatic appliance of nonlinear and interactive audio and music concepts to the built environment.
While the interactive dimension of a concept in acoustic scenography can play a vital role, further approaches toward the design of an aural experience are fundamental in a design process and intersect with each other constantly. Thus the reflection on interactive audio and acoustic scenography must include an overview and general techniques as well.
5.2.1 Conception, Design, and Composition Techniques
Acoustic scenography as part of an integral design process may be used in early stages of architectural planning or in the short-term development of an exhibition or trade fair. Whereas the level of involvement and the possibilities of influence may differ, especially concerning concepts that involve drastic changes of architectural structure and technology, general techniques, methods, and approaches toward the integration of interactive audio concepts emerge from a set of procedures and theoretical ideas.
(p. 86) 220.127.116.11 Spatial Orchestration
A sound designer who specializes in the creation of aural experiences in spaces basically follows rules and structures of architecture, interior design, and scenography. Easily comparable to lighting design, sound can help to structure rooms and differentiate between functions and purposes of certain spaces by applying different sound moods and distinguishable pieces of music. Similarly, it offers the ability to guide visitors by the use of signals or to highlight certain elements and exhibits by using directional and specifically designed sound. Acoustic elements can accentuate functions and architectural shapes and figures, and field recordings or artificially composed ambiences may build the illusion of certain countries or locations. Finally, narrative content communicated through voice recordings and audio drama strongly helps to communicate didactic content, for example in exhibitions and fairs.
The fact that sound easily passes long distances and is hard to be emitted unidirectionally—and thus it travels “around corners”—it is often considered a problem in spaces where multiple objects produce sound, such as in exhibitions where atmospheric sounds accompany movies, narrators communicate content, and field recordings simultaneously create virtual settings. Overlapping sound content can cause irritation when didactic content and music are involved, and the simultaneous playback of independent sound layers causes an uncomfortable and musically atonal result. Under the premise of the inevitable interference of multiple sound sources in a space, the purposeful placement of objects and deliberate composition of content can lead to a more pleasing result. In game audio, different layers are composed in a way that they will match harmonically in any circumstance (Geelen 2008), and the same technique can be applied to sound design in spaces. Likewise, the directed and alternating positioning of different types of sound sources (human voice, natural ambience, music) and the control of timing through an upstream control unit can avoid undesirable outcomes.
Along with the specific composition of content for multiple sources, the different technological possibilities of sound reproduction in space should be considered as well. Stereophonic two-channel-playback of linear audio can be expanded through the use of modern technology to enhance the aural experience. Both the use of specialized sound-reproduction setups (e.g., surround sound and wave-field synthesis) and different speaker types (e.g., directional ultrasonic speakers, subsonic transducers, and piezo elements) can effectively change the aural experience.
When the designer keeps control over content, positioning, timing playback technology, and the resulting crossovers between different sounds, he or she will be able to compose and orchestrate the aural experience coherently and not as a collection of simultaneously but independently operating sound sources.
18.104.22.168 Interactive, Reactive, Adaptive, and Nonlinear Audio
One of the commonest ways to add sound to architectural space electroacoustically is through the linear playback of recorded audio, for instance using CD or DAT players (p. 87) and a rudimentary combination of an amplifier and speakers. Today’s technology allows for more complex setups with the use of computers, sensors, and specialized software. Two of the biggest improvements that newer solutions provide are nonlinearity and interactivity of the audio content.
Strictly speaking, the use of software that is able to directly access passages of music and sound already defines its nature as nonlinear in comparison to linear media like magnetic tape and movie film (O’Sullivan and Igoe 2004, 18). But only the randomization or interactive and intentional alteration over time makes nonlinear audio so valuable for acoustic scenography. Linear playback systems confront a visitor with audible content that follows a predefined timeline and is fixed to a sequence that existed beforehand. Interactive and nonlinear compositions in contrast offer the chance of adapting to the actions of a visitor, reacting to surrounding conditions, and repeatedly varying in form and structure. Repetition of both content and playback in unwanted situations can be avoided since specific programming and setup can directly influence the process of playback.
In the process of adding an interactive component to a playback situation, a basic question should be: Which level of interactivity and consciousness experienced by the visitor is desired? Obvious and playful interactive systems may strengthen the amount of attention and thus the level of attraction an exhibit gains. On the other hand, the process of interacting with an object can draw the focus away from the initial message or content and a potential learning effect can be overlaid by pure entertainment (Simanowski 2008, 47). In some situations the unconscious adaption of background music may be appropriate, or just the audible feedback to the interaction with a touch screen is enough to enrich an experience while not being noticed by the user.
