Soundscape Background


Music in different dimensions (originally written in 2001)

Vince Clarke and Martyn Ware work separately in their own home studios using largely virtual instruments on Apple Macintosh computers running Logic Audio Pro - although, unusually, Vince often develops ideas first on acoustic guitar. Martyn describes their working process as 'like a first unit and second unit' in filmmaking - Vince supplying the material, Martyn finessing the results. A Vincent Clarke is credited with 'programming' on 'Pretentious' and 'Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle', a Martyn Ware with production and mixing - although nowadays, Martyn is the expert at more abstract 3D soundscape composition, which he composes and records with the help of his right hand man and sound engineer, Asa Bennett.

They record and compose at Martyn's studio at home in Primrose Hill, London and spatialise the pieces at Sonic Imaging studios in Brixton, London, using a brand new piece of software called '3DAudioScape' written to Clarke and Ware specifications. This system allowed them, with engineer Asa Bennett, to position up to sixteen sound sources anywhere in the three-dimensional soundscape created within two circles of six speakers - one high and one low. This composition in three dimensions can then be reconfigured for any speaker placement or size of room, by entering the individual co-ordinates of each speaker in relation to the centre of the space.

The 3D AudioScape visualisation set-up appears on screen as a vertical 3D 'wire' grid, with coloured points moving around the virtual space helping the operator to map the coordinates that will correlate to the sound source positions in the live performance space. The screen cursor is operated by a 3D joystick which enables the placement of sound sources inside the virtual sound space. 'You can move them around the space and rotate it any way you want to look at it, says Martyn. 'It's just like air traffic control in 3D. That's how we specified it and that's how it looks, except you can do a virtual walk-through of the sound sources, so you can actually fly yourself through the virtual space.'

Inevitably, the process inspired the neologism, 'spatialisation'. The music also moves in time, effectively taking the listener into the fourth dimension. 'The only way I can describe it,' says Martyn, 'is like going around a zoo and visiting sounds, because they actually have a physically perceived location. It's very strange, because they don't always correspond to where the speakers are.'

Martyn and Vince have a vast experience of using many unique and grounbreaking techniques in their quest for the creation of, as they put it, 'the perfect sound sculpture.'

The system can be programmed for any size of space, and, sneakily, it can also play tricks on the listener, making a conventional room sound like a sports stadium and vice versa. The further the listener is from the centre of the space, the more the sound-mix begins to alter its shape. This introduces an element of randomness to what each listener will hear. 'It's incredibly interesting,' says Martyn. 'It makes you think about how you compose things. You're not thinking about a fixed relationship with values of sound any more. What you're thinking about is really mind-bending.' This is something that has intrigued (and, largely, eluded) composers from Charles Ives to Anthony Braxton, via John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. I'd put a tenner on finding at least two of the above in Martyn's record collection...

Perhaps most unusual is the ease with which they can create these moving sonic canvases. Creating the musical equivalent of an Alexander Calder mobile would, one imagines, take far longer than mixing in plain old stereo. Not so.

'It takes about a tenth of the time!' Martyn says. 'I spatialised and balance two and a half hours of music in just a day! When you're mixing in stereo you have to make a lot of compromises to ensure that everything appears to be in balance. With a 3D environment, you can hear everything clearly, plus you've got a lot of speakers doing the work, so the more speakers share the work the less any individual has to do. It's a physical impossibility for the average loudspeaker.'

This, he adds, is achieved in the studio using little more than conventional speakers and as DVD and multiple-speaker home cinema systems come down in price it's only a matter of time before these soundscapes could be part of the home audio unit. 'All we need,' says Martyn, 'is for a hardware company to get on board and develop it.'