Immersive Audio at National Sawdust

In September 2019, I made an afternoon visit to National Sawdust, a vibrant, innovative performance space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to attend a demonstration of the new Constellation and Spacemap systems installed there by Meyer Sound. According to Meyer Sound designer Steve Ellison, the two systems permit control of the space's acoustics (Constellation) and empower performers and sound designers to construct a soundscape (Spacemap) in which voices, instruments, and other sounds can be located virtually anywhere within as well as beyond the confines of the performance space.

Attendees were treated to a demonstration of how Ellison, by tapping on a tablet, could increase reverberation or dampen it, or recreate the acoustics of different spaces, from a small room to a small theater, arena, gymnasium, or even an outside space. The changes were instantaneous, and even in the absence of visual cues were convincing to my ear and brain.

Ellison then demonstrated how, using Spacemap, he could move sounds, live (via microphone) or recorded, to any place on any of the walls or ceiling and control the apparent distance of the sound. At first this seemed rather a gimmick, but performances by trumpeter/experimental sound musician Eric Dahlman and multi-instrumentalist/composer/performer Bora Yoon dispelled such concerns. As the two played and sang, voices separated, moved, and coalesced, and the ambiance varied to frame the shifting moods.

It was clear to all that the tools afforded by Constellation and Spacemap could be used to expand musical expression. There was a lively discussion of how composers and performers could use these tools and how they are being implemented at other sites.

When I saw Michael Jurewicz (Mytek Digital, left in photo below) at the 2019 Audio Engineering Society convention in New York, I told him about my visit to National Sawdust and we decided to ask for a behind-the-scenes tech tour. Our host was Garth MacAleavey, National Sawdust's technical director and chief audio engineer (right in photo). Garth told us that the actual concrete-block room walls are a couple of feet behind the black-and-white surfaces we see. Those walls presented a reflection problem that was only partly resolved with heavy acoustic draping. Now that space and the space above the apparent ceiling are occupied by 86 individually addressable, powered loudspeaker systems supported by a steel grid; the speakers radiate into the performance space through acoustically transparent white panels, plus 16 strategically arranged subwoofers. Constellation uses DSP to manage the speakers while monitoring the sound through an array of microphones. The system adds and subtracts energy to control reflections from all surfaces and create needed ambiance.

The Spacemap system utilizes the same speakers and microphones, but to a different purpose. Each microphone or instrument input can be controlled and mixed in the usual way but, in addition, its input can be output by any array of loudspeakers, so that the audience hears it as originating from a chosen point in space. Garth showed us a tablet application that displayed the position of a source in horizontal and vertical planes, with sliders that moved the source. The engineer in the control room can do it or can program the system in advance to make changes correlated with a performance. A performer can perform these manipulations, for one or more sources, in real time, as I had seen and heard on my previous visit.

AJ's picture

Seemingly the opposite of the (decades old) Lexicon LARES system, which is purposely "invisible" enhancement.
Different strokes for different folks.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

As a side note ....... There is description about Lexicon LARES in Wikipedia :-) ........