General approaches to composition and sound design for application in interactive audio systems differ from the classic and linear composition of music. Techniques such as branching and layering and the sophisticated use of musical transitions and changes allow a flexible use of the prepared material (Kaae 2008). Musical techniques in part draw inspiration and experience from ambient and minimal music. While it is possible to reconstruct finished compositions and make them work in nonlinear applications, the creation of original material should preferred.
22.214.171.124 Generative and Procedural Audio
Compared to sample-based nonlinear playback, the methods of the procedural and generative creation of audio content can be much more complex, but also more sophisticated. The emancipation from predetermined audio material renders it an attractive alternative to linear playback. The generation of sound and music through mathematical rules and algorithms has a history reaching back to musical automats in the seventeenth century and to experiments with aleatoric and stochastic music in the twentieth century (Ruschkowski 1998, 261–5). Besides generative composition, where the organization of rhythmic and harmonic structure gets controlled for example by changing sequences of numbers, procedural sound design can also include simple methods of simulating physical phenomena like wind, through sound synthesis. The imitation (p. 88) of natural processes and random events can be used additionally when creating virtual nature ambiences.
The added value of procedural and generative sound-design techniques for use in acoustic scenography lies in the uniqueness of every sonic event or musical figure and the avoidance of repetition. The complexity of the programming can be immense when the goal is the creation of a broad spectrum of sounds based on synthesis. Still the randomly generated variations of music and rhythmic patterns can lead to extremely variable compositions and are helpful when it comes to playback situations where people are exposed to sound for longer periods of time. Figure 5.1 shows an installation, “Pulsing around Tbilisi,” that made use of a generative rhythm composition that was played back in a public pedestrian underpass in Tbilisi, Georgia. Rhythmic fragments were generated based on a number series by a microcontroller and were altered over time. The sunlight influenced the composition through the use of photoresistors. The resulting pattern slowly evolved, and the “clicking” sounds—generated just by closing and opening a circuit through a loudspeaker—hinted at the acoustic properties of the space. The procedural aspect of the programming was added in the process when it became obvious that static repetition of patterns would disturb people working in small shops surrounding the underpass.
5.3 Technical Implementation
The above-mentioned techniques and approaches mostly rely on computer technology. The use of microcontrollers, computers, and digital audio formats applies in most of these situations. Both nonlinear playback of audio content and interactive systems need a specific set of technological elements to work. General techniques stay the same (p. 89) independent of specific software and hardware and thus can be roughly categorized as described below.
5.3.1 Playback and Processing
Computer technology opens up extensive possibilities for the design of interactive sound environments. Specialized software enables designers to create complex systems that synthesize sound and control its playback. Solutions include software like Max/MSP and Pure Data (Pd), which were developed for the creation and programming of sound. More abstract programming languages, such as Processing and OpenFrameworks and basic coding in C or assembly, can be used in the process as well. The evolution of digital audio workstation software like Ableton Live and its extension Max4Live even enable designers with almost no experience to program and build complex setups that produce interactive and generative sound and music. In combination with microcontrollers that help translating information gathered by sensors in the environment, this software allows for the communication with input from the physical world, and can render setups highly interactive, playful and informative. Besides the use of microcontrollers like Arduino and MakeController, there are a growing number of “plug and play” solutions, which simplify the process of programming even more. Figure 5.2 illustrates a schematic of an input–processing–output setup.
In addition to solutions that include programming, even simple combinations of components can exceed the possibilities that the linear playback of audio content provides. Consumer electronics are now highly affordable and memory capacity is barely an issue any more. Cheap DVD players provide multichannel audio, compact-flash players can be triggered and controlled through sensors and microcontrollers and even smartphones can be programmed to be interfaces for playback of nonlinear audio.
One of the core elements in the creation of nonlinear audio for spaces is the inclusion of transducers for the conversion of events and conditions of the physical world into data, which is accessible and interpretable by a computer system (O’Sullivan and Igoe 2004, 19). In essence, different physical actions and states are recognized by a sensor or interface, undergo processing, and result in an electroacoustic event or a change in the way audio gets generated. Transducers of different kinds allow the monitoring of parameters such as direction and speed of movement, temperature, and brightness, and the use of the gathered information for the control and alteration of audio playback and synthesis. Today’s technology opens multiple ways of sensing of and reacting to the surrounding spaces and the actions of visitors. Examples like the Microsoft Kinect illustrate that even highly sophisticated methods are increasingly available for use even in low-budget projects.
In addition to the interpretation of data from surroundings, the communication with other multimedia systems can be essential. Especially when a designer aims for a multimodal approach when developing an environment, he or she may face new challenges regarding the communication with other computers and technical setups. Fortunately, communication standards such as OSC and Arcnet exist and evolve and help, for instance with synchronizing an illumination system with the playback of audio content. (p. 90)
5.3.2 Speakers and Electroacoustic Transducers
As described above, decisions about technical components that reproduce sound are important. While in many cases the development of sound installations and exhibits focuses on programming, sound, and interaction design, the consideration of appropriate technology often gets lost en route. But the deliberate selection of speakers and transducers can strongly shape the aesthetic impression of sound.
A classic system to play back sound is a two-channel setup, which reproduces prerecorded audio using typical loudspeakers. Such a system probably will not play back all content undistorted and will imprint its frequency response on the content. In other situations, it is possible to select speakers of an adequate size to match the audio content and even intensify its acoustic attributes. There are various conventional ways to reproduce sound to simulate spatial positions through the creation of a phantom sound sourc1, for instance through playback that attaches every sound to its very own type of speaker. While a typical surround-sound setup can produce an intense experience, the optimal listening position is limited to a small point in the room. Situations in which the visitor constantly changes his position may need other approaches. Directional playback systems that allow sound to be directly projected near one’s ears through the use of ultrasonic audio have interesting possibilities.
The compilation of approaches, theories, and techniques given above illustrates a few noteworthy facts. First of all, a precise definition of acoustic scenography has yet to be formulated. Many different design disciplines include the creation of sound for built environments, but none really claims the applied design process as its main focus. This uniqueness is not necessarily a negative condition, but a more precise definition could increase general attention for the field of work and its importance in today’s design processes. Additionally, the researchers, architects, and designers involved could benefit from a stronger exchange, particularly opening up the theoretical aspects of architecture, which could benefit from the kind of pragmatism in the design process that can be found, for example, in publications about game audio.
Today’s technological evolution and its impact on the design process are immense. Specialized hard- and software, an increasing number of open-source and DIY projects, (p. 91) sophisticated speaker systems, and at last accessible research results open up interactive sound concepts to a broader field of interested designers and for their application in areas of different focus and with different budgets. Once a designer has surveyed and recognized the large number of tools and basic concepts, technology enables him or her to produce highly specialized, interactive, and attractive sound concepts. The use of procedural composition and interactive audio can improve the quality of the acoustic surroundings and counteract constant sensory overload as well. The steady reinvention of musical patterns through algorithms, the avoidance of repetitive figures, and especially the possibility of interacting with one’s sound environment can lead to a much more pleasant auditory sensation.
On the way to accepting fields such as acoustic scenography as on a level comparable to, for instance, lighting design, aspiring designers still have to face ignorance, and they must try to educate potential customers and business partners. Sound design is still often considered to be an “add-on” or afterthought in many design situations, thus gets poorly budgeted and is rarely integrated into the planning from the start of a process. An integral design process is particularly important in fields like scenography, where the immersion of visitors often plays a vital role.
Finally, it should be pointed out that besides the need for a controlled and reviewed activity, the self-expression and artistic evolution of designers involved in the process are essential and must not be overruled by categories and academic discourse. Design disciplines like scenography may widely be seen as a more defined and structured practice than is customary in the arts, and yet the self-expression of the creator plays an important role in the process of creating a unique and immersive experience, even if it is minor compared with functional considerations. In the end, the designer is responsible for the aural experiences evoked through a sound concept, and that experience cannot be controlled by a set of rules and definitions, even though the inclusion of theoretical and systematic insights can improve and positively influence the design process.
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(1) . The simultaneous playback of the same audio event through two loudspeakers at the same time creates the impression of one virtual sound source that is located somewhere between the two loudspeakers. See Michael Dickreiter, Handbuch der Tonstudiotechnik. Band 1: Raumakustik, Schallquellen, Schallwahrnehmung, Schallwandler, Beschallungstechnik, Aufnahmetechnik, Klanggestaltung (München: K. G. Saur Verlag KG, 1997), 124. Dickreiter, Michael. Handbuch der Tonstudiotechnik. Band 1: Raumakustik, Schallquellen, Schallwahrnehmung, Schallwandler, Beschallungstechnik, Aufnahmetechnik, Klanggestaltung. München: K. G. Saur Verlag KG, 1997